An open letter,
To The Editor,
The Globe and Mail

I am writing to correct some factual errors and misleading inferences contained in a Dec. 20th Globe and Mail article, “Chief executed in 1864 grouped in with the wrong crowd.” And to offer some constructive suggestions.

Alas, it seems rather it is your writer who has grouped with the wrong crowd. Namely, those who deny Canada’s colonial legacy and then distort the record regarding the indigenous experience.

Why otherwise would The Globe and Mail so gratuitously and callously denigrate the Tsilhqot’in People’s proud history of its noble heroes for so little effect?

Imagine, instead, how much wider appeal your article might have had describing how, at the first ever meeting between the Crown and the Tsilhqot’in, on July 20, 1864, that the Tsilhqot’in delegation’s leader dressed in a French uniform like that of Montcalm on the Plains of Abraham.

Every Canadian can relate to this body language. It shows how Tsilhqot’in leaders then were open to exploring some union of joint purpose with settlers, perhaps on the model of Lower Canada. In such a prototype their laws, territorial integrity, land tenures, language and religion would have been respected while both sides would have benefited from trade and other economies.

Indeed, within days of this meeting, (which took place during the Chilcotin War, the underlying subject of your article) the Crown did promise recognition for the existing Tsilhqot’in regime under the custom of the country. It invited Tsilhqot’in leaders to attend a sacred ceremony of joint purpose to begin this relationship.

However, this proposed ceremony served only as a tool of treachery. As eight Tsilhqot’in, including the “Head War Chief,” came expecting a conference with the Governor, the Crown ambushed them and threw them in chains.

Dishonourable show trials followed. There, the Crown cruelly convicted these Tsilhqot’in public agents of imaginary capital crimes. Yet these Tsilhqot’in had done no more than protect the people they had a public duty to protect, and to administer their own laws at times and in places where those laws necessarily remained the law of the land.

The Colony of British Columbia then martyred the “Chilcotin Chiefs” by hanging in a native graveyard before a crowd of 250, mostly native. This remains one of the largest and most dramatic public executions in all Canadian history.

Rev. R.C. Lundin-Brown's sketch representing Lhatsas?in, the "Head Tsilhqot'in War Leader."

Rev. R.C. Lundin-Brown’s sketch representing
the “Head Tsilhqot’in War Leader.”

2014 will be the 150th anniversary of British Columbia’s martyrdom of the “Chilcotin Chiefs.” Canada’s national newspaper should be better conversant with the historical context. And be better able to present the Tsilhqot’in perspective honourably and fairly when the occasion demands. The Canadian public needs no less than this to appreciate properly certain current events.

For example, both the Tsilhqot’in title case recently argued at the Supreme Court of Canada and the determined Tsilhqot’in led opposition to Taseko’s Prosperity Mine have solid roots in the moral and legal issues surrounding this “war” and the martyrdom of “The Chilcotin Chiefs.”

Today, the Tsilhqot’in People remember the martyrdom of the “Chilcotin Chiefs” with an annual national public holiday each Oct. 26: Lhatsas?in Memorial Day.

In what dark corridor of colonial mythologizing does The Globe and Mail believe that a whole population would so honour someone as a national hero who was a “cruel and murdering pirate…grouping in with the wrong crowd?”

It is insulting to the Tsilhqot’in People. And to your readers. The Globe and Mail should apologize to the Tsilhqot’in and commit to attending the official Lhatsas?in Memorial Day ceremony in 2014.

In correcting some key errors in this article, rather than noting in detail here all the supporting documentation, I have sent under separate cover copies of my book, The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific. Plus the Tsilhqot’in and other First Nations Resistance. This provides the only account of the Chilcotin War to integrate the written record with the Tsilhqot’in tradition.

It also includes an analysis of the 1862/64 B.C. smallpox epidemics. For the Chilcotin War was an integral part of this tragedy on the Pacific Shelf, one of the greatest human disasters in Canadian history. Indeed, it was the concluding chapter.

Based on ten years research, this analysis confirms the narrative common among B.C. elders that the settler community (especially those from the Canadian colonies in the east) deliberately spread the disease in a war of extermination, or however one wishes to call the mass murder of innocents.

The Globe and Mail said,

A week before leading an attack on a road-building crew in 1864, a Tsilhqot’in leader known as Lhatsas?in paid a ransom for one of his daughters who had been taken by a neighbouring tribe.

The ransom, historians say, consisted of two muskets, six blankets and a canoe.

Such details are known. But when it comes to a conflict known as the Chilcotin War, many details are open to speculation. That applies particularly to information about Lhatsas?in, who had worked as a packer for a crew trying to build a road from the B.C. coast to the Cariboo goldfields before he set off a conflict that resonates more than a century later.

First, in fact, Lhatsas?in never worked one day “as a packer for a crew trying to build a road.” No source in any record, oral or written, ever said that he did.

Through this error, your article falsely implies that Lhatsas?in was some mere labourer who came under the sway of “bad Indians.” So settlers usually called natives who disagreed that their colonization might be the gift of some superior civilization for which they lacked the proper gratitude.

I will append a photograph of the “Chilcotin Chiefs” memorial located near their gravesite at Quesnel. It shows, instead, that Lhatsas?in was “Head War Chief” of the Tsilhqot’in People.

It is unmistakeably clear in both the oral and written record that Lhatsas?in went to the road camp at Bute Inlet only after a Leader’s Council was held. And only after he had been authorized to implement Tsilhqot’in public policy there as decided by the Council.

That is, contrary to your implication, Lhatsas?in was acting throughout all these events in an official public capacity representing the Tsilhqot’in People, (supported onsite by two senior advisers, Chayses and Ulnas.) And not in any private capacity.

In a point of truth, it was the settler community that “set off” this conflict.

As a “War Chief,” Lhatsas?in called this Council only after he was advised by the Tsilhqot’in present that a settler authority figure connected to the Bute Inlet enterprise threatened to introduce smallpox in the summer to kill them.

Indeed, the boat delivering the settler crew that spring even had blankets robbed from Tsilhqot’in graves among its cargo. Such blankets were a typical means through which settlers described introducing the disease elsewhere.

Second, although your article leads with reference to a kidnapped girl, it does not explain what possible relevance the kidnapping of a girl by some neighbouring tribe would have in connection with a Tsilhqot’in war party killing 14 settlers and the eventual hanging of the “Chilcotin Chiefs.”

Of all the things that we know for certain about what happened at Bute Inlet, contrary to your writer’s assertion, this detail of a ransomed girl is not one of them. This seems just another way of implying, again falsely, that Lhatsas?in and his war party went to Bute Inlet on some personal agenda.

In more than ten years of listening to the descendants of Lhatsas?in’s family and seeing various genealogical charts, I have yet to hear anyone confirm that he had even one daughter.

Among the many mistakes, misleading biases and colonial mythologies built into the “Canadian Mysteries” website, Lhatsas?in also did not have three wives. He had a first wife who seems to have died in the smallpox epidemics of 1862, and by whom he seems to have had three sons, and he then had a second younger wife with infant children at the time of his death.

This story of a kidnapped girl seems better understood as a ruse to explain the War Chief’s sudden appearance at Bute Inlet. It did not set off any alarms and served as a means of gathering strategic information about the road crew’s possible reinforcement. Astute contemporaries questioned his story’s authenticity from the start for it claims a dramatic overpayment of the market rate for ransoming daughters.

Yet, when the Tsilhqot’in narrative of these events is known, it can be shown how this detail fit so well with the larger picture. That picture includes the settlers’ gang rape of a chief’s daughter at the end of the previous season.

Even then, the attack on the road crew was not retribution for that rape or the other abuses committed with impunity against native women and children during this period.

Instead, the Tsilhqot’in Leader’s Council had concluded that, if given free access to Tsilhqot’in territory, settlers could not be trusted to act decently, to pay the taxes due by custom or to follow other Tsilhqot’in laws, the long-established laws of the land.

And that there was an immediate urgency to prevent the re-introduction of smallpox, the usual means through which settlers would depopulate an area in preparation for the People’s dispossession.

Notice that in May and June of 1864, immediately after killing the road party, the Tsilhqot’in closed two prospective roads and expelled all settlers from their territory. The settlers were driven, unharmed, to a refuge at Bella Coola where the Tsilhqot’in peacefully laid a siege for about two weeks, waiting for them to take a ship and leave.

All the available evidence confirms that this was, through and through, a political event concerning territorial control.

It was “war, not murder.” It was the Tsilhqot’in People defending their sovereign right to control the laws and the allocation of resources in their homeland. It was not about anyone’s private concerns.

Moreover, the Colonial Governor of the day even acknowledged privately that the violence was a manifestation of the Tsilhqot’in resisting the colonization of their territory but he also said that it better suited the Colonial purpose to pretend otherwise.

So the false mythologizing began.

Tsilhqot'in War memorial plaque

“The Chilcotin Chiefs” memorial plaque. “War, not murder.”

The Globe and Mail said,

That uncertainty and others are the framework for “We do not know his name: Lhatsas?in and the Chilcotin War,” one of a series of Canadian mysteries featured, detective-style, in a project developed by Canadian Heritage and the University of Victoria.

The online project includes historical documents, such as letters between government officials, newspaper accounts and statements given at trial.

Your writer might have suspected, and your readers should be made aware that, to create a sense that there is some mystery about the events before, during and after the incident at Bute Inlet, the “Canadian Mysteries” website fails to include documents presenting, or that it otherwise obscures, the Tsilhqot’in side of this history.

For example,

1. After their conviction, Rev Arthur Browning reported to the Daily British Colonist that the Tsilhqot’in confirmed to him that it was the fear of smallpox that had caused the outbreak of violence at Bute Inlet. And, he added, they specifically denied there was any other cause.

2. Rev. Lundin-Brown visited the Tsilhqot’in prisoners every day. He reported asking several times why they had killed the road crew. They always gave the same answer: as a pre-emptive act of war to prevent the introduction of smallpox.

3. Achpicermous, a Tsilhqot’in eye-witness attending a public meeting at the village of Sutless said in a sworn affidavit that Lhatsas?in said there that the settlers at Bute Inlet had been killed out of the fear that they would introduce smallpox, just as they had threatened to do and just as some then connected to the enterprise had done so elsewhere.

4. In the 1920s, journalist Louis Lebourdais interviewed survivors who had witnessed the hanging of “the Chilcotin Chiefs” in 1864. They also told him the violence had been about bad men among the whites introducing smallpox.

5. Lhatsas?in told Judge Begbie after the trials that the fear of smallpox had caused the violence at Bute Inlet. He gave Begbie the same story when interviewed again the day after the trials.

The “Canadian Mysteries” website fails to make clear that both these references to smallpox in Judge Begbie’s notes became edited out later in an apparent effort to cover up the War’s true cause.

Canadian Mysteries” also fails to document the many ways in which the trials preceding the hanging of “The Chilcotin Chiefs” were shams or show trials.

For example, the lawyer appointed by Begbie to defend the chiefs was an intimate associate of Ranald McDonald, one of the chief architects of the smallpox policy in Tsilhqot’in territory. McDonald, and attorney-general George Cary, controlled the Bentinck Arm Company along whose route settlers connected to the company introduced smallpox.

One of the great mysteries of Canadian history is why anyone should imagine that there is any mystery about the true cause of the Chilcotin War.

It was about the Tsilhqot’in People, through their properly authorized representatives, resisting the colonization of their territory, including the genocide by distributing smallpox that accompanied colonization almost everywhere in British Columbia.

To confirm the jurisdictional conflict at the heart of this violence, one needs only to identify the Tsilhqot’in martyrs and the cause of their martyrdom. Remember that a monopoly on the legitimate use of violence is the most treasured right of any sovereign power, manifesting itself in wars of self defence or administering the law.

Chayses, a senior adviser to the war leader, and Telloot, the headman of the Tsilhqot’in village at risk, were martyred for their part as men-at-arms in the battle to prevent smallpox at Bute Inlet. Notice that, contrary to the impression conveyed by The Globe and Mail, Lhatsas?in was not executed for his part in what happened at Bute Inlet.

Lhatsas?in, Biyil, Ahan and Tahpit were martyred for acts carried out in the normal course of administering Tsilhqot’in law. They had executed three settlers in connection with the deliberate introduction of smallpox at Puntzi Lake.

In contrast, the Colony of British Columbia had no colour of right to administer violence of any kind in connection with these events.

It is logically impossible that the colonists had any legal or moral jurisdiction: at the time when all these events took place, no official representing the crown had as yet even visited Tsilhqot’in territory for the first time, let alone secured the consent of the Tsilhqot’in people for the imposition of British institutions and English law.

As noted above, no formal contact between the Crown and Tsilhqot’in diplomats occurred before until July 20th 1864, after all the violence on the Tsilhqot’in side had been completed.

A small part of the circle at the official Lhatsas?in Memorial Day ceremony, 2013.

A small part of the circle at the official Lhatsas?in Memorial Day ceremony, 2013.

The Globe and Mail said,

The violent chapter in B.C. history began on April 29, 1864, when Lhatsas?in and a group of followers first killed a ferry worker and then attacked a sleeping road crew…

This is factually incorrect. This violent chapter actually began June 10, 1862. Parties led by Francis Poole and J.B. Pearson then landed at Bella Coola to begin spreading smallpox along the Bentinck Arm Road corridor. In his memoir, Poole said that he “headed” the party introducing smallpox on this crossing.

At Chilcotin Lake, just days after Pearson staked land under the Tsilhqot’in village to claim under colonial legislation, Poole’s party knowingly sent disease carriers into the village.

About his subsequent arrival at Ft. Alexandria, Poole would say that for five or six days his party had been in “hourly dread of attack from hostile savages” and that they “left a sorrowful trail of blood” behind them.

This was the actual beginning of the Chilcotin War.

This was also only the first of several smallpox spreading parties the Tsilhqot’in would engage over the next six months. By the following spring eyewitness said two-thirds of the entire Tsilhqot’in population had been killed. Bodies were strewn everywhere. One observer put the death toll at 5000.

No one writing in good faith could possibly discuss the April 1864 battle to prevent smallpox at Bute Inlet without also mentioning the deaths of 5000 Tsilhqot’in in what survivors described as a deliberate program to kill them.

This is the “germ warfare” to which Mr. Justice Vickers refers (at page 88) in his original judgement on the Tsilhqot’in title case.

The Globe and Mail said,

Even at the time of the trial, there were questions over the circumstances of the chiefs’ surrender, as it appears Lhatsas?in may have believed he was coming to a peace conference when he was arrested.

We have all heard of the sacredness of the pipe of peace … among the Indians,” Judge Matthew Begbie wrote to the governor of B.C. on Sept. 30, 1864. “It seems horrible to hang five men at once, especially under the circumstances of the capitulation.”

Again, this is factually incorrect. First, there was no “surrender.” Second, there is no question in either tradition that the Head War Chief and his party were expecting a conference with the Governor when they were ambushed and taken to be hanged. Judge Begbie said so. So, also, is the oral tradition.

Nor was there any “capitulation.” The supposed conference was scheduled for Aug. 15 when the Governor was expected to return from a tour of the Cariboo gold fields. The date for the conference was selected to meet his schedule, not from any Tsilhqot’in desire or need.

Moreover, in a later report to Canada, Begbie confirmed that the Tsilhqot’in party had been “induced” to attend the conference with a fraudulent promise. Again, there was no Tsilhqot’in surrender or capitulation, except in the mythology created to cover over the truth of this betrayal of the Tsilhqot’in People.

What was this promise? The oral tradition is that the Colony had promised to recognize the Head War Leader as High Chief in Tsilhqot’in territory.

It may come as a surprise to The Globe and Mail but this is the 21st Century and all Tsilhqot’in community leaders have telephones. The simple courtesy of contacting any of them might have saved your writer from falling into these traps and thoughtlessly repeating as fact mere colonial fantasies about the indigenous experience in Canada.

On account of this history as I outline it above, the Tsilhqot’in People, and many other B.C. First Nations, do not believe in their hearts and minds that Canada has the necessary moral authority to govern as the legitimate sovereign power in Tsilhqot’in, or many other First Nations, territory.

While the Tsilhqot’in may submit to the Canadian judicial system hoping for justice, they do so like many other First Nations not from consent but from having no choice. Truly, if Canada wants to see actual justice done and to achieve a real reconciliation with the indigenous population, then it should agree to forms of dispute resolution overseen by third-parties.

An unthinking implicit endorsement by Canada’s national newspaper of repeated colonial programs to belittle or obliterate the historical indigenous experience of colonization is not a place any Canadian should be comfortable finding along the road to reconciliation.

Yours truly,

Tom Swanky.

Author The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific.