An important aboriginal rights trial began Monday in Nelson court and is expected to last several weeks.
Richard Desautel of Nespelem, Wash., was charged in 2010 with hunting without a licence and hunting big game while not being a resident.
He pleaded not guilty, and his defence is based on indigenous rights to hunt for food, social and ceremonial purposes.
Desautel is an American citizen and a member of the Colville Confederated Tribes.
He says that as a Sinixt person he has a right to hunt on either side of the border, which he says he has been doing since the 1990s.
“We are going for recognition here,” he told the media outside the courthouse.
“We are not trying to hoard the game and take it all for ourselves. It feels important to me to work with the (court) system instead of being this individual person that is out here pretty much ignored.”
In 1956 the federal government, asserting that all Sinixt people in Canada had moved to the Colville Reservation in Washington in the previous decades, declared them extinct in Canada. Since then the group has had no status under the Indian Act and has been excluded from treaty and land claims processes by both the federal and BC governments.
In their opening statements to the judge on Monday, Crown prosecutor Glen Thompson and defence lawyer Mark Underhill said there is no dispute over certain facts of the case: Desautel shot an elk near Castlegar, he had no hunting licence, and he is not and has never been a resident of BC.
What is under dispute, however, are his rights as a Sinixt person and whether such rights exist at all in Canada.
Underhill told the court that he will argue that a “rights-bearing community” of Sinixt people existed in Washington and the Arrow Lakes areas of southern BC before contact in the early 19th century and that it continues to the present day.
He said he will attempt to show that hunting remains central to the culture of the Sinixt and that it is an integral part of their continued cross-border connection.
Underhill said his witnesses will include Richard Hart, an expert in the ethnology and history of the area, and Dr. Andrea Laforet, an expert in ethnology and the genealogy of the Interior Salish people including the Sinixt.
He said Dr. Laforet has mapped the family trees of Desautel and many other families in the Okanagan and Washington.
Defence witnesses will also include several Sinixt elders.
Underhill said he will present evidence to show that the Sinixt’s move to the U.S. in the early 20th century was a result of government policies that led to their persecution that included violence by miners and settlers.
Prosecutor Thompson said he will call witnesses to show that Desautel is not covered by Section 35 of the Constitution, which sets out the definition of aboriginal rights and who is covered by them.
And he will attempt to show that the Sinixt people’s move from BC to Washington was voluntary.
His main expert witness will be Dr. Dorothy Kennedy, a researcher of aboriginal cultures in BC, Alberta, and Washington State.