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First Nations chief gives lessons about hangings 150 years later

Pictured, Tslihqot'in Nation chief Joe Alphonse on Aug. 17, 2010.
Image Credit: Flickr/UrbanRez
October 25, 2014 - 1:03 PM

WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. - It wasn't long ago that an RCMP officer asked Chief Joe Alphonse for some help in understanding the people of his First Nation.

The Mountie, who was from the small community of Alexis Creek west of Williams Lake, B.C., told Alphonse that every encounter he had with aboriginal people in the Cariboo-Chilcoutin area always involved the same topic: the hangings.

"He wanted to know what our members were talking about," said Alphonse, a Tsilhqot'in Nation chief. "He said every single last Tsilhqot'in person we pull over will look at us and tell us, 'you bastards hung our chiefs.'"

Alphonse said he gave the officer a history lesson about events 150 years ago when British Columbia was a colony and the government tried to build a toll road from Bute Inlet on the coast to the Cariboo gold fields in Barkerville.

The canyons, rivers and mountains were treacherous and going was slow, but the road builders met an even more difficult force, the Tsilhqot'in aboriginals.

The dispute left 20 non-aboriginals dead and six chiefs were later hanged.

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 a farmer were dead.

First Nations, decimated by smallpox and fearing an influx of settlers into their territory, put up an armed resistance to the workers attempting to build a road through their territory for the gold rush.

A militia army of more than 100 people was sent into the area, but capturing the Tsilhqot'in was 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.

The men were given brief trials. Five were hanged in Quesnel on Oct. 26, 1864, and another was hanged later in New Westminster.

"This is as deeply ingrained (in us) as you can imagine it to be," said Alphonse, a relative of one of the six chiefs. "How we look at the province has been affected by what these warriors did. Right or wrong, it is part of our history, and it does make the character of the Tsilhqot'in and the make up of British Columbia."

The road was never built.

Alphonse and Tsilhqot'in Chief Roger William joined Premier Christy Clark in the legislature on Thursday to hear her apology on behalf of the province.

"To the extent that it falls within the power of the province of British Columbia, we confirm without reservation that these six Tsilhqot'in chiefs are fully exonerated of any crime of wrongdoing," Clark said.

"The Tsilhqot'in people rightly regard these chiefs as heros of their people. So today we offer this apology, a historic day 150 years later."

Clark is due to travel to Tsilhqot'in territory this weekend to issue a similar apology in person.

The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of the Tsilhqot'in last June when, for the first time in Canadian history, a First Nation was granted title to a piece of land the aboriginals claimed as their territory.

John Lutz, a history professor at University of Victoria, said the events of the Chilcotin War 150 years ago likely played a role in the Supreme Court decision granting the Tsilhqot'in title to their land.

"Today's victory, the court victory, is in a very real way a direct result of their resistance in 1864," he said.

If the road project had been successful, much of Tsilhqot'in territory would have long ago become a major route from B.C.'s coast into the Interior, along with the development and people that come with it, Lutz said. Instead, the first major road into the Interior was the Trans-Canada Highway through the Fraser Canyon.

"They kept their territory, basically an enclave," Lutz said. "And among all the First Nations in B.C., the Tsilhqot'in have kept their language, especially in the Nemiah Valley, more than almost any other First Nation in part because of their isolation, strong cultural identity and ownership. That's lasted for 150 years."

Now the Tsilhqot'in, court victory in hand, are planning their futures, signing an agreement with the B.C. government to start negotiations on development agreements.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2014
The Canadian Press

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