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Chief Poundmaker, centre, is shown in a file photo from the 1884-1888 Northwest Rebellion. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will visit a Saskatchewan First Nation to exonerate Poundmaker, who was unjustly convicted of treason more than 130 years ago.FREDERIC HATHEWAY PETERS/The Canadian Press

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says Canadians need to learn the real story of a prominent Saskatchewan chief who was a peacemaker, not a criminal.

Mr. Trudeau set the record straight Thursday by fully exonerating Chief Poundmaker of treason after the Cree leader’s conviction 134 years ago.

“In 1885, Chief Poundmaker was treated as a criminal and a traitor. In 2019, we recognize the truth,” Trudeau told a crowd gathered at Poundmaker Cree Nation, about 200 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.

“Our government acknowledges that Chief Poundmaker was a peacemaker who never stopped fighting for peace. A leader who, time and time again, sought to prevent further loss of life in the growing conflict in the Prairies.”

The ceremony took place at the site of the 1885 Battle of Cut Knife Hill, and where Chief Poundmaker’s remains were later buried.

Mr. Trudeau arrived at the outdoor ceremony in a horse-drawn wagon, with some Indigenous leaders on horses, to the sounds of drumming, singing and cheering.

Hundreds of people sat on the grass and a makeshift stage. The crowd included Indigenous war veterans, elders, chiefs and young people, as well as federal politicians.

After the exoneration, Mr. Trudeau placed a pouch of tobacco at the Chief’s grave as a sign of respect.

ReginaLeader Post/The Canadian Press

“It’s exciting, yet emotional,” said Roxanne Tootoosis, who was born and raised on the Poundmaker reserve. “It’s something I didn’t feel I would witness in my life.”

Ms. Tootoosis said she was six years old in the late 1960s when Chief Poundmaker’s remains were returned to the reserve. She didn’t understand the significance of what she was watching then, but she does now.

Being at the exoneration is a story she will pass down to other generations.

“I can tell my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren,” Ms. Tootoosis said. “I will be able to share with them this experience in my own way of what I witnessed, what I heard, what I saw.”

Mr. Trudeau described Chief Poundmaker as an early advocate for universal health care, as he fought for the federal government to live up to its Treaty 6 obligations that included providing medicine.

The chief and his people were later targeted by government representatives during the push to settle Western Canada.

On May 2, 1885, a Canadian expeditionary force attacked the reserve in retaliation for what it claimed was looting. Chief Poundmaker said he and others had been gathering rations for his people, who were hungry because of declining bison herds.

The troops were forced to retreat in the battle, but Chief Poundmaker convinced his people not to go after them.

“Chief Poundmaker saved many lives that day,” Mr. Trudeau said.

Soon after, the Prime Minister said, the Chief attempted to negotiate a peace agreement, but was arrested and convicted of treason. He was sent to a prison in Manitoba and released early because of poor health.

He died four months later.

Duane Antoine, the current chief of Poundmaker Cree Nation, held his hand out to Mr. Trudeau on stage to recreate the historic failed peace negotiation.

“In peace,” both men said as they clutched hands.

Past leaders of the reserve spent years trying to convince Ottawa that Chief Poundmaker should be vindicated.

While the exoneration is important, Milton Tootoosis, a headman and councillor at the reserve, said the band still has grievances with the Crown over treaty implementation.

Chief Wayne Semaganis of the neighbouring Little Pine First Nation said the exoneration is only a first step. He wants to see Ottawa address more wrongs of the past and the present.

“A day like today is going to mean nothing until we have more meetings, concrete meetings, with real results. So that the person living on the reserve, that lives in the sad way we live now, has a better quality of life,” he said.

It’s not the first time Mr. Trudeau has apologized for historical injustices involving Canada’s Indigenous people.

Last year, Mr. Trudeau apologized to the Tsilhqot’in community in British Columbia for the hanging of six chiefs more than 150 years ago and delivered a statement of exoneration in the House of Commons.

A timeline of official apologies from the federal government

When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Thursday exonerated Chief Poundmaker in Saskatchewan, it was the latest in a long list of government efforts to apologize for past wrongs. Here are a few formal and informal apologies:


Sept. 22: Prime Minister Brian Mulroney formally apologizes in the House of Commons for the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War.


Nov. 4: Mr. Mulroney offers an apology to Italian-Canadians declared “enemy aliens” when Italy declared war on Canada in 1940 and detained during the Second World War.


Dec. 11: Ron Duhamel, the minister of veterans affairs, apologizes in the House of Commons for the executions of 23 Canadian soldiers during the First World War and says their names will be added to the country’s book of remembrance.


June 22: Then-prime minister Stephen Harper apologizes in the House of Commons for the head tax imposed on Chinese immigrants between 1885 and 1923.


May 9: The federal government announces a $10-million education grant to recognize the internment of Ukrainian-Canadians during the First World War, but stops short of an official apology.

June 11: Mr. Harper apologizes in the House of Commons for Canada’s residential-schools system, which more than 150,000 First Nations, Métis and Inuit children attended from the 1840s to 1996.

Aug. 3: At an event in B.C., Mr. Harper apologizes for the Komagata Maru incident, in which a shipload of migrants from India was turned away from Vancouver in 1914, but organizers immediately demand an official apology in the House of Commons.


May 18: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau apologizes in the House of Commons for the Komagata Maru incident.


Nov. 24: Mr. Trudeau apologizes in Goose Bay, N.L., for abuse and cultural losses at residential schools in Newfoundland and Labrador, saying the gesture is part of recognizing “hard truths” Canada must confront as a society.

Nov. 28: Mr. Trudeau apologizes in the House of Commons for past state-sanctioned discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and two-spirited people in Canada that he said cost people their “livelihoods and in some cases, their lives.”


Nov. 2: Mr. Trudeau apologizes and exonerates six Tsilhqot’in chiefs invited by colonial officials for peace talks more than 150 years ago only to be arrested, tried and hanged, saying the incident was a “betrayal of trust” and “an injustice.”

Nov. 7: Mr. Trudeau apologizes in the House of Commons for Canada’s decision in 1939 to reject an asylum request from more than 900 German Jews, 254 of whom died in the Holocaust – a fate Mr. Trudeau says could have been avoided.


March 8: Mr. Trudeau apologizes in Iqaluit for the way Inuit in northern Canada were treated for tuberculosis in the mid-20th century, calling the policies colonial and misguided.

May 23: Mr. Trudeau exonerates Chief Poundmaker in the community that bears his name – the Poundmaker Cree Nation – and apologizes for the Chief’s unjust conviction for treason more than 130 years ago.