More than 150 Years Later, Canada Exonerates Six Indigenous Chiefs Hanged in 1864

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau affirmed that the chiefs had acted in ‘war, not murder’ when they attacked white settlers who had encroached on their land

Trudeau to exonerate Tsilhqot'in chiefs hanged in 1864

In 1864, five chiefs of Canada’s indigenous Tsilhqot’in people were called in to peace talks with the gold commissioner of the Colony of British Columbia. A fierce conflict had been waging between the Tsilhqot’in and white settlers who were building a road through Tsilhqot’in territory—and without Tsilhqot’in permission—to a creek laden with gold. The chiefs believed that the talks were a gesture of reconciliation, but when they arrived at the gold commissioner’s camp, they were promptly arrested, declared guilty of the murder of 14 settlers and hanged. A sixth Tsilhqot’in chief was later executed while trying to offer reparations.

For more than 150 years, this act of deception has been remembered by the Tsilhqot’in people as a deeply painful chapter of their history. Last Monday, John Paul Tasker of the CBC reports, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged the long-standing wounds in an apology for the executions of the chiefs, posthumously absolving them of any wrongdoing.

“Today, we come together in the presence of the Tsilhqot'in chiefs, to fully acknowledge the actions of past governments, committed against the Tsilhqot'in people, and to express the government of Canada's profound regret for those actions,” Trudeau said in the House of Commons, where six modern-day Tsilhqot'in chiefs were invited to witness the apology, according to Tasker.

"As settlers came to the land in the rush for gold, no consideration was given to the needs of the Tsilhqot'in people who were there first,” Trudeau added. “No agreement was made to access their land. No consent was sought.”

The Tsilhqot'in had other reasons to oppose the encroachment of white settlers on their territory. Months before the conflict, remembered as the Chilcotin War of 1864, the Chilcotin Uprising and the Bute Inlet Massacre, the ​Tsilhqot'in numbers had been halved by a devastating smallpox epidemic, according to Tristin Hopper of the National Post. The disease was thought to have been spread by two white travelers, and it killed some 800 Tsilhqot'in.

Believing that they faced an existential threat, Tsilhqot'in chiefs hatched a plan of attack. In the early hours of an April morning, 24 Tsilhqot'in men ambushed and killed 14 road workers as they slept in their tents. The Tsilhqot'in never denied that they had perpetrated the killings, but as the chiefs reportedly said after their arrest, they “meant war, not murder.”

Trudeau repeated this now-famed quotation during his House of Commons speech. “They acted as leaders of a proud and independent nation facing the threat of another nation,” the prime minister added, according to Meagan Flynn of the Washington Post.

Today’s Tsilhqot'in leaders welcomed Trudeau’s apology and exoneration of their ancestors. “We have always been proud of the sacrifices made by our chiefs, who are heroes to our people, and continue to inspire and guide the work of the future,” chief Alphonse told reporters at the House of Commons, according to Tasker of the CBC. “Today, Canada has finally acknowledged that our warriors did no wrong.”

After Trudeau’s speech, the six Tsilhqot'in performed a drum ceremony for the assembled politicians. They wore black vests, which they turned inside out partway through the ceremony to reveal the garments' bright red lining. It was a poignant, hopeful gesture; red, to the Tsilhqot'in, symbolizes rebirth and renewal.

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