Federal government posthumously exonerates Chief Poundmaker

Chief Poundmaker and his wife stand in front of a tipi in this undated photo from the Saskatchewan Archives. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau officially exonerated Chief Poundmaker on behalf the Government of Canada on Thursday, May 23. -- Photo courtesy of the Saskatchewan Archives.

His people remembered him as a peacemaker and a diplomat, but the Canadian government said he was guilty of treason.

Now, 134 years later, the Government of Canada has admitted they were wrong.

Chief Pitikwahanapiwiyin (Poundmaker) served one year in prison after being convicted of treason following the Northwest Rebellion. On Thursday, however, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offered an apology and a full exoneration during a ceremony at the Poundmaker Cree Nation, located west of North Battleford.

“We recognize that during his lifetime, Chief Poundmaker was not treated justly nor shown the respect he deserved as a leader of his people,” Trudeau said in front of a crowd that included elders, youth, visiting chiefs and members of the Poundmaker Cree Nation. “We know that the colonial perspectives, which dominated relationships between Indigenous people 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.”

Poundmaker’s conviction at a Regina courthouse in 1885 was controversial. While some members of his band did join the fighting, Poundmaker himself never took up arms, and actively tried to keep his warriors from participating.

During the Battle of Cut Knife, Poundmaker successfully dissuaded his warriors from pursuing the retreating government forces under the command of Lt.-Col William Otter. Otter lost eight soldiers in the battle, while between four and five First Nations warriors were killed, and historians say Poundmaker’s actions save Otter’s force from an even worse outcome.

Even before that, Poundmaker had a well-established reputation as a peacemaker, having negotiated an end to fighting between the Cree and Blackfoot peoples in 1873.

Nevertheless, he was arrested on May 26, 1885 after travelling to Battleford to try and negotiate peace with the government. Roughly three months later a jury found him guilty of treason and sentenced him to three years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary in Manitoba.

He was released after one year due to deteriorating health, and died four months later in Blackfoot Crossing, Alta.

“We have the duty to take an honest look at this chapter of our shared history and make right by the Poundmaker Cree Nation,” Trudeau said, shortly before placing a ceremonial offering of tobacco on Chief Poundmaker’s grave. “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.”

The government’s long-awaited apology brought an happy smiles and long applause from members of the Poundmaker Cree Nation who came out for Thursday’s ceremony.

Leaders like Chief Duane Antoine said it was a day to remember. For others, their only wish was that their ancestors could have lived to see it.

“What happened today here, we will never forget,” Antoine said. “The youth who are here today will never forget that.”

“I think it makes the history of Canada that much more rich, because Chief Poundmaker was a great man. He was a humanitarian. He was a diplomat. He was a peacemaker,” added former chief Blaine Favel, who started the process of exonerating Poundmaker before passing the baton to Antoine.

“It’s really emotional for all of us, because we think of all our relative who are not here … all of our grandparents who didn’t live to think that such a thing could happen, that Canada would come here and apologize for the harm and the hurt that they did to us. That’s a really powerful thing.”