Skip to main content

Joe Alphonse, tribal chairman of the Tsilhqot'in Nation, is pictured at Farwell Canyon, B.C., in a 2014 file photo. The First Nation is remembering a warrior chief who was wrongfully hanged 151 years ago and say they won't allow another injustice to be done to their ancestor.JONATHAN HAYWARD/The Canadian Press

Members of a British Columbia First Nation are remembering a warrior chief who was wrongfully hanged 151 years ago and say they won't allow another injustice to be done to their ancestor.

The First Nation says a service was held Monday at the site of a high school in New Westminster, B.C., which was built atop a former cemetery where the remains of Tsilhqot'in war Chief Ahan may have been buried after he was executed on July 18, 1865.

Joe Alphonse, tribal chairman of the Tsilhqot'in national government, said four of six chiefs attended the ceremony and that members smudged the grounds, made a tobacco offering and drummed songs to pay tribute to Ahan.

Mr. Alphonse said there are no records to indicate that the warrior's remains were taken to the cemetery after originally being buried at a courthouse square in the city.

However, he said the First Nation will fight to preserve Ahan's remains even if there is "a 1-per-cent chance" that they're at the school site.

Construction to replace the run-down school built in 1949 is slated to begin next year elsewhere on the same property, and the Education Ministry said an archeologist will ensure that any artifacts are appropriately recorded.

Education Minister Mike Bernier has said the school was built "in the wrong place" and that constructing a new school will fix that problem.

Mr. Alphonse wants protocols in place about the proper handling of any bones that could be found and warned the First Nation would mount blockades or file a court challenge to stop construction if necessary.

"All we've ever asked for from the New Westminster School Board is, in the event that you run into some bones do the honourable thing. Do a DNA sample and let us know if that's him. They refused to do that so we're not going to run that risk. So we'll shut it down. We'll use every means we can."

The board couldn't be reached for comment, but says on its website that it plans to use non-intrusive means, such as ground penetrating radar, to find out more about the school property before soil investigations that are scheduled for next month.

"Those activities are important for proper project planning and respecting the heritage of the site," it says.

Premier Christy Clark apologized nearly two years ago for the hanging of Ahan and five other chiefs in Quesnel in 1864 during a bloody dispute known as the Chilcotin War.

The chiefs were hanged after 19 people were killed in a dispute over the construction of a road through Tsilhqot'in territory. The government militia couldn't capture the chiefs, but they were lured out of hiding when they received overtures to speak with the government.

They were arrested and tried for murder. The road was never built.

Ms. Clark also signed an agreement with the Tsilhqot'in to work together on social and economic initiatives.

Last June, the First Nation, whose members live in the Cariboo-Chilcoton plateau area west of Williams Lake, won a historic Supreme Court of Canada land rights case that gave them title to 1,700 square kilometres of land in the remote Nemiah Valley. The landmark ruling meant they became the first aboriginal band in Canada to win title to their territory.

The cemetery at the school site was also the final resting place for Chinese pioneers, and members of the Chinese community in New Westminster joined First Nations groups against the construction of a new school on the same spot.