11/17/2012 05:58 EST | Updated 01/17/2013 05:12 EST

BC Government Regrets Hanging 2 Native Men In 1869

PORT ALBERNI, B.C. - The British Columbia government has expressed regret to the family of a First Nations man who was wrongfully hanged on a Vancouver Island beach nearly 150 years ago.

Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ida Chong participated in a feast of reconciliation with the Hesquiaht First Nation on Saturday, and band members forgave the actions of the colonial government in 1869.

John Anietsachist and another man named Katkinna were hanged in Humais Cove, also known as Estevan Point, about 30 kilometres north of Tofino.

The men were accused of murdering two people who'd been shipwrecked on the island, but historians have suggested faulty translations of Hesquiaht testimony played a part in their convictions.

Chong said the province regrets that the Hesquiaht people were forced to watch such violence and generations since then have endured the pain of what happened to Anietsachist and his friend.

"With all our government was doing with respect to other First Nations — with reconciliation, with recognition, with respect — we felt that this was one area that had to be dealt with before we could move forward with any other matters," she said from a ceremony with the Hesquiaht and other bands.

The expression of regret, and not an apology, was fitting because British Columbia did not officially become a province until 1871, Chong said.

"It's about some closure to the pain they have been feeling. Every generation hereafter, when they hear the story of what happened, now they can plug in this chapter and say `But on this day what took place was an offer from the province of regret and an offer from the Hesquiaht of forgiveness.'"

Victor Amos, 60, said his family has kept the story about his great-great-great-grandfather Anietsachist's innocence alive for 143 years through oral stories and songs passed down to the Hesquiaht First Nation, a member of the Nuu-chah-nulth Nations.

Amos said his family decided about eight years ago that they wanted to clear Anietsachist's name and approached the government about a year and a half ago to try and make that happen.

"The acknowledgment of the wrongdoing is phenomenal," he said.

"Now rather than just my family believing my great-great-great grandfather was innocent, now the broader community believes that," said Amos, who performed a dance at a gathering that attracted hundreds of people from neighbouring First Nations.

Amos, who said his family has now given him the name Anietsachist, performed a dance at the gathering Saturday to honour his great-great-great grandfather.

He said not much is known about his friend, known only by the name Katkinna.

Anietsachist and Katkinna were accused of murdering crew members from the ship John Bright, which was driven ashore on the west coast of Vancouver Island.

Despite conflicting testimony, an inquest conducted by members of the HMS Sparrowhawk concluded that Anietsachist and Katkinna killed Bright — also the name of the captain — and his wife, a statement from the government said.

The men were hanged in public at a gallows erected on the beach.

-- By Camille Bains in Vancouver