Skip to main content

Alberta Chief Poundmaker the peacemaker: Inside the quest to pardon a lesser-known figure of Canadian history

Chief Poundmaker, who was convicted of treason in 1885, died a year later and is buried at Cut Knife Hill, Sask.

REGINA LEADER-POST/The CANADIAN PRESS

The campaign to pardon Chief Poundmaker, convicted of treason in 1885, seems simple: collect signatures on a petition, lobby the federal government, wipe his record clean. The end.

But pardoning Poundmaker, a signatory to Treaty 6, is not the movement's end-goal. It is, instead, an avenue to elevate Poundmaker's place in history; to make Cut Knife Hill as familiar to Canadians as the Plains of Abraham; to calibrate this country's story. This is about exoneration and education.

It is an ambitious pitch. Poundmaker does not have a place in Canada's collective memory like Louis Riel or John A. Macdonald. The forgotten drama took place in and around Battleford, the forgotten capital of a forgotten territory that once covered more than two-thirds of what is now Canada. Indeed, the first lesson is about geography, not history. Battleford is in Saskatchewan, once part of the vast North-West Territories, about 140 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.

Story continues below advertisement

"It is about correcting the record books," said Milton Tootoosis, a headman (equivalent to a band councillor) for the Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. "Adding our chapter."

Right now, the official record shows Chief Poundmaker was a criminal. A leader responsible for men so fearsome, Battleford's residents barricaded themselves inside Fort Battleford when he and his people came to town to negotiate for food and aid. He was considered a traitor in charge of men who pillaged Battleford, a chief who oversaw bloodshed at the battle of Cut Knife Hill.

Competing versions of history – one written by the government of the day, the other preserved by Plains Cree oral history – have, over time, converged on a few key points. It is agreed Poundmaker, accompanied by his followers, went to Fort Battleford to negotiate with the Indian agent to fulfill treaty promises and provide aid. It was March 30, 1885. The timing was strategic; Poundmaker hoped to capitalize on the government's fears fuelled by the Métis success in the North-West Rebellion.

Poundmaker found Battleford deserted; the townsfolk hiding in the fort. The chief and his people waited two days, according to oral history. He lost control of his hungry braves and they looted the town, according to the Pardon Poundmaker campaign. Parks Canada tells it differently: At the time, Battleford residents blamed Poundmaker's people, but now Ottawa says it appears "Canadian soldiers" were responsible for the looting.

Poundmaker and his followers – some were from other bands – returned to his reserve, about 50 kilometres west of Battleford. Lieutenant-Colonel William Otter and his men came to re-enforce Fort Battleford. Defying orders, he led about 300 men toward Poundmaker's camp to seek revenge. The militia's weapons included two cannons and a Gatling gun. The Canadian War Museum describes Otter as "the foremost Canadian professional soldier of his day."

His troops arrived at Cut Knife Hill on May 2, 1885, and fought roughly 50 to 60 warriors for six or seven hours. Otter, losing the battle, gave up around noon. Parks Canada now says eight of his men were killed and 16 wounded. The men on the other side of the battle sustained about the same number of casualties, it says.

What happened next is crucial to the Pardon Poundmaker campaign. "He took action to overrule the warriors, basically to tell them to settle down and not to pursue Otter, who was retreating and in big trouble," Mr. Tootoosis said. "Poundmaker was actually living, breathing, and practising reconciliation already with the newcomers."

Story continues below advertisement

Parks Canada does not disagree: "Poundmaker asked his warriors to stop fighting," the agency says in describing Fort Battleford's designation as a National Historic Site. "As Otter's column withdrew, they were no longer fired upon and no attempt was made to pursue them, suggesting to Otter that he had decimated his opponents. It did not occur to him that it also suggested that Poundmaker and his followers had no real interest in fighting."

Blaine Favel has been trying to scrub Poundmaker's record for about 30 years. Mr. Favel – a former Poundmaker Cree Nation chief, former Grand Chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, panelist on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, past chancellor of the University of Saskatchewan, and an adviser to Justin Trudeau when his Liberals were in opposition benches – has done the math. Roughly 100,000 people alive today must be descendants of Otter's 300 men, Mr. Favel calculates. Poundmaker's decision to stand down should not be viewed as a footnote, he said. Canada, Mr. Favel said, would look much different had Poundmaker and his allies attacked.

"That's as important to Canadian history as the Plains of Abraham," Mr. Favel said. "There's so much that this guy represents. He represents the cost of being a peacemaker … he's about reconciliation, he's about just the tragedy of what happened to Indigenous people."

Editing history textbooks may be the easy part. Changing attitudes, both around the Poundmaker reserve and across the country, is more difficult. Poundmaker is about 100 kilometres from the Red Pheasant First Nation, where Colten Boushie lived before he was allegedly murdered in 2016. Gerald Stanley, who lived on a ranch near the reserve, has pleaded not guilty to second-degree murder. His trial is scheduled to start next month in Battleford. The case has magnified racial tensions in Saskatchewan.

Chief Poundmaker turned himself in at Fort Battleford on May 26, 1885, after hearing Louis Riel had surrendered. Poundmaker, who shied away from Riel's pursuits, wanted to negotiate for peace. The chief, who was named as Pitikwahanapiwiyin in Cree, was arrested.

"Everything I could do was done to stop bloodshed," Poundmaker said at his trial in Regina in July 18, 1885. "Had I wanted war, I would not be here now. I should be on the prairie. You did not catch me. I gave myself up.

Story continues below advertisement

"You have got me because I wanted justice."

More than 1,500 people have signed the petition to exonerate Poundmaker. Frank Films, a Toronto company, is working on a documentary about Poundmaker, framing him as a peacemaker. Douglas Cardinal, who designed the Canadian Museum of History, wants to construct a museum on the Poundmaker reserve and an educational facility in the Battlefords. Meetings with officials in Ottawa are on the to-do list, perhaps as soon as next week, according to Mr. Favel.

Poundmaker's trial lasted two days and the jury deliberated for half an hour. He was sentenced to three years in Manitoba's Stony Mountain Penitentiary. Poundmaker was released after one year because he contracted tuberculosis. He died four months later, while visiting his Blackfoot family. Poundmaker's remains have since returned to his reserve.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter