British Columbia

Ronald Sparrow, defendant in major Indigenous rights case, has died

Ronald (Bud) Sparrow, a major figure for B.C. First Nations who was a defendant in a Supreme Court case that defined Indigenous fishing rights in Canada, has died.

1990 'Sparrow Case' defined scope of Indigenous fishing rights in Canada

Bud Sparrow was the defendant in the renowned 'Sparrow Case,' which was settled by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1990. (Indspire)

Ronald (Bud) Sparrow, a major figure for B.C. First Nations who was a defendant in a Supreme Court case that defined Indigenous fishing rights in Canada, has died.

The Musqueam Nation said in a written statement that Sparrow passed away on Sept. 14, and described him as "a quiet, determined and proud member of Musqueam."

"As a skilled and accomplished commercial fisher, he travelled up and down the west coast of B.C. to provide for his family and community," the statement read in part.

Sparrow was the defendant in the renowned "Sparrow Case," which was decided by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1990.

The case was the first in Canada to consider the nature and scope of Indigenous fishing rights in Canada's repatriated constitution, and ultimately decided they were "recognized, affirmed and protected as legal rights surviving the colonial era and founding of Confederation."

Judith Sayers, a lawyer specializing in the protection of First Nations rights and title as well as current president of the Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council, said the case was "a great victory."

"It really set out some legal foundations in all rights, not just fishing cases. So in that way, it reverberated across the country and in other countries," Sayers said.

In the case, Sparrow was arrested and charged with having a net that was too long while he was fishing on the Fraser River in 1984. He fought the charge, pleading not guilty, saying that he could fish however he chose as per his Aboriginal right. While he lost in the lower courts, he eventually won at the Supreme Court six years later. 

Sayers said she wasn't sure whether Sparrow knew how important his legal battle would end up being.

"I think he really thought, 'I'm just fighting for myself,' and you know he was mad that they had charged him, but I don't think he knew the significance that this case would have," she said.

Musqueam Chief Wayne Sparrow wrote in the statement that Sparrow "left our people at Musqueam and Indigenous peoples across Canada with a tremendous legal legacy. We will always be grateful for his quiet determination in fighting for our rights."

Premier John Horgan wrote in a tweet that Sparrow's courage and leadership "led to an important, precedent-setting Supreme Court of Canada decision that advanced Indigenous rights across the country," and offered his condolences to the Musqueam Nation.

With files from On The Coast

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