Prime Minister Justin Trudeau officially exonerated six Tsilhqot’in chiefs in the House of Commons today, in a historic apology to the Tsilhqot’in Nation.
“As much as it is in our power to do so we must right the wrongs of the past and so, as an important symbol of our reconciliation, we confirm, without reservation that Chief Lhats’as?in; Chief Biyil; Chief Tellot; Chief Tahpitt; Chief Chayses; and Chief Ahan are fully exonerated of any crime or wrongdoing,” said Trudeau, in a statement to the house and the delegation of Tsilhqot’in chiefs and leaders present.
“We recognize that these six chiefs were leaders of a nation; that they acted in accordance with their laws and traditions; and that they are well regarded as heroes of their people.”
The six chiefs defended the Tsilhqot’in territory in 1864 when a road crew, sent by the colonial government, entered the territory without permission of the Tsilhqot’in leadership.
Under threat of smallpox, and further loss of land, the Tsilhqot’in chiefs declared war, and lead a war party, attacking and killing most of the men making up the camp of the road crew.
Following an offer to discuss terms of peace from the colonial leaders, the Tsilhqot’in chiefs accepted an invitation to meet, and there were betrayed, arrested, convicted and later hanged.
“We know the exoneration and apology we are making today on behalf of Canada cannot by itself repair the damage that has been done, but it is my sincere hope that these words will allow for greater healing as Canada and the Tsilhqot’in Nation continue on a shared journey towards reconciliation,” said Trudeau.
“Today our government acknowledges what the colonial government of the day was unwilling to accept: that these six chiefs were leaders and warriors of the Tsilhqot’in Nation and the Tsilhqot’in people that they led maintain rights to land that had never been ceded,” said Trudeau.
“They acted as the leaders of a proud and independent nation facing the threat of another nation.”
Trudeau also announced that he is looking forward to visiting the declared title lands of the Tsilhqot’in Nation this summer, to deliver the statement of exoneration directly to the Tsilhqot’in people “who have fought so long and so hard to have the commitment and sacrifice of their war chiefs recognized.”
Trudeau’s apology resulted in a standing ovation on the part of all members of parliament present.
Following the apology, and subsequent comments from members, Tsilhqot’in youth ambassador Peyal Laceese, the son of Tl’esqox Chief Francis Laceese, performed a drum song in full regalia.
As he entered the room, the six Tsilhqot’in chiefs stood and one by one reversed their black mourning vests into bright red ones.
Each vest had an insignia of a horse on the back.
When Peyal finished singing he walked to the Prime Minister.
He presented Trudeau with his drum and hugged him. After, he hugged the chiefs and then they proceeded out.
Back in October 2017, Canada’s Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Carolyn Bennett issued a statement noting as Canada moves to build a new future, reconciliation requires addressing Canada’s history and developing with Indigenous people a more through accounting of the past.
“Canada recognizes and acknowledges this shared history and, as a symbolic gesture of reconciliation will be moving forward to offer a statement of exoneration for the six chiefs,” Bennett said. “These six chiefs were leaders of a nation and are well-regarded as heroes by their people.”
Early Monday Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, president of the Union of British Columbia Indian Chiefs said Trudeau’s words will be “impactful, a rightful recognition of serious wrongdoing,” but to build trust his words must be followed by actions of integrity.
“The UBCIC looks forward to a day when justice for all Indigenous peoples is a reality, not just lofty promises,” Phillip said. “We honour the Tsilhqot’in for pursuing the exoneration of their chiefs and acknowledge their persistence and unwavering commitment to justice.”