10/25/2014 07:15 EDT | Updated 12/25/2014 05:59 EST

B.C. First Nation recognizes milestones before 150th anniversary of hangings

FARWELL CANYON, Cana - Rays of light from the autumn sun bounce off the statuesque sand dunes above the Chilcotin River west of Williams Lake as a large male bighorn sheep guides a herd across the top of the steep canyon walls.

The surrounding rolling grasslands of central British Columbia's Cariboo-Chilcotin plateau go on and on and the air has a sweet smell.

Tsilhqot'in Nation Chief Joe Alphonse pointed to the expanse of wilderness around him and said this is the land that six chiefs were trying to protect when they were hanged 150 years ago.

"This is the most beautiful place in the world," said Alphonse, gazing at the mountains. "We are not wanting to separate. We believe in this country. We want recognition and we want to become part of a larger society."

Three major milestones have forged a new relationship with the provincial government for the Tsilhqot'in Nation, which also aims for recognition from the federal government.

They include Premier Christy Clark's visit on Sunday to Quesnel, where five of the Tsilhqot'in chiefs were hanged during the Chilcotin War of 1864. Clark will participate in a ceremony marking the 150th anniversary of the event that the First Nation says involved trickery by the government of the day. A sixth chief was hanged in New Westminster.

The chiefs were hanged for murder and for their part in what is known as Western Canada's deadliest attack by aboriginals on non-aboriginal settlers.

Last week, Clark's government issued an apology and exonerated the chiefs in the legislature for any wrongdoing.

In June, the Tsilhqot'in won a major victory in the Supreme Court of Canada through a unanimous land-rights decision granting them title to 1,700 square kilometres of territory in the remote Nemiah Valley, southwest of Williams Lake.

The high court ruling has emboldened the Tsilhqot'in to sign agreements with the B.C. government allowing them to benefit from resource and development after decades of legal standoffs.

Alphonse said Clark's apology and exoneration of the six chiefs was emotionally gratifying for the Tsilhqot'in, who learn at a young age that their chiefs were betrayed by a government who tricked them into talking peace and ended up trying and hanging them for murder.

Clark is scheduled to attend Sunday's ceremony, named after the Tsilhqot'in warrior chief Klatsassin, one of the five chiefs who was hanged at Quesnel on Oct. 26, 1864, in front of 250 spectators.

"It's a day we've been looking forward to for a very long time," Alphonse said. "They paid the ultimate price protecting the Tsilhqot'in. The colony of British Columbia wanted to squash the Tsilhqot'in and break their spirit."

The chiefs were hanged after the colonial government in B.C. approved a toll road from Bute Inlet on the coast to Barkerville in the Cariboo gold fields. But the Tsilhqot'in, decimated by smallpox and fiercely protective of their homelands, mounted a resistance.

It began in April 1864, and by the end of the following month, 19 roadbuilders and a farmer were dead.

Alphonse said the Tsilhqot'in considered the roadbuilders invaders who had to be resisted even though most were ambushed while sleeping in tents.

He said the Tsilhqot'in wanted the roadbuilders to pay a fee and hire local guides to enter their lands, but they refused and one foreman threatened to bring smallpox back to the territory.

"They refused to do that and when the road crew chose to take some Tsilhqot'in women and abuse them, that was the last straw," Alphonse said.

The Aboriginal Relations and Reconciliation Ministry said in a statement that the Liberal government's apology acknowledges past mistakes, expresses regret on behalf of B.C. and "validates the thoughts and feelings about the hangings that the Tsilhqot'in still have today."

While B.C. confirms that the six chiefs are exonerated of any crime or wrongdoing, formal exoneration is a matter of federal jurisdiction, the statement said.

"Our history is we are a war-like people and we fought for our land," Alphonse said.

"Our battlefield has switched to a court room. It's on paper. It's using pens, technology and laws. You have to do things in a peaceful, respectful way. (Prime Minister) Stephen Harper has to come to the table."