Colville Tribes hail 'historic victory' on aboriginal hunting rights

A welcome sign on the Colville Reservation in Washington. Photo: Jimmy Emerson

A Washington tribe whose ancestral territory stretches into Canada is celebrating after one of its citizens secured a major aboriginal rights ruling.

Richard Desautel, a citizen of the Colville Tribes, was charged for hunting without a license in British Columbia, Canada, in 2010 and in 2011. Both times, he was cited as a "non-resident" because he lives on his reservation in Washington state.

But Desautel was acquitted on Monday after a judge concluded that he retains aboriginal hunting rights in Canada despite living on the other side of the border. The historic ruling applies to descendants of the Sinixt people, whose homeland stretches from the Arrow Lakes region in British Columbia to the present-day reservation in Washington.

“Today’s ruling closes a dark chapter in the history of the Sinixt,” said Dr. Michael Marchand, the chairman of the Colville Tribes and himself a Sinixt descendant.

Marchand was among those who testified at Desautel's lengthy trial last fall. They noted that the Canadian government declared the Sinixt people "extinct" even though they remain alive and well on both sides of the border.

The Sinixt descendants who “testified stated that they have always hunted; that they have maintained and not forgotten many of their Sinixt ancestors’; that they continue to try to foster those conditions even against the headwinds of the modern world; and that they want to hunt in Sinixt traditional territory in British Columbia,” Judge Lisa Mrozinski of the Provincial Court of British Columbia wrote in the lengthy decision.

Colville citizens in Washington have been closely following the case because of its significance to their northern relatives. Since the Canadian government no longer recognizes the Sinixt as a distinct nation, it's largely been left to the American descendants to re-assert the rights of their people.

Upper Arrow Lake in British Columbia, Canada. Photo: Gwk

The Colville government in fact treats Sinixt territory in British Columbia as no different from the land within the U.S. reservation. That's why Desautel and others have continued to engage in hunts across the border under tribal regulations.

But Desautel, who is a veteran of the U.S. armed forces, always informed authorities in British Columbia about his successful catches, which included two deer and two elk during the time period in question. He had hoped that one day he would be able to prove that the Sinixt people never disappeared.

Desautel described the ruling as one of “tremendous spiritual importance to all Sinixt people, and is entirely consistent with our indigenous and natural laws. I look forward to further strengthening our ties to our Canadian traditional territory and with the people of British Columbia.”

According to the tribe, more than 2,000 of its 9,000-plus citizens are Sinix descendants. They are known as the Lakes Band or the Arrow Lakes Band in recognition of their ties to present-day Canada. A total of 12 bands make up the Colville Tribes.

The Canadian government, however, does not consider the Sinixt descendants to fall under the Indian Act so they aren't treated the same as other aboriginal peoples in Canada. Their status was stripped in 1956 and they have been left in legal and political limbo ever since.

“The Arrow Lakes Band ceased to exist as a band for the purpose of the Indian Act when its last member died on October 1, 1953,” Ron Irwin, a former Indian Affairs minister in Canada said in 1995. “It does not, of course, mean that the Sinixt people ceased to exist as a tribal group.”

Based on that uncertainty, some Sinixt descendants in Canada have asserted a right to be consulted about decisions affecting their land. They contend they should be able to engage in treaty negotiations with British Columbia to address their aboriginal rights. Those issues remain unresolved by the court ruling affecting Desautel.

Despite the challenges ahead, the Colville Tribes are hoping to capitalize on what they are calling a "historic victory." They see the case as one step in a continuing struggle.

“We are very pleased that our history and identity, which are tied up in the spiritual and cultural significance of hunting, have finally been recognized by the Canadian courts, and while we know that further court proceedings lie ahead, we intend to begin a new chapter by focusing on the process of reconciliation and finding our proper place within Canadian society,” Chairman Marchand stated.

British Columbia Provincial Court Decision:
Regina v. Richard Lee Desautel (March 26, 2017)

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