British Columbia

U.S. hunter fights for recognition of extinct Sinixt First Nation

A U.S. hunter is heading to court today to prove he's a member of a B.C. First Nation that was declared extinct by the federal government over half a century ago.

Canadian government declared the Sinixt First Nation extinct and struck it from the Indian Act 60 years ago

Rick Desautel, centre left with arms crossed, stands in front of the Nelson courthouse on Monday morning with members of the Colville Confederated Tribes, awaiting the start of a hearing into the existence of the Sinixt First Nation. (Bob Keating/CBC)

A U.S. hunter is heading to court today to prove he's a member of a B.C. First Nation that was declared extinct by the federal government over half a century ago.

"I say, I'm still here," said Rick Desautel, 64, a Washington State man who lives on the Colville Reservation, just south of the Canada-U.S. Border.

Every fall for several years, he's been coming across the border into what he considers his traditional territory near Castlegar to hunt for elk, moose and deer. 

And once he bags one, he phones the B.C. Conservation Officer Service and tells them what he's done.

"I called them up and told them I was hunting. We didn't want to make no secret of it. We are up there practicing our Aboriginal rights."

Desautel, who was first charged in 2010 with hunting without a licence and hunting as a non-resident, will finally go on trial Monday.

He will argue that as a member of the Arrow Lakes or Sinixt people he has the right to hunt in the Kootenays.

But according to the Canadian government, there is no Sinxit First Nation and that means no Aboriginal hunting rights.

Over the next five weeks in a Nelson courtroom, Desautel's lawyer, Mark Underhill, will attempt to prove the Sinixt are still a people.

10,000 years of history

History shows the Sinixt lost a lot of their numbers to smallpox epidemics and later were further pushed out of their traditional territory around Castlegar by settlers and miners. The last Sinixt person in Canada, Annie Joseph, died in the early 1950s.

Then in 1956, the First Nation was struck from the Indian Act by the federal government and declared extinct.

The challenge for Underhill and Desautel will be to prove that's not the end of their story.

"They basically have to go into court and prove they still exist," said Underhill.

The hearing is scheduled to last up to five weeks. Underhill says he will be using genealogical records, mission records and oral history to tell the history of the Sinixt from pre-contact times to the present day.

The Sinixt spoke a dialect of the Salish language and lived in the West Kootenay around Castlegar and down into what is now northern Washington State for about 10,000 years. At the time of contact with Europeans, there were about 3,000 Sinixt in their traditional territory.

The Sinixt claim the the blue-shaded area in the West Kooteney is their traditional territory. (Google map/CBC)

Competing claims at stake

Both the federal and provincial governments acknowledge there are descendants of the Sinixt who moved to the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington State or into the Okanagan Nation Alliance to the west in the 1950s.

In recent years, they have been promoting their sovereignty, and there are now Sinixt descendants living in the Slocan Valley and other parts of the West Kootenay.

But since they are not a registered First Nation, the area around Nelson, Castlegar, Trail, Grand Forks is one of the few places in B.C. without an official resident First Nation presence — no reserves, no mission schools, no band offices.

And there is another complication that might explain why Desautel was arrested and charged in 2010, but never ended up in court  — until now.

In the absence of an official First Nation in the West Kootenay, the Ktunaxa First Nation has claimed the land in the West Kootenay as its traditional hunting, fishing and trading territory.

The Ktunaxa are based in the East Kootenay around Cranbrook, Invermere and Creston and are in the late stages of the treaty process. There is speculation the provincial government wants this land dispute settled before a treaty with the Ktunaxa is signed.

But first, Underhill will have to prove the Sinixt extinction was unjustified. Then, he'll have to make a case as to why Desautel should be allowed to cross an international border and hunt on land Desautel says should be recognized as his people's traditional territory.