You may have seen the headlines. A recent Canadian Supreme Court ruling affirmed the Aboriginal Rights of “extinct” Sinixt living in Washington state.
There is a considerable amount of confusion around Sinixt “extinction.” While the landmark ruling in the Desautel case is certainly a cause for celebration, Sinixt are still extinct in the same way they were before this case.
Rooted in the Kootenay region of British Columbia, the Arrow Lakes Band (Sinixt) were declared “extinct for purposes of the Indian Act” in 1956. The Canadian government’s stated position since 1995 is that Sinixt people do “exist as a tribal group” in Canada. However, the lack of engagement and consultation by the government with Sinixt Peoples in Canada indicates otherwise.
Sinixt still have no First Nation government recognized by Canada and are still precluded from entering into government-to-government relationships with BC and Canada. This also means there is no mechanism to participate in the contemporary land claims process, despite their filing a land claim decades ago and creating contention in Sinixt traditional territory.
In sum, it affirmed Sinixt Aboriginal rights of Sinixt living on the Colville Reservation in the US to use the land, but did not recognize Sinixt rights to the land itself, nor to be consulted on what happens to it regardless of which side of the border they live.
The Desautel decision did not remove the bureaucratic extinction of the Sinixt Arrow Lakes Band. Not yet, anyway.
It is an important decision for land use rights of all Indigenous Peoples crossed by the Canada-US border. For Sinixt Peoples now living in the US to exercise their rights to hunt, gather, and fish in their traditional territory despite a border being imposed on them is cause to celebrate. Sinixt living in Canada were already exercising their rights, including hunting rights.
Yet we should be careful to not give up the fight for true reconciliation with Sinixt Peoples just yet. Recognition as a First Nation of Canada, establishing meaningful consultation processes following the United Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and dealing with outstanding land claims, is still a very long way off. Without those things, there can be no reconciling Sinixt “extinction” in Canada.
Lori Barkley is a political anthropologist and scholar based in the Kootenay region. For more information, go to www.bloodoflifecollective.org.