Friday Oct. 26 will be Lhats’as?in Memorial Day. This is a national holiday of remembrance for the Tsilhqot’in People. Lhats’as?in headed the six Tsilhqot’in public servants martyred by the incipient Colony of British Columbia in 1864/65. This year’s formal ceremony will be at Nemiah Valley starting at 10:00 a.m.
Since no Colonial official had even contacted any Tsilhqot’in official before July 20, 1864, let alone begun treaty negotiations, it is impossible for any Colonial law to have become extended before then to Tsilhqot’in territory. Tsilhqot’in officials, therefore, necessarily remained the sole legitimate authorities charged with performing public duties, such as law enforcement and defense, at all the relevant times and places concerning these events.
What, then, led British Columbia to martyr these Tsilhqot’in officials before a crowd estimated at 250 in one of the largest and most dramatic mass hangings in Canadian history?
In 1861, Tsilhqot’in communities had approved roads from Bentinck Arm and Bute Inlet to cross their territory for the Cariboo mines. Expecting to benefit from these roads, McDonald, McDougall and Manning began a roadhouse at Puntzi. They extorted the land by threatening to punish the resident Tsilhqot’in with smallpox. A few weeks later, smallpox arrived to kill hundreds. The Tsilhqot’in eventually convicted the three partners of mass murder.
At Bute Inlet, the road company went bankrupt in 1863. Waddington bought the assets in liquidation and began a joint venture with McDonald, one of the accused at Puntzi.
Some flour left with a Tsilhqot’in at Bute Inlet went missing, either as an offset for unpaid wages or for an unpaid Tsilhqot’in tax. On learning of the missing flour, Captain Howard of the steamer delivering the 1864 work crew threatened smallpox as a punishment. Like McDonald, Howard had close ties with those alleged to have spread smallpox at Bentinck Arm in 1862. The Tsilhqot’in then discovered that Howard’s cargo already included blankets robbed from their graves.
After assessing the situation at Bute Inlet for about three weeks, Lhats’as?in and his advisers decided the threat was real. Given the risk of countless new deaths from smallpox, they concluded an immediate act of self-defense was in the public interest. A Tsilhqot’in war party then destroyed the work crew to end the threat.
In early May 1864, after Manning had refused both permanent exile and sanctuary, Tilaqhed executed him. On May 30, after McDougall and McDonald had been advised of sanctuary and may have been offered exile, Lhats’as?in led a party that executed McDonald while Ahan executed McDougall.
In August 1864, the Colony initiated a sacred tobacco ceremony and invited the Tsilhqot’in to a “heads of state” conference. Colonial agents held out that the Governor would then recognize Lhats’as?in, as “High Chief” in Tsilhqot’in territory. However, when the Tsilhqot’in delegates arrived, the Colony ambushed them, threw them in chains and sent them for show trials.
At the trials, the lawyer who volunteered to defend the Tsilhqot’in was associated with those who the Tsilhqot’in believed had spread smallpox. No jurisdictional issues, no “war not murder” and no smallpox defense arose at the trials. The fix was in.
The Colony hung Chayses and Taqed for their part as men-at-arms in the battle to prevent smallpox at Bute Inlet. It hung Tilaqhed, Lhats’as?in and Ahan for murder, though they merely had carried out executions properly authorized under the law in effect. Had they not carried them out, their own people may have cursed them for dereliction of duty. Lhats’as?in’s son Biyil had shot McDonald’s horse. The Colony hung him for murder also.
The Tsilhqot’in experience was a paradigm for the unconstitutional means by which British institutions were imposed on the indigenous people of British Columbia. Lhats’as?in Memorial Day recalls to mind 150 years of resistance to colonialism and its ongoing effects. Canada now could save itself tens, perhaps hundreds, of millions in legal and other costs from prolonged struggles over resource developments by exonerating the “Tsilhqot’in Chiefs” (and others similarly punished,) by legitimating itself under indigenous rules, by committing itself to free, prior, informed consent and by acceptance when no means no.
Tom Swanky is the author of “The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific,” a re-examination of the Tsilhqot’in War and of the evidence supporting the widespread native belief that settlers spread smallpox in 1862 to kill them. On Friday Nov. 23, he will give a talk on “The Tsilhqot’in War: Smallpox, Colonialism and Injustice” at the University of Victoria in the David Lam Theatre starting at 7:00 p.m.