VICTORIA - Christy Clark will be British Columbia's first premier to visit the controversial Tsilhqot'in Nation territory as she negotiates a new relationship with an aboriginal group that has a recent high court rights ruling and 150 years of ill feelings over the hangings of six of its chiefs.
Clark arrives next week in the remote Nemiah Valley near Williams Lake for what is expected to be several ventures to the area in coming months.
Tsilhqot'in National Government spokesman Joe Alphonse said Friday that meetings earlier this week between Clark and chiefs in Vancouver signalled a willingness by both sides to discuss the June Supreme Court of Canada decision that grants the First Nation title to 1,750 square kilometres of its territory and redress the hangings of six chiefs during the Chilcotin War of 1864.
He called the meeting with Clark positive, significant and powerful, saying the premier also committed to make an official visit to Tsilhqot'in territory Oct. 26 to participate in annual celebrations marking the 1864 hangings.
"We've been waiting for them to be exonerated for quite a while," Alphonse said. "It's a big part of our history as Chilcotin people. It was unjustly done to our war chiefs."
The Chilcotin War is known as Western Canada's deadliest attack by aboriginals on non-aboriginal settlers. It started in April 1864, and by the end of May, 19 road builders and one farmer were dead.
The aboriginals, decimated by small pox and fearing an influx of settlers into their territory, put up an armed resistance to workers who were attempting to build a road from the coast mountains through their territory and into the gold fields of the Cariboo.
A militia army of more than 100 people was sent into the area to find the aboriginals, but the almost inaccessible high plateau, bordered by mountain peaks and raging rivers, made the task nearly impossible.
After three months, the area's police chief invited the aboriginals to a meeting, where the First Nations — believing they were being summoned for peace talks — were arrested.
Five were hanged in Quesnel and another in New Westminster.
"They were tried as murderers," Alphonse said. "We felt betrayed. It's a huge part of the history of Canada and nobody knows about it."
Clark was not available for comment Friday, but a statement released by her office Thursday said plans are being "made to redress the unjust hanging of six Tsilhqot'in Chiefs during the Chilcotin War of 1864."
Clark's statement also said the Supreme Court ruling in favour of the Tsilhqot'in is driving her to forge partnerships with aboriginals in respect and recognition.
"We are committed to taking the next step towards securing a more prosperous, just future for the Tsilhqot'in Nation and all British Columbians — together," said Clark's statement.
Clark recently named Musqueam leader Wade Grant as an adviser, saying she views Grant as her relationship guide, as the government moves towards economic and social agreements with First Nations.
Alphonse said Clark's move to reach out to the Tsilhqot'in could signal the start of stronger communication and important relationships between his people and governments.
"In a way it's hitting the reset button on how to deal with First Nations people," he said. "I believe we'll begin the process to try to resolve, to try to come up with, a way to resolve the long-standing issues we have with the province and Canada. We have to deal with this once and for all. This will be a new template."
In 1993, a justice inquiry revisited the Chilcotin War and Judge Anthony Sarich wrote: "Whatever the correct version, that episode of history has left a wound in the body of Chilcotin society. It is time to heal that wound."
In October 1999, 135 years after the hangings, a plaque was unveiled by a Tsilhqot'in chief at Quesnel's G.R. Baker Memorial Hospital.
It says in English and Tsilhqot'in: "We meant war, not murder!"
They were the last words of one of the hanged chiefs, who is buried nearby.