Story and photos by Emilee Gilpin
Trays of deer meat, cups of hot coffee, eight fire pits, a tepee full of laughing children and medicines — it was a good day to welcome Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau to Tsilhqot’in title land.
"Canada’s big chief," as the Tsilhqot’in chiefs like to call him, traveled to Xeni Gwet’in (one of six Tsilhqot'in communities), to exonerate six war chiefs who were killed by the colonial government of 1864/1865 in front of the community. Tsilhqot'in membership traveled from far and wide to attend the historic Nov. 2, 2018 event.
Just as the Tsilhqot'in had planned, Trudeau joined the chiefs in ceremony, rode in on a black horse, listened to Tsilhqot’in leadership deliver their messages, exonerated the ancestral war chiefs and spent time meeting the community, shaking hands and kissing babies.
The event was far from Parliament, far from cell service, or big cities. The visitors from Ottawa, including Trudeau and his entourage, got a real good taste of how business is conducted “the Tsilhqot’in way," as the chiefs described it.
One hundred and fifty-four years ago, Tsilhqot'in war chief Lhats’as?in's black horse traveled back to his community, without his rider. This was the indicator to the women, children and people who stayed behind, while their chiefs went to negotiate with what was then called the Colony of British Columbia, that their heroes had been betrayed, killed and would not come home.
This story, this experience, has lived with the Tsilhqot'in people over the past few generations. Well known for being the only nation in Canada to have proven the title over a portion of their land (they are still working towards full jurisdiction) at the Supreme Court of Canada, the Tsilhqot'in Nation made it clear to Canada that the exoneration of their war chiefs was an essential part of reconciling past wrongs.
On March. 26, in Canada's main Parliament building, six Tsilhqot'in chiefs made history, singing and drumming on the floor of the House of Commons dressed in their traditional regalia. They traveled from their territories in the interior of British Columbia, to the traditional territories of the Algonquin peoples, to attend the exoneration of their chiefs in what Tribal Chief Joe Alphonse calls 'their big house.'
A journey into the valley
The Friday event took place on Xeni Gwet'in territory, one of six Tsilhqot'in communities. Though the nation had been in discussion with members and representatives of both the provincial and the federal governments around the exact date of the prime minister's visit, they had a short time between the confirmation and the actual event. All hands were on deck to organize the event, community members explained to National Observer, on the three and a half hour bus ride from Williams Lake to Nemiah Valley.
Hundreds of Tsilhqot'in community members made the trip — including members of the nation who were visiting Xeni Gwet'in territory for the first time — alongside a few media representatives and government officials. Though rain had blessed the otherwise mostly-sunny valley days before, people whispered that their prayers had been answered, as the sky made way for the sun and the wind blew just enough to invite relatives to gather closer to one of eight fire pits (eight pits were chosen to represent the original eight Tsilhqot'in communities - two of the Nations were lost to smallpox, leaving six current remaining).
Former national chief of the Assembly of First Nations Shawn Atleo and his wife Heather Atleo MC'd the day's events alongside James Lulua Sr. As security vans ploughed into the valley, Atleo explained to the crowd how the events were about to unfold.
After arriving in a helicopter, Trudeau would attend a ceremony with the chiefs in the pithouse, before mounting a black horse and riding alongside the chiefs, in a symbolic nod to Chief Lhats’as?in's black horse from 1864, Atleo said. It would bring the story full circle.
"When the colony of British Columbia was established in 1858, the Tsilhqot'in people continued to govern and occupy their lands, according to their own laws, without interference and very much contact with Europeans," Atleo recited as the chiefs prepared to arrive by horseback. "However the colonial government encouraged European settlement and opened lands within the territory for settlers, without notice to the Tsilhqot'in, to the leadership, to the people, or any efforts for diplomacy or treaty-making."
In 1861, settlers began to plan for a road from Bute Inlet through Tsilhqot'in territory, to access the new Cariboo Gold fields. At the same time, the Tsilhqot'in relations with settlers were strained, as smallpox decimated the Tsilhqot'in populations, the same story for many nations in what is now called B.C. Between June 1862 and January 1863, it is estimated that over 70 per cent of all Tsilhqot'in people died of smallpox.
The Tsilhqot'in people fought against road workers and the Colony of B.C., to protect their people, land and culture from gold and copper mines. Then a message was sent to the nation, informing them that the governor had wanted a truce. So five Tsilhqot'in men rode into opposition camps, in the understanding that they were going to negotiate a peace accord.
To their dismay, the men were shackled, tried, convicted of massacring a road-building party and hanged. The sixth man was tried and hanged the following year.
Trudeau took off on a gallop after mounting a black horse named "Indi."
Luckily, the prime minister had ridden before, keeping stride along chief Joe Alphonse (Tl'etinqox First Nation), Chief Jimmy Lulua (Xeni Gwet'in First Nation), Chief Russel Ross Myers (Yunesit'in First Nation), Chief Francis Laceese (Tl'esqox First Nation), Chief Otis Guichon (Tsi Del Del First Nation), and Chief Roy Stump (ʔEsdilagh First Nation). The crew dismounted and entered the premises, waving to the community and lining up on the podium for speeches.
Before starting their speeches, youth ambassador Peyal Laceese invited the chiefs and the prime minister to engage in a healing brush-off ceremony to cleanse the leadership of the grief and negativity surrounding the purpose of the gathering.
“Over a century and a half we have held onto this grief,” Laceese said. “We grow up hearing the stories and the negative events that happened to our people. Now is the time to purify and cleanse.”
Following the brush-off, as is customary for the Tsilhqot'in, the chiefs spoke first.
“We were in Ottawa in March for the exoneration of our war chiefs,” Tribal chief Joe Alphonse started out. “We said then we want the prime minister to come here, to be among our own people and bring his words to our membership. That we want our membership to know this talk, that this exoneration is true.”
Chief Alphonse stressed the importance of the day — the exoneration of their war chiefs directly to the community and the celebration of Tsilhqot’in people.
Chief Alphonse's address was followed by Jim Lulua, a long-time member of the Xeni Gwet’in Nation, a well-known community language speaker and a respected elder.
Lulua choked up before speaking, an emotional response community members noted as rare.
The elder's comments were followed by a chief of Xeni Gwet'in First Nation, Jimmy Lulua.
“Today marks a big step for us. There are no words that can bring the justice to what is happening today,” Chief Lulua said. “Our warriors are here today. Our ancestors. For me, I can feel them here.”
Chief Lulua led a war cry, welcoming visitors to his nation's territory.
“This is history in the making,” he said. “It shouldn’t take 154 years, it shouldn’t take a war. It shouldn’t take us to win a court in the highest level of Canada. We have been here since time immemorial. We don’t need to prove that these are our lands. But today is about our people.”
Chief Laceese asked the hundreds gathered to bear witness to the beauty of the land, to demonstrate why their territories have been so worth the fight.
“We need all of our land to survive,” Chief Laceese said.
Chief Otis Guichon spoke next, sporting one of the matching jackets and sets of gloves that his wife put together.
“Today we are both excited and sad. Excited because the chiefs will finally be put to rest, but sad at what they had to go through and sacrifice for us so that we can live here,” Chief Guichon said. “I want to work government to government, nation to nation, that’s the only way we’re going to move forward in this country.”
“We honour this exoneration today from the prime minister on title lands,” Chief Stump said, adding that it was a “good sight to see” the prime minister gallop on a horse over the hill.
Chief Russell Ross Myers, the tribal government's vice-chair, wrapped up the chief’s speeches with powerful words.
“I want to think about going back in time, to see what this relationship could have started as if Canada or the Crown had approached the Tsilhqot’in in a dignified way that accepted our authority here,” said Chief Myers. “When B.C. entered into the confederacy with Canada, it didn’t include us. Now — how do we work together? Become included? Unfetter ourselves from the Indian Act and find a true way moving forward?”
Chief Myers thanked everyone for coming and thanked the day for providing good weather for the historic event, before the prime minister took his turn to speak.
In his speech to the Tsilhqot'in Nation, Prime Minister Trudeau said the treatment of the Tsilhqot'in chiefs 154 years ago represents a betrayal of trust.
"You never stopped fighting to preserve your territory and your culture, right up to the historic Supreme Court of Canada decision of June 26, 2014, which recognized Aboriginal title for the Tsilhqot'in Nation," Trudeau acknowledged.
Trudeau said acknowledging and apologizing for past mistakes is an important part of healing relationships between two nations, but that he understands that more needs to be done for meaningful reconciliation.
"Words must be backed by action," he said, adding that words need to be backed by "an enduring commitment to improve the lives of the Tsilhqot'in people who continue to suffer the legacy of our shared history."
Recognition, rights, respect, partnership and friendship would govern the government's relationship with the Tsilhqot'in Nation, Trudeau said.
"Our government will work with the nation to address the serious housing and infrastructure needs you face in your communities," he said. "We know that the solutions to these issues you face must come from your communities, with our support. You know better than anyone what your communities need and how we can be of the best help."
Trudeau said they would support the Tsilhqot'in Housing Investment Strategy through skill training and work opportunities to transform the lives of families who have been forced to live in unstable housing conditions.
"I want to ensure you that Canada is fully committed to recognize the Tsilhqot'in Nation and its rights to governance and self determination," Trudeau said. "We are determined to work towards a more comprehensive governance agreement by Spring 2019, working in partnership with respect."
After the speeches and a moment of silence in honour of the chiefs who were killed by the colonial government of the day, MC Atleo invited the prime minister and Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett to the table to sign a Pathway Letter, developed collaboratively by the Government of Canada and Tsilhqot'in Nation.
The document outlines commitments to nation-to-nation work to improve education, health, and community safety, with an emphasis on housing investments in all six communities. Before the prime minister arrived, Bennett had told National Observer that she hadn't in her lifetime seen a postcard as beautiful as the powerful valley of the Xeni Gwet’in Nation she visited for the first time that day.
“I think people understand title, when you’re here on land surrounded by mountains, where people have lived for millennia,” Bennett said sipping a hot cup of coffee before the speeches were given. “There’s all these words we use that no one understands, like title, and yet here we are very clearly in a place that the Tsilhqot’in people have lived for millennia and it’s unbelievably moving.”
After signing the agreement, Canada and the Tsilhqot'in exchanged gifts — a hide jacket from the nation and a carved paddle from Canada.
Denise Gilpin learned how to work with hide from her mother Julia Gilpin.
Tsilhqot’in elder Julia Gilpin made a buckskin jacket for Trudeau’s late father Pierre. Now, her daughter Denise, in a matter of ten days, stitched together a new deer hide jacket for Trudeau. The jacket is a replica of the one worn by the elder Trudeau, right down to the antler buttons and fringe work.
As community members gathered on stage to sing and drum, Trudeau, followed closely by his security, walked through the community, shaking hands, flirting with elders and kissing babies. He watched a youth dance group do a bear dance and stopped often to pose for photos.
But hands have been shaken and photos taken before, community members commented throughout the day. The singing and drumming continued to pick up as the celebration continued after Trudeau departed. The event had brought a sense of pride and hope.
Tsilhqot’in community member and Tl'etinqox council member Daana Gilpin said when she saw Trudeau ride in on that black horse, she thought of their war chief Lhats’as?in’s horse who came back to their people without its rider 154 years ago. Now, Indi brought Prime Minister Trudeau back to the community, “but the horse not only brought a person back,” she said, “the person on that horse brought us a message.”
“No one will ever know who we are and what we’re about until they come to our lands and see for themselves,” Gilpin said.
Chief Joe Alphonse, calm and collected all throughout the day, cruised through the crowds, sipping coffee and saying hello after Trudeau’s departure. He said in an interview that he thought the event had gone well, that he hopes people understand what it means for Canada’s prime minister to have visited title land.
Chief Alphonse laughed at Trudeau’s attempt to take off in a full gallop on the black horse.
“He was excited to ride,” Chief Alphonse said. “He got a taste of the Tsilhqot’in life.”