OTTAWA (Reuters) - Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has been criticized by some indigenous communities, on Thursday apologized and posthumously exonerated a Cree chief unjustly imprisoned for treason more than 130 years ago.
The Liberal prime minister received widespread support from Canada’s First Nations when he ran for office four years ago promising to reconcile Canada with the native peoples wronged during the country’s colonial past.
Chief Poundmaker, or Pihtokahanapiwiyin, was a Cree leader during Canada’s North-West Rebellion of 1885. Historians have said he helped prevent a massacre of federal soldiers during a battle with the primarily French speaking rebels, who were descendents of First Nation and European settlers.
But when the rebellion ended and Poundmaker sought peace with the government, he was arrested, accused of treason and jailed for seven months before being released because of bad health in 1886. He died shortly after.
“We recognize that during his lifetime Chief Poundmaker was not treated justly nor showed the respect he deserved as a leader of his people,” Trudeau said during the ceremony at the Poundmaker Cree Nation reserve in Saskatchewan.
“It is my sincere hope that, by coming together today and taking this important step together as equal partners, we can continue the important work of reconciling the past and renewing our relationship,” Trudeau said.
Trudeau was escorted to the stage by Cree members in traditional clothing and headdresses amid ceremonial singing and drumming. Traditional Cree teepees were set up around the stage where he spoke.
The prime minister later shook hands with current Poundmaker Cree Chief Duane Antoine and kneeled to place tobacco on Poundmaker’s grave as a sign of respect.
“Poundmaker was a diplomat, a peace maker, and was practicing reconciliation already in the 19th century,” Antoine said. “The truth is now known, and he will be remembered in history as a national hero.”
Trudeau has made a number of apologies for Canada’s historic failings. Last year he visited indigenous people in British Columbia to apologize for the hanging of six chiefs 150 years ago. Soon thereafter he said he was sorry for Canada’s refusal in 1939 to take in a ship carrying more than 900 Jewish refugees.
Trudeau is facing a tough re-election bid in about five months, and is trailing his Conservative Party rival slightly in opinion polls.
In the past few months some indigenous groups have criticized the prime minister.
In March, when an indigenous protester shouted at a Liberal Party fundraiser about the government’s failure to address mercury poisoning on the reserve, Trudeau said, “Thank you for your donation.” After a considerable uproar, he apologized.
Earlier this year, Trudeau fired Jody Wilson-Raybould from his government and later ejected her from the party amid a scandal over allegations of government interference in a corporate corruption case.
Until January, she had served as Canada’s first indigenous justice minister. Her treatment was condemned by many indigenous leaders in her home province of British Columbia.
Reporting by Steve Scherer; editing by Grant McCool