R v Desautel, 2019 BCCA 151

Appeal dismissed. The Respondent is not prevented from claiming an Aboriginal right to hunt in British Columbia pursuant to s 35 even though he resides in the United States of America.

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Richard Desautel was charged under the Wildlife Act after hunting an elk without a license in the Arrow Lakes area of British Columbia. He admitted the actus reus but asserted that he has a s 35 Aboriginal right to hunt in the territory despite being a citizen of the United States of America [“USA”]. Mr. Desautel has never resided in British Columbia but is a member of the Lakes Tribe of the Colville Confederated Tribes in Washington State. His Sinixt ancestors had occupied territory above and below the 49th parallel, including the area in which he was hunting. At the time of contact with Europeans, they hunted, fished, and gathered throughout their territory.

Does the meaning of the phrase “the Aboriginal peoples of Canada” in s 35(1) of the Constitution Act, 1982 include only Aboriginal peoples who are resident or citizens of Canada, or also Aboriginal peoples whose ancestors occupied territory that became Canada? S 35 is directed towards the reconciliation of pre-existing Indigenous societies with the assertion of Crown sovereignty. A practice, custom, or tradition that is central and significant to the distinctive culture of an Indigenous society pre-contact that has not been voluntarily surrendered, abandoned, or extinguished, may be exercised by Indigenous members of modern collectives if they can establish that: 1) the modern collective is descended from the historic collective that exercised the practice, custom or tradition in that territory; and 2) there has been continuity between the practice of the modern collective with the practice of the historic collective pre-contact (R v Van der Peet, [1996] 4 CNLR 177 [“Van der Peet”]).

S 35(1) provides the constitutional framework to acknowledge the fact that Aboriginals lived on the land in distinctive societies, with their own practices, traditions and culture and to reconcile this with the sovereignty of the Crown. The burden of proof was on Mr. Desautel to establish the Aboriginal right claimed and a prima facie infringement of that right (R v Sparrow, [1990] 3 CNLR 160 [“Sparrow”]). The meaning and scope of s 35(1) is derived from the general principles of constitutional interpretation relating to [A]boriginal rights, and the purposes behind the constitutional provision itself. Sparrow also requires that s 35(1) be construed in a purposive way and that the words in s 35(1) be afforded a generous, liberal interpretation. Further, in Van der Peet it was instructed that the courts take into account the perspective of the Aboriginal peoples claiming the right and any doubt or ambiguity as to what falls within the scope of s 35 must be resolved in their favour. Applying the Van der Peet test, the concept of continuity must have a necessary connection between the historic collective and the modern-day community. Therefore, claimants who are resident or citizens of the USA can be “Aboriginal peoples of Canada” where they can establish the requirements set out in Van der Peet.

Courts adjudicating Aboriginal rights claims must be sensitive to the Aboriginal perspective, but also aware that Aboriginal rights exist within the general legal system of Canada. The time period integral to the Aboriginal community claiming the right is the period prior to contact. Where an Aboriginal community can demonstrate that a particular practice, custom or tradition has continuity with those of pre-contact times, that community will have demonstrated that the practice, custom or tradition is an Aboriginal right for the purposes of s 35(1). The concept of continuity is the means by which a “frozen rights” approach to s 35(1) will be avoided. Continuity does not require evidence of an unbroken chain of continuity. Aboriginal rights are constitutional rights, but that does not negate the central fact that the interests that the rights are intended to protect, relate to the specific history of the group claiming the right. Aboriginal rights are not general and universal as their scope and content must be determined on a case-by-case basis. The existence of the right will be specific to each Aboriginal community.

Mr. Desautel’s right to hunt in the traditional territory of his ancestors in that geographical area were never voluntarily surrendered, abandoned or extinguished. This Court will not modify the Van der Peet test to add a geographic requirement that would prevent members of Indigenous communities, who may have been displaced, from the opportunity of establishing their Aboriginal rights in areas their ancestors had occupied pre-contact. This matter is distinguishable from R v Powley, [2003] 4 CNLR 321 [“Powley”] where in order to accommodate the unique history of the Métis communities that evolved post-contact, the time period analysis in Van der Peet was focused on pre-European control. Powley requires an Aboriginal rights claimant to be a member of a contemporary community in the geographic area where the right was exercised. It is also distinguished from R v Bernard, [2018] 1 CNLR 79, where a Mi’kmaq member of the Sipekne’katik First Nation in New Brunswick was charged with contravening the Fish and Wildlife Act, for hunting deer. The trial judge found Mr. Bernard had failed to establish that he was a member of a modern collective descended from the original rights-bearing Mi’kmaq community that hunted at the mouth of the St. John River. Unlike Mr. Bernard, Mr. Desautel has established a connection to the historic community that hunted in the traditional territory where the claimed Aboriginal right was exercised.

It has been determined that there is continuity of the practice of hunting in the area where Mr. Desautel shot the elk. Members of the Lakes Tribe are the modern-day successor collective of the Sinixt peoples and Mr. Desautel was exercising his lawful Aboriginal right to hunt for ceremonial purposes in the traditional territory of his Sinixt ancestors, pursuant to s 35(1). The issues raised by the Crown regarding the Lakes Tribe’s legal status in the USA, or the extent of any potential duty to consult and accommodate, raises ancillary questions that, in the Court’s view, are not material to the central issue.

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