Haida people shouldn't need permission to cross Canada-U.S. border within Haida territory, lawyer argues

A pair of Haida basketball players from Alaska were detained after entering Canada without checking in at the border, re-opening the legal debate over whether Indigenous people need permission to travel within their traditional territories when it straddles international lines.

Basketball players from Alaska detained for not checking in with border agent while entering Canada

Vinny Edenshaw, left, and Greg Frisby are two Haida basketball players from Alaska who were temporarily taken into custody for entering Canada without checking in with the border services agency. The lawyer representing them argued that Haida citizens do not need permission to travel within Haida territory. (Bonita Ross)

A lawyer is arguing members of the Haida Nation should not need permission to cross international lines within their own territory after a pair of Haida basketball players from Alaska were detained in Canada earlier this month.

Vinny Edenshaw and Greg Frisby are based out of Hydaburg, Alaska, just north of Haida Gwaii in B.C.

The pair travelled by boat to Massett in Haida Gwaii and then on to Prince Rupert to take part in the All Native Basketball tournament at the beginning of February.

While there, they were placed into custody for not checking in with the Canada Border Services Agency, said their lawyer Terry-Lynn Williams-Davidson.

Williams-Davidson said she negotiated the pair's release by noting both men are members of the Haida Nation, traveling within Haida territory. 

The players travelled from Hydaburg, Alaska to Masset, B.C., by boat and then on to Prince Rupert. (Google Maps)

According to the council of the Haida Nation, the players were facing a deportation order that would have barred them from entering Canada for life, but the CBSA agreed to a reduced exclusion order that won't allow them to return for one year.

The council and Williams-Davidson argue people recognized as Haida citizens should have free passage within their territory between Canada and the United States. 

​"It's a route we've taken in the past for trade, for ceremonies, for potlatches... a route that all of our ancestors have done,"  Williams-Davidson said.

"You can see Alaska from Masset, so it's not a long commute."

Canada-U.S. border ongoing issue for Indigenous people

Indigenous people throughout North America have criticized Canada's handling of travel within territory that straddles the Canada-U.S. border.

They point to the 1794 Jay Treaty, signed by the United States and Great Britain, that allowed for the free passage of Indigenous people across the border following the American Revolution.

However, the issue is more complicated in practice, and the Jay Treaty has never formally been adopted by the Canadian government.

While the United States recognizes the 1794 Jay Treaty, Canada does not. (Angela MacIvor/CBC)

According to the CBSA, Indigenous people face the same rules as anyone else when entering the country.

In contrast, the United States allows Indigenous people from Canada to travel to, live and work in the U.S. if they can prove they have at least 50-per-cent Indigenous blood.

In 2016, Canada's federal government appointed a special adviser to looking into border-crossing issues faced by Indigenous people.

​In August 2017, canoes from the Jamestown S'Klallam, Queets, Quileute and Quinault tribes entered British Columbia from Washington state without being detained by the border authorities.

When asked why, the CBSA stated they "do not speak about specific organizations, events or individuals."

With files from George Baker.


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About the Author

Andrew Kurjata

@akurjata

Andrew Kurjata is a radio producer and digital journalist in northern British Columbia, situated in the traditional territory of the Lheidli T'enneh in Prince George. Email: andrew.kurjata@cbc.ca | Twitter: @akurjata | Secure PGP: http://www.akurjata.ca