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Justice for Tsilhqot'in finally arrives 150 years after war hangings

WILLIAMS LAKE, B.C. – Grand Chief Ed John was a young lawyer when he spoke more than 30 years ago at the University of Victoria’s new law-school building named after Matthew Begbie, British Columbia’s hanging judge.

International scholars were present to discuss aboriginal issues and rights, but John said he was compelled to tell them they were gathered in a building named after the judge who sentenced many First Nations to hang, including Tsilhqot’in chiefs after the Chilcotin War.

“I said I want to raise a question about this law school and about this conference on aboriginal rights and I want to tie it back to what this school’s been named because I want to talk to you about Matthew Baillie Begbie, the so-called hanging judge,” said John, who now leads the First Nations Summit, B.C.’s largest aboriginal organization.

Six chiefs from B.C.’s central Interior Cariboo-Chilcotin region were hanged in 1864 for murder and for their parts in what is known as Western Canada’s deadliest attack by aboriginals on non-aboriginal settlers.

The colony of 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 started in April 1864, and by the end of May, 19 road builders and a farmer were dead.

“He was the judge who sentenced the Tsilhqot’in chiefs to hang,” John said. “These were the chiefs who were fighting for the rights to their land, for the rights of their people to their respective lands and we have this conference in this school named after this hanging judge.”

It’s taken 150 years, but the circle of justice for the Tsilhqot’in is almost complete, he said.

The Bute Inlet road to the central Interior was never completed.

UVic changed the name of the law school building, and a bronze statue of Begbie mysteriously disappeared from the campus.

Last June, the Supreme Court of Canada unanimously ruled in favour of the Tsilhqot’in after a decades-long court fight, granting them title to 1,700 square kilometres of land in the remote Nemiah Valley, land southwest of Williams Lake that would have been part of the Cariboo road.

The court victory for the Tsilhqot’in Nation is the first time in Canadian history an aboriginal nation was granted title to land.

Premier Christy Clark’s Liberal government issued a formal apology this week in the legislature for the “wrongful arrest, trial and hanging of the six chiefs.” She said B.C. confirms “without reservation that these six Tsilhqot’in chiefs are fully exonerated of any crime or wrongdoing.”

Hundreds of Tsilhqot’in people, their chiefs and Clark will gather on Sunday in a small, grassy area of downtown Quesnel that is bordered by Cottonwood trees and overlooks the Fraser River to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the hangings of five of the six chiefs.

The tiny field adjacent to Quesnel’s G.R. Baker Memorial Hospital at the end of a residential street is the site where a scaffold was erected in 1864 and five of the chiefs were hanged in the presence of 250 people and then buried nearby.

Today a small plaque marks the hanging ground.

“It’s an important moment in this province’s history, when there’s an admission that what happened to these chiefs was wrong because they were duped into going into Quesnel,” John said. “It was all about land rights. It’s still the fundamental question in British Columbia.”

UVic aboriginal law expert Prof. Hamar Foster said the events of 150 years ago, the Supreme Court decision and the exoneration of the chiefs are driving change in B.C.

“It’s an opportunity to really ensure the Tsilhqot’in decision will be a game changer,” he said. “We are now going to accept what happened in the colonial past and resolve to do something about it as opposed to the stonewalling that’s been going on.”

Tsilhqot’in Nation Chief Joe Alphonse said the Supreme Court decision forced the B.C. government to reach out to his people after 150 years of conflict.

Clark realized she had to complete the circle, he said.

“So what if it took that court case,” said Alphonse. “Finally we have a leader who’s actually acknowledged what they’ve been doing isn’t enough and they have to do something substantial. Finally we’re seeing it, and it’s coming from a woman, so it’s even better.”