The Sinixt people have been living off the land in British Columbia’s West Kootenay region for thousands of years. The First Nation was here when Jacques Cartier explored the St. Lawrence region in 1534, when the U.S. invaded Canada in 1812 and when Confederation happened in 1867.
Fast forward to 1956. That’s when the government of Canada officially declared the Sinixt First Nation “extinct,” even though many of its members were still alive. The decision left those remaining members living in B.C. and south of the border in the U.S. without recognition under the Indian Act.
And the Sinixt First Nation is still fighting today for recognition to prove that its people are, indeed, living.
“The Sinixt were declared extinct but never ceased to exist as a tribal group,” Sinixt elder Marilyn James said. “We are still extinct to this day, meaning we don’t get a say in treaties, protecting foresty or water. We do not get included in any discussions about our land.”
Although declared officially “extinct” by the federal government, the Sinixt people live in parts of B.C. and in Washington state.
MAP: Sinixt First Nation’s traditional territory
Many Sinixt people living in B.C., specifically in the Slocan Valley, have been fighting to preserve archaeological sites and ensure sustainability on their land.
Fighting to stay alive
In 2010, Richard Desautel, a member of the Lakes Tribe of the Colville Confederated Tribes just south of the Canadian border, shot a cow-elk near Castlegar, B.C. He reported the kill to B.C. officials but was charged with hunting without a licence and hunting without being a resident under the Wildlife Act.
Desautel was taken to court in 2017. As a descendant of the Sinixt people, his court defence was that he was exercising his constitutional right to hunt in his people’s ancestral territory. The B.C. court acquitted Desautel.
According to the decision, when Desautel went hunting in 2010, “he was exercising an aboriginal right … of the Sinixt people to hunt in their traditional territory … as they had done for several thousand years.”
The judge said there was historical evidence showing the Sinixt were prolific hunters and that they may not have willingly moved south to the Colville Reservation in the U.S.
The ruling meant Sinixt people in the U.S. could hunt in Canada with minimal restriction.
However, the Crown appealed the decision twice, arguing that Canada’s constitutional protection of Aboriginal and treaty rights should not extend to non-residents.
The Crown also warned of broader consequences that would come with granting Desautel the right to hunt.
Desautel won both appeals. The latest decision came out of the B.C. Court of Appeals on May 3, where Desautel’s right to hunt was upheld.
WATCH: FSIN threatens court action over Indigenous hunting rights
“Aboriginal rights are inherent rights that existed at the time of contact. What flows from those rights continues to evolve,” the ruling said, adding that the Crown’s concerns are “not material” to the central question of whether or not Desautel can hunt in Canada.
Mark Underhill, who represented Desautel in all three cases, said the ruling was very powerful and shows a need for reconciliation.
“It may be trite for some people, but Aboriginal identity is tied to the land. It takes a toll on the collective psyche of the people because they are disconnected from the land physically and emotionally,” he said.
“To get that recognition … how much it meant to these people to be recognized, it was very emotional,” he said, adding that one member of the First Nation told him the case will “make us whole again.”
‘If you don’t have truth, how can you have reconciliation?’
During Desautel’s trial, the federal government remained quiet, Underhill explained.
“Canada’s position on the Sinixt people is a bit of an unknown,” he said. “But even so, the courts say the Sinixt people do have a right to hunt — Canada does not have a choice on this case.”
Global News reached out to Indigenous and Northern Affairs Canada about the state of the Sinixt people but did not hear back by the time of publication.
Although the Sinixt Nation had a win in the courts, James, the Sinixt elder, said the fight is far from over.
WATCH: B.C. First Nation turns residential school into resort
“We are still extinct. We have gone to the Supreme Court of Canada twice looking for recognition but were remanded back to the province, and the province told us it was federal jurisdiction,” she said.
The Sinixt people have petitioned their member of Parliament, Richard Cannings to take the issue to Ottawa.
On June 11, 2018 Cannings presented the Sinixt petition during a parliamentary session, saying, “the petitioners call upon Parliament to reverse the wrongful declaration of the extinction of the Sinixt tribal group and take immediate steps to recognize the Sinixt as an autonomous tribal group within its traditional and ancestral Canadian territory.”
But James said nothing has yet to come out of the petition, adding that reconciliation is still needed.
“If you don’t have truth, how can you have reconciliation?”
Global News reached out to Cannings for a comment but did not hear back by the time of publication.
Underhill is also hoping the next step is reconciliation. But he said the B.C. government could still take Desautel’s case to the Supreme Court of Canada.
“We like to say it’s three strikes you’re out, and are encouraging reconciliation rather than litigation,” he said.
Canada declares the Sinixt people extinct
In the late 1800s, many Sinixt people were forced south to the Colville Reservation in Washington state by settlers and miners. Some Sinixt people stayed behind in pockets of west B.C.
“The push to drive the Sinixt people out started when the European settlers came,” James said. “And then there was the Indian Act, which disenfranchised women and children.”
She said many of the Sinixt people did not feel safe in Canada and headed south.
In 1902, the Canadian government created the Arrow Lakes Indian Band and set aside reserve land for Sinixt people in the Arrow Lakes Valley. According to the Sinixt Nation website, there were around 30 people registered, though this did not reflect the number of Sinixt living throughout the territory.
In 1953, Annie Joseph, the last surviving registered member of the band, passed away. Three years later, the federal government declared Arrow Lakes Indian Band extinct. But Sinixt people continued to live on the surrounding lands in all directions.
“It was well known that lots of Sinixt people were still living in B.C. and the U.S., but they weren’t members of the band so the government took back the reserve land but because of hydro development,” Underhill explained.