B.C. government expresses regret over 1869 aboriginal hanging deaths

Should the B.C. government have "expressed regret" last weekend for the wrongful hanging of two aboriginal men almost a century and a half ago, before the province even existed?

Governments in Canada have apologized for a lot of things over the last few years, including the abusive native residential school system, the internment of Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War and the head tax applied to Chinese immigrants.

The wrongs might have been committed decades or even generations ago, but an apology or more nuanced expression of regret, is seen as a way to close an old, still open wound and perhaps open the door to compensation.

Ida Chong, B.C.'s minister of aboriginal relations and reconciliation, took part in a reconciliation feast Saturday to "close the door on this past hurt," the ministry said in a news release.

The event was organized and hosted by descendants of Aniestsachist, a member of the Hesquaiaht First Nation, who along with another man named Katkinna, was hanged in 1869 for allegedly murdering two survivors of a shipwreck off Vancouver Island.

The men were convicted in a trial conducted by officers of HMS Sparrowhawk while British Columbia was still a Crown colony, two years before it joined Confederation. They were hanged in front of members of their community on a beach about 30 kilometres north of Tofino, B.C.

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Historians today think the convictions may have stemmed from problems with translation of testimony given in the Hesquiaht language.

"The Province expresses its sincere regret and laments that Hesquiaht members — and family in particular — were forced to bear witness to such violence and for the trauma and pain they have endured," Chong said. "It is our hope that from this time forward the relationship between B.C. and the Hesquiaht people is strengthened and flourishes."

Chong said an expression of regret, and not an apology, was fitting because British Columbia was not a province, the National Post reported.

In turn, Aniestsachist's descendants offered forgiveness for the execution of their ancestor, who they maintain was innocent.

"We have to accept that. If we didn't accept it, we wouldn't get anything at all," said Tim Paul. "And for our family, it gives us a chance and a clear path to move forward and work at developing and creating a new history for our family."

It's not the first time the B.C. government has apologized for a historic incident involving aboriginal people.

In 1990s, the province apologized for the hanging of six chiefs of the Tsilhqot'in First Nation for attacks in the so-called Chilcotin War in 1864. More than 20 people were killed by aboriginals opposed to a road being pushed into their territory, opening it up for settlers and gold prospectors.

The six chiefs, who felt they were simply defending their territory, had come to a meeting on what they thought were assurances of friendship but were arrested for murder.

The expression of regret for the 1869 hangings also came one day after the Nov. 16 anniversary of the 1885 hanging of Louis Riel, the Metis leader, for treason after the North-West Rebellion. Though some consider him a father of Confederation for his part in the creation of the province of Manitoba, he's still officially a traitor to Canada.

The idea of modern governments begging pardon for the sins of their predecessors still doesn't sit well with some Canadians.

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"Why are we apologizing and not the British Crown?" one commenter asked on the CTV News web site. "Public relations and propaganda I'm thinking."

"Good God, could we wipe the slate clean if we could get Christopher Columbus back from the dead to apologize?" asked another, reacting to the Post's report.