High Country News
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High Country News

Supreme Court of Canada affirms trans-boundary Indigenous rights

The Arrow Lakes Band is one of many Indigenous communities bisected and disrupted by a border about which they were never consulted.

Desautel scouts for elk in traditional Sinixt lands near Seven Summits in Canada. | Anna V. Smith / High Country News

The United States and Canada closed their shared border to “nonessential travel” to curb the spread of COVID-19 on March 21, 2020. Spring turned to summer and then fall, and the closure was extended; it was the first time in a long time that Rick Desautel, a member of the Arrow Lakes Band and a descendant of Sinixt First Nation, did not drive north across the border from his home on the Colville Reservation in Washington to hunt in his tribe’s ancestral lands.

Desautel’s right — and by extension, the right of any tribal member of the Arrow Lakes Band — to hunt those lands has been the focus of litigation that began after a strategic elk hunt by Desautel a decade ago in 2010, at the direction of the Colville tribal council. He hunted without a license, and then he turned himself in to the Canadian game wardens. It was part of a concerted effort by Desautel and the tribe to reaffirm their rights as Indigenous people and thereby challenge the Canadian government’s 1956 assertion that the Sinixt were “extinct.” The case, which was heard in October by the Supreme Court of Canada, asked the question: Do today’s U.S.-based Arrow Lakes Band tribal members, as Sinixt descendants driven from their ancestral lands in Canada, have a legal right to hunt their historic territory in British Columbia, without being Canadian citizens?

In an image from 2019, Rick Desautel has coffee in the Big House, a log cabin on the 30-acre property the Arrow Lakes Band bought after the road blockade in the 1980s in their traditional territory. | Anna V. Smith / High Country News

On Friday, seven of the Supreme Court justices affirmed the lower courts’ rulings and answered: Yes. The Sinixt never ceded their lands or their rights, and they persisted through colonization. A decision that would deny rights to Indigenous people “who were forced to move out of Canada would risk perpetuating the historical injustice suffered by Aboriginal peoples at the hands of Europeans,” the majority wrote. Two justices dissented, arguing that the Arrow Lakes Band did not fit the definition of “Aboriginal peoples of Canada,” a previously undefined term, and that they had not established “continuity” with pre-European contact practices.

The immediate result is that Arrow Lakes Band tribal members officially have a legal right to hunt their ancestral lands in Canada. It also means that the Canadian courts recognize that the Sinixt people persist, with their Indigenous rights to land, culture and resources intact. Because of Desautel’s case, tribal nations based in what is now the U.S. with historic ties to what is now Canada can seek to have their rights recognized in Canada. Twelve tribal nations and organizations from either side of the border had intervened in the case, which drew international attention. The Arrow Lakes Band is just one of many Indigenous communities bisected and disrupted by a colonial border they were never consulted about.

Read more: https://www.hcn.org/articles/indigenous-affairs-hunting-supreme-court-of-canada-affirms-trans-boundary-indigenous-rights

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