Chief Poundmaker, wrongly convicted of treason-felony in 1885, to be exonerated by Trudeau

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.

PM set to visit Poundmaker Cree Nation in Saskatchewan on May 23

A photo of Chief Poundmaker.
More than 130 years after he was convicted of treason following a battle with Canadian troops in what is now Saskatchewan, Chief Poundmaker is going to be exonerated by the federal government. (Oliver Buell/Library and Archives Canada)

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."

Milton Tootoosis, a headman at Poundmaker Cree Nation, stands beside one of the many plaques in his community that need to be changed to note Chief Poundmaker was wrongly convicted of treason in 1885. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

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. 

Celeste Tootoosis, a descent of Chief Poundmaker, says the exoneration of her great-great-great-grandfather gives her a feeling of being freed from the wrongs of the past. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

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."

Renowned Cree artist Kent Monkman donated this painting to the Chief Poundmaker Museum in Poundmaker Cree Nation, which the prime minister will see during his visit. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

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."

Negotiating compensation 

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. 

Poundmaker was 44 years old when he died from a respiratory disease shortly after being released from prison. (Olivia Stefanovich/CBC)

"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."

Story tip? Email olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.

Chief Poundmaker to be exonerated by federal government

5 years ago
Duration 4:09
Chief Poundmaker, the legendary Cree leader, will be exonerated by the federal government as part of its efforts toward reconciliation. He was found guilty of treason after the Northwest Rebellion in 1885. To celebrate, the Saskatchewan First Nation that bears his name is unveiling an art gallery dedicated to Chief Poundmaker.


Olivia Stefanovich

Senior reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a senior reporter for CBC's Parliamentary Bureau based in Ottawa. She previously worked in Toronto, Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter at @CBCOlivia. Story tips welcome: olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.