A period photograph of Chief Poundmaker, who died in 1886. On Thursday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau exonerated the legendary Cree chief following decades of work by First Nations elders and leaders to clear his name after he was branded a traitor and arrested.

The exoneration of Poundmaker

There occurred a small but significant moment in Canadian history Thursday. The Canadian government formally exonerated Chief Poundmaker.

Coming from Saskatchewan, I have known many people with connections to history — Métis people, or descendants of people like Chief Big Bear. I followed this event with interest — not the politics or optics of it, but the re-examination of the historical record and that tumultuous time 134 years ago.

I read an article (Richard Warnica, May 23, the National Post) about the issue, which outlined the issue and that tumultuous time 134 years ago.

Pitikwahanapiwiyin, the Cree leader better known as Poundmaker, was convicted of treason-felony in 1885. Historical evidence suggests that in reality Poundmaker was an influential, merciful peacemaker, seeking what was owed his people under terms of a negotiated treaty, and interested in co-existence with the white settlers. Instead, the prevailing view over the past 130-plus years has conflated the Cree people with the Riel Rebellion; as if the Cree were some kind of guerrilla attack force for Louis Riel.

Poundmaker’s people were attacked by members of the Canadian militia in May, 1885, at the so-called Battle of Cut Knife Hill. The Cree repulsed this attack, driving off the militia. Poundmaker stopped the Cree from pursuing the militia and inflicting further bloodshed. Even so, after the Riel Rebellion was put down, Poundmaker was arrested, along with two other chiefs, charged with felony-treason, and sentenced to three years in a brutal prison, where he died.

An alternative history suggests that Poundmaker could have gone on to become a great influential leader of the Cree People, with great implications for future relations between Canada and the Indigenous people who live here. Instead, he was imprisoned on trumped up charges, and died as a result. A great loss to the future.

This is what I thought as I read this particular article, in light of Thursday’s events. And then I read the online comments from readers, under the story.

There are a couple of comments decrying political correctness, and how “Progressives” are bent on destroying Canada’s “heritage.” But the gist of the vast majority of these comments is that Trudeau weak to apologize, that this action is somehow damaging Canada as a country and insulting to us as Canadians.

Well, fair enough, perhaps. We can express our displeasure with our leaders, and the online comments section is as good a forum as any, I suppose. And history is a complex subject, not easily summed up in a newspaper story or a politician’s speech.

But in this long, long list of comments under the story in question, there are exactly zero about the heart of the issue — Poundmaker and the history of the Riel Rebellion. Not a single mention of the subject of Thursday’s exoneration, nor any discussion about the correction of this particular historical record.

I see Poundmaker’s exoneration as a good thing: correcting injustices, repairing relationships, and helping move our society towards being a better place for everyone. I don’t see it as a political thing — just as I did not see Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s apology on behalf of the government of Canada to the former students of the residential schools as a political thing. Nor do I recall the same level of vitriol leveled at him. But those were different times, 10 years ago.

The reaction to this story and event is more an indication of the very small place the story of the Riel Rebellion has in our consciousness as Canadians and sense of ourselves, and how important it is to our country’s history. Saskatchewan does seem very far away, and not very influential on the national scene. But the effect those momentous events — described loosely as the Riel Rebellion — had on our county’s future was profound: the proxy war, as some think, between Protestant and Catholic, French and English; the subjugation of the western territories by the “Empire of the St. Lawrence” (Eastern Canada); the implications for the building of the national railway; and, of course, future relations between Canada and its indigenous peoples.

Canadian history is comprised of small incidents, that take place in out of the way places, out in the underbrush, out in the boondocks. Add them all up and we have a nation’s history. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts. We tend to celebrate, very publicly, our achievements on the national stage — Juno Beach, or Vimy Ridge, say. But our vital history has happened in places like the Queenston Heights (1812), Montgomery’s Tavern and Saint-Denis-Sur-Richelieu (1837), the Fraser Canyon (1858), Batoche (1885) or Winnipeg (1919). I see Thursday’s exoneration of Poundmaker as a re-examination, and a re-affirmation, of who we are.

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