Acquittal in Colten Boushie death spurs call for reform

Indigenous leaders say not guilty verdict in Native man's killing highlights deep-seated racism in Canada.


    The family of an indigenous man who was killed in 2016 in Canada has taken their fight for justice to the country's capital after a white farmer was found not guilty in the shooting death of their relative. 

    Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old indigenous man from Red Pheasant First Nation in Saskatchewan, a province in central Canada, was shot dead after he and some friends drove onto a farm in search of help with a flat tyre.

    A jury acquitted Gerald Stanley, who shot Boushie in the head, of second-degree murder and the lesser charge of manslaughter on Friday.

    The white farmer testified that he never meant to kill anyone and that his gun "just went off". 

    The case has re-ignited long-standing racial tensions in the province and raised questions about equal access to justice for First Nations peoples across the country.

    Boushie's cousin, Jade Tootoosis, is among several members of the Boushie family who are meeting with government ministers in Ottawa this week, where they are expected to demand changes to the Canadian justice system.

    Tootoosis said she wants Canada to take action "so that no other families go through what we went through."

    "We're hoping that we have these meetings and our concerns are heard and not just listened to, but taken into action," she told CBC News.


    "We have questions and we want answers," she added.

    The family met Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott on Monday.

    They also plan to meet Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould on Tuesday, both ministries told Al Jazeera.

    "We will fight for generations to come," Alvin Baptiste, Boushie's uncle, told reporters on Monday.

    "I don't want my grandkids to live like this, to see this day that we have suffered, or any other families that suffered. My heart cries today."

    Judicial reform 

    Asked about the verdict in the House of Commons on Monday afternoon, Justin Trudeau, Canada's prime minister, said it would be "inappropriate to comment on the specifics" of the case.

    There are "systemic issues in our criminal justice system that we must address", Trudeau said, adding that his government was "committed to broad-based reform".

    "As a country, we must and we can do better," he said, without going into any specifics.

    Earlier this month, Wilson-Raybould, the justice minister, raised concern about the under-representation of indigenous peoples on Canadian juries, which she described as "an issue in several provinces and ... a reality I find concerning".

    That under-representation is caused by a number of factors, including distrust in the justice system and the use of peremptory challenges, a legal mechanism that allows Crown and defence attorneys to dismiss potential jurors without needing to provide a reason.

    A 2013 inquiry into First Nations representation on juries in Ontario, Canada's most populous province, recommended that Canada's Criminal Code be reformed to "prevent the use of peremptory challenges to discriminate against First Nations people serving on juries". 

    There reportedly were no indigenous peoples on the 12-person jury in the Stanley case.

    "The defence [lawyers for Stanley] used those peremptory challenges to eliminate anyone who looked Indigenous," Toronto-based criminal lawyer David Butt said in a recent article in The Globe and Mail newspaper.

    Butt said a solution would be to limit or override peremptory challenges "if it becomes clear they have created an inappropriately homogeneous jury".

    Canada could also "ensure the pool of prospective jurors is so large, and so diverse" that peremptory challenges would not prevent a diverse jury, he wrote.

    Canada 'polarised'

    But indigenous leaders say the case hints at a deeper problem of anti-indigenous racism in Canada.

    Niigaan Sinclair, an associate professor in the Department of Native Studies at the University of Manitoba, described the verdict as "yet another unsurprising example of the treatment of indigenous lives in Canada, which is always second class, which is lesser than".

    "This is what you get when you spend 150 years perpetuating genocide and continuing violent policies," Sinclair told Al Jazeera.

    Indigenous leaders have questioned Trudeau's promise to pursue reconciliation [Chris Wattie/Reuters]

    Over the weekend, rallies were held in solidarity with the Boushie family in several Canadian cities, including Toronto, Vancouver, and Regina, the capital of Saskatchewan.

    Sinclair, who helped organise a rally in Winnipeg on Saturday, said tens of thousands of indigenous and non-indigenous people took part in protests over the weekend to demand justice for Boushie.

    An online fundraiser for the Boushie family had raised almost $110,000 (over $138,000 Canadian) by Tuesday morning.

    But despite this showing of support, a GoFundMe page in support of Stanley has also drawn over 1,900 backers and raised almost $108,000 (about $136,000 Canadian).

    Those supporters "feel it's a good thing that there's another Indian dead", Sinclair said.

    "It's a very polarised country at the moment when it comes to indigenous issues."

    David Pratt, second vice-chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents dozens of First Nations in Saskatchewan, told Al Jazeera the verdict sets "a very, very dangerous precedent and underscores the fact that there is institutional, systemic racism in Canada".

    Pratt said he met with the province's deputy premier on Monday, while the provincial premier also met with the Boushie family. Indigenous leaders in the province and across Canada are calling for an "overhaul of the justice system", he added.

    "We don't want to just meet and discuss for the sake of a picture," Pratt said.

    "We want meaningful change, systemic change. We want legislation to be changed. We want representation. We want a justice system that actually serves our people because this has to end."

    Negative stereotypes

    Alika Lafontaine, former president of the Indigenous Physicians Association of Canada, told Al Jazeera negative stereotypes about indigenous peoples in Saskatchewan played a role in the outcome of the Stanley case.

    "Part of that narrative is that First Nation and Metis people are aggressive, [that] you have to be careful and aware around them," said Lafontaine, who grew up, studied and worked in Saskatchewan until 2011.

    "The narrative that the jury probably believed before even coming into the case was that Colten Boushie had no business being on that property and that he was probably there to cause trouble."

    With those stereotypes deeply embedded in the psyches of non-indigenous peoples in Saskatchewan and across Canada, Lafontaine said the trial made it clear that Stanley's supporters "see themselves" in the farmer. 

    "I think what the Gerald Stanley trial really brought out is that a lot of the people who cause harm to indigenous peoples are just average Canadians," he said. 

    For indigenous peoples, however, the verdict is painful because "this is what we live with every day".

    "This isn't just about Colten Boushie. This is about not being believed, about myths that paint us as being aggressive, untrustworthy, et cetera," Lafontaine said.

    "This has to do with the story of Canada."

    Murray Sinclair, a Canadian senator and former chair of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which investigated Canada's abusive residential school system, said he grieved for Canada after the Stanley verdict.

    "I grieve for a family that has seen only injustice from the moment a farmer with a handgun (why does a farmer need a handgun?) killed their son," the senator wrote in a poem shared on social media.

    "I may grieve for some time. But then again ... we have been grieving a long time."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera News


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