Special to The B.C. Catholic
Just days after a Catholic Pacific College presentation on Canada’s Pacific Genocide, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologized for the 1864 execution of six Tsilhqot'in chiefs, saying they were treated and tried as criminals at a time the colonial government and the legal system “did not respect the inherent rights of the Tsilhqot'in people.”
Prime Minister Trudeau delivered the apology March 26 in the House of Commons with leaders of the Tsilhqot’in Nation in B.C.’s Interior present. The federal government apologized in a “statement of exoneration” for the wrongful conviction and execution of the chiefs for defending their homeland, their people, and their way of life.
In 1864, the chiefs were called to what they thought were peace talks to end what became known as the Chilcotin War. Instead they were accused of murdering 14 members of a road-building party. After being tried and convicted, five were executed near Quesnel, while a sixth was later hanged near New Westminster after trying to offer reparations.
The incident was part of the focus of a Catholic Pacific College lecture March 22 featuring Tom Swanky, author of The True Story of Canada's War of Extermination on the Pacific. Swanky was awarded an eagle feather during the Truth and Reconciliation Hearings and was a keynote speaker in 2014 at the provincial exoneration of the executed Chilcotin chiefs.
In his presentation, Swanky said several native groups in B.C. lost up to 75 per cent of their numbers in a single year through the “intentional distribution of smallpox.” Swanky said the findings are those of native elders of the Nuxalk and Tsilhqot’in territories who claim a genocide was carried out by B.C.’s colonial founders through the spread of smallpox from Victoria through the North Pacific during 1862.
Swanky’s writings and lectures are controversial, as is the word “genocide,” defined as “the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation.” But he insisted the death of perhaps 100,000 Aboriginals of B.C. was a deliberate effort, a genocide, to rid the land of natives and make claim of their land.
Swanky's presentation was compelling. While some of the evidence he offered might seem circumstantial, he provided quotes from colonial founders, statistics, medical information, and maybe most importantly, a motive.
When the Pacific Coast was being colonized, land lots were being sold at a great profit, bought for as little as $4 an acre and expected to sell for up to $100. All that stood in the way of huge monetary gains was the native peoples inhabiting those acres. Two years before the smallpox epidemic, Governor Douglas estimated that there were 4,000 natives in Victoria and only 2,500 colonists. This made them political equals, with Douglas acknowledging he had no power over the “Northerners.”
The problems started when Douglas realized the Northerners weren’t leaving the land. In the summer of 1860 he called the Northern peoples to declare his authority over them. According to the teachings of the elders, after many attempts at getting them to leave, including warnings of of a false outbreak of measles, Douglas began his genocide.
Swanky said colonists who had been inoculated with smallpox visited the unvaccinated natives, transmitting the disease to them at a rate much higher than that among natives dwelling with Catholic and Protestant missionaries. One writer credited an early vaccination program by Catholic missionaries as the only source of any protection in 1862.
The Chilcotin chiefs were hanged for killing settlers they believed were intentionally spreading smallpox.
The story Swanky shared was a heavy, sad one, and whether or not the belief that the smallpox outbreak was an intentional genocide is true, the result is the same: native groups were nearly wiped out in a matter of months, leaving the province scandalized. After the native lives were taken, their language, traditions, and children were also taken from the survivors, leaving a people longing for a culture and identity.
The evening ended with the same question that’s been asked for years, “What now?” With many reconciliation gatherings and conferences, as well as apologies from world political and religious leaders, the next step seemed to still be uncertain.
Panel respondent Peter Tallio, a Nuxalk scholar and Nuxalk Nation Health Director, said finding the next step is harder than it might seem. Before the people can explain what they need to move forward, they first must discover it for themselves. They still have much to discover and relearn about their own traditions, songs, dances and stories, but he encouraged his audience to hope against hope and to pray. “Prayer is not unknown to our people.”
Panelist Deacon Rennie Nahanee, First Nations Ministry Coordinator of the Archdiocese of Vancouver, said he was shocked by the presentation. Despite what happened to the First Nations people, he called on Canadians today to be good neighbours to one another, to help those in distress, and to welcome those who come to our country seeking safety and peace.
Learning the history of the Indigenous peoples of Canada is one way to make progress and undo prejudices, he said.
Panelist Patti Victor, Trinity Western’s university Siya:m (spiritual and personal mentor to students of Aboriginal descent), opened the evening in a traditional Stol:o welcome and ended the evening in prayer. She called on the audience to remember the story told was not “just a history lesson,” but a story of her people. She expressed hope, confident that those present were looking for truth.
Urging them to stand up for righteousness and justice, she quoted Proverbs 14: “Righteousness exalts a nation, but sin brings shame to the people.”