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Supreme Court of Canada to hear case of ‘extinct’ First Nation

The Supreme Court of Canada will hear a case involving the Sinixt First Nation, once declared “extinct” by the Canadian government.

Richard Desautel, 68, will go to the Supreme Court of Canada with the goal of proving the Sinixt First Nation’s existence in Canada. (Submitted by Mark Underhill)

The Supreme Court of Canada will hear a case involving the Sinixt First Nation, which has been fighting for nearly a decade to reverse the Canadian government’s declaration that it is “extinct.” 

The case started in 2010 when Sinixt leaders in Washington state made an effort to reverse the declaration of extinction by sending one of their members, Rick Desautel, into Canada to hunt elk without a licence.

Desautel phoned the B.C. Conservation Office to report himself, and was charged. His case went through the B.C. court system three times, winning at every level, creating the potential for the Sinixt people to once again be formally recognized in Canada. 

“My goal is just to go to Canada just as my nomadic ancestors did and not have this invisible line saying I can’t go to hunt there,” Desautel said. “I want to go hunting where my ancestors hunted.”

Desautel was originally charged with hunting without a licence and hunting as a non-resident. 

The B.C. government appealed the latest ruling by the B.C. Court of Appeals in May 2019, to the Supreme Court of Canada, arguing the case is of national significance. 

“Going to the Supreme Court is a mixed blessing for the Sinixt,” said Desautel’s Vancouver-based lawyer Mark Underhill. “They still have to prove they are a people, but they get a national platform to do it.”

Roughly 3,000 people of Sinixt ancestry are believed to be living in the U.S. (Bob Keating/CBC)

The Sinixt First Nation was declared extinct in 1956 by the federal government, which claimed the last Sinixt living in Canada died in the 1950s. The Sinixt maintain they were never truly extinct, but driven to a reserve near Inchelium in Washington state.

Roughly 3,000 people of Sinixt ancestry are believed to be living in the U.S. It’s unclear how many Sinixt have been assimilated into other First Nations in British Columbia.

The Ministry of the Attorney General said in an email they are aware of the decision by the Supreme Court of Canada and are pleased that the court has agreed to hear the case, but declined to comment further while the matter is before the courts.

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