Trudeau exonerates Saskatchewan chief of historic treason conviction
CUT KNIFE, Sask. — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has exonerated a Saskatchewan chief of treason more than 130 years after his conviction and apologized to his people for the hardship their leader's unjust imprisonment caused.
The exoneration of Chief Poundmaker was announced at the reserve that bears his name — Poundmaker Cree Nation — about 200 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.
"Today, our government acknowledges that Chief Poundmaker was peacemaker who never stopped fighting for peace. A leader who, time and time again, sought to prevent further loss of life in the growing conflict in the Prairies," Trudeau said.
"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," the prime minister continued.
"We recognize that the unjust conviction and imprisonment of Chief Poundmaker had and continues to have a profound impact on the Poundmaker Cree Nation.
"I am here today, on behalf of the government of Canada, to confirm without reservation that Chief Poundmaker is fully exonerated of any crime or wrongdoing."
Poundmaker is considered an important political leader who spoke out against unfulfilled Treaty 6 promises and stood up for his people at the time of the 1885 Northwest Rebellion.
He was labelled a traitor by the Canadian government even though he was known as a peacemaker and stopped First Nations fighters from going after retreating federal forces that had attacked them.
Poundmaker was tried for treason in Regina and imprisoned at Stony Mountain penitentiary in Manitoba before he was released because of poor health.
He died in 1886.
"It's exciting, yet emotional," said Roxanne Tootoosis, who was born and raised on the Poundmaker reserve. "It's something I didn't feel I would witness in my life."
Tootoosis said she was six years old in the late 1960s when Poundmaker's remains were returned to the reserve. She didn't understand the significance of what she was watching then, but she does now.
Being at the exoneration is a story she will pass down to other generations, she said.
"I'm witness to this day so I can tell my grandchildren, my great-grandchildren," Tootoosis said. "I will be able to share with them this experience in my own way of what I witnessed, what I heard, what I saw."
Trudeau arrived to the ceremony in a horse-drawn carriage with a procession of other chiefs and elders to the sound of drumming, singing and cheering.
Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde was among the attendees as was Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Carolyn Bennett as well Saskatchewan MP and Minister of Public Safety Ralph Goodale.
The ceremony took place on a hill in front of five teepees and near where Poundmaker's remains are buried.
A black and white framed photograph of the chief stood next to the stage.
Hundreds of people filled the stands and sat on the grass to witness the ceremony. Many of them wore colourful traditional dress, adorned with exquisite beadwork and ribbons. Others wore white shirts with a picture of Poundmaker and the word 'Justice.'
Pauline Favel, a descendant of Poundmaker, said the exoneration goes a long way towards truth and reconciliation for Indigenous people.
"Not giving up and wanting this done for our healing is huge for our people, as a nation," she said.
The First Nation spent years trying to persuade the federal government to exonerate Poundmaker.
While the exoneration will be important for the First Nation, Milton Tootoosis, a headman and councillor at the reserve, said the band still has grievances with the Crown over treaty implementation.
Chief Wayne Semaganis of the neighbouring Little Pine First Nation said the exoneration is only a first step. He wants to see Ottawa address more wrongs of the past, and the present.
"A day like today is going to mean nothing until we have more meetings, concrete meetings, with real results. So that the person living on the reserve, that lives in the sad way we live now, has a better quality of life," he said.
It's not the first time Trudeau has apologized for historical injustices involving Canada's Indigenous people.
Last year, Trudeau apologized to the Tsilhqot'in community in British Columbia for the hanging of six chiefs more than 150 years ago and delivered a statement of exoneration in the House of Commons.
© 2019 The Canadian Press