Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has exonerated a Saskatchewan chief of treason more than 130 years after the conviction.
“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 work 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.”
WATCH: Justin Trudeau delivers full statement of exoneration and apology of Chief Poundmaker
Following prayers and traditional drumming, Trudeau told a crowd that the government must acknowledge wrongs of the past and that Poundmaker was unjustly convicted.
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 the1885 Northwest Resistance, also known historically as the Northwest Rebellion.
He was labelled a traitor 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, before Trudeau’s remarks.
“It’s something I didn’t feel I would witness in my life.”
WATCH: Justin Trudeau says Chief Poundmaker exonerated, offers apology.
Tootoosis said she was six-years old in 1969 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.”
Milton Tootoosis is a headman and councillor at the reserve and believes the exoneration is a chance for Canadians to learn Poundmaker’s true history.
“It’s about a great leader, a diplomat, a peacekeeper, who saved a lot of lives when he took action into his own hands,” Tootoosis said.
The First Nation spent years trying to persuade the federal government to exonerate Poundmaker, he said.
He said leaders thought it was a good time to raise the issue again when Ottawa announced its full support of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its final report.
“Why not? The worst they can say is no. But if Canada is talking about truth, justice and reconciliation, maybe we give this another try.”
While the exoneration will be important for the First Nation, Milton Tootoosis said it still has grievances with the Crown over treaty implementation.
The federal government says it prioritizes reconciliation with Indigenous peoples and that Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, Carolyn Bennett, began working with the First Nation on its request last year.
“This is a major step in our ongoing joint work with the Poundmaker Cree Nation to address historic grievances and build a renewed relationship into the future based on mutual respect, co-operation, and partnership,” said a statement from Bennett.
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.