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Difference Makers: Rick Desautel defied Canadian law to prove Sinixt people were never extinct

UPDATED: Fri., Dec. 31, 2021

Rick Desautel stands during a tribal gathering celebrating his victory in a Canadian Supreme Court case arguing for the Sinixt people’s right to hunt on native lands in Canada on May 28 at Round Lake outside Inchelium, Wash.  (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)
Rick Desautel stands during a tribal gathering celebrating his victory in a Canadian Supreme Court case arguing for the Sinixt people’s right to hunt on native lands in Canada on May 28 at Round Lake outside Inchelium, Wash. (Tyler Tjomsland/The Spokesman-Review)

This past summer, Rick Desautel stopped alongside a road near Vallican, British Columbia, and gave a prayer to all the members of his tribe who had fought for decades for the Canadian government to recognize a simple fact: They still exist.

In a landmark decision in April, Canada’s Supreme Court overturned a 1956 declaration that the Sinixt, one of the 12 Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation, were “extinct.” On the surface, the 7-2 ruling simply found Desautel had the right to kill a cow elk in that part of what is now British Columbia, but it has far-reaching implications for other Indigenous people whose ancestral lands have been bisected by the U.S.-Canada borders.

The first time he returned to the area after the ruling, Desautel said with a laugh, felt like “homecoming week.”

Desautel said he’s been traveling to the ancestral lands on the Canadian side since the 1980s “when I first realized that the Sinixt people lived in that area and walked into those grounds, feeling my ancestral roots.”

“It’s great to go back into your ancestry and see where you came from,” he said.

In 2010, Desautel and his wife Linda crossed the border into Canada with a plan they had settled on with other Colville tribal members: He would shoot an elk, they would pack it out in accordance with Canadian law – which guarantees hunting rights to members of First Nations recognized by the government – and then he would turn himself in to local authorities.

Before Europeans arrived and eventually drew a border along the 49th parallel, the Sinixt lived in what is now southeastern B.C. and northeastern Washington. The border’s arrival in the 19th century split that territory in two, leaving some Sinixt people in Canada and the rest in the United States, where they were pushed onto the Colville Reservation.

Canada’s government recognized the Sinixt, known there as the Arrow Lakes Band, in the early 1900s. But soon after the last Sinixt member known to the Canadian government died in 1953, the government declared them extinct.

Meanwhile, many Sinixt people still lived in Washington, separated from much of their traditional territory by an arbitrary border that had existed for a relative blink of an eye in comparison to the thousands of years they had spent on that land.

When Desautel turned himself in to the authorities in 2010, it set off a long legal process that led to a B.C. court acquitting him in 2017, ruling that Canada’s constitution guaranteed his right to hunt on his ancestral land. An appeals court upheld that decision and in October 2020 it went to the country’s highest court, where Desautel’s attorney, Mark Underhill, argued Native people’s rights should not be deprived by the forced displacement so many endured along the U.S.-Canada border.

In a phone call Thursday, Underhill said while the full impact of the decision isn’t clear yet, he expects it will force both the U.S. and Canadian governments to revisit how they deal with rights of tribal nations along the border.

“I think we’ll look back on it as the beginning of the end of the border, at least as we currently know it, for Indigenous peoples on both sides,” Underhill said. “I think you will see these concepts of citizenship on both sides of the border fundamentally change over the next 10 years for those cross-border nations.”

In far northwestern Washington, for example, the Lummi Nation is seeking to assert its rights to block a major new port development in B.C. that would increase shipping traffic through traditional Lummi territory. The court decision could also affect Indigenous people along Canada’s border with Alaska.

While the court decision could not have happened without his carefully planned hunt, Desautel is quick to acknowledge the other Sinixt people who fought for recognition. He traces the movement for Sinixt recognition back to 1989, when he and other members of the Colville Tribes traveled to Vallican to block a proposed highway whose construction displaced the remains of their ancestors. While the road was ultimately built, the protest galvanized activists, including many who didn’t live to see this year’s victory.

“I just wish that they were here today to celebrate with me,” Desautel said.

Since he made that first trip back to his ancestral land this summer, Desautel said he has returned a few more times by himself, but looks forward to going back with Linda and their kids and grandkids once pandemic-related border restrictions are loosened. He plans to climb Frog Mountain, a sacred peak also known as Mount Wilton, next summer.

Underhill acknowledged the group effort that went into the court victory, but he said Rick and Linda Desautel deserve credit for their role in it, not only because they were willing to get arrested and risk imprisonment. While Rick Desautel joked that he wasn’t afraid of winding up in a Canadian jail – “I could have used the vacation,” he said – he added that the Colville tribal council made a plan to take care of their family if he and Linda couldn’t return from their hunt.

“You could see the impact that Rick and Linda had,” Underhill said. “Just their presence there and how down-to-earth they were, it’s hard to put it in words but it really resonated with the court, and I actually think it was a tremendous factor in our ultimate success that you had these real people there who just wanted to be able to return to their culture and those connections to that land.”

The biggest impact of all, Underhill said, will be on all the generations of Sinixt children who won’t have to grow up being told they are extinct.

Rick Desautel said he hopes the court’s decision is a step forward, “giving us recognition back in our homeland up there in what they call Canada today.”

“The impact that it’s had I don’t think is totally realized yet,” he said. “Working through the different court cases that will come up from this here, and the decisions hopefully that will come down from it, will significantly impact the next generation.”

Orion Donovan-Smith's reporting for The Spokesman-Review is funded in part by Report for America and by members of the Spokane community. This story can be republished by other organizations for free under a Creative Commons license. For more information on this, please contact our newspaper’s managing editor.

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