October 26, 1864
158th Anniversary of Execution of Tsilhqot’in Chiefs by British Colonial Authority
Legacy of the Crimes of British Colonialists
One hundred and fifty eight years ago in 1864 and 1865, six Tsilhqot’in chiefs were executed by the British colonial government in Canada. The BC government apologized for the executions in 1993. On June 14, 2014, a ruling of the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed Tsilhqot’in title to their lands which they have lived on since time immemorial. The Tsilhqot’in, as is the case of the other Indigenous peoples in what is today British Columbia, never ceded their lands or signed treaties. Chief Alphonse of the Tsilhqot’in in a press conference held on June 26, 2014, clearly stated that the chiefs cannot be “pardoned” as they did nothing wrong. They can only be exonerated, which is what the Supreme Court of Canada case did indirectly by ascribing their resistance to “strangers” as a factor in establishing Tsilhqot’in land title. The war chiefs’ act of resistance was an act of a sovereign people enforcing the law of their nation over their national territory, and declaring war against an invader.
In March 2018, the government of Justin Trudeau, then “exonerated” the six chiefs for “crimes” they never committed in the first place but for which they were deemed to have violated the laws of the colonizers, and for this they had to pay with their lives.
The Tsilhqot’in tried three land speculators for violating their lands and their authority over their lands in 1862 and specifically convicted them of deliberately spreading small pox to depopulate Tsilhqot’in territory. These individuals refused to submit to a sentence of banishment from the territory and were thus subsequently ordered executed by the chiefs to stop the germ warfare.
Two years later the Tsilhqot’in war chiefs declared war on an invading party of surveyors pushing a road through their territory to access the gold fields of Barkerville in the Cariboo. The chiefs, legitimately afraid of small pox epidemics deliberately spread through “Indian territory,” declared war against the invaders. It was explicit policy to spread smallpox to dispossess the Indigenous peoples and occupy their lands.
Prior to this, in November 1858, the Hudson Bay Chief Factor and self-appointed Governor, James Douglas, established the colony of British Columbia and declared that sovereign people who never ceded their territory or hereditary rights must submit to British authority. In 1864, after the Tsilhqot’in Nation had declared war and killed a number of the invading surveyors, the British invited the war chiefs to a peace parley in Quesnel. When they arrived, they were clapped in irons, rushed through a show trial in front of “hanging judge” Matthew Baillie Begbie, and hanged. Five of the six war chiefs were hanged in front of 250 people, mostly Indigenous, on the site of a Native cemetery. When the last chief was hanged he stated, “This was war not murder.”
The story of the war chiefs, their heroic stand and the perfidious and illegal behaviour of the colonial invaders has been passed down from generation to generation of Tsilhqot’in. Meanwhile, the English lawyer Begbie, appointed Chief Justice of the new colony, is to this day celebrated as “BC’s first citizen” and a “friend of the Indians.”