Prime Minister Justin Trudeau will later this month exonerate a First Nations chief who was wrongly convicted of treason-felony after leading his warriors in battle against Canadian forces in 1885.
Trudeau will exonerate Chief Poundmaker during a May 23 visit to the Saskatchewan First Nation that bears his name, according to local officials and a senior government source.
“It’s kind of a ‘pinch me’ moment because we’ve always wanted this to happen,” said Blaine Favel, a former chief of Poundmaker Cree Nation.
“We always knew the stories that the history books wrote were incorrect.”
During the Battle of Cut Knife on May 2, 1885, in what is now Saskatchewan, Poundmaker stopped his warriors from chasing retreating Canadian forces, which prevented the deaths of hundreds of troops.
But instead of being celebrated, Poundmaker, whose Cree name was Pîhtokahanapiwiyin, was accused of provoking the fight.
He was put on trial in Regina and sentenced to three years in prison at the Stony Mountain Institution, north of Winnipeg. He was released after less than one year because he developed a respiratory disease, of which he died a few months later at the age of 44. The First Nation has long called for his acquittal, and the official view on Poundmaker has changed in recent decades.
Milton Tootoosis, a headman for Poundmaker Cree Nation, still remembers the day his community exhumed and brought back Poundmaker’s body in 1967, when Tootoosis was five years old.
“Poundmaker should be recognized as a peacemaker and perhaps a national hero for stopping further bloodshed,” Tootoosis said.
“He should never have been arrested or charged or imprisoned.”
‘Concrete step’ towards reconciliation
Celeste Tootoosis, a descendant of Poundmaker, agrees.
For her, the exoneration will bring healing after decades of being told by people outside of her community that her great-great-great-grandfather was a traitor.
“He didn’t commit any crimes so therefore it’s false accusations and those accusations are on us,” she said. “To take that away … I feel free of the past.”
A deceased person is very much part of the living present in Poundmaker Cree Nation, according to Floyd Favel, curator of the Chief Poundmaker Museum.
“In Cree, we say awapahkatamat. It means ‘wipe clean,'” he said.
“So an exoneration, even though it’s in the past, posthumously you could say, it’s very current … Trudeau talks of reconciliation and this is a very concrete step.”
In addition to the charges against Poundmaker, the federal government took away the community’s cows, horses and guns, which left people with little to live on. Many starved.
The community wasn’t allowed to have another chief until 1919.
Many people were imprisoned on what Blaine Favel described as trumped-up charges. For example, his great-grandfather was imprisoned for four months for stealing horses.
“We were made to be an example of what happens if you fight,” he said. “That’s the true history of Canada.”
Negotiations between the community and the federal government are underway to get compensation for the harm that’s been caused, he said, but money is not expected to be announced during Trudeau’s visit.
Trudeau’s statement of exoneration is being co-developed with Poundmaker Cree Nation. It will include a formal apology followed by statements from Poundmaker Cree Nation Chief Duane Antoine, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde and the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Chief Bobby Cameron, according to Milton Tootoosis.
There will be a pipe ceremony, a grand entry of dignitaries, honour songs, a gift exchange, a cannon shoot to symbolize the Battle of Cut Knife and a moment of silence.
“The combat to racism is actually the truth,” Blaine Favel said.
“By doing what the government is doing, recognizing Poundmaker and exonerating him … Hopefully that can help heal.”
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This story originally appeared on CBC