Speech on the exoneration of six chiefs of Tsilhqot’in Nation

Elizabeth May

Mr. Speaker, it is indeed an enormous honour to stand here today on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin peoples, to whom we say meegwetch for their generosity.

Across this country, Indigenous peoples have allowed us settler culture people to share a territory. Historically, we have not done it in ways that make us proud, which is what brings us here today.

In the tradition and language of the Indigenous peoples, whose great honour it is for me to stand here as the member of Parliament for Saanich—Gulf Islands, and the WSÁNEC , in Sencoten, I raise my hands to the chiefs of the Tsilhqot’in, who are here today, and say hiswke siam. We hold them in honour and respect and are deeply honoured by their presence in this chamber today. In their own language, hunelht’ah. It is a great honour and privilege to participate in being able to say that after all these years, more than 150 years of injustice toward six individual chiefs who stood on behalf of their nations against aggression, in the way that national leaders do, they are now exonerated of the wrongful charges and the horrific murder of six Tsilhqot’in chiefs in that time of the 1864 Tsilhqot’in war.

I appreciate that the Prime Minister referenced the most recent history and the landmark case of the Supreme Court of Canada in 2014. I know Chief Joe Alphonse fought hard on that one, which was a long battle to have the land rights of the Tsilhqot’in recognized in the Supreme Court of Canada. The affront that caused that Supreme Court decision goes all the way back to 1983, 31 years before the unanimous Supreme Court decision written by former chief justice Beverley McLachlin. The affront to territory, to land rights, was in granting logging permits to carrier lumber, with no consideration that this was territory on which carrier lumber and the British Columbia government had no right to log. That 31 years of patience finally resulted in a unanimous Supreme Court of Canada verdict which said clearly that title is title is title. We are now in a period of trying to right the wrongs.

Certainly, the 1864 Tsilhqot’in war was replete with wrongs. The actions of the chiefs at the time were prompted by not just the presence of a road crew but the actions of that road crew with respect to abuse and sexual violence against young Indigenous women of the Tsilhqot’in Nation, and the abuse of their own Indigenous workers on the work crew, who were poorly treated and not paid. Ultimately, as is reported in history, when four bags of flour were stolen, the retaliation by the road crew was to distribute smallpox-infected blankets to cause biological warfare against the Tsilhqot’in Nation.

We know now, as others have said, how exactly wrong that period in our history was, and how long the full legal exoneration of the Tsilhqot’in leadership of that period was is in coming, and of course an apology from the Government of Canada, for which I thank the Prime Minister from the bottom of my heart. This is long overdue. However, that does not take away from the fact that this is an important day. It is also important that all parties agreed to the unusual ability for us to have on the floor of our chamber the current Tsilhqot’in leadership. This is very important.

I will turn back to the words of Chief Klatsassin, who said, “We meant war, not murder.” We can say back to him now, through the veils of history and time, perhaps reaching him somewhere, that in this settler culture Canada, in this I hope post-colonial era, when he said, “We meant war, not murder”, we say now that we mean reconciliation, peace, respect, and we mean, at long last, a nation-to-nation relationship based on mutual respect and stewardship of our land with the leadership of Indigenous peoples.

I again say hiswke siam, meegwetch, hunelht’ah.