More than 150 years ago, Canada invited chiefs from the indigenous Tsilhqot'in Nation to take part in peace talks. Instead, the five men were arrested upon arrival, tried hastily, and hanged. A sixth chief met the same fate the following year. On Monday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally exonerated the chiefs and apologized, reports the Guardian. "As much as it is in our power to do so, we must right the wrongs of the past," he said. "We are truly sorry." The chiefs were executed in retaliation for the deaths of 14 white members of a government road-building crew who were ambushed while forging a path through Tsilhqot'in territory in 1864—in the midst of a gold rush—without the tribe's permission, explains the CBC. The Tsilhqot'in Nation saw the killings as a justifiable action in what came to be known as the Chilcotin War.
"Our warriors defended our women, our children, our lands," says modern Chief Joe Alphonse. The road workers brought with them the threat of smallpox, which at the time was wiping out indigenous peoples in British Columbia, and some accounts allege the workers also sexually abused Tsilhqot'in women they took hostage. Still, the government viewed the ambush not as an act of war but of murder, notes the Washington Post. The chiefs evaded capture for months until they accepted a peace offering of tobacco and agreed to meet in what they thought would be talks to end the Chilcotin War. "We confirm without reservation that Chief Klatsassin, Chief Biyil, Chief Tilaghed, Chief Taqed, Chief Chayses, and Chief Ahan are fully exonerated of any crime or wrongdoing," said Trudeau.