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Meghan Sullivan
Indian Country Today

Ronald “Bud” Sparrow, Musqueam, who set a national precedent with a Canadian Supreme Court Case on Indigenous rights, passed away Monday following a two-year battle with cancer.  

The First Nations Fisheries Council of British Columbia said the Sparrow's case "recognized and affirmed existing Aboriginal and Treaty Rights under Section 35 of the Constitution Act, and has been foundational in Indigenous Rights legal challenges ever since." 

According to the Vancouver Sun and a recent obituary, Sparrow died surrounded by his children and relatives on the Musqueam Indian Reserve at his home in South Vancouver at the age of 76.

Over his lifetime, Sparrow received wide recognition for his efforts, including the National Aboriginal Achievement Award, an award given by the National Aboriginal Achievement Foundation.

The historical figure was described as a kind, dedicated, and humble man who “could always put a smile on his children's faces [and] was a true friend to many.”

“Bud left our people at Musqueam and Indigenous peoples across Canada with a tremendous legal legacy. We will always be grateful for his quiet determination in fighting for our rights,” Musquem Chief Wayne Sparrow said in a statement on Bud Sparrow’s passing.

In 1984, Sparrow was arrested for using a fishing net twice the legal size allowed. After admitting to this infraction, he maintained that he was permitted to do so under a law that protected Aboriginal rights.

The charge occurred during a time of growing tension due to infringements upon Indigenous fishing rights, CBC News Vancouver said. It soon gained national attention.

Sparrow’s case was lost in two lower courts before it reached the B.C. Court of Appeals. When the charge was overturned, the case was sent to the Supreme Court of Canada.

In 1990, the court ruled in his favor, dropping all previous charges on Sparrow, signaling a tremendous victory for Indigenous fishermen.

The decision determined that the Musqueam had existing rights that had not been extinguished by the Canadian Constitution Act of 1982. The ruling set a precedent for how the courts approached Indigenous rights, establishing what is known as the “Sparrow Test,” a set of guidelines intended to decrease the degree to which Candian courts can limit Aboriginal rights.

In a 2011 interview with the Vancouver Sun, Sparrow stated that his accomplishment wouldn’t have been possible without the Musqueam band’s support.

“It could have never happened without the financial backing of the band,” Sparrow said. “I wanted to make sure Natives could harvest the fish, not just for our generation but all the descendants in the future.”

Sparrow continued to fish throughout his life, and served on the Musqueam Fisheries Commission where he was able to advocate for Indigenous fishing rights in a different capacity.

This past week, Canadian leaders and community members expressed their condolences on his passing.

Premier John Horgan tweeted Tuesday that Sparrow’s, “courage and leadership led to an important, precedent-setting Supreme Court of Canada decision that advanced Indigenous rights across the country.”

Indigenous politician, Jody Wilson-Raybould, We Wai Kai Nation, also chimed in on Twitter. “R. v. Sparrow is arguably the seminal Aboriginal rights case in Canadian history. We will remember you always. Gilakas’la,” she said.

Due to COVID-19 restrictions, the First Nations Leadership Council says Sparrow’s funeral will be limited.

“His legacy, to all Indigenous people across the country over fishing rights, will be remembered forever,” CBC News Vancouver said. 

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Meghan Fate Sullivan, Koyukon Athabascan, is a Stanford Rebele Fellow for Indian Country Today. She grew up in Alaska, and is currently reporting on her home state from our Anchorage Bureau.