OTTAWA — For generations of Tsilhqot'in youth, the first story they learn is of the historic betrayal by the British colonial government that led to the hanging of six of the nation's leaders, says Chief Joe Alphonse.
Now, more than 150 years after the so-called Chilcotin War, that historic wrong has at last been made right, Alphonse said Monday after the federal government apologized in a "statement of exoneration" for the Tsilhqot'in war chiefs who were wrongfully convicted and killed for defending their homeland, their people and their way of life.
"Reconciliation starts here. Ground zero. Tsilhqot'in. This is where it starts," Alphonse said, describing the apology as "a giant step."
"Canada has a chance and opportunity to be a role model to all countries with Indigenous people. That's what this is about, a new way of doing things, a better way of doings things, that includes all of us."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered the apology as he read his statement Monday in the House of Commons, where the current leaders of the Tsilhqot'in Nation — fresh from their traditional territory in British Columbia's central interior region — were gathered on the floor of the parliamentary chamber.
"We recognize that these six chiefs were leaders of a nation, that they acted in accordance with their laws and traditions and that they are well regarded as heroes of their people," Trudeau said.
"They acted as leaders of a proud and independent nation facing the threat of another nation."
The incident stems from a deadly confrontation with a white road-building crew that had entered Tsilhqot'in territory without permission in 1864.
After the workers were killed, five chiefs attended what they were led to believe would be peace talks at the invitation of government representatives. Instead, they were arrested, tried and hanged, and a sixth chief was executed the following year in New Westminster.
"As settlers came to the land in the rush for gold, no consideration was given to the rights of the Tsilhqot'in people who were there first," Trudeau said. "No consent was sought."
At various points while the speech was read, MPs broke into applause, prompting the Tsilhqot'in chiefs to hold up eagle feathers in salute.
The Tsilhqot'in have long disputed the government's authority to execute the six chiefs as criminals, describing the confrontation as an altercation between warring nations.
Trudeau said that while apologies cannot alone make right the wrongs of the past, they are an important part of reconciliation and renewing Canada's relationship with Indigenous people.
He said he looks forward to visiting Tsilhqot'in territory in the summer at the invitation of the nation's leadership to deliver a statement of exoneration directly to the Tsilhqot'in people.
Tsilhqot'in leadership entered the House of Commons on Monday wearing black vests, which, following Trudeau's apology, they flipped inside out to reveal red fabric decorated with a stylized black horse.
Chief Russell Myers Ross later said the gesture was meant to symbolize change and the "dawn of a new era," and that Monday's statement cleared the path forward for further reconciliation.
"If we're to move forward with the federal government, we need to tell this right and start with the truth," he said. "It's an emotional day for many of us."
'Thank you for your patience'
In the Opposition's response, MP Cathy McLeod, the Conservative critic for Indigenous affairs, said the six Tsilhqot'in war chiefs did what anyone would have done in the same situation — defended their land, their families and their way of life.
"Moments such as this cannot change behaviour from another era," McLeod told the Commons. "We can however recognize a clear lasting and profound impact that past actions have had and scars that have not been healed."
Guy Caron offered the New Democrats' support, calling the apology long overdue and recommending the creation of a national Indigenous Peoples day as a statutory holiday.
"Thank you for your patience with our young country as we strive to do better," he said.
The B.C. government apologized for the executions in 1993 and installed a commemorative plaque at the site of the hangings.
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