Acquittal In Canadian Court Revives Tribe, Strengthens Sovereignty

Mar 27, 2017

The traditional territory of the Sinixt tribe spans a wide swath of northeast Washington and southern British Columbia. But, you’ve probably never heard of them -- in part because Canada declared them extinct decades ago.

But the Sinixt are back. That’s thanks in large part to a Washington state man with Sinixt roots who just won a landmark court case.

More than 50 Canadian and American tribal members gathered to celebrate a court victory that affirmed a connection to their historic homeland. They hugged each other and threw their arms in the air. Many cried tears of joy and relief as they listened to a traditional honor song.

The case has gone on for nearly seven years. It took Provincial Court Judge Lisa Mrozinski in Nelson, British Columbia, two hours to read aloud her judgment. It acquitted Rick Desautel of illegal hunting north of the U.S.-Canada border.

An extinct tribe

Desautel is Sinixt from Washington state. Like many of his relatives, he was born and raised on the banks of the Columbia River on the Colville Reservation.

“One of the big things that I wanted to get was have the invisibility of me erased so I can come back here and have some input on things that are happening in this country to save a lot of this history that is still here,” Desautel said.

In 2010, he crossed the 49th parallel to hunt for elk on the traditional hunting grounds of the Sinixt tribe in Canada. It’s the only Indian tribe the Canadian government has deemed extinct.

After more than a century of conflict between the Sinixt and miners, loggers and other white settlers, the last remaining Canadian Sinixt member died in 1956. But many others moved or were forced south into Washington state. Between 3,000 and 4,000 Sinixt live on the Colville reservation today. They are also known as the Arrow Lakes Band.

“I think we’ve been waiting, hoping, praying for this day since the 1800s, probably,” Confederated Tribes of the Colville Chairman Michael Marchand said. He is also a Sinixt descendent.

“I was raised by my ancestors and me elders and they talked about how we need to do this and I always felt this day would come,” Marchand said. “It’s just a matter of when and it’s here. I’m happy. This is where our ancestors live and where we continue to live and it’s just a very happy day.”

‘Exercising an aboriginal right’

According to the decision, when Desautel went hunting in 2010, “he was exercising an aboriginal right… of the Sinixt people to hunt in their traditional territory… as they had done for several thousand years.” The judge pointed to historic evidence that indicates the Sinixt were prolific hunters and they may not have willingly moved south to the Colville Reservation.

The judge’s ruling means Washington’s Sinixt members can now hunt in Canada with minimal restriction.

Attorney Mark Underhill, who represented Desautel in the case, called it a “landmark decision.” And while he said it’s “a bit trite” to say that the Sinixt now exist in Canada, he called it profound.

“Because for practical purposes, they were considered to be extinct,” Underhill said. “So now, there’s a clear statement by the courts of this province that they exist.”

“There’s all sorts of interesting little practical little legal issues we will have to wrestle with in the months ahead and an inevitable appeal I am sure,” Underhill added. “But as a practical matter, [Sinixt members] can come up here and at a minimum practice their traditional right to hunt and that as you saw from the reaction here today is everything. It is everything.”

Desautel, meanwhile, said he hopes the decision will result in more consultation between the Canadian government and tribes. He also looks forward to resuming hunting in Canada.