Guardian

Indigenous group, which continued to exist in US after being declared extinct in Canada, still retains rights on ancestral lands in British Columbia, court ruled

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Rick DeSautel, a member of the Sinixt First Nation living in Washington state, won right to hunt on ancestral lands in British Columbia. Photograph: Julie Picardi / Barcroft Images

Sinixt First Nation wins recognition in Canada decades after ‘extinction’

Indigenous group, which continued to exist in US after being declared extinct in Canada, still retains rights on ancestral lands in British Columbia, court ruled.

When Annie Joseph died in the 1950s, she had been the last known member of the Sinixt First Nation in Canada for more than a decade – and with her death, the country’s government declared the band extinct.

But some 60 years later, the Sinixt have won an unprecedented court victory to have their existence recognized in Canada.

The provincial court hearing, which began last autumn in the city of Nelson, British Columbia, stemmed from charges laid against Rick DeSautel, who lives on a reservation in Washington state, just south of the Canada-US border.

For years, DeSautel had regularly crossed into Canada to hunt. In 2010, after he killed an elk some 40 miles north of the US border, conservation officers charged him with hunting without a licence and hunting as a non-resident.

DeSautel took his case to court, arguing that as a member of the Sinixt First Nation – whose land straddled parts of Canada and the US – he had been exercising his right to hunt in the traditional territory of his ancestors.

The Crown countered that the Sinixt First Nation ceased to exist in 1956.

This week the court sided with DeSautel, acquitting him of all charges and recognising that the Sinixt – who were gradually pushed into the American part of their territory more than a century ago – still have rights in Canada.

“The overwhelming historical evidence is that the Sinixt continue to exist today as a group,” said Judge Lisa Mrozinski after days of hearings that considered genealogical and mission records, as well as oral histories.

Despite living south of the border the Sinixt continue to have the right, she said, “to hunt in their traditional territory in what is now British Columbia as they had done for several thousands years before contact”.

As she read her decision, cheers reportedly rang out among the dozens of Sinixt from Washington state who had packed into the courtroom to hear her verdict. Others wiped away tears of joy.

DeSauntel welcomed the ruling. “Tradition and honour, and the history of where we came from was the basis of the decision,” the 64-year-old told reporters outside the courthouse.

“For me, to come back into this part of the country and exercise my traditional rights to hunt as my ancestors did, should not be denied by someone who came in and said, ‘You no longer exist here.’”

For more than 10,000 years the Sinixt lived along a wide swath of territory that today spans the US and Canada, stretching from the Kootenay region in British Columbia to Kettle Falls in Washington state.

In the 18th century the band was decimated by smallpox epidemics. Those who survived were driven south by a series of incursions by settlers, loggers and miners, with many Sinixt eventually joining what is now the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington state.

The population of Sinixt in Canada declined swiftly at the end of the 19th century – one researcher told the court that by 1903, band records suggested the population had dwindled to 23 people.

After Annie Joseph died in the 1950s, the government in Ottawa declared the Sinixt extinct in Canada.

At the time, more than 250 Sinixt were thought to be living in the US, the court heard. The discrepancy, the judge noted, came after “the forces of history operating in the latter half of the 19th century left the Sinixt stranded in the southern portion of their territory”.

But the location of members had little bearing on their connection to their land in Canada, said the judge. “I am left with no doubt that the land was not forgotten, that the traditions were not forgotten and that the connection to the land is ever present in the minds of the members.”

DeSautel’s lawyer described it as a landmark decision, in that a provincial court had clearly stated that the Sinixt exist in Canada. “It’s been a long dark chapter in their history and their identity has been recognised after many generations,” said Mark Underhill. “This decision affirms a simple but fundamentally important principle – no law, government policy or even international border can erase aboriginal identity.”