Thursday was a long awaited day for Poundmaker Cree Nation.
It was the day Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited the First Nation to deliver the exoneration of Chief Poundmaker.
He was to deliver, in a joint statement with the Poundmaker Cree Nation, an exoneration and apology.
“This joint statement with the Poundmaker Cree Nation exemplifies the Government of Canada’s commitment to correct the injustices of the past government’s actions to wrongfully convict a great leader, diplomat, and Peacemaker of Treason-felony after his involvement of the Battle of Cut Knife Hill in 1885,” stated the First Nation in a news release prior to the exoneration.
During the North-West Resistance of 1885, Chief Poundmaker (Pihtokahanapiwiyin) sought rations for his starving community. He was wrongly accused of looting and then pursued by government troops. Chief Poundmaker did not take part in the ensuing battle, but saved many lives by convincing the community’s warriors not to attack the retreating government troops.
Chief Poundmaker was tried, convicted and sentenced to three years in Stony Mountain Penitentiary. After a year, he was released due to illness and died months later at Blackfoot Crossing while visiting his adopted father, Crowfoot.
The exoneration had long been planned and discussed between the Poundmaker Cree Nation and the federal government.
A large crush of people, estimated in the thousands, were on hand to witness the exoneration ceremony. The ceremony coincided with Treaty Annuity Day celebrations on the First Nation.
Prior to the start of proceedings, visitors were encouraged to arrive early. The road into the First Nation was closed at 11 a.m. to make way for the arrival of the Prime Minister and his entourage.
The day began with a pipe ceremony held by the Chief Poundmaker gravesite on the Battle Site Hill at the National Historic Site.
The exoneration ceremony took place at noon, with Prime Minister Trudeau delivering the apology and statement of exoneration on behalf of the federal government.
Among the responses were ones given by Poundmaker Cree Nation chief Duane Antoine, Assembly of First Nations National Chief Perry Bellegarde, and Pauline Favel on behalf of the direct descendants. Favel noted many descendants of Poundmaker had come from not only the surrounding area but also other provinces to be there that day.
The ceremony included songs and dances by local Indigenous performances. At the end of the ceremony there was a cannon firing and a moment of silence held in honour of the fallen warriors and settlers.
“The Elders, youth, and community members of the Poundmaker Cree Nation are honoured to witness the exoneration of our great dhief, Poundmaker,” said Antoine in a statement earlier this week.
“We want to acknowledge the advocacy of our Elders and leadership past and present, who lobbied for many years in anticipation of this event. We also want to thank the Government of Canada for their joint efforts in this journey to reconciling the truth in our shared history of Canada.”
Chief Antoine introduced a former chief of Poundmaker, Blaine Favel, who was part of the original push for the exoneration. He asked all those who are part of Poundmaker to raise their hands. As they did, he said, none of those people would be there if Col. Otter had had his way. He would have killed them all, Favel said. That’s what peacemaking is about.
Among the officials on hand were federal minister of public safety Ralph Goodale and Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations and Northern Affairs Dr. Carolyn Bennett, Battlefords-Lloydminster MP Rosemarie Falk, and provincial minister responsible for FIrst Nations Warren Kaeding. Several area First Nations chiefs were in attendance, as were local and other officials and members of the RCMP.
In speaking to reporters Bennett noted the significance of the day.
"We're just very honored that today this piece of history gets righted and the truth be told," said Bennett.
"I think that it's important that the community explain why this event is important to them. Poundmaker was a peacemaker and he was arrested when he was trying to make peace, imprisoned and died shortly after. I think as it says on the T-shirts, today is justice for Chief Poundmaker the peacemaker."
Poundmaker Cree Nation headman Milton Tootoosis, who had worked to make the day happen, could not believe that the exoneration had finally come at their First Nation after so many years of effort.
"It's surreal. We never thought it would happen but the elders kept encouraging us to keep trying," said Tootoosis to reporters. "I think the Prime Minister is sincere with this idea of truth and reconciliation, and we put it to the test and it did work."
“We recognize that during his lifetime Chief Poundmaker was not treated justly nor showed the respect he deserved as a leader of his people. If we are to move forward together on the path of reconciliation, the Government of Canada must acknowledge the wrongs of the past. 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 Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau, Prime Minister of Canada
“We honour our legendary leader Poundmaker today, and all affiliated leaders and warriors, for taking a brave stance defending themselves on May 2, 1885, and for holding back and not counter-attacking the retreating Colonel Otter and his men. He saved a lot of lives, and was living up to his promise not to take up arms against the Queen as promised under Treaty Number Six. Poundmaker was a diplomat, a peacemaker, and was practicing reconciliation already in the 19th century. The truth is now known, and he will be remembered in history as a national hero.” — Chief Duane Antoine, Poundmaker Cree Nation
"Truth and reconciliation is about healing. This is another step, what we're doing. Today, this is another step as a nation, not only Poundmaker band members, our leadership, but our communities... In 1967, we brought Chief Poundmaker home. It was a historical day, and today is another historical day." --- Pauline Favel, descendant of Chief Poundmaker.
All photos by Averil Hall