The Doc Project

Canada declared the Sinixt extinct. But the Sinixt say they are alive and well

The Canadian government declared the Sinixt First Nation extinct and struck it from the Indian Act in 1956. The group is still fighting today for recognition to prove that they are, indeed, living.

‘Being told in a thousand different ways that you don't matter by society, it adds up,’ says Shelly Boyd

Shelly Boyd in a drum circle at the Inchelium Community Center in Washington. (Bob Keating )
Listen to the full episode29:14

The Sinixt are interior Salish people, one of the first nations that lived primarily in interior British Columbia and the northern United States. Nobody knows how long they've been here; long before the Romans built Rome and the Greeks built the Parthenon.

Over the past two centuries the Sinixt were pushed out of Canada. The surviving members took refuge in Washington state — the southern end of their traditional territory.

Despite their existence south of the Canadian border, in 1956 the federal government officially declared the Sinixt First Nation "extinct." For those remaining members south of the border in the U.S., the decision meant they were left without recognition under the Indian Act.

I grew up knowing I was declared extinct. I know that was painful in a way a little girl couldn't understand.- Shelly Boyd

The discovery of Sinixt graves in B.C.'s Slocan Valley in 1989 rekindled a desire among the First Nation to go home.

"I grew up knowing I was declared extinct. I know that was painful in a way a little girl couldn't understand," says Shelly Boyd, a Sinixt facilitator from Washington.

But that extinction does not suit Boyd and the Sinixt anymore.

Now, after fighting three B.C. court cases, the Sinixt will be heading to the Supreme Court of Canada to try and prove their very existence and reverse the extinction bestowed on them half a century ago.

Pushed out of traditional territory

To understand that official "extinct" categorization and the Sinixt's struggle to reverse it, we have to go back to the 1700s.

The Sinixt lived in what is primarily a north-south valley stretching from grassy hills at present day Kettle Falls, Wash., to glacier crusted peaks near Revelstoke, B.C.

Shelly Boyd loads her homemade canoe into Arrow Lakes. (Bob Keating)

It's rugged, mountainous country with the Columbia River running through the heart of it.

The river was both a highway and grocery store, bringing the Sinixt more salmon than they could possibly consume during epic seasonal runs, supplementing their diet the rest of the year.

Diseases the Sinixt had never seen arrived, passed from tribe to tribe, anticipating the arrival of men with beards, which they'd never seen either.

The first smallpox pandemic arrived in Sinixt country around 1770 and is believed to have killed three quarters of them.

By the time Thompson arrived the population was already dramatically reduced by as much as 80 per cent.-Eileen Delehanty Pearkes, author

When explorer David Thompson paddled down the Columbia River into Sinixt territory 30 years later, they were already a shadow of their former selves.

"By the time Thompson arrived, the population was already dramatically reduced by as much as 80 per cent," says author Eileen Delehanty Pearkes, who's written extensively about the Sinixt.

After disease decimated their numbers, the usual parade of missionaries, miners and settlers poured into the West Kootenay region of B.C. and pushed them off their territory, and some moved south to the U.S.

The 1902 census records 21 Sinixt in the Canadian end of their territory.

By 1930 there was one Sinixt member left in Canada: Annie Joseph. She died in Vernon, B.C., in 1953.

The federal government wasted little time declaring the Sinixt extinct in 1956. This meant they were no longer a registered people in Canada with the rights of a First Nation.

In the eyes of the Canadian government, they were a people no more.

Dancer at the Inchelium Community Center. (Bob Keating)

Taking refuge across the border

When the Sinixt were pushed out of Canada, the surviving members took refuge at the southern end of their traditional territory in Washington state.

The U.S. government created a giant reservation in 1872 and eventually moved a dozen different nations onto it.

The Americans then took half the reservation back and offered it up to white settlement, the only true Sinixt territory in the U.S. included.

You have a whole generation where it was something that was so hurtful they just didn't talk about it.- Michael Finley, Sinixt historian

They were moved again to a small settlement on the banks of the Columbia River, called Inchelium, off their traditional lands. Their numbers shrank down to as low as 257 registered tribal members.

They were encouraged to forget who they were.

"You have a whole generation where it was something that was so hurtful they just didn't talk about it," says Sinixt historian Michael Finley.

Historian Michael Finley near Inchelium, Washington. (Bob Keating)

A longing for home rekindled

In Canada, they continued to be considered extinct. But extinction never suited the Sinixt.

They maintain they were pushed out of Canada (which contains 80 per cent of their pre-contact traditional territory) and onto the Colville Confederated Tribes Reservation in eastern Washington state.

Then one summer day in 1989, a road building crew unearthed Sinixt graves in the Slocan Valley in B.C.

Canadian authorities didn't bother to tell the Sinixt because they were considered extinct, but word drifted down to Inchelium.

The Sinixt mobilized and headed north to protect the gravesites, elder Melanie Burris among them.

Yvonne Swan was at the original 1989 blockade that sent many of her people to Canada. (Bob Keating)

"She was among the first six that went up to blockade," says Sinixt Elder Yvonne Swan, who was also there. "The mission was to get the remains and rebury them".

The blockade lasted months and the Sinixt camp took on a look of permanence. In the end, the B.C. government relented and returned the remains.

It was a stunning victory by a tiny American Indian tribe over a foreign government, a full year before that hot, tense summer at Oka.

It rekindled a desire among Sinixt members to go home.

The Sinixt were eventually settled in Inchelium, Washington. (Bob Keating)

Waiting for recognition

After the blockade, the Sinixt appointed a Canadian facilitator to introduce them to people of West Kootenay, most of whom had no idea there was ever a First Nation there.

The Sinixt waited for recognition from the B.C. government that they were the legitimate First Nation of the region.

It never came.

"Being told in a thousand different ways that you don't matter by society, it adds up," says Boyd.

I went up there to pick a fight.- Rick DeSautel

Frustrated by inaction, in 2010 the Sinixt leadership sent hunter Rick DeSautel into Canada to harvest an elk.

DeSautel phoned the B.C. conservation service to say what he'd done.

Rich Desautel (middle), a Sinixt man from Washington State, stands outside the Nelson courthouse with members of the Colville Confederated Tribes after his acquittal on March 27, 2017. (Bob Keating/CBC)

"Yeah, I went up there to pick a fight, " he says.

DeSautel was charged with being a non-resident hunter and hunting without a license.

His case churned through the B.C. court system for almost a decade and the Sinixt won at every level.

"I have found in this case that when Mr. DeSautel hunted the cow-elk near Castlegar, British Columbia, on Oct. 1, 2010, he was exercising an Aboriginal right: that is the Aboriginal right of the Sinixt people to hunt in their traditional territory," ruled the original trial judge, Lisa Mrozinski.

...there has not been a case like this when you are literally fighting about your existence.- Mark Underhill, lawyer for the Sinixt

It is a decision the B.C. attorney general's office has appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada.

Mark Underhill, a lawyer for the Sinixt, says a lot more than hunting rights is at stake.

Mark Underhill, a lawyer for the Sinixt, at his Vancouver office. Underhill was also involved in the Delgamuukw case. (Bob Keating)

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

The case is expected to begin this spring in Ottawa.

To hear the full documentary, tap or click the 'Listen' link at the top of this page. 

About the Producer

Bob Keating is the CBC's reporter in southeast B.C. He has been reporting on the story of the Sinixt for almost two decades. 

Bob Keating on the making of the audio documentary Rumours of Extinction
The Christmas decoration Bob selected from Sinixt elder Melanie Burris (Bob Keating/CBC)

The best stories are the ones you don't quite believe when you're first told of them. That is the case with the Sinixt and their 1956 declaration of extinction in Canada.

Of course, I realize communities of people were driven to extinction by colonialists all over this planet, among the most renowned in Canada being the Beothuk of Newfoundland. But an extinct people who aren't extinct? A people who are awoken by their dead ancestors to fight their extinction in court.

It's the type of story that comes across a reporter's desk a few times in a career. It was one of the first documentaries I put together for the CBC from the Kootenays, and I've followed it for almost two decades.

In 2019, I was invited to a celebration of life for Melanie Burris, a Sinixt elder who helped lead the blockade in 1989. Her grandson, Neil Swan, instructed me to select one of Melanie's belongings. He said that it would be an insult if I didn't. I chose a ceramic angel, and it sat on my desk as I worked on this story.  

I've told variations of the Sinixt story dozens of times but never the entire tale from beginning to (near) end.
It felt cathartic to lay it all out for The Doc Project.

- Bob Keating

This documentary was edited by Acey Rowe.