The hanging of the Chilcotin Chiefs

On Oct. 23, 2014, Premier Christy Clark officially exonerated the six Chilcotin Chiefs hung by the Colony of B.C. in 1864/65 of having committed any crime or wrongdoing.

In expressing British Columbia’s “profound sorrow” for this tragic execution, the Premier also noted “…the many wrongs inflicted by past governments.”

Among these “many wrongs” were policies of general application affecting all the indigenous People of the Pacific Shelf. In this vein, the Premier explicitly noted the settlement policies of Governor James Douglas under which all indigenous lands “were declared open for access without notice and without effort at diplomacy.”

The Premier’s expression of sorrow for the hanging of the Chilcotin Chiefs should receive widespread notice in its own right. The broader application of the Premier’s expression of sorrow also should not be lost.

The Premier’s statement is republished here to assist in keeping this expression of sorrow current and in making it more widely available. This version has been edited lightly, as indicated by square brackets, so the narrative flow will be clear to those who might be coming to this for the first time or without a broad knowledge of the context.

“Madame Speaker, members of the Legislative Assembly, guests and honoured Chiefs of the Tsilhqot’in nation who are here with us on the floor of the legislature today.

We come together to acknowledge and to explain the wrongs done by past government to the Tsilhqot’in. We come to talk about how we must overcome them. How we must take a new path of mutual respect and begin the process of healing.

Long before the arrival of Europeans, the Tsilhqot’in lived on and cared for their homelands. After the Colony of British Columbia was established, Tsilhqot’in lands were declared open for access, without notice or effort at diplomacy.

Many newcomers made their way to the Interior. Some came into conflict with the Tsilhqot’in. Some brought an even greater danger. That was smallpox, which by some reliable historical accounts was spread intentionally.

In the spring of 1864, facing the risk of extinction, and in response to a series of threats, the Tsilhqot’in convened a Council to declare war. The Tsilhqot’in attacked a road crew near Bute Inlet and over the ensuing days, they removed all settlers from their lands.

[In response, the Colony raised a militia and invaded Tsilhqot’in territory.] The Tsilhqot’in war party took refuge in their territory beyond the reach of the militia, who [had made new threats of extermination] to the People.

That summer, gold commissioner William Cox sent the Tsilhqot’in Chiefs a sacred gift of tobacco, and with it an invitation to discuss terms of peace. Chief Lhats’as?in and [some of] his men accepted this truce. In an unexpected act of betrayal, they were arrested, imprisoned and tried for murder.

On October 26, five chiefs were hanged: Head War Chief Lhats’as?in, Chief Biyil, Chief Teilot, Chief Tahpitt and Chief Chayses. Their bodies are buried in the City of Quesnel.

The following summer, Chief Ahan sought to pay reparations to compensate for any harm caused to innocents in the events of the Chilcotin War. He was also [betrayed under terms of peace and] hanged. He is buried in New Westminster.

Madame Speaker, today we acknowledge that these chiefs were not criminals and they were not outlaws. They were warriors, they were leaders, and they were engaged in a territorial dispute to defend their lands and People.

Their descendants continue to reside on and care for these territories. They do it with the same commitment to their lands and culture that their forebears showed.

The Tsilhqot’in continue to assert their [sovereign] right and responsibility to govern those lands. Despite every success they have had, the pain of 1864 has never receded.

So, Madam Speaker, I stand here today in this Legislature, 150 years later, to say that the Province of British Columbia is profoundly sorry for the wrongful arrest, trial and hanging of the six chiefs, and for the many wrongs inflicted by past governments.

To the extent that it falls within the power of the Province of British Columbia, we confirm without reservation that these six chiefs are fully exonerated of any crime or wrongdoing. The Tsilhqot’in people rightly regard these chiefs as heroes of their people.

So today we offer this apology, a historic day 150 years later, in the presence of two of the six chiefs who have fought so hard to ensure that their territories and their People are recognized by [our] laws.

I know that this Legislature will join me in supporting this redress that we offer today.”

The only narrative of the Chilcotin War that integrates the Tsilhqot’in tradition with the written record, and that also outlines the general catastrophe from smallpox on the Pacific shelf in 1862/63 during which settlers created the artificial epidemics to which the Premier refers, can be found in “The True Story of Canada’s ‘War’ of Extermination on the Pacific.”