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  • The Confederated Tribes and the Colville Indian Reservation are made up of 12 aboriginal tribes, including the Sinixt.

    The Confederated Tribes and the Colville Indian Reservation are made up of 12 aboriginal tribes, including the Sinixt. | Photo: Wikicommons-US National Archives and Records Administration

Published 3 May 2019

About 3,000 people of Sinixt ancestry are believed to be living in the United States while an unknown number assimilated into other First Nations in southern British Columbia.

United States citizen and First Nation Sinixt, Rick Desautel, ancestral rights were upheld after he was awarded the right to hunt in neighboring Canada following a landmark ruling by the British Colombia Court of Appeal.

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"Mr. Desautel was not foreclosed from claiming an Aboriginal right to hunt in British Columbia, even though he is not a citizen or resident of Canada," the appellate court ruled.

Desautel was victorious - for the third time - despite the Sinixt people being declared extinct by the Canadian federal government some 60 years ago.

"Very gratified to see our Indigenous traditions, spirituality and laws upheld once again, and I will continue my work to strengthen our relationships to the land and with the people of British Columbia," Desautel said and explained that the court’s decision was a step towards reestablishing the existence of his people.

Desautel argued in provincial court that he was exercising his constitutional right to hunt for ceremonial purposes.

"To my knowledge, there has not been a case like this when you are literally fighting about your existence," Desautel's lawyer, Mark Underhill, stated. "It's an astonishing thing if you take a step back from it, but that is what this case was about".

The Sinixt people have long argued that their territories were appropriated and they had been pushed off the Canadian region by settlers and miners.

“Once again, the Courts have resoundingly rejected the argument that Aboriginal identity can be erased by the imposition of laws, government policy, or an international border. This is an important victory for all indigenous peoples on both sides of the border,” Underhill explained.

However, the office of the attorney general of British Columbia said they are reviewing the decision. 

“If the government chooses to pursue a further appeal, we will step up to defend it, and will do whatever it takes to ensure that the rights of our ancestors are preserved for future generations,” Rodney Cawston, the Chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation (CCT), said.

Underhill echoed the sentient, adding that the next step uncertain, since the case can either go to the Supreme Court of Canada or the government can choose to initiate the process of reconciliation with the Sinixt, who are also known as the Lakes People. 

"We'll be pressing the government to stop the litigation and to focus on, as the courts have repeatedly said, including in this decision, the process of reconciliation," the attorney said.

Desautel was charged under the Wildlife Act for hunting without a licence and being a non-resident after traveling to British Colombia in 2010, from Washington state, to shoot an elk. Desautel resides on the Colville Reservation, south of the Canada-U.S.border.

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The Crown had argued in its appeal that Canada’s constitutional protection of Aboriginal and treaty rights should not extend to non-residents.

But the Appeal Court countered that “Aboriginal rights are inherent rights that existed at the time of contact. What flows from those rights continues to evolve,” adding that those concerns are “not material” to the central question of whether or not Desautel can hunt in Canada.

About 3,000 people of Sinixt ancestry are believed to be living in the United States while an unknown number assimilated into other First Nations in southern British Columbia.

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