1962 Regina v. Sikyea

On May 7th, 1962 RCMP charged Michel Sikyea, a Dene man, with hunting out of season. He had shot a duck at a small lake outside of Yellowknife (map), a fact that he did not deny, and told the police officer that it was a Dene treaty right to hunt anywhere, anytime.

Michel Sikyea was charged with contravening the Migratory Birds Convention Act and appeared in Justice of the Peace Court in Yellowknife that very same day. He plead guilty and was fined $10 plus $4 in court costs. This seemingly simple case could have ended then and there had it not been for Judge Sissons who, when he heard that a Justice of the Peace fined Sikyea for this infraction, urged lawyer Elizabeth Bolton to file an appeal on Sikyea’s behalf. The appeal was granted and in November of 1962 the case went to court with Judge Sissons presiding.

Evidence brought forward during this trial included the fact that Michel Sikyea had acted as an interpreter during the signing of changes made to Treaty 8 at Fort Resolution in 1923 and was able to tell the court that at that time he heard the government representatives promise that the Dene would always be able to keep their traditional hunting, fishing and trapping rights.

Arguments were made concerning these rights and whether or not they took precedence over modern laws. Sissons’ judgment also stated that the Migratory Birds Convention Act did not apply to Aboriginal people. This meant his judgment could be appealed to the Supreme Court but they sidestepped the issue of the legality of the Migratory Birds Convention Act and declared that the duck, claimed by the defence to be tame, was in fact a wild duck and that Michel Sikyea was therefore guilty of hunting out of season.

Michel Sikyea, through his lawyers, then petitioned the Exchequer Court of Canada for compensation, for all Aboriginal people, for this Supreme Court decision. His lawyers asked that since treaties had been broken, and Aboriginal people were no longer allowed to conduct spring hunts, that either all the lands ceded to Canada under these treaties be returned to Aboriginal people or that they receive compensation of a billion dollars.

Even though this petition to the Exchequer Court went nowhere it did eventually result, though many years passed, in the recognition of Aboriginal rights in the Constitution Act of 1982 and in launching of the modern land claims process. The duck, which had been stuffed, became known as the ‘billion dollar duck’, and spent many years sitting on the top of a bookcase in Judge Sissons’ office. Now, along with a large collection of Inuit art, it forms part of Sissons/Morrow Collection held by the Northwest Territories Court.