This year marks the 146th anniversary of the hanging of the Tsilhqot’in Chiefs. A day of remembrance for the Tsilhqot’in. In fact, a national holiday for their nation. Yet the public actions of Tsilhqot’in leaders of that time contain examples of greatness and nobility worthy of honor and remembrance by everyone.
In keeping with this spirit, I will break from composing the documentary and attend the formal ceremony. Which, as it happens, has been planned for right next door. At the New Westminster Secondary School. A formal delegation of elders, community leaders and others will travel here from Tsilhqot’in territory to hold the ceremony.
Recently, the ceremony has moved each year. Usually to a location connected in some way with the events which preceded the hanging of the Chiefs. So, you might wonder, what is the connection between New Westminster, the Tsilhqot’in War and the hanging of the Tsilhqot’in Chiefs? I will explain below.
A few days ago, I also revisited the memorial at Quesnel near where the Chiefs are buried and paid my respects. It is an out-of-the-way place and I spend a few quiet moments here whenever I can. This event has so much power and, truly, is still so alive on all sides… if one but understands the political terrain and listens to the underlying meaning and implications carried in all the voices. Imagine waking up one day to find yourself somehow reborn as an Israeli settler in a Palestinian area. Or as a German citizen living in what had been a Jewish neighbourhood before the Holocaust. To find the true history, it is important to keep one’s focus firmly on the evidence created at the time.
There is a strangeness about this place. Partly from the juxtaposition of its importance with the mundane nature of the setting. And partly because almost no one knows it is here, sandwiched between the hospital’s helicopter pad and the lawn of the house beside. But, on a quiet Sunday, it can seem like a great outdoor cathedral. Chances are this space will be just as deserted on the day itself.
But I am not in Quesnel this time primarily to visit the memorial. I am here to look over the site where the hanging took place. For it might be the best place to begin the documentary. The actual location of the hanging has been virtually unknown until now. We rediscovered it during our research for the documentary. An eye-witness took a friend and showed her some fifty years later. The friend told a local historian. He recorded it in a small obscure article in the local newspaper. A map prepared by a Canadian government surveyor in the 1880s shows this same location as a gravesite a few blocks south of the Chief’s grave.
The local native community was destroyed in the smallpox epidemics. These grave sites would have been the remains of pit houses burned along with the bodies of the resident victims. When the foundation was dug for the elevator shaft in this building, work crews encountered human bones. As might have been anticipated, if the governments of Canada and British Columbia had cared to keep proper records. This building is a seniors’ residence called the Golden Centre. But, before then, the Canadian government had already built an office of the Dominion Telegraph Service here. Desecrating the grave site. A foolish policy of encouraging natives to forget their ancestors.
The scaffold probably covered the ground where this mountain ash has been planted. Typically Canadian, there is a Tim Horton’s across the street and a Japanese restaurant. No one here today even knows that this site hosted the symbolic event which marked the end of the native regimes on the Pacific shelf. And the final effective, or de facto, assertion of sovereign power by the Colony of British Columbia.
The typical last acts of genocide are cover up, minimization and denial. And it is an integral part of the Tsilhqot’in resistance to their genocide which brings the Lhatsassin Memorial Day to New Westminster. To honor the chief Ahan, whose final resting place at New Westminster the Tsilhqot’in recently seemingly saved from desecration by the province of British Columbia. How did Ahan come to be buried at New Westminster?
When the Tsilhqot’in Chiefs were ambushed Aug. 15, 1864, at what they thought was to be a conference with the Governor, three men who were to have been part of the Tsilhqot’in delegation were not present: Anaham, one of the most senior Tsilhqot’in officials, Ahan (also Kwutan, if the two are one man,) leader of the Sutless community at Nimpo Lake and Lutas, a young man from his village. A messenger had failed to get through to them. In September 1864, after the ambush of the main party, Anaham was subjected to a proceeding of some nature by Chartres Brew, the police inspector and leader of the New Westminster part of the militia (including some of the men in this picture) which the colony sent to Tsilhqot’in territory under the pretense of a mere police investigation. When Brew confirmed that Anaham had not been present when Ahan and Lutas executed Peter McDougall, he said “Anaham was given his pardon.”
Then, at an inter-tribal leader’s council in Jan. 1865, attended by a representative of the colony, Anaham agreed to send Ahan and Lutas to New Westminster. Ahan apparently believed the colony had undertaken to observe native laws and customs in this context. The proof of this undertaking by the colony is that Ahan brought, in apparent good faith and in the customary way, goods to make reparations. Not for the death of McDougall, but one innocent man had been killed as a collateral casualty and some others were injured at McDougall’s execution. As soon as Ahan’s party left Tsilhqot’in territory, the interpreter supplied to accompany them sprang an ambush. He put Ahan and Lutas in irons for the remainder of the trip.
McDougall was targeted for removal because he and his partners had extorted land for their business with the threat of introducing smallpox. And, then, had actually introduced the disease in June 1862. They were mass murderers. Ahan had been assigned the duty of removing McDougall by the War Leader or by Anaham. In the proper manner under Tsilhqot’in law. The law of the established government at the time and place of the action.
At New Westminster, then the B.C. capital, Ahan and Lutas were tried for murder. Ahan was convicted of murder in the first degree. Lutas, who had shot McDougall’s horse to prevent his escape, was convicted in the third degree. The trial was held Monday July 3. An appeal on a legal issue was held July 4. The appeal was refused and the death sentence was given both men. Lutas was pardoned July 17. Ahan was hung Tuesday July 18, 1865.
All this through a special proceeding outside the normal judicial structure. Indeed, the trial was rigged. The judge was especially appointed for this one trial. He was, in fact, the attorney-general, Henry Crease: the official in charge of the prosecution! Crease had prepared the indictment against the two men. A gross violation of the rules of natural justice. Moreover, the hand-picked jury contained two members of the legislative assembly. The mayor of New Westminster was its foreman. That is, it contained politicians who had on their political agenda the issue of how to pay for native title and what treaties to make. It is astonishing that neither British Columbia nor Canada has ever repudiated this trial. Nor paid reparations for this grotesque abuse of the judicial system.
As the proceeding got underway, as the very first issue addressed, Judge Crease ruled out hearing evidence about smallpox on public policy grounds. In fact, as the attorney-general who had declined to investigate native allegations of smallpox spreading, Crease already knew how the smallpox had been spread and by whom. The trial lasted three hours. The jury took a half hour to return guilty verdicts.
The legal issue argued on the following day concerned the admissibility of confessions made in a native language. An irrelevant issue. Ahan consistently said he killed McDougall. And would have said so in any language. His defense was that he had killed McDougall lawfully. Under the legal rules in effect at the time. And for good reason. McDougall and his partners had participated in a mass murder.
If the colony pretended to sovereignty authority, it ought to have prosecuted McDougall for murder itself. But McDougall and Co. actually were part of an officially sanctioned, but secret, policy of extermination. And it was Attorney-General Crease himself who deliberately failed the duty of the justice department to investigate native allegations of mass murder.
The hanging occurred behind the jail at New Westminster. The Sheriff probably had Ahan’s body taken to the New Westminster Public Cemetery of the day, at the corner of 8th St and 8th Ave. The city buried here those who died at the B.C. penitentiary, indigents and the unknown dead. This block also seems the site of some disrespected Chinese cemeteries. Burials were discontinued in 1913. While an attempt was made to leave graves unmolested at the intersection, the buildings on this whole block were demolished in 1948 to make way for a Junior High School.
Currently, the New Westminster Secondary School occupies the site. The site which, to the best available knowledge, still holds Ahan’s remains. Now you know why the Tsilhqot’in people will travel specifically to the school for the Lhatsassin Memorial Day marking the 146th anniversary of the Oct. 26, 1864 hanging of the Tsilhqot’in Chiefs.
They do so to honor Chief Ahan, a martyr who died in the service of his people. The innocent victim of a judicial murder. A murder committed by officials of the colony of British Columbia as part of a program for concealing the biological weapons massacres of 1862.