About two hundred Tsilhqot’ins gathered in the Nemiah Valley Friday to witness Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau personally apology and exonerate six of the Nation’s war chiefs who were hanged in 1864.
It was a picturesque scene at about 1 p.m. when Trudeau and Chief Joe Alphonse, TNG chairman, galloped into the grassy area flanked by snow-capped mountains to start the historic meeting.
Following speeches by the current Tsilhqot’in chiefs, Trudeau took to the microphone, stating he recognized that the war chiefs were only protecting their nation which was under threat by another at the time when they were lured to a meeting in Quesnel by colonial officials for peace talks and were instead arrested, tried and hanged.
“Those were mistakes that our government profoundly regrets and is determined to set right,” Trudeau said.
“The treatment of the Tsilhqot’in chiefs represents a betrayal of trust, an injustice that you have carried for more than 150 years.”
The chiefs that perished on Oct. 26, 1864 near Quesnel were Head War Chief Lhats’as?in (Lhas-awss-een); Chief Biyil (pe-yal); Chief Tellot (tay-lot); Chief Tahpitt (ta-peet); Chief Chayses (chay-sus); and Chief Ahan (a-han) who was hanged in New Westminister in 1865.
Those who took part in the day Friday said they felt happy about the exoneration from Canada, but also sad that their war chiefs had to give their lives to protect their lands. He said they hoped now they rest in peace.
Chief Joe Alphonse said the meeting on traditional lands was an enjoyable, relaxing experience for him compared to going to Ottawa in March to the House of Commons where Trudeau first formally exonerated the war chiefs.
He said he was very pleased that the Prime Minister accepted the invitation to come to the title lands so that the TNG members could hear for themselves the exoneration.
Xeni Gwet’in Chief Jimmy Lulua thanked Trudeau for coming to title lands and said he was proud of his Tsilhqot’in people.
“I’m so excited to keep moving forward and it’s an honour and I thank Justin Trudeau for being the first prime minister to come to title lands and to set history right.”
Chief Russell Myers Ross said he hoped the apology would allow for meaningful government-to-government work moving forward.
After the formal apology and exoneration, the Nation presented Trudeau with a special gift — a replica of the buckskin jacket given to his father which was made at that time by Tsilhqot’in member Julie Gilpin. Julie was on hand to present the new jacket, made by her daughter Denise Gilpin, to Trudeau.
“It fits perfect,” Trudeau said, smiling and noting all his dad’s jackets were small for him.
Trudeau then made his way into the crowd to greet as many people as he could before making the long journey back to Williams Lake by vehicle, the same way he came in, and flying out of the airport there.
Payel Laceese, a grandson to Julie and son to Denise, said he hoped the meeting would bring healing.
“Our people can let that go without there being that grudge,” he said, adding he felt there was a special connection with Trudeau, due to the history with the jacket.
“It’s not just a nation-to-nation relationship, it’s family-to-family.”
Former Xeni Gwet’in chief Annie Williams also thought the meeting was exceptional.
“It’s hard to believe he was here,” she said as the convoy pulled away. “It felt like he was one of us.”