On this International Day of the World’s Indigenous People, Aug. 9, it is appropriate to recall an especially pertinent part of Canada’s relations with the Indigenous Peoples of British Columbia.
149 years ago this August, the Colony of British Columbia ambushed “The Chilcotin Chiefs” at a political conference. This ambush soon served as a key part of the Colonial policy for displacing and dispossessing the Indigenous Peoples of what is now B.C. Two months later, the Colony hung five of “The Chilcotin Chiefs” before a crowd of 250. This remains one of the largest public executions in Canadian history. They were executed, not from any source of justice, but as a public relations exercise in aid of terrorizing the surviving Indigenous population into submission.
The first ever official contact between the Tsilhqot’in and the Crown had taken place only on July 20, 1864, just a few weeks before the ambush. In the ensuing negotiations about relations between the two social entities, the Crown’s agents promised that the Colony would recognize the Head Tsilhqot’in War Leader as “High Chief” in Tsilhqot’in territory. Effectively, the Colony had promised to recognize the Tsilhqot’in regime as the sovereign power in its territory.
To formalize this relationship, the Colony invited the War Leader to attend a heads of state conference with the Governor. In instituting this conference, the Colony cloaked itself with apparent authenticity by following the local tradition. It sent tobacco to the War Leader’s party, signalling an honourable desire for a sacred ceremony of joint purpose.
On the morning of Aug. 15, 1864, the War Leader led an eight person delegation into a Colonial camp for this conference. When his party arrived, the War Leader smoked the Colony’s tobacco in a sacred pipe, following the customary ritual. At that point, he would say later, “We felt safe.”
Colonial officials then sprang their ambush. They threw the Tsilhqot’in delegates in chains, took them for show trials and hung five, including the War Leader, his son, a key adviser, a local community leader and the head of a family displaced by the background events. It was through these dishonourable means that the Colony, and Canada as its successor, began seizing control of Tsilhqot’in territory: with an unconstitutional breach of the rule of law, without the consent and against the will of the People. It can be noted in passing that the Tsilhqot’in People were then not just the majority within this territory, they were the only resident population.
While this narrative can be confirmed simply by reconciling the oral tradition with the records created by Colonial officials, these same officials, followed later by colonial-minded Canadian historians, began several myths to conceal the ethnic cleansing background to these events, the treachery of the conference and the injustice of the proceedings. These myths are deconstructed in “The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific.” However, they still form the main ingredient of the narrative told today by Canadian historians when covering these events.
What was the crucial background to these events that the Colonial tradition still tries to conceal? Between June 1862 and July 17, 1864, the Tsilhqot’in had been applying their laws and their right of self defence to settlers deliberately spreading smallpox along prospective roads and at strategic locations as an exercise in ethnic cleansing or genocide. One eye-witness estimated 5000 Tsilhqot’in, perhaps 70 percent or more of all the People, had died during the 24 months before the July 1864 first official contact with the Colony (which had been in existence since 1858.)
Tsilhqot’in communities had given violent pursuit to settler parties discovered in the act of spreading smallpox (Poole’s party at Chilcotin Lake; McLeod’s party at Alexis Lake; McLain’s party at Tatla Lake; and, probably, James Fisher’s party in the Upper Bella Coola Valley.) Some settlers had been executed for their smallpox activities (Alex McDonald; Peter McDougall; William Manning; and, probably, Bob McLeod, James Fisher and Donald McLean.) 14 settlers were killed in a pre-emptive strike at a Bute Inlet road camp after they threatened to introduce the disease and after Tsilhqot’in officials had confirmed that the threat was real. And, in June 1864, all remaining settlers had been expelled from Tsilhqot’in territory pending formal contact with the Colony as their representative.
Since Colonial officials had made no contact with the Tsilhqot’in People before the violence, the Tsilhqot’in officials who the Colony would hang had only been applying the laws in force (Tsilhqot’in laws), defending the integrity of their regime (the long-established legitimate sovereign power) and protecting the People from settlers bent on seeing them die en mass as the means of constitutional change and for taking control of the distribution of resources. We would expect no less from our officials in similar circumstances today.
Meanwhile, Colonial officials compounded the shame of violating the pipe ceremony by fraudulently pretending to some legitimate authority to apply English law to actions undertaken in a territory where the Crown had done nothing to gain any colour of lawful or moral jurisdiction. And to punish men who could have had no way of knowing the laws under which they were being punished and who had not even the slightest obligation to the British Crown as a foreign power. Indeed, under the circumstances, for any Tsilhqot’in official to have acknowledged the Crown in any way would have been treason.
This dishonourable legacy still tainting Canada’s sovereign authority is on display again this month as Canada holds hearings, nominally on environmental issues, over the Prosperity Mine.
Since the Tsilhqot’in People have never surrendered their sovereign control to Canada through some constitutional means, Canada can again only pretend to the necessary moral authority to license the mine. Anyone who asserts otherwise must show the process of constitutional change that gave Canada its supposed legitimate sovereign authority. Can any social entity gain legitimate authority over another through ethnic cleansing or genocide? Canadians would no more accept a new regime as a legitimate authority if it were to overthrow the Canadian constitution in the same manner as the Tsilhqot’in regime was displaced.
Morally, and in a logical application of the rule of law, then, the final decision about the mine’s fate properly belongs within the Tsilhqot’in system, not the Canadian system. Nor is there any reason to suppose that the Tsilhqot’in should accept any adverse Canadian decision as the final word of a legitimate sovereign authority. This is a quite different case from the citizen or ordinary interest group that refuses to accept the lawful decision of some government authority, for, in the case of the Indigenous Peoples, the legitimacy of the Canadian government itself is the fundamental issue.
Before there can be any meaningful reconciliation or moving forward in this relationship, Canada needs: 1) to disown the ethnic cleansing at the root of all this, restoring to the Indigenous Peoples an appropriate measure of political freedom and control over resources; 2) to exonerate “The Chilcotin Chiefs” who did nothing wrong in killing the settlers they did; and, 3) to see that the Tsilhqot’in history of these events is preserved in such a way that it becomes an ordinary part of the authorized history, as it appears for example in the school curriculum. An Indigenous People’s right to preserve and tell its version of their history is, after all, specifically covered by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.