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Indigenous alumnus helps right a 133-year-old wrong

A 25-year campaign to exonerate a Cree chief has finally come to its conclusion.

Cree Chief Pîhtokahanapiwiyin (“Poundmaker”) was wrongfully convicted of treason in 1885. (National Archives Canada).

They say the wheels of justice sometimes grind slowly. And sometimes those wheels need help to get moving at all.

Blaine Favel (Law’90), recently saw the truth of those words when a lobbying effort he has championed for more than 25 years finally persuaded the federal government to exonerate Cree Chief Pîhtokahanapiwiyin (“Poundmaker”) from a wrongful 1885 treason conviction.

“Poundmaker was a good man and a good chief who took care of his people. He was unfairly convicted,” says Favel. “[The decision] to set history right is the best news I’ve heard in a long time.”

Poundmaker’s story is one Favel knows well. The CEO of Kanata Earth Management (a Cut Knife, Saskatchewan-based, Indigenous-owned producer of organically grown cannabis), is himself a former chief of the Poundmaker First Nation, a former grand-chief of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, and Chancellor Emeritus of the University of Saskatchewan

“I became aware of Poundmaker’s story when I was growing up, and during my own time as chief, I started working with other members of the Poundmaker First Nation to clear his name.”

In May 1885 in the midst of the Northwest Rebellion, the chief went to Fort Battleford in an unsuccessful effort to convince a government “Indian agent” to provide treaty payments to starving members of the Poundmaker First Nation. However, when the chief and his still-hungry men returned to their reserve, they were pursued by government soldiers intent on exacting revenge for some looting the Cree were wrongly alleged to have committed. On the morning of May 2, the troops launched a sneak attack.

Eight Canadian troops died in the Battle of Cut Knife Hill, and their mates retreated in disarray, but Poundmaker ordered his fighters not to give chase. “They could have wiped out those soldiers the same way Custer was wiped out at Little Bighorn in 1876, but the chief said no,” Favel says. “Poundmaker never wanted war. He was a peacemaker.”  

Poundmaker was convicted of treason and went to prison for three years. However, when he contracted tuberculosis while behind bars, he was released after a year. He died four months later. Members of the Poundmaker First Nation never forgot or forgave that injustice.

[Blaine Favel]
Blaine Favel (Law'90). (Supplied Photo)

When the Trudeau government prioritized reconciliation with Canada’s Indigenous people, Favel and other members of the Poundmaker First Nation doubled down in their efforts to win exoneration for the chief. An online petition drew more than 4,500 signatures, and Favel and fellow First Nations leaders lobbied politicians. Their efforts paid off earlier this year when at long last Poundmaker was exonerated. 

Favel regards the move as a vital first step toward a comprehensive reparations agreement between Ottawa and the Poundmaker First Nation. He hopes a formal apology also will be part of any final agreement. “The government’s decision should be viewed as an act of literal reconciliation and nation-building,” Favel says. “This is our common history, and so we should embrace Chief Poundmaker as a great Canadian.”

Learn more about Pîhtokahanapiwiyin's story and the exoneration in this CBC Radio news coverage.