Trudeau exonerates Chief Poundmaker, apologizes for treason conviction

Members of a Saskatchewan First Nation say they've waited decades for their famous chief's treason conviction to be wiped away. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau did just that today.

Cree chief was accused of instigating violence in the Northwest Rebellion in 1885

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau walks around the grave of Chief Poundmaker after laying tobacco during the exoneration ceremony on Thursday. (Liam Richards/The Canadian Press)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has exonerated Chief Poundmaker, who was convicted of the crime of treason-felony in 1885.

Members of a Saskatchewan First Nation say they've waited decades for their famous chief's treason conviction to be wiped away. 

Trudeau issued a formal apology and exoneration for Chief Poundmaker at the First Nation that bears his name on Thursday. 

Poundmaker, whose Cree name was Pihtokahanapiwiyin, was convicted and jailed in 1885. He and other First Nations leaders were accused of instigating violence in the Northwest Rebellion that year. Proponents have long called for his acquittal. 

Poundmaker Cree Nation headman Milton Tootoosis talks about a new museum exhibit focused on the famous chief to a group of visiting students. (Jason Warick/CBC)

"I think it's safe to say the community is very, very excited," said Milton Tootoosis, a headman and councillor at Poundmaker First Nation reserve. 

"There's another side to the story. Poundmaker truly was a leader and a peacemaker."

An elaborate ceremony was planned and includes Trudeau, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett, Assembly of First Nations Chief Perry Bellegarde and other First Nations leaders.

Watch: Trudeau exonerates Poundmaker

Prime Minister speaks at exoneration of Chief Poundmaker

5 years ago
Duration 16:49
Full speech: Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks May 23, 2019, at the exoneration of Chief Poundmaker.

In his speech, Trudeau said if the Government of Canada is to move forward on the path of reconciliation, it must acknowledge the wrongs of the past.

"Chief Poundmaker often spoke of the need to continue moving forward. He said: 'We all know the story about the man who sat by the trail too long, and then it grew over, and he could never find his way again. We can never forget what has happened, but we cannot go back. Nor can we just sit beside the trail.'"

Trudeau shakes hands with Pauline Favel, a descendant of Chief Poundmaker, on the Poundmaker Cree Nation. (Liam Richards/The Canadian Press)

Trudeau said the government has been "sitting beside the trail for far too long," and in order to join the Poundmaker Cree Nation on the path of reconciliation, the government needs to acknowledge the past and build a foundation for healing and renewed understanding.

Trudeau said he knew the exoneration and apology he offered cannot make up for what has been lost, but he hopes his words mark a new beginning.

"In 2019, we recognize the truth in his words that he — as a leader, statesman and peacemaker — did everything he could to ensure that lives were not needlessly lost. It has taken us 134 years to reach today's milestone – the exoneration of Chief Poundmaker," Trudeau said.

A close-up of Chief Poundmaker's grave is pictured on Thursday. (Liam Richards/The Canadian Press)

Chief Duane Antoine congratulated the elders and band members who've lobbied for justice, and thanked the government for partnering with the community.

Poundmaker was convicted of "treason-felony" after the Battle of Cut Knife, in what is now Saskatchewan, on May 2, 1885.

In 1885, tensions between the federal government and First Nations and Métis people were increasing. In Batoche, Métis people led by Louis Riel and Gabriel Dumont were attacked and defeated by federal troops in a bloody battle that lasted several days.

Before the Battle of Cut Knife, Poundmaker led his band members to Fort Battleford to both reaffirm their relationship with the Crown and press for fair treatment. But neither government officials nor the North-West Mounted Police would emerge from the fort.

Trudeau greets youths ahead of exonerating Chief Poundmaker. (Jason Warick/CBC News)

No one was attacked or injured during the so-called Siege of Battleford, though homes were looted. Poundmaker band members were blamed, though other accounts point to settlers or other First Nations.

Poundmaker took his people home. To punish Poundmaker for the "siege" of the fort, a few weeks later, Col. William Otter and more than 300 federal troops attacked Poundmaker's camp in the Cut Knife Hills. The troops were beaten back and retreated but Poundmaker stopped his warriors from pursuing the fleeing troops, preventing a massacre. 

Poundmaker surrendered days later at Fort Battleford to prevent further bloodshed. He was tried and convicted in Regina and sent to prison in Manitoba. 

Treason-felony was a non-capital offence punishable by life imprisonment or a lesser term. If Poundmaker had been convicted of treason, he would have been sent to his death, according to Bill Waiser, co-author of Loyal till Death: Indians and the North-West Rebellion.

He was released less than a year later, after contracting a lung disease. He died in 1886 at age 44.  

Band members have worked to educate Canadians about their famous chief. Chief Poundmaker Museum curator Floyd Favel and others spent several years rehabilitating the battlefield and opening a museum. One band member, the late Tyrone Tootoosis, played Poundmaker in several films and TV shows and worked with federal officials to rewrite the history of Fort Battleford.

Many of them say the exoneration is the culmination of those and other efforts.

"It's going to be very empowering," said Favel.


Jason Warick


Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.

With files from Bryan Eneas