Richard Desautel: The original fisherman who “revived” his people in Canada | international

Rick Desautel and Sinixt Board Members.Courtesy

Canada’s Supreme Court ruled on Friday that Senixt could hunt on their ancestral lands in the southwest of the country. The ruling nullified a landmark claim by the Canadian government, which had established in 1956 that the Aboriginal group had become extinct. The vast majority of Sinixt currently live in Lakes Tribe, a nature reserve in the northern United States, a few miles from the border between Washington state and the Canadian province of British Columbia. Smallpox, mining activity, and the arrival of settlers displaced them. According to the ruling, if a group of Aboriginal people located outside of present-day Canadian territory can prove its ancestry in the country, then it is protected by the constitution. “Interpreting the law that excludes the indigenous people who were forced to leave the country runs the risk of perpetuating the historical injustice that these peoples have suffered,” as stated in the final decision of the court. Legal victory, after a decade in court, was caused by a hunter.

In October 2010, Richard Desautel, a Sinixt tribe from the Lake Sanctuary and an American citizen, hunted a deer near Castlegar, British Columbia. Desautel himself contacted the regional authorities to report this incident. He was charged, because British Columbia’s Wildlife Act stipulated that only county residents who belong to a group of indigenous people recognized by the federal government can only hunt without permission. Thus, Desautel began a court battle. “My goal was to go to Canada, like my nomadic ancestors, and not have those invisible borders that prevent me from hunting there,” he told a British Columbia court.

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In 1956, the federal government ceased to consider the Sinixt as an indigenous Canadian group, thus depriving them of any rights. Ottawa has this power under the so-called “India Act”, a mechanism that since 1876 has regulated the activities of indigenous communities. Historians indicate that Sinixt settled for at least 5,000 years in the region that now includes parts of British Columbia and Washington. Smallpox, mining, and the arrival of missionaries and settlers of European descent caused most of the members of this city to move to the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. The few who decided to stay in Canada settled in the Arrow Lakes Reserve, and lived with other indigenous peoples. According to the Canadian government, the last recorded Sinixt at Arrow Lakes died in 1953; Three years later, Ottawa declared this group extinct in the country.

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In 2017, a judge concluded that Richard Desautel “was exercising his traditional right to search for ceremonial purposes, a right guaranteed by the Constitution,” whereby “the application of animal law violates this right without justification”. Desautel won again in the Supreme Court of British Columbia and in the Court of Appeals for that province. Then the provincial government decided to refer the case to the Supreme Court of Canada in October.

On Friday, the body agreed with Desautel (by a majority of seven to two votes), affirming that hunting in the Canadian part was an activity of Sinixt before and after the arrival of Europeans, so they have the right to continue its practice in their ancestral lands, as can other recognized indigenous groups. The ruling sets a precedent, whereby individuals of indigenous origin who dated back to Canada prior to European arrival can exercise a right, even though they are not Canadian citizens or residing in another country.

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After hearing the Supreme Court ruling, Dessautel told the local newspaper Nelson Starr: “This is not just my thing. It is for my family and for future generations. The door is just opening.” An estimated 3,000 Sinixt members live in the United States. In Canada, this number is difficult to pin down, as descendants of this group who did not travel south of the border – and who left Ottawa’s radar – have integrated into other indigenous communities.

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Sacha Woodward

"Wannabe writer. Lifelong problem solver. Gamer. Incurable web guru. Professional music lover."

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