Racial tension hangs over Sask. as trial for farmer who allegedly killed Indigenous man looms
There are fears that the trial of Gerald Stanley, charged with second-degree murder in the death of Colten Boushie, could inflame racial tensions
by Douglas Quan, National Post, Jan 26, 2018
Asked how nervous he was feeling this week, Ames Leslie, the mayor of Battleford, Sask., was cautious, saying he was hopeful “that cooler minds prevail.”
That’s because on Monday, jury selection is set to begin in one of the highest-profile, racially tinged cases the province has seen: the second-degree murder trial of a white, rural farmer accused of fatally shooting a young Indigenous man.
As it has been from the start, this case is more than just about Gerald Stanley’s guilt or innocence. To the family of 22-year-old Colten Boushie, the man who was gunned down, and their supporters, this case serves as a symbol of the entrenched racism and police prejudice faced daily by Indigenous people. To supporters of the accused, the case represents something entirely different: the rights of farm owners to defend their properties however they see fit.
So inflamed did the rhetoric on social media become in the immediate aftermath of the August 2016 shooting that Premier Brad Wall was compelled to decry the “racist and hate-filled comments.” One local pastor compared Boushie to Rodney King, the black motorist whose videotaped beating by police led to days of rioting in Los Angeles. Others have cast the province as “the Mississippi of the North.”
Now, with a trial about to get underway under heavy security, there are worries that racial tensions could flare again.
“Here’s a situation where you’ve got some folks that are different from each other; there’s a lot of unknown between each other and a lot of mistrust going both ways,” said John Lagimodiere, editor and publisher of Eagle Feather News and an Aboriginal awareness consultant. “It’s a hot-point button that could drive more of a wedge between our communities.”
Colten’s uncle, Alvin Baptiste, told the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix this week the looming trial fills him with dread.
“It’s just reopening wounds over and over and we just can’t seem to heal.… I just don’t want to hear or see things and I’m trying to move forward in my life and leave this in the past, but I have to deal with it.”
This much is known about the shooting: On Aug. 9, 2016, Boushie, a resident of the Red Pheasant First Nation, joined a bunch of friends for a day of swimming and drinking.
At one point, they drove onto Stanley’s farm near the town of Biggar. There was a confrontation and Boushie was fatally shot while inside the vehicle.
Why Boushie and his friends ended up on the property is not certain. There is a suggestion they had a flat tire and pulled onto the property to look for help. An RCMP press release initially suggested the shooting might have occurred in the context of a theft.
Even though no theft charges were filed, many of Stanley’s supporters latched on to the theft narrative, asserting farm owners’ rights to protect their properties from trespassers. Many farmers took to social media, posting pictures of rifles sitting in the cabs of their trucks and tractors. They insisted there wasn’t a race problem, just a crime problem.
One councillor in the rural municipality of Browning went so far as to suggest on Facebook that Stanley’s “only mistake was leaving witnesses.” The councillor stepped down in the inevitable uproar that followed.
Wall implored the community to tone down the rhetoric.
“This must stop,” he wrote. “These comments are not only unacceptable, intolerant and a betrayal of the very values of and character of Saskatchewan, they are dangerous.”
RCMP officials urged the public to let the justice system run its course.
But some members of the community wondered if the RCMP may have contributed to the racial tensions.
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) criticized the initial RCMP press release — and its reference to possible theft — for having “provided just enough prejudicial information” to make the average reader think the shooting was justified.
The Boushie family filed complaints against the RCMP alleging that on the night officers showed up to inform them of Colten’s death, they were treated with disrespect and made to feel like criminals as officers searched their home. An internal investigation subsequently cleared the officers of wrongdoing.
The family’s lawyer, Chris Murphy, said this week an appeal of that decision is pending.
“This case should make all Canadians feel uncomfortable. It should knock them out of their comfort zone,” he wrote in an email. “The night Colten died, the RCMP searched his mother’s trailer while at the same time telling her that her son had been killed. I’m white. There is a zero-per-cent chance that, had I been shot, the police would have searched my parents’ house while notifying them I was dead.”
Julie Kaye, a sociology professor at the University of Saskatchewan, said whatever the motives were for the shooting, the case cannot be divorced from a broader discussion about racism faced by Indigenous people.
Distrust of police is well-founded and Boushie’s death and its aftermath “reflected so many people’s lived experiences,” she said, citing past allegations that police in the province had engaged in “starlight tours” — the practice of picking up Aboriginal people who were intoxicated and dropping them off on the edge of town.
“It’s the work right now of the country to take these instances and really understand the broader context.”
Robert Innes, an Indigenous studies professor at the University of Saskatchewan, agrees. “I think that Canadians should be thinking about how is it that Canada is at this place right now in terms of race relations. Where does it come from? How did it manifest to be like this? And how do we move forward?”
In an interview with CBC Radio last year, Colten’s mother, Debbie Baptiste, shared that she had been waiting for her son to come home for dinner when she heard a medical helicopter fly over her home.
“Mother’s intuition,” she said, kicked in. “I looked up at it and I said, ‘Please don’t be for my son.’”
“I pretty much cry every day,” she went on to say. “But I manage to pick myself up.”
Kim Jonathan, first vice-chief of the FSIN, said she got to know the family following the shooting, and quickly came to realize “this could happen to my son.
“If you’re a First Nations person, you live, you breathe this (racism),” she said.
“As a First Nations mom, I live in fear. I would love for you to walk with me. I’d take a week off from work and I’d go incognito, maybe with a ponytail where nobody knows that I’m the chief. We’d walk around and go different places and you’d see clearly the fear — not only physical, but professional — knowing that my (children) are going to be viewed as less than … as not worthy as their friends who are not First Nations.”
With 750 people expected to form the jury pool, Jonathan said she hopes there will be sufficient Aboriginal representation among those selected.
On Facebook this week, a member of the Farmers with Firearms group encouraged Stanley’s supporters to show their solidarity and attend the proceedings.
“I see many posts from Aboriginals to fill the courtroom to show support for (Colten) Boushie. However, I haven’t seen one request from local farmers, neighbours or family to show support for Mr. Stanley,” the post read.
“As a farmer’s wife, I believe what Gerald Stanley did was to protect his family, however I think the courts will be pressured by Aboriginal presence to make an example of him. I think it should be posted somewhere, anywhere, that farmers support Gerald Stanley and the ability to defend our property from armed, drunk and violent trespassers, regardless of race.”
In an online poll this week, Eagle Feather News asked its readers to guess the outcome of the trial. Thirty-one percent predicted Stanley will be found guilty of a lesser charge while 26 per cent said he will be found not guilty.
Whatever the outcome, Lagimodiere said he hopes Indigenous and non-Indigenous leaders will be able to work together on improving relations.
“But if there’s a not guilty (verdict), I’m scared how bad it could get.”