For decades, courts and governments had told Rick Desautel that his people no longer exist in Canada.
But Desautel and others in his community in Washington state have long argued that they are descendants of Sinixt, an indigenous people whose territory once spanned Canada and the United States.
On Friday, Canada’s highest court agreed and ruled that Desautel and the other 4,000 members of the Confederate Colville tribes in Washington state were successors to the Sinixt and, as a result, enjoy constitutionally protected indigenous rights to hunt. their traditional lands in Canada.
The court’s closely monitored decision resolved long-standing questions about the status of Sinixt, but it also has the potential to affirm hunting rights in Canada for tens of thousands of Native Americans living in the United States without land. traditional by an international border drawn hundreds of years ago.
“I was so nervous before the decision. I don’t think I slept more than an hour the night before, ”Desautel said. “When the decision was made, I let out a huge sigh of relief.”
In 1955, after the Sinixt were pushed to Washington state, the Canadian government declared them extinct. Almost 60 years later, Rick Desautel decided to challenge the idea that his people no longer existed.
In 2010, he crossed into British Columbia without a permit to hunt moose, arguing that he had long-standing treaty rights to do so. The province of British Columbia disagreed, slapped him with a fine and fought him all the way to the supreme court.
The question for the court was how to interpret section 35.1 of the Canadian Charter, which recognizes the treaty rights of the “Aboriginal Peoples of Canada.
The court concluded that “Aboriginal peoples of Canada” refers to modern successors to indigenous societies that occupied Canadian territory during European contact, even if those societies and their members, including Sinixt, are now located outside of Canada.
“Excluding Aboriginal peoples who moved or were forced to move, or whose territory was divided by a border, would add to the injustice of colonialism.” the court wrote on friday.
“Today was an indescribable moment for us,” said Rodney Cawston, president of the Confederate Tribes of Colville. Before the trial, he said, members had gathered in Kettle Falls, a historic Sinixt fishing site, for morning prayers. “Everyone was absolutely ecstatic when we received the news … It has been a very long battle for our people. A lot of our people and our ancestors have been working on it for a long time. “
In addition to reaffirming Sinixt’s rights, legal experts have said, the ruling in favor of Desautel could affect thousands of indigenous peoples separated from ancestral territory in Canada when the border was drawn.
The decision could recognize Canadian hunting and fishing rights for peoples of the United States whose traditional territory was north of the border. The ruling also raises questions about whether nations whose members live in the US but have treaty rights in Canada should be consulted on resource projects.
Despite Desautel’s success, there are no comparable provisions in the United States constitution that may apply to indigenous peoples in Canada who pursue fishing or hunting rights south of the border.
But for Desautel, the decision represents a powerful victory for future generations.
“My grandchildren and their children can look beyond the border crossing and say, ‘That’s what we started right there.’ And now they can cross that imaginary line and visit the territories of our ancestors, ”he said.
“They can see all the adversities their ancestors faced – logging, mining and smallpox – and they know they are the by-product of that ability to survive.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism