By Sage Birchwater –
History was made on March 26, 2018 in the House of Commons in Ottawa when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau exonerated six Tŝilhqot’in war chiefs who were hanged in 1864 and 1865.
It was a long time coming. Nearly 154 years ago British Columbia colonial forces freewheeled into the Chilcotin and tricked Tŝilhqot’in War Chief LhaTŝ’aŝʔin and seven of his followers into putting down their weapons to end the bloody conflict known as the Chilcotin War.
Instead of promised peace talks, the colonial militia, led by William Cox and Chartres Brew, arrested Chief LhaTŝ’aŝʔin and his party at gun point and brought them to Quesnel for trial. There they were found guilty of murder by Judge Matthew Baillie Begbie and on October 26, 1864, Chiefs LhaTŝ’aŝʔin, Biyil, Tellot, Tahpitt, and Chayses were hanged beside the Fraser River. A sixth chief, Ahan, was hanged a year later in New Westminster.
“We meant war, not murder” is the oft-repeated phrase attributed to Chief LhaTŝ’aŝʔin. In April 1864 he led an uprising that lasted three months and resulted in the deaths of 20 road builders, settlers, and horse packers on the Chilcotin Plateau.
His pleas of innocence fell on deaf ears as the crown colony of British Columbia flexed its muscles to claim dominion over the region that had been occupied for centuries by the most diverse Indigenous population in North America.
This claim of ownership contradicted the colony’s own rule of law established a century earlier by King George III. Known as the Royal Proclamation of 1763, this law stated that Indigenous people rightfully owned the land they occupied until it was willingly relinquished by treaty to the British Crown.
Blame this neglect of protocol on gold fever.
When gold was discovered on the gravel bars of the Fraser River in 1858, a flood of gold miners, fortune hunters, and land speculators poured into the country. In their haste they never bothered to establish treaties.
As early as 1859 Tŝilhqot’in chiefs stepped forward to oppose this invasion into their territory but were talked out of it by their Secwepemc and Dakelh counterparts. Five years later it was a threat of smallpox that sparked the Chilcotin War.
When road builders made their initial incursions into Tŝilhqot’in territory in 1861, the Indigenous inhabitants held the balance of power. The smallpox epidemic of 1862 changed all that. Three quarters of the people died. After that the colonial powers figured they could do as they pleased with the people and the land.
It was the threat of spreading more smallpox made by the captain of a ship bringing road builders to Bute Inlet in April 1864 that triggered LhaTŝ’aŝʔin’s bloody rebellion.
In simple terms, he was defending his territory the best way he knew how.
For three months the colonial militia attempted to track down the Tŝilhqot’in warriors without success. In the process they wreaked havoc on innocent families gathering food to sustain themselves for the long Chilcotin winter.
Finally, in good faith, LhaTŝ’aŝʔin accepted a sacred tobacco peace offering from William Cox to discuss an end to the conflict. Instead of a council of peace he was captured and hanged like a criminal.
On October 23, 2014, Premier Christie Clark rose in the British Columbia Legislature to exonerate the six war chiefs. She said they were not outlaws or criminals but were justly defending their lands and people.
The Prime Minister’s heartfelt acknowledgement on Canada’s highest political stage came nearly four years later. Witnessing the speeches from all sides of the House on the floor of Parliament were the chiefs of the six Tŝilhqot’in communities: Joe Alphonse (Tl’etinqox), Otis Guichon Sr (TsiDeldel), Roy Stump (ʔEsdilagh), Francis Laceese (T’lesqox), Russell Myers Ross (Yunisit’in), and Jimmy Lulua (XeniGwet’in).
Justin Trudeau stated his intent to visit the Tŝilhqot’in title lands this summer.
So, the work begins. The exoneration is not the end of the process, just the beginning. The difference now is that the Indigenous owners of the land are full partners in the process to move forward to reconstruct a just Canadian society.
As Chief Joe Alphonse stated in Ottawa, there is no blueprint for this process anywhere else in the world. Guided by principles of fairness and inclusiveness, success is furthered.
That is the hope as we move forward together. All my relations.
Sage Birchwater moved to the Cariboo-Chilcotin in 1973. He spends his time freelancing, authoring books, and with Caterina, hanging out with their dog and cat, gardening, and being part of the rich cultural life that is the Cariboo-Chilcotin Coast.