The Supreme Court of Canada has ruled that Indigenous people living on the international border can claim Aboriginal rights in Canada even if they aren’t residents or citizens.
The court dismissed the Crown’s appeal and upheld the acquittal of Richard Desautel, a Sinixt Nation member from the Colville Indian Reserve in Washington state. The Sinixt were forced down into Washington state and extinct by the Canadian government in 1956.
The tribe is very much alive.
Nearly 60 years later, Desautel filed a lawsuit, challenging the notion that his people were extinct.
Desautel was charged with hunting without a license more than a decade ago after shooting and killing a cow elk for ceremonial purposes. After being hit with a fine in 2020, Desautel challenged the ruling and his efforts were not in vain.
The new law constitutionally protects the tribe’s hunting rights on their ancestral land in current-day British Columbia.
“This is a test case, the central issue being whether persons who are not Canadian citizens and who do not reside in Canada can exercise an Aboriginal right that is protected by s. 35(1),” explained Justice Malcolm Rowe. “I would say yes.”
The 7-2 decision also means other Indigenous peoples in the United States can claim the same rights across if they can prove their ancestors lived in Canada.
Rodney Cawston, chairman of the Colville Tribal Council, praised the milestone ruling.
“My heart was just soaring,” Cawston said per The Seattle Times. “This is a huge decision for the Colville Tribes as well as many other trans-boundary tribes. … It’s huge for all our future generations, who will be able to go back and forth across the border and enjoy the homelands of our people.”
Justice Suzanne Côté dissented with Rowe, saying Sec. 35 rights don’t extend to Indigenous Peoples living outside Canada.
“A verdict of guilty should be entered on both counts of hunting without a licence and hunting big game while not being a resident,” she wrote, “and the matter should be remitted to the trial court for sentencing.”