Court decision reaffirms Native rights | The Quoddy Tides

By Chief Hugh Akagi | The Quoddy Tides

Politics, borders and the pandemic have divided people. COVID-19-related deaths separate family members forever. But among all these divisions Canada’s Supreme Court has done a little repair. The court has ruled that a citizen of the Sinixt Nation living in Washington state can exercise an aboriginal right to hunt – protected in Canada’s constitution – because part of his nation’s traditional lands are in what is now British Columbia. Sinixt Nation citizens were expelled and declared extinct by the Canadian government. But Sinixt citizen Richard Desautel returned to British Columbia to hunt an elk, reported his hunt to provincial conservation officers, was charged and won cases all through the court system. Then he won at the Supreme Court of Canada, which said “persons who are not Canadian citizens and who do not reside in Canada can exercise an aboriginal right.” Indigenous people crossed this relatively new border for at least 13,000 years before Europeans arrived. Many Canadians and Americans remember crossing the international border after answering a few questions or even just waiving at the border guard. Times have changed. The territories of Indigenous peoples are often bisected by borders. My nation straddles what is now an international border. I can throw a softball across the Skutik – St. Croix – River to Maine, that’s how close I am to my relatives and fellow Peskotomuhkati. But some nation citizens don’t have the appropriate identification to cross – passports or Indian status cards, for example. In order to have an Indian status card, you have to be registered as an “Indian” under Canada’s Indian Act, and the government has changed the criteria, listed and de-listed thousands of Indians over many decades. Imagine the U.S. or United Nations coming into Canada and telling you that you aren’t actually Canadian but your neighbor is. Not many court cases have an immediate effect on friends and family. This one did. My nation intervened in the case because we knew how important the issues were to Indigenous peoples all across North America. Peskotomuhkati who live in the part of our homeland that is now in the United States are federally recognized and have been for more than 45 years. Nation citizens in Canada have been promised recognition as “Indians” for 15 years. This recognition is a legal definition subject to the Indian Act – a law passed by the parliament of Canada in 1876. ... The Peskotomuhkati are one united nation. We are negotiating with New Brunswick and Canada and expect those governments to respect our rights and our abilities to manage the implications of this Supreme Court of Canada ruling. Negotiations can create enemies, partners or friends. Borders have been used to divide us. Land has been stolen. Fish stocks have been depleted. Laws don’t guarantee the implementation of justice. I worry that 20 years from now that my nation’s young people will be asking how yet another Supreme Court ruling was ignored or watered down. A Supreme Court ruling is one step forward. But the elected governments, senior civil servants and the administrative state can help, delay or hinder. ... It’s likely that Peskotomuhkati residing in Maine now can exercise their Indigenous rights as protected by the constitution in Canada. But border officials will still ask questions, as they do with all travellers. A legitimate answer should now be that the Peskotomuhkati visitor is coming up to exercise constitutionally protected rights. Peskotomuhkati citizens moving to Canada will be entitled to access to healthcare – just as I or any other of our citizens now living in Canada are guaranteed the same by U.S. laws if we decide to live in the U.S. Do Indigenous people need a passport, Indian status card or other documentation to cross? Do Indigenous people now living in the U.S. have to go through the same immigration process as others do? These questions will keep lawyers busy. It’s critical that Indigenous rights are properly accessed and administered through Peskotomuhkati rules and regulations requiring fair and equal negotiations with federal and provincial government officials in Canada. These negotiations must be on a nation to nation basis with the representations of the greater nation on both sides of the border. ... We did not just receive rights or new rights from the court. These rights are inherent, historical and part of our long treaty relationship with European nations and governments. No one’s rights are a gift from government. All people have inherent, natural rights. The government’s job is to protect rights, not give some out as gifts and take others away. All the Supreme Court has just done is to recognize my nation’s natural Indigenous/aboriginal rights – and rightly so. (Hugh Akagi is sakom of the Peskotomuhkati at Skutik and a resident of St.Andrews)

See more articles about the Peskotomuhkati Nation on The Quoddy Tides:

Recent fisheries statement may impact Peskotomuhkati Nation by Derwin Gowan

Aboriginal rights across border to be considered by court by Derwin Gowan