British Columbia

'A landmark decision': Sinixt First Nation react to Supreme Court ruling confirming existence

The Supreme Court of Canada on Friday upended the federal government's 65-year-old claim that his Indigenous nation from British Columbia's Interior was extinct.

'We're not going back to the museum and standing next to the dinosaurs,' said Sinixt man Richard Desautel

Richard Desautel went to the Supreme Court of Canada with the goal of proving the Sinixt First Nation's existence in Canada. (Submitted by Mark Underhill)

"We're not going back to the museum and standing next to the dinosaurs."

That's how Richard Desautel of the Sinixt Nation reacted Friday morning after Canada's highest court upended the federal government's 65-year-old claim that his Indigenous nation from southeastern British Columbia was extinct.

Desautel, the man at the centre of the case, is a member of the Lakes Tribe of the Colville Confederated Tribes based in Washington state, a successor group of the Sinixt people.. 

In 2010, he purposely shot and killed an elk in the traditional territory of the Sinixt in the Arrow Lakes region in B.C.'s Kootenay region in order to challenge the extinction claim. Desautel phoned the B.C. Conservation Officer Service after his successful hunt to report himself and was charged with hunting without a licence.

Lawyer Mark Underhill, who represented Desautel and the Sinixt, said it's been a long journey for him.

"He was the one willing to step up and get charged to bring Sinixt rights to the forefront. So he was very emotional this morning," Underhill said. 

"I welcomed him home."

The majority of the Sinixt's traditional territory is in British Columbia. (Rob Easton/CBC)

The Sinixt live on both sides of the U.S.-Canada border, Underhill said, and many Sinixt people are now members of other bands in Canada, principally the Okanagan, and the Colville Tribes in the U.S.

Underhill said it's been illegal for members in the U.S. to come up and practice their culture in British Columbia since 1896. The ruling — which only focuses on hunting rights — sets up the Sinixt as rights holders, no matter where they live. 

"This is about reclaiming their identity," said Underhill. "It really, really, really means everything to them."

Rodney Cawston, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation and the Sinixt Confederacy, said the ruling is a first step. 

"We're going to continue that work of addressing our aboriginal title again back in Canada and also recognition of all of those areas for our people of where they once lived that are very sacred to us still today.

"This is a landmark decision."

With files from Bob Keating