Daniel Francis

Reading the National Narrative

Premier Turns Historian

Nov 6, 2014

Last week BC Premier Christy Clark turned historian when she addressed the provincial legislature to forge "a new path of mutual respect" with the Tsilhqot'in First Nation. To this end the Premier acknowledged and apologized for "the many wrongs inflicted by past governments." Specifically she was referring to the so-called "Chilcotin War" which led in 1864 to the trial and public execution of six Tsilhqot'in men. They were warriors, not criminals, said Premier Clark; they were defending their territory against the incursions of outsiders and as such were "fully exonerated of any crime or wrongdoing."

This isn't the place to narrate the events of the Chilcotin War in detail. The bare facts are these. At the end of April 1864 a party of Tsilhqot'in attacked road crews at work on a wagon trail projected to run east from the coast of BC across the Chilcotin Plateau to the Cariboo goldfields. The construction project was in trouble, underfunded and up against formidable geographical challenges. The Tsilhqot'in hired to work as labourers were unhappy at their treatment and were alarmed at the possibility of smallpox, which had already killed as much as fifty percent of their population, might be brought into their territory again.

Exact motivations are blurred but for whatever reason the attack took place, claiming the lives of nineteen road workers and a farm settler. Colonial authorities reacted by mounting two police expeditions to the interior to apprehend the Tsilhqot'in who were responsible. After several weeks of futile search, William George Cox, the leader of one of the expeditions, made contact with the fugitives. Messages were exchanged, and perhaps misunderstood, and at length the Tsilhqot'in, including their leader Klatsassin, came in to parley, whereupon Cox arrested them. Six men were tried before Judge Matthew Begbie; a jury found five guilty and Begbie sentenced them to hang. A seventh man turned himself in the following summer and was also tried and hanged.

I have no quarrel with the Premier's, and the Tsilhqot'in, interpretation of these events: that the Tsilhqot'in saw themselves as warriors fighting to defend their territory against invaders. But two things the Premier said, or didn't say, in her speech irritated me. First was her failure to mention the twenty Whites who died. She said: "The Tsilhqot'in attacked the road crew near Bute Inlet, and over the ensuing days they removed all settlers from the land." Removed is one way of putting it, killed would be another. It struck me as a little callous not to remember these victims as anything more than collateral damage.

Secondly, the Premier in her speech mentions smallpox, "which by some reliable historical accounts there is indication was spread intentionally." If true this would amount to what we now call germ warfare, a war crime. But is it true? There is evidence that threats were made, but nothing I have read about the events leads me to think that anyone tried intentionally to infect the Tsilhqot'in people. The Premier may have better sources, but the way she phrased her allegation suggests to me she is really not sure herself. Nonetheless, this "fact" will enter the historical record and before long everyone will accept that it actually happened.

The Premier's statement is a good example of what happens when politics trumps history. Not long ago the Tsilhqot'in won a Supreme Court decision recognizing aboriginal title to their territory in the central interior of the province. As a result Premier Clark needs to partner with the Tsilhqot'in in her plans for economic development. Her statement is part of her strategy for achieving this objective.

It is great that the Tsilhqot'in version of events finally is being factored into our understanding of what took place in 1864. But it seems to me there is still plenty of ambiguity about what took place, and why. Ambiguity, though, is for historians; it does Premier Clark no good politically. She needs to take shades of grey and turn them in to black and white.