The provincial government has apologized for the wrongful hanging of six Tsilhqot'in chiefs more than a century ago, saying the apology is the first step in healing a history of "mistreatment, misrepresentation and lack of recognition" of First Nations people in Tsilhqot'in territory and the rest of the province.
"To the extent that it falls within the power of the province of British Columbia, we confirm without reservation that these six Tsilhqot'in chiefs are fully exonerated of any crime of wrongdoing," Premier Christy Clark said Thursday in the legislature.
"The Tsilhqot'in people rightly regard these chiefs as heroes of their people. So today we offer this apology, a historic day 150 years later."
Ms. Clark is due to travel to Tsilhqot'in territory this weekend to issue a similar apology in person.
The Chilcotin War erupted when B.C. was a colony and the government tried to build a toll road from Bute Inlet on the coast to the Cariboo gold fields in Barkerville. First Nations, decimated by smallpox and fearing an influx of settlers into their territory, put up an armed resistance to workers attempting to build a road through their territory for the gold rush.
The conflict began in April, 1864, and by the end of May, 19 road builders and a farmer were dead.
A militia army of more than 100 people was sent into the area, but capturing the Tsilhqot'in was impossible.
After three months, the area's police chief invited the aboriginals to a meeting, where the First Nations – believing they were being summoned for peace talks – were arrested.
The men were given brief trials. Five were hanged in Quesnel on Oct. 26, 1864, and another was hanged later in New Westminster.
"This is as deeply ingrained [in us] as you can imagine it to be," Joe Alphonse, tribal chairman of the Tsilhqot'in National Government, said on Thursday, when and Tsilhqot'in Chief Roger William joined the premier to hear her apologize on behalf of the province.
"How we look at the province has been affected by what these warriors did. Right or wrong, it is part of our history, and it does make the character of the Tsilhqot'in and the makeup of British Columbia."
The road was never built.
The Supreme Court of Canada ruled in favour of the Tsilhqot'in last June when, for the first time in Canadian history, a First Nation was granted title to a piece of land the aboriginals claimed as their territory.
John Lutz, a history professor at University of Victoria, said the events of the Chilcotin War 150 years ago likely played a role in the Supreme Court decision granting the Tsilhqot'in title to their land.
"Today's victory, the court victory, is in a very real way a direct result of their resistance in 1864," he said.
If the road project had been successful, much of Tsilhqot'in territory would have long ago become a major route from B.C.'s coast into the Interior, along with the development and people that come with it, Dr. Lutz said. Instead, the first major road into the Interior was the Trans-Canada Highway through the Fraser Canyon.
"They kept their territory, basically an enclave," Dr. Lutz said. "And among all the First Nations in B.C., the Tsilhqot'in have kept their language, especially in the Nemiah Valley, more than almost any other First Nation in part because of their isolation, strong cultural identity and ownership. That's lasted for 150 years."
Now the Tsilhqot'in, court victory in hand, are planning their futures, signing an agreement with the B.C. government to start negotiations on development agreements.