British Columbia

'Extinct' Canadian First Nation wins in court again

A First Nation declared extinct by the federal government over 60 years ago has won yet another court battle to have its existence recognized — this one in the province's highest court.

B.C. Court of Appeal upholds Sinixt rights

The B.C. Court of Appeal has upheld the right of Rick Desautel, centre, a Sinixt man from Washington state, to hunt in Canada. (Bob Keating/CBC)

A First Nation declared extinct by the federal government over 60 years ago has won yet another court battle to have its existence recognized — this one in the province's highest court.

The B.C. Court of Appeal has upheld Rick Desautel's right to hunt in Canada, even though he is an American citizen and his First Nation, the Sinixt, was declared extinct by the federal government in 1956.

In 2010, Desautel travelled to B.C. from his home in Washington state to shoot an elk and alerted B.C. Conservation officers to what he had done. He was then charged under the Wildlife Act with hunting without a licence and being a non-resident. 

Desautel has won in court three times now.

The Sinixt maintain it was pushed off the Canadian portion of its traditional territory by settlers and miners. The court heard the First Nation was declared extinct for the purposes of the Indian Act.

"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 appeals court ruled. 

Desautel, 68, lives on the Colville Reservation, south of the Canada-U.S.border.

He travelled to Canada to hunt in order to challenge the B.C. Wildlife Act and the government's view of the Sinixt as extinct.

Desautel says the ruling is another step toward erasing the Canadian 'extinction' of his people.

"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," said Desautel. 

The Sinixt First Nation has published a handbill proclaiming its existence. (Sinixt First Nation)

 Desautel's lawyer, Mark Underhill, says the ruling pushes back against the notion that borders and displacement can erase rights.

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

Underhill says the province of B.C. can now try to have the case heard by the Supreme Court of Canada or begin 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".

A spokesperson for the attorney general of B.C. said they are reviewing the decision. 

There are believed to be about 3,000 people of Sinixt ancestry living in the U.S. An unknown number were assimilated into other First Nations in southern British Columbia.

The Sinixt traditional territory takes in much of the West Kootenay region, stretching from around Kettle Falls, Wash. to Revelstoke, B.C.