Trudeau exonerates wrongfully convicted Chief Poundmaker and apologizes for historic injustices

Photo from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's post.

(May 23, 2019) – Today, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau delivered a statement of exoneration for Chief Poundmaker during a ceremony with elders, leaders and members of the Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. Read it here:

Elders, leaders and members of the Poundmaker Cree Nation –

It is a privilege to be here with you today to honour the life and legacy of Chief Poundmaker or Pihtokahanapiwiyin.

I would like to acknowledge that we are on the sacred lands of the Poundmaker Cree Nation in Treaty 6 territory.

It was here that Chief Poundmaker made his indelible mark on history –

Here that he earned his well-deserved reputation as a diplomat and peacemaker.

Here that he stood up for his people and demonstrated compassion in the face of persecution.

134 years later, we gather at the battle site to honour and remember the story of Chief Poundmaker.

We recognize that during his lifetime, Chief Poundmaker was not treated justly nor showed the respect he deserved as a leader of his people.

We know that the colonial perspectives which dominated relations between Indigenous peoples and the Crown did not allow for open and collaborative dialogue.

And we acknowledge that if we are to move forward together on the path of reconciliation, the Government of Canada must acknowledge the wrongs of the past.

We have the duty to take an honest look at this chapter of our shared history and make right by the Poundmaker Cree Nation.

It is my sincere hope that by coming together today and taking this important step together as equal partners, we can continue the important work of reconciling the past and renewing our relationship.

Oral tradition tells us that Chief Poundmaker’s role as an influential leader begins in 1873, with the conclusion of peace negotiations between the Cree and the Blackfoot nations.

Known as the “Peacemaker” by the Indigenous peoples of the Northern Plains, Chief Poundmaker had tried to maintain peaceful relations and open dialogue between the Cree and settlers both before and after the signing of Treaty 6 in 1876. 

In 1876, Poundmaker, now a headman or minor chief, was part of the Cree delegation at Fort Carlton where Treaty 6 was concluded with Alexander Morris, Lieutenant-Governor of the Northwest Territories and Treaty Commissioner.

A powerful orator, Chief Poundmaker argued that the Government of Canada had to provide the appropriate assistance to the Cree as life in the Prairies was changing.

He requested assistance not only for the signatories of the Treaty, but also for future generations.

This included advocating for the Medicine Chest provision in Treaty 6.

Indeed, Chief Poundmaker was a visionary and an early advocate for universal health care. And his spirit and the strength of his convictions throughout the treaty negotiations continues to inspire his people to this day.

In 1881, Chief Poundmaker, as an acknowledged leader of his people, was selected to lead the Marquess of Lorne, son-in-law of Queen Victoria, on a journey from Battleford to Blackfoot Crossing.

Chief Poundmaker impressed the Marquess with his traditional teachings and his statesmanship.

In the years following the signing of Treaty 6, Chief Poundmaker, along with others such as Big Bear or Mistahimaskwa, pushed government officials to live up to the promises and obligations laid out in the Treaty, often with frustrating results.

By the winter of 1885, the combination of a depleted bison population, cuts to government aid and fundamental disagreements regarding the implementation of treaty promises resulted in wide-spread dissatisfaction in the Prairies.

In the push to settle Western Canada, and guided by colonial thinking and policies, the federal government sought to exert increased control over Indigenous peoples. Tension between the Canadian government, Métis, First Nations and settlers eventually amounted to a conflict known as the Northwest Resistance.

Government officials in Western Canada began to target Chief Poundmaker and his people, especially after members of his community were accused of looting in Battleford, as Poundmaker sought rations from Indian Affairs officials for his people.

Chief Poundmaker and his people came to be viewed as a threat.

On May 2, 1885, seeking reprisal for the purported looting, the Canadian Expeditionary Force followed the Cree back to their reserve and launched an attack where we now stand.

Right here, at battle site hill.

Led by Lieutenant-Colonel William Otter, more than 300 men attacked Poundmaker’s people, but after seven hours on the battlefield, Otter’s men were forced to retreat.

Though he did not participate in the battle, Chief Poundmaker saved many lives. At a critical time, he carried the pipe of a wounded war chief onto the battlefield, and used his considerable authority to stop the counterattack on Colonel Otter’s retreating troops, thereby avoiding more bloodshed.

Fearing further reprisal against his people, Chief Poundmaker attempted to negotiate a peace agreement with the commander of the Canadian Expeditionary Force, Major-General Frederick Middleton.

Unable to come to an agreement, Poundmaker and his followers were arrested at Battleford on May 26, 1885.

Fuelled by mistrust and a lack of understanding, government officials held Chief Poundmaker, as the recognized leader of his people, responsible for the actions of his community and convicted him of treason-felony in August 1885.

While Chief Poundmaker unequivocally maintained his innocence, he was sentenced to three years in prison at the Stony Mountain Penitentiary.

Chief Poundmaker’s imprisonment meant denying members of his nation his strong leadership.

They were deeply affected by the harsh restrictions and deprivations imposed upon them by government officials.

The Nation was also forced to surrender their weapons, which left them unable to hunt and protect themselves.

Labelled as a rebellion band by the Government of Canada, the Poundmaker Cree Nation saw the reputation of their honoured Chief tarnished by his wrongful conviction and were forced to live without a Chief for over three decades.

Although Chief Poundmaker was released early from prison due to his deteriorating health, he died only four months after his release in 1886 while visiting his adopted father Chief Crowfoot at Blackfoot Crossing.

He was buried there and in 1967, his remains were brought back to the Poundmaker Cree Nation and buried here, at battle site hill.

Today, our government acknowledges that Chief Poundmaker was a peacemaker who never stopped fighting for peace.

A leader who, time and again, sought to prevent further loss of life in the growing conflict in the Prairies.

The Government of Canada recognizes that Chief Poundmaker was not a criminal, but someone who worked tirelessly to ensure the survival of his people, and hold the Crown accountable to its obligations as laid out in Treaty 6.

We recognize that the unjust conviction and imprisonment of Chief Poundmaker had, and continues to have, a profound impact on the Poundmaker Cree Nation.

Chief Poundmaker often spoke of the need to continue moving forward.

He said: “We all know the story about the man who sat by the trail too long, and then it grew over, and he could never find his way again. We can never forget what has happened, but we cannot go back. Nor can we just sit beside the trail.”

Well, the Government of Canada has been sitting beside the trail for far too long.

And if we are to join the Poundmaker Cree Nation on the path of reconciliation, we need to acknowledge the past and build a foundation for healing and renewed understanding.

And so, as an important symbol of our desire to revitalize our relationship with the Poundmaker Cree Nation, I’m here today on behalf of the Government of Canada to confirm without reservation that Chief Poundmaker is fully exonerated of any crime or wrongdoing.

I would also like to offer all members of the Poundmaker Cree Nation, past and present, an apology for the historic injustices, hardships and oppression suffered by Chief Poundmaker and your community, on behalf of the Government of Canada and all Canadians.

The Poundmaker Cree Nation has long advocated to hear these words from the Government of Canada.

And it is your dedicated efforts that have brought us here today to honour Chief Poundmaker, the way he should have been many, many years ago.

To ensure that his legacy is celebrated for years to come. To help right past wrongs.

As Poundmaker’s people, the hardships you have overcome reflect his courage, his belief and his vision that you would go on as a strong and vibrant people.

You have always known that your Chief deserved to be respected and celebrated.

Now, all Canadians will have the opportunity to learn and understand the true history and legacy of Chief Poundmaker.

Before being sentenced to imprisonment, Chief Poundmaker stated: “Everything that is bad that has been laid against me this summer, there is nothing of it true. … I did everything to stop bloodshed. If I had not done so, there would have been plenty of blood spilled this summer …”

In 1885, Chief Poundmaker was treated as a criminal and a traitor.

In 2019, we recognize the truth in his words that he – as a leader, statesman and peacemaker – did everything he could to ensure that lives were not needlessly lost.

It has taken us 134 years to reach today’s milestone – the exoneration of Chief Poundmaker.

I know that the exoneration and apology I have offered today cannot make up for what has been lost.

But it is my hope that these words can mark a new beginning. That this day leads us to a brighter future, as we continue to walk together on the path toward reconciliation. A path Chief Poundmaker charted for us all so many years ago.

It is my hope that we can make the next century a shared legacy with a proud history, dedicated to the spirit of Chief Poundmaker, honoured leader of his people.

Thank you.


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