Acts of War? Or War Crimes?

Aboriginal Futures, Commentary, James C. McCrae

Previously published in the Brandon Sun on November 7, 2018.

The revision of history continues. The City of New Westminster has taken down the statue of British Columbia’s first chief justice, Matthew Begbie. According to the Vancouver Sun, the statue was “a symbol of the colonial era and a grave injustice.” 

Prior to becoming B.C.’s first chief justice, Matthew Begbie was the colonial British judge who presided at the murder trial of six Tsilhqot’in (Chilcotin) Chiefs.

Let’s try to understand this. The six chiefs were hanged in the colony of British Columbia, in 1864, three years before Confederation and seven years before British Columbia became part of Canada. The chiefs had been convicted of murder. British Columbia being British, not Canadian, they were tried and hanged under British law. They had slaughtered 19 innocent civilians, some of whom who were involved in the building of a wagon road, a project that had been underway for two years.

On April 29, 1864, ferryman Timothy Smith refused to give Chief Klattasine, Chief Tellot and others the food they were demanding. Smith was shot, and his body thrown into a river. His company’s food supply was looted, and about 1000 lbs of provisions were taken. Today we call this armed robbery and murder.

The next day the wagon road builders’ camp was attacked. Three men escaped, but the remaining workers were killed as they slept, their bodies thrown into the river. Today we call this murder.

Later, the crew’s foreman and three of his men were killed. The foreman’s body was mutilated; the others’ bodies thrown into the river. Today we call this murder and offering indignities to a dead body. The nature of the indignities committed on that day has been determined an inappropriate subject for publication in today’s politically correct environment.

William Manning, a settler at Puntzi Lake, was murdered.

Three pack train drivers were murdered.

On July 7, 1864, Donald McLean led a scouting party into the area. He was shot through the heart by a sniper.

Later claiming they were given assurances of friendship and immunity (a claim denied by colonial authorities), when the Tsilhqot’in men arrived for what they said they thought would be peace talks, they were arrested, and tried for murder. 

The defence argued the actions of these men were acts of war between sovereign nations, not murder.

They were convicted, and hanged.

In keeping with today’s tendency to re-write history and apologize for the wrongs of the past, our Prime Minister has exonerated the men “without any wrongdoing” because, as he said, they were acting as one independent nation engaged in war with another when they attacked a road crew that intruded on their territory. (It is unclear whether the Prime Minister has the authority to exonerate people whose crimes were committed against the laws of another country. For example, could the Prime Minister legally exonerate someone for convictions registered in Wyoming or Utah?)

Looking back, there is no doubt the Indigenous people in the Chilcotin region at the time were suffering from food shortages, disease and privation. No doubt colonists were building a road through territory occupied by the Chilcotin people. No doubt we should all regret the history of the relationships between the First Nations and colonists of the time.

But, as our Prime Minister rode into the Nemiah Valley on a black horse on November 2, 2018 to symbolize chiefs’ riding into what have been described as the peace talks of 1864, was he thinking at all of those innocent lives brutally taken while attempting to develop the economy of British Columbia, the 19 people who were slaughtered, mutilated and thrown into the river?  Surely, they too had mothers, fathers, families that warrant justice amidst a lamentable tragedy?

In 2016 Saskatchewan, Colten Boushie and his Indigenous friends entered upon the private property of white farmer Gerald Stanley for the purpose of committing crime. Tragically, Boushie was killed in his encounter with Stanley. Stanley was charged with murder, and acquitted by a jury. This sad event triggered anger and division within our country. Our Prime Minister made comments about the case that were inappropriate and biased. All twelve members of Stanley’s jury, and the justice system itself, have been accused of racism.

If what happened in 1864 has made heroes of the men convicted of murder, will Gerald Stanley, accused of murder and acquitted, receive an apology from our Prime Minister?

All of us should support any genuine effort to promote reconciliation with Canadian Indigenous peoples. But for many of us, the misguided rewriting of history only confounds the process. Can we not all sincerely regret that bad things happened – to both sides – and get on with making the peace Indigenous families so badly need?

First Nations Canadians – and all of us – deserve an honest review of these events. In the 1864 incidents, evidence suggests wrongs were committed … by both sides. We understand the value of the symbolism of the Prime Minister’s riding a black horse to the event at Chilko Lake, B.C., but his willingness to adopt only a one-sided version of events threatens his credibility – again. It also threatens genuine reconciliation.

Whatever the stated justifications of the Tsilhqot’in chiefs and their lawyers of the day, and whether or not they were misled about peace talks and immunity from prosecution, robbing, slaughtering and mutilating innocent civilians are not acts of war. It is historically dishonest to declare otherwise.

That the Prime Minister was joined in March 2018 by all members of Parliament in this revision of history is disappointing to some of us. Understandable, surely, given the sensibilities of the Chilcotin people about this history; still, it is troubling to see people in positions of responsibility stray so far from the truth.

Any attempts to continue to pursue reconcile with First Nations will fail if they are predicated on denying the truth and revising history.