Imagine being told you no longer exist. That your people, despite being very much alive, have been declared “extinct.”
That’s exactly what the Canadian government said of the Sinixt people in 1956.
Sixty-four years later, the Sinixt are still very much alive and well — and they’re fighting in Canada’s highest court to have their Indigenous Rights recognized.
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It’s a fight I became more familiar with in September when I spoke with Shelly Boyd (pictured above), who shared the story of her people. At the time, Shelly didn’t know if she’d be able to travel to Canada for the hearing.
Sinixt territory stretches across Washington state and B.C., but the Sinixt were pushed south due to colonization, called the Arrow Lakes Tribe and then billed by both Canada and the U.S. as an “American” tribe.
That forced relocation was creating a new obstacle as COVID-19 border restrictions threatened to derail travel plans to have their voices heard in Ottawa. At stake? Nothing less than the question of whether the Sinixt hold rights in Canada.
Shelly, Derrick Lamere and Rick Desautel — the plaintiff in the case — did finally manage to enter B.C., where they quarantined in their traditional territory before making the journey to Ottawa.
It was there where pandemic measures reared their ugly head: “non-essential” people would be kept out of the courtroom.
“Ironically, we’re here in a case about extinction, and we’re not allowed to be seen,” Shelly told The Narwhal’s Stephanie Wood.
The Sinixt case was launched in 2010, when Rick headed to Canada to harvest elk in his traditional territory — a deliberate effort to test the Sinixt Peoples’ Indigenous Rights.
When B.C.’s Supreme Court heard the case in 2017, the Crown went so far as to bring in an anthropologist who testified that the Sinixt had moved to the U.S. “enthusiastically.”
The presiding judge disagreed and ruled in favour of the Sinixt. The government challenged that in the B.C. Court of Appeal, losing again, before escalating the fight all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada.
The Crown’s argument? The Sinixt exercising Indigenous Rights in Canada is “incompatible with Canadian sovereignty.”
It’s a case that will not only have significant consequences for people like Shelly and Rick, but also for other Indigenous Peoples whose traditional territories span across international borders set by the colonial powers that often pushed them away from traditional lands in the first place.
We likely won’t have a verdict from the Supreme Court for at least six months, Shelly says.
For his part, Rick will be spending much of that time in B.C., close to a Sinixt village site. He’s hoping that one day he’ll be able to bring grandchildren there, where he’ll tell them: “That 49th parallel is not a stopping point in your history.”
Go here to read Steph’s story about the Sinixt, which features stunning images by photographer Mike Graeme.
Take care and fight for your rights,
Audience Engagement Editor
Note from a Narwhal
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This week in The Narwhal
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The Canadian government declared them extinct 64 years ago. These living, breathing Sinixt people beg to differ. Read more.
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