OTTAWA – Canada’s Supreme Court ruled on Friday that U.S.-based descendants of the Sinixt Indigenous nation maintained ancestral land rights in Canada, a landmark decision that opens the door to other groups with similar ties to assert their rights on matters from hunting to environmental concerns.
The ruling means any U.S.-based Indigenous group whose ancestors lived in Canada before first contact with Europeans could claim rights laid out in Canada’s constitution.
The case was brought by Rick Desautel, a Sinixt descendant who lives in Washington state. In 2010, he shot an elk without a hunting license on traditional Sinixt lands in British Columbia, intending to force the question of whether his ancestral ties would be recognized across the border.
Canada’s constitution guarantees the right of Indigenous people to hunt in their traditional lands.
In 1956, Canada declared the Sinixt “extinct” because members of the nation had either died or were no longer living in the country.
Rodney Cawston, chairman of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation in Washington state, whose members trace their lineage back to the Sinixt in Canada, said the ruling validated what they had always known — that the Sinixt were not extinct.
“What’s most important to me is that our future generations will be able to go up into Canada and receive that recognition and respect as a Canadian First Nation,” he said.
The court said the Canadian government may also have to consult U.S.-based Indigenous peoples with ties to Canada when they reach out to domestic-based Indigenous groups on issues — although the court specified the onus was on U.S. groups to make the Canadian government aware of their potential claim.
The ruling “will have a huge effect,” said Bruce McIvor, a Vancouver lawyer who intervened in the case on behalf of the Indigenous Bar Association.
“The border is the ultimate symbol of colonization for Indigenous people,” McIvor said. It has divided families and territories, he said, adding that Friday’s ruling means their rights “can’t simply be wiped away” by an imposed border.
Canada’s government is “reviewing the decision, analyzing impacts and next steps,” a spokesperson for the ministry of Indigenous Relations said.
Federal prosecutors argued the Sinixt were not protected by the rights in Canada’s constitution because they no longer were present in the country.
But the Supreme Court agreed with the lower courts and dismissed the federal appeal, ruling that as long as a nation could prove ties to the land from before first contact with Europeans, they did not have to consistently use that land for their rights to apply.
Refusing rights to Indigenous people who were forced to leave Canada “would risk perpetuating the historical injustice suffered by Aboriginal peoples at the hands of Europeans,” the court said.
Desautel said he was inspired to pursue the court claim after visiting his ancestors’ land in British Columbia, where he was told that the Sinixt people were extinct.
“There’s a plaque right over there that says you’re extinct,” he said. “That’s crazy. No, I’m not.”
Desautel said he felt “relieved and jubilation” at the ruling and looked forward to a family gathering later Friday to celebrate.
“It’s a long time coming,” he added.