Sinixt hunter Richard Desautel outside the Nelson courthouse in March. Photo: Bill Metcalfe

2017’s top stories No. 7: Sinixt win twice

Decisions from a court and the RDCK caught readers’ attention

The Sinixt people made the news twice this year, once with a ground-breaking court decision and again because of a surprising move by the Regional District of Central Kootenay.

In March, a provincial court judge in Nelson acquitted Sinixt hunter Richard Desautel of hunting without a licence and hunting without being a resident.

Desautel is a resident of Washington State, charged in B.C. after killing an elk near Castlegar in 2010.

Judge Lisa Mrozinsky, following a trial that lasted three weeks, found that Desautel had an aboriginal right to hunt in Sinixt traditional cross-border territory and that the B.C. hunting laws he was charged with are an infringement of that right.

Outside the courtroom, Desautel said both sides had strong cases but that “tradition and honour and the history of where we came from has to be the basis of the decision. So this is good, and I love it.”

The decision is considered to be a significant aboriginal hunting rights case.

In May, the province appealed the decision, stating that the judge was mistaken in her ruling that a resident in the U.S. can have an aboriginal right to hunt, or any other aboriginal right, in Canada. The appeal hearing was held in September and Justice Robert Sewell has not yet made a decision.

The Sinixt, then known as the Arrow Lakes Indians, were declared extinct in Canada by the federal government in 1956, and as a result the group has no standing in any land claims or treaty processes in Canada. The majority of the Sinixt people live in Washington State as part of the Colville Confederated Tribes.

In October, the board of the RDCK called on the federal government to reverse that extinction.

The directors refused to provide a letter of support to the federal government for a transfer of land in Fauquier to reserve status for the Westbank First Nation. Fauquier lies within the traditional territory of the Sinixt.

The basis for their decision was that the extinction by the federal government had been an error that needed to be reconciled.

Paul Peterson, the elected board member for the RDCK’s Area K in which Fauquier sits, said, “First Nations in B.C. have endured the greatest of atrocities. The extinction adds insult to injury. I cannot be part of that by endorsing this transfer.”

This is thought to be the first time any elected body has questioned the extinct status of the Sinixt in Canada.

With files from Eileen Delehanty Pearkes

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