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Opinion The exoneration of Chief Poundmaker: A crooked road made straight

Chief Poundmaker was tried for treason in 1885 for his alleged support of Louis Riel.

SEAN FINE/The Globe and Mail

Blaine Favel is a former chief of Poundmaker Cree Nation.

Thursday is a monumental day for Canada. Chief Poundmaker, a champion of peace who was wrongly convicted of treason, will be exonerated by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who, through this act, will move Canada closer to truth and reconciliation with Indigenous peoples.

At sunrise on May 2, 1885, 330 Canadian militia, armed with Gatling guns and cannons, descended upon Chief Poundmaker’s camp in what is now Saskatchewan. They sought to inflict as much death and carnage as possible in the name of Canada.

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Since that morning, there have been two versions of the story of that fateful day. The initial news reports in Toronto the next day trumpeted a great military victory. The war artists who travelled with the army depicted the army winning. This version described Chief Poundmaker as a traitor who was convicted and imprisoned in Stoney Mountain Institution. He was released in poor health after six months and died shortly thereafter.

In the Cree version of history, Chief Poundmaker was both a statesman and a peacemaker. As Chief, he signed Treaty Six on behalf of our people. Chief Poundmaker was acutely aware in the winter of 1884-85 that Canada had reneged on its terms and had not made the promised payments. To press our case, Chief Poundmaker camped outside of Fort Battleford for two days – a worrisome display of force to the militia, given the Indigenous unrest then spreading across the plains. No one came out of the fort in an attempt to negotiate.

After two days, our people opted to return to Poundmaker reserve. Near starvation and angry at the lack of response from the government, they went into stores and helped themselves to provisions.

Upon arriving at Fort Battleford, Colonel William Otter decided to attack Chief Poundmaker, despite direct orders from General Frederick Middleton to hold the fort. Our people knew the troops were approaching. We broke and moved camp to protect the women and children.

In doing so, Chief Poundmaker’s warriors lured the military onto an exposed hill surrounded by trees. Our warriors totalled 60. Using mirrors to communicate from among the trees, they converged on different sides and fired upon the vulnerable Canadian militia. By the time the cannons and Gatling guns could be turned, our warriors flanked the militia’s position.

Chief Poundmaker with his fourth wife in 1884.

Library and Archives Canada

After six hours of fighting, the Canadian troops retreated to Fort Battleford. In the oral tradition of our people, the troops left in disorganized chaos. At this point, our warriors chose not to counterattack, which allowed the army to retreat without additional casualties. Chief Poundmaker is credited for showing restraint and sparing many lives.

Speaking in court, Chief Poundmaker stated, “Everything I could do was done to prevent bloodshed. 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. You have got me because I wanted peace.”

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After his incarceration, the North-West Mounted Police seized our horses and weapons and our Nation was deprived of the provisions guaranteed in Treaty Six. Our community was depopulated. We were not allowed a chief until 1919. Our Nation was punished as an example to other First Nations.

Thursday, on the same battlefield where our ancestors fought one another, our Prime Minister will formally apologize to our community for our oppression. He will make a crooked road straight on the legacy of Chief Poundmaker. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” By exonerating our Chief and the warriors who defended their families that morning, the Prime Minister will close a wound that I feel in my relationship with Canada. He will also bring attention to a great Canadian who embodied humility, welcomed new Canadians and possessed the peacemaking virtues that Canadians hold so dear.

In exonerating our Chief, the Prime Minister and, through him, Canada, move closer to real reconciliation and mutual understanding. The words spoken Thursday will correct a historical untruth. The apology needs to be followed by continued actions by the Canadian government.

Indeed, all Canadians can expand their understanding that the poverty and oppression of Indigenous people was forced upon us. The country needs to work with our Chiefs and communities to build a more prosperous and tolerant place for First Nations people in Canada.

My hope is that all Indigenous Canadians draw strength and inspiration from the heroics and dignity of Chief Poundmaker and his warriors. Now that we rewrite the history books of Canada, let all Canadians take pride in this great leader, Chief Poundmaker, peacemaker.

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