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Executed B.C. First Nations' chiefs to be exonerated

Tsilhqot'in Nation has waited 153 years for its war heroes to be honoured—after being vilified in Canadian history books for leading anti-colonial uprising.

Chief Joe Alphonse, tribal chairman of the Tsilhqot’in Nation.

JONATHAN HAYWARD / The Canadian Press

Chief Joe Alphonse, tribal chairman of the Tsilhqot’in Nation.

If Canada follows through on its intention last week to exonerate six chiefs it executed in the 19th century for their part in one of the last major anti-colonial uprisings in the country, it will be one of the most significant steps toward reconciliation with the Tsilhqot’in Nation in British Columbia.

In a joint statement released last week, the federal Indigenous relations minister and Tsilhqot’in Tribal Council chief Joe Alphonse announced that Ottawa was beginning work toward just that.

“As a symbolic gesture of reconciliation,” the federal Indigenous relations minister Carolyn Bennett stated, her government “will be moving forward to offer a statement of exoneration for the six Chiefs.

“These six chiefs were leaders of a nation and are well-regarded as heroes by their people.”

The six chiefs, the statement explained, “in the Spring of 1864, led the Tsilhqot’in war effort in response to a colonial road crew attempting to build a road through Tsilhqot’in territory without the agreement of the Tsilhqot’in Nation,” it read. “Six of these chiefs were tried, convicted and hanged for murder.”

But amidst all the federal Liberals’ and successive B.C.’s governments’ reconciliation rhetoric, the war chiefs’ ongoing vilification in Canadian law and history remained a major thorn in the side.

The federal government noted that, “reconciliation requires addressing Canada’s history,” it read, “and developing with Indigenous people a more thorough accounting of our past.”

In 2012, the Tsilhqot’in won a landmark Supreme Court of Canada victory granting it land title to a massive swath of its traditional territories in B.C.’s Interior, paving the way for a resurgence of optimism from First Nations with unresolved land claims across the country.

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