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Joaqlin Estus
Indian Country Today

After winning a landmark case before the Supreme Court of Canada, the Sinixt, or Arrow Lakes Band of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington, are looking forward exercising rights and receiving benefits that come with First Nations or registered Indian status in Canada.

However, last year in March, the United States and Canada closed their borders to nonessential travel. Sinixt discussions with Canadian officials are on hold until restrictions are eased.

About 80 percent of the Sinixt’s traditional homelands are in British Columbia and extend into Washington state. Their name, “Sinixt” is derived from their name for Canada’s Arrow Lakes.

(Related: Treatment of tribes varies at the US-Canadian border)

In the late 1800s, disease, encroaching miners, and declining salmon runs due to commercial harvests drove the Sinixt south where they were forced onto the Colville reservation. These days, the Sinixt people in Washington number about 3,000.

The Sinixt did not give up their traditional territory in Canada, and some remained there. However, the Canadian government declared them “extinct” in 1956.

Sinixt people periodically asked about hunting, fishing and other rights in their homelands, with little response from Canadian officials—until 2010 when Richard DeSautel deliberately challenged Canadian regulations by hunting an elk and presenting himself to wildlife officers for arrest. He wanted a decision on Canadian recognition of the Sinixt as Aboriginal peoples of Canada.

DeSautel, a wildlife officer for the Colville tribes, was charged with hunting without a license and hunting big game while not being a resident of British Columbia. He testified he was hunting for ceremonial purposes, a Constitutional right guaranteed to Aboriginal peoples of Canada.

DeSautel told the court, “When I come up here, I'm walking with the ancestors, and, god, I just think about times that they was going up this mountain like this here...and I'm following in their footsteps. And it just runs chills up and down me that I can be where my ancestors were at one time and do the things that they did…”

Sinixt leader and Colville tribal citizen Shelly Boyd testified, “this land is so sacred. This is, when I say we come from this land, I mean we come from this land. We come from the animals of this land. We come from the water of this land. We come from this place. And it doesn't matter what people say. This is – the truth is – this is where we are from.”

Cody DeSautel is natural resource director for the Colville tribes. He too testified at his uncle Richard DeSautel’s trial, saying, “Tradition is tied to place. So to truly be a Lakes Band member, in my opinion, I think it's critical that you practice your culture in the place that you are from, to be there where your ancestors were, to be there where your grandfathers were, to practice, participate, harvest animals where the tribe would have originally done that.”

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In 2017, DeSautel won his lawsuit in the Provincial Court of British Columbia and an appeal to the Supreme Court of British Columbia. On April 23, 2021, the Supreme Court of Canada issued a landmark ruling by defining –for the first time– “Aboriginal peoples of Canada,” a term used in the Constitution of Canada.

(Related: No border for Indigenous nations straddling US, Canada)

Judges said the expression refers to modern-day successors of Aboriginal societies that occupied Canadian territory at the time of European contact, even if such societies are now located outside Canada (emphasis added).

“An interpretation that excludes Aboriginal peoples who were forced to move out of Canada would risk perpetuating the historical injustice suffered by Aboriginal peoples at the hands of Europeans,” wrote the judges.

Cody DeSautel said, “while we have a Supreme court decision, we don't have federal recognition as a First Nation in Canada yet, and we're presuming that will come next. But those conversations and those meetings might have to wait for the border to reopen.”

Cody said government-to-government talks on other issues also have been delayed.

“There was fairly close coordination with provincial officials, especially working on co-management issues like caribou and big game management, some things where the tribe obviously has some vested interests. But also there was a repatriation that was going to occur that we couldn't cross the border and participate in...I know that at least some of the families in the history and archeology program struggled with the fact they couldn't cross the border to participate in that,” Cody DeSautel said.

”In addition, we had plans to do a lynx reintroduction in Washington state and on the reservation, and those lynx would have come from BC, but again, with the border restrictions in place, we couldn't cross to capture those lynx and start that reintroduction process. So that pushed us back a year, which always causes some challenges with funding and staffing,” he said.

Colville Confederated Tribes Chairman Andy Joseph noted his own family ties across the border, saying, “My grandmother is buried in Canada.” He’s looking forward to fulfilling a lifelong dream.

“I know we'd like, we're probably going to be working more on a land base and looking at getting access to sites for people if they choose to live up that way. It's always been kind of my dream that we would have a community up there of all our Sinixts to build and go home to some day.”

Even though border restrictions are delaying talks about Sinixt land rights, Joseph sees the benefits of Canada’s strict guidelines. “You know, that's not a bad thing. That's actually really good because I feel safer for our people that went up there [to testify] when they come home, that they wouldn't be bringing anything back home that we didn't want,” Joseph said.

Still, “we're hoping that the border will be easier for us to access and get up there to exercise our rights that we have up there. You know, we won our hunting case up there and, and that's really, that was a victory for our Sinixt people,” he said.

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