Sinixt struggle to reverse ‘extinct’ status earns key court win

Listen to our interview with Mark Underhill, the lawyer who represented a Sinixt man in a key court case held in Nelson, B.C. He said the ruling was a milestone for the Sinixt struggle to gain legal rights under Canadian law and reverse their 'extinct' status.

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Sinixt people pictured in a sturgeon nosed canoe. Photo: Arrow Lakes Historical Society

Advocates for the Sinixt are calling a Mar. 27 ruling delivered in a Nelson, B.C. courtroom a watershed moment for their long struggle for recognition and rights under Canadian law.

Sinixt hunter Richard Desautel is a resident of Washinton state where he lives on the Colville Reservation. In 2010, he was charged in B.C. for killing an elk while hunting in the Castlegar area. His hunt was intended as a challenge to the federal government’s position that the Sinixt are extinct, or rather, extinct for the purposes of the Indian Act.

The incident led to a charge under the B.C. Wildlife Act, and in the resulting court case lawyer Mark Underhill represented Mr. Desutel and argued for traditional Sinixt rights to hunt in the area.

The Mar. 27 ruling by judge Lisa Mronzinski found that Desautel does have an aboriginal right to hunt for food in traditional Sinixt territory in Canada, which ranged as far north as Revelstoke.

Judge Mronzinski’s decision is a key milestone in the Sinixt struggle for recognition under Canadian law.

Listen to our interview with Mark Underhill, the lawyer who represented Desautel. He said the ruling was a milestone. Click on the play button on the SoundCloud app below to listen to the Revelstoke Mountaineer Podcast. The intro is the same text as this story; the interview with Mark Underhill starts at 2:20 in the recording.

The federal government declared the Sinixt extinct in 1956, after the last residents of a small reserve near Oatscott on the Lower Arrow Lake died. The Sinixt say their traditional territory included seasonal hunting grounds that stretched from Washington state to the Revelstoke area in Canada.

Starting in the 1800s, pressure from settlers and miners in the Arrow Lakes area led many Sinixt to settle in Washington state, where they were eventually cut off by the Canadian border from traditional activities like hunting.

This has led to recent legal challenges in the Sinixt struggle to regain traditional rights in Canada.

The Mar. 27 ruling is significant foot in the door in this legal saga.

In evidence introduced during the three-week trial, the defence argued that adverse conditions, including pressure and incursions by settlers and miners forced the Sinixt southwards into the U.S., where they were eventually cut off to seasonal hunting grounds by the border.

The government argued that they left voluntarily.

In her reasons for judgement, Judge Mronzinski noted the seasonal nature of Sinixt hunting practices in the pre-contact era, and found that they accessed seasonal hunting grounds as far north where Revelstoke is now located.

Despite the Sinixt’s historical move to what is now the U.S., the judge found they had not given up their connection to these traditional territories and therefore maintained Aboriginal rights.

Mr. Desautel was acquitted. Outside the courtroom, dozens of residents from the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington joined the hunter in celebration.

The win is being hailed as an important victory for the Sinixt, but it’s expected the government will appeal the case, with some saying it could go all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.

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Aaron Orlando
Aaron Orlando is the Creative Director of revelstokemountaineer.com and Revelstoke Mountaineer Magazine. He's worked in Revelstoke as a journalist and editor for the past ten years. Got tips on Revelstoke news, entertainment, sports, outdoor life, community or anything else? Email aaron@revelstokemountaineer.com or call/text Aaron at 250-814-8710.