No apology for the wrongful hangings of two First Nations men in 1869 can change the past, but offers of regret from the province of British Columbia and forgiveness from the Hesquiaht First Nation can help make a better future.
B.C. Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ida Chong participated in a feast of reconciliation with the Hesquiaht First Nation in Port Alberni last week, and band members say they have forgiven the actions of the colonial government in the hangings of John Anietsachist and a man named Katkinna in July of 1869.
The current B.C. government is not responsible for the actions of the mid-19th century colonial administration and British Royal Navy, but official acknowledgment of an injustice helps heal wounds that have been festering for more than 140 years.
On Feb. 4, 1869, the vessel John Bright, which had sailed out of Port Ludlow, Washington, with a cargo of lumber, struck a reef near Hesquiat. Accounts of what happened next differ widely.
One historian writes that of the 22 people aboard the ship, 10 escaped drowning, only to be killed by Hesquiahts intent on plundering the wreck. The Hesquiaht version says that all 22 people aboard died, and that two badly battered bodies washed ashore.
The news of the wreck reached Victoria in early March, when the British Colonist assumed the worst, calling on the colonial administration to send a naval force to deal with the "murderers." It wasn't until May 3 that a ship carrying marines, a magistrate and the attorney-general of B.C. sailed for Hesquiat.
The ensuing inquest was difficult, as the bodies were badly decomposed. One version says the ship's surgeon determined no murders had occurred; another says the inquest found that murders had been committed.
We will never know the full truth, but this much is clear: When peaceful negotiations with the Hesquiahts failed to produce suspects, the navy resorted to violent coercion, shelling the Hesquiahts' canoes and burning their houses until they produced two men, Anietsachist and Katkinna. The two men were taken to Victoria for trial.
Katkinna is said to have admitted his crime, but Aniet-sachist claimed he had worked to persuade others from committing murder. Both men were convicted and taken back to Hesquiat, where the people there were forced to watch the hanging.
The standard of British justice enjoyed by the settlers was not meted equally to First Nations peoples. There are questions of accuracy in translation - the interpreter for the investigators was a trader who knew the Chinook patois, and it is alleged that he was in cahoots with an enemy of the Hesquiahts.
The double standard applied in this case is clearly evident from the attitude of the British Colonist of July 31, 1869. "If we treat with savages, we must act in a manner intelligible to them," the newspaper harrumphed. "It is absurd to suppose that our views of equity and justice can apply to people ignorant of the commonest sense of humanity, because they do not comprehend our social laws."
The newspaper would have undoubtedly exploded in righteous indignation had white settlers received the same sort of justice handed out to the Hesquiahts.
The B.C. government's acknowledgement of the injustice is vindication for Anietsachist's descendants, who have maintained he was innocent and who have worked to clear his name.
We cannot change the past, but we can take steps to heal historical wounds.
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