broken peace pipe

The Honourable Christy Clark,
Office of the Premier,
Parliament Buildings,
Victoria, BC

Dear Premier Clark,

You are to be congratulated for your leadership in the cause of reconciliation between British Columbia’s immigrant majority and the indigenous host communities on whose resources B.C. greatly depends. And specifically for your invitation, following the Supreme Court of Canada’s decision in Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia1, for a conference of chiefs this September.

In this light, please note that 2014 is the 150th anniversary of British Columbia’s martyrdom of “The Chilcotin Chiefs.” Considering the general public interest in furthering reconciliation, a farsighted Premier would use this conference to take the three actions outlined below. These would display a commitment to the honour of the Crown while expressing the humility and gratitude felt toward the indigenous Peoples by all Canadians of good faith.

First, apologize to the Tsilhqot’in for the manner in which the Crown conducted the very first conference of chiefs involving them. As the Elders tell it, the Crown invited the Tsilhqot’in to attend a conference of chiefs on August 15, 1864. It had been promised to them that, following a sacred pipe ceremony, the Crown would: a) recognize their “Head War Chief,” and through him Tsilhqot’in law, as the highest authority in Tsilhqot’in territory while a common understanding between the two communities was sought2; and, b) absolve Tsilhqot’in public officials of blame in actions taken against settlers prior to there having been any official contact between the two communities.

Instead, the Crown ambushed the Tsilhqot’in. It then martyred six Tsilhqot’in public servants, known as “The Chilcotin Chiefs,” five on Oct. 26, 1864 in one of the largest public mass executions in Canadian history. Officials and agents of the Crown then created a false mythology of surrender and consent to an extension of its jurisdiction to Tsilhqot’in territory. The Tsilhqot’in National Government describes this as a betrayal that “…has tarnished the honour of the Crown to this day.”3 Out of respect for the Tsilhqot’in, this execution was widely attended by Nuxalk, Dakelh and Northern Secwepemc. This shows how important an event this was in shaping the relationship between the Crown and all the Interior indigenous Peoples. And how similarly dramatic would seem an act of reconciliation.

Government documents provide details confirming the Elders’ narrative. Judge Matthew Begbie noted that the Crown initiated this conference by sending a gift of tobacco to the Tsilhqot’in.4 This was the traditional way for indicating a good faith desire to explore joint understandings in a neutral or sacred setting. Commissioner William Cox confirmed that it was his second in command, H.B.C. associate John Ogilvy, whose “conversing” and “excellent knowledge” of Tsilhqot’in desires led to the offer formulated so as to attract their attendance.5 Begbie later confirmed that, indeed, the Tsilhqot’in had been “induced” through a fraudulent promise.6

Far from surrendering or consenting to any extension of the Crown’s jurisdiction, Begbie said the Tsilhqot’in had been “completely in the dark” about the result awaiting them.7 Governor Frederick Seymour confirmed that the Tsilhqot’in had expected to meet him for a conference of chiefs.8 He also confirmed that they had been led to believe, following the precedent previously set by him in the case of another senior official,9 that they were to be held blameless for prior actions concerning settlers.

Second, with respect to the historical narrative of native Elders generally, and considering the Tsilhqot’in experience concerning this history, commit the Ministry of Education to the standard of Articles 13 and 15 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples: Indigenous Peoples have a right to see their histories told “with dignity” and “appropriately reflected” in education and public information.

All publicly funded institutions should be encouraged to meet this standard. Alas, it is still too common to hear Elders from diverse communities notice that the abuse of indigenous history and culture familiar to them from residential schools can still be found in public classrooms or other authorized sources. For example, the abusive treatment given to this Tsilhqot’in history by one government funded website, a source advertised as a suitable introduction to B.C. aboriginal issues for teachers and students, has been reviewed in depth just recently.10

Third, complete the Crown’s original promise to the Tsilhqot’in. Exonerate “The Chilcotin Chiefs.”11 Following the Supreme Court of Canada’s reasoning in Grassy Narrows First Nation v. Ontario (Natural Resources)12, since the Crown in the Right of British Columbia is responsible for the administration of justice, and since it has inherited all the rights, privileges and duties necessary to uphold the honour of the Crown under this heading, British Columbia has the necessary jurisdiction to declare: a) that all the proceedings concluding in the martyrdom of “The Chilcotin Chiefs” were null and void as inconsistent with the administration of justice; and b) that “The Chilcotin Chiefs” are exonerated of blame for actions taken while administering their law and defending Tsilhqot’in territory.

In the cause of reconciliation, the Prime Minister of Canada should be encouraged to follow British Columbia’s lead so far as any of this might touch federal jurisdiction. Or, as the government with the primary concern for the Crown’s relationship with our indigenous hosts, to endorse British Columbia’s initiative even if it does not touch some other specific heading.

Please notice that “pardons” have not been suggested. Pardons imply blameworthy actions in the first place. This does not apply to “The Chilcotin Chiefs.” They did only what the citizens of British Columbia would expect today of the Premier and other public servants. What happened?

Settlers spreading smallpox in Tsilhqot'in territory

The Crown hanged four of the six Chiefs for applying their law to three settlers who had taken up residence at Puntzi Lake two years before the Crown made its first official contact with the Tsilhqot’in. Of course, prior to any negotiation extending the Crown’s jurisdiction to Tsilhqot’in territory by the rule of law, it is impossible that British law had any application there yet. Not at the times relevant to these cases. Not only had the Crown failed to obtain Tsilhqot’in consent before encouraging settlers to begin claiming land there, these settlers had violated B.C.’s own statute by claiming land occupied by a Tsilhqot’in family.13 Indeed, Rev. Lundin Brown reported14, confirmed by Judge Begbie15, that the Puntzi settlers extorted this land by threatening to introduce smallpox. Begbie said these settlers then continued to treat the Tsilhqot’in with “great contumely and “continued breach of faith.”16 In fact, an eye-witness said they then actually introduced smallpox to kill the Puntzi Tsilhqot’in.17 In a sworn affidavit, another witness said that it was while administering Tsilhqot’in law in connection with this mass murder that the “Head War Leader,” executed the leading Puntzi settler.18 The Crown used this as its pretext to hang him. Would the Premier have felt she had done anything blameworthy in seeing B.C. law properly administered in a similar case of mass murder?

What about the other two Chiefs? The Puntzi settlers were not the only ones who used smallpox while claiming land occupied by Tsilhqot’in communities. Those settlers had extorted their land for its strategic location along the proposed Bentinck Arm toll road. Elsewhere along this route, Francis Poole admitted sending two smallpox-infected men into the village at Nautlieff.19 Poole later said he knew the consequences of this kind of action were certain, large numbers would die.20 These were still dying when road contractor William Hood arrived to stake their land.21 In a similar fashion, Poole admitted sending two more smallpox-infected men into the village at Chilcotin Lake just as other Bentinck Arm Company associates were claiming its precinct.22 Poole said his party lived “in hourly dread of attack by hostile savages” as it left behind “a sorrowful trail of blood” and the body of one its own.23 Then, along the route for a toll road from Bute Inlet, John McLain admitted introducing smallpox to kill the Tsilhqot’in at Tata Lake24, prime land desired by this road’s developers.25 The Tsilhqot’in gave chase to this party, too. Through a year of these violent confrontations and mass murders by smallpox, two-thirds of all the Tsilhqot’in died. It was in this context that an associate of the Bute Inlet Road threatened to re-introduce smallpox in 1864.26 Under Lhatsassin as “Head War Leader,” 14 settlers died when the Tsilhqot’in undertook a defensive act of war to pre-empt the threatened mass murder. It was for their part in this act of war that the Crown hanged the remaining two “Chilcotin Chiefs.”

Yet, do Canadians imagine that their soldiers have done anything blameworthy in preventing highly credible imminent threats from becoming the certain death of hundreds? Or would the Premier countenance a foreign power putting on trial for murder Canadian soldiers who had killed dangerous adversaries in properly authorized acts of war before being taken prisoner through treachery?

If the answer to all these questions is no, then the Crown has an obligation in the interest of reconciliation to declare null and void the proceedings leading to the hanging of “The Chilcotin Chiefs.” And to exonerate them for actions taken while administering their law or in defence of Tsilhqot’in territory prior to the Crown making any official contact with their community. They did nothing wrong. The Premier has nothing to lose and everything to gain by saying so.

The formal Lhatsassin Memorial Day ceremonies Oct. 26 2014, marking the 150th anniversary of the martyrdom of “The Chilcotin Chiefs,” would be a very suitable occasion for the Premier to follow up with the Tsilhqot’in community. And to thank them for their perseverance and patience.

Yours truly,

Tom Swanky,
Author of the only history of the “Chilcotin War” incorporating Tsilhqot’in traditions and perspectives, and of the B.C. smallpox epidemics of 1862/63: The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific. Plus the Tsilhqot’in and other First Nations Resistance.


  1. Supreme Court Judgements, 2014 SCC 44.
  2. Tradition conveyed to the author by Tsilhqot’in historian and former Chief Ivor Myers of Yunesit’in.
  3. Distributed at the official 2003 Lhatsassin Memorial Day ceremonies. Available in full as an Appendix in Swanky, “A Missing Genocide and the Demonization of its Heroes”, cited below.
  4. “…(T)hey were encouraged by the gift of Mr. Cox…in the message he sent them…of tobacco…” BCARS, Colonial Correspondence, GR-1372, F142f/16, Mflm B1308, Matthew Baillie Begbie, Begbie to the Governor of British Columbia Including Notes Taken by the Court at the Trial of 6 Indians, September 30, 1864.
  5. BCARS, Colonial Correspondence, GR-1372, F379/23, Mflm B-1321, William George Cox, Letter to the Governor of British Columbia, August 15, 1864.
  6. “Memorandum by Chief Justice Begbie,” British Columbia. Report of the Hon. H. L. Langevin. (Queen’s Printer, Ottawa, 1872), p. 27.
  7. BCARS, Begbie to the Governor of British Columbia including Notes…, cited above.
  8. Great Britain Public Record Office, Colonial Office Records, CO 60/19, p. 386, 1374, Frederick Seymour, Letter to Cardwell, No. 69, sent November 23, 1864, received February 13, 1865.
  9. Seymour, Letter 69, cited above. See also, paragraph 31, Great Britain Public Record Office, Colonial Office Records, CO 60/19, p. 149, 10601, Frederick Seymour, Letter to Cardwell, No. 37, September 9, 1864, received Nov.17, 1864.
  10. Tom Swanky, “A Missing Genocide and the Demonization of its Heroes,” July 2014, available as a .pdf download on ShawnSwanky.com.
  11. In 2004, Washington State exonerated Chief Leschi, martyred in 1858 for a similar resistance to the manner in which indigenous Peoples were being deprived of their resources. However, the theatre of that occasion is unnecessary. And it may seem degrading as having to ask for a remedy which, in honour, should be admitted freely.
  12. Supreme Court Judgments, 2014 SCC 48.
  13. See R. v. Tah-pitt in BCARS, Begbie to the Governor of British Columbia Notes…, cited above.
  14. R. C. Lundin Brown, “Klatsassan, and Other Reminiscences of Missionary Life in British Columbia” (London: Gilbert and Rivington, Printers, 1873), 10-11.
  15. BCARS, Begbie to the Governor of British Columbia Notes…, cited above.
  16. “Memorandum by Chief Justice Begbie,” cited above.
  17. Henry Solomon, “A Tsilhqot’in Account of Smallpox,”  see, Nemiah: The Unconquered Country, Terry Glavin (Vancouver: New Star Books, 1992), 85-86.
  18. BCARS, H.P.P. Crease: Legal Papers 1853-1895, Add. Mss – 54 box 3, file 12, Supreme Court of New Westminster, Testimony of Ach-pic-er-mous, May 31, 1865, 1604-1605-1600.
  19. “Important from the Coast Route – Destitution and Suffering,” The British Colonist, July 22, 1862, p. 3.
  20. For the activities of Francis Poole, see s. 53 and s. 102 in Tom Swanky, The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific. (Dragon Heart, 2012.)
  21. The sequence at Nautlieff is narrated at Swanky, Canada’s War, cited above, s. 59.
  22. The sequence at Chilcotin Lake is narrated at Swanky, Canada’s War, cited above, s. 49.
  23. Francis Poole, Queen Charlotte Islands. (Vancouver: J.J. Douglas reprint, 1972) p. 65.
  24. The sequence at Tatla Lake is narrated at Swanky, Canada’s War, cited above, s. 63.
  25. Alfred Waddington, Bute Inlet Wagon Road Company Prospectus, December 7, 1863.
  26. The sequence at Bute Inlet is narrated at Swanky, Canada’s War, cited above, ss. 68-69.

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