In 10 minutes, B.C. Aboriginal Affairs Minister Ida Chong did her best to erase 143 years of pain suffered by the Hesquiaht people for the wrongful hanging of one of their ancestors in front of his family.
“In 1869, justice of the day was carried out in a harsh and violent manner to two of your ancestors – John Anietsachist and Katkinna,” the MLA for Oak Bay-Gordon Head said to a crowd of more than 400 gathered at Maht Mahs gym in Port Alberni.
“Oh behalf of the government of British Columbia, I wish to express our sincere regret that your homeland was forced to bear witness to such violence.”
The past can’t be undone, Chong said. “But whatever your ancestry, wherever we live, we share with you a common sorrow of man’s cruelty to man.”
In return, Anietsachist’s great, great, great grandson Victor Amos, who now bears his name, thanked Chong and, in expressing forgiveness, brought an end to a bitter resentment that endured for more than a century.
“If we don’t forgive as a family then that becomes a cancer of the heart and it will eat you alive,” Amos said. “But it’s more than just a hanging that we forgive for.”
Anietsachist and his friend were hung in front of his own family. Colonial officials left the gallows the men were hung on standing for five years. And a Hesquiaht leader was summarily amputated from his house. “We have to forgive and we forgive all of the people who played a role,” Amos said. “My grandfather paid the ultimate price – with his life.”
Anietsachist and Katkinna were convicted of murdering a man and a woman who died aboard the ship John Bright, which capsized in a storm near Hesquiaht harbour on the West Coast of Vancouver Island. Autopsies found no evidence or murder, but conflicting testimony during a five minute trial at court in Victoria sealed the men’s fates.
The Hesquiaht resolved to pursue justice eight years ago and wouldn’t stop until amends were made, Amos said. “We didn’t want the history books to show that my grandfather was a murderer,” he said.
The sense of closure would remain short of complete, though. Saturday’s events orbited around Anietsachist. Sadly though, very little is known about Katkinna, the second man who was hung, Amos said.
The expression of regret helps bring closure to the Hesquiaht, but it also represents a step in the broader work government has been doing. “With all our government was doing with respect to other First Nations — with reconciliation, with recognition, with respect — we felt that this was one area that had to be dealt with before we could move forward with any other matters,” Chong said.
Public officials see a lot in the course of their political lives, said Chong, who has been in office since 1996. But the event sits near the top of her experiences, she said. “It’s not what I saw but what I felt and I felt a lot today,” Chong said.
The day was was the result of a lot of meetings and a lot of lobbying, Alberni-Pacific Rim MLA Scott Fraser said. “We met with three different aboriginal affairs ministers: (Mike) de Jong, (George) Abbott and Mary Polak,” Fraser said.
The Hesquiaht delegation pressed the issue hard with Polak, who at least started movement on the issue. “She assigned senior staff to the file that last time and that was a positive sign,” Fraser said
Nothing changed about the issue or the resoluteness for justice, and that may have broken the deadlock. “Eight years, the Hesquiaht would never have given up or backed down on this,” Fraser said.
Overshadowed in the events of 1869 was Henry Mist, captain of the HMS Sparrowhawk, which transported Anietsachist and Katkinna to Hesquiaht where they were hung.
Sitting quietly at Saturday’s ceremony was Erik Kiaer, the great grandson of Capt. Mist. Kiaer travelled from his home in Portland, Ore., where works as a business consultant, to attend the event.
Kiaer, 47, became aware of Mist’s deed when he doing some family research last spring. “Other people have ancestors who were sea captains and they create their own myths about them,” Kiaer said. “I didn’t exactly brag about mine.”
The married father of one met with Hesquiaht officials for the first time in September. “It’s fascinating to me that there is a human dimension to this that has endured, and that four to five generations later our ancestors paths cross again,” he said. “It’s an eye opener that the actions of your ancestors can have such an impact on others.”
It’s impossible not to feel a tinge of guilt about what happened, “It’s nothing I did, but I’m representative of it,” Kiaer said.
Hearing the song Anietsachist composed and sung before his death, and which generations of Hesquiaht preserved, stood out to Kiaer.
“Capt. Mist would have heard it the first time it was sung and didn’t understand it,” Kiaer said. “Now we’re at a place where we understand its meaning, and where amends are being made for what happened.”