A Murder Trial Stirs Emotions About Canada’s Relations With Its Indigenous Population
Posted February 9, 2018 11:47 p.m. EST
Updated February 9, 2018 11:49 p.m. EST
BATTLEFORD, Saskatchewan — Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s push for reconciliation of Canada’s troubled history with its indigenous people particularly resonates here in the town of Battleford, in the central part of Saskatchewan province.
A pass system, similar to South Africa’s under apartheid, once required indigenous people to get a government official’s written permission to step off their reserves. A public hanging in 1885 of six Cree and two Assiniboine men on murder charges that have since been questioned remains the largest mass execution in Canada’s history.
And now there is a verdict in the Gerald Stanley trial.
Stanley, a local farmer, had been charged with second-degree murder in the death of Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree man from the nearby Red Pheasant Cree Nation.
In August 2016, Boushie and four other indigenous people drove onto Stanley’s property. Stanley, 56, testified at trial that he believed their goal was robbery, which he and his son tried to prevent.
In what the farmer called an unintended accident, Boushie was killed by a bullet to the back of his head that came from a semi-automatic handgun Stanley fired during a confrontation with the group.
On Friday night, after a week of testimony and a day and a half of deliberations, a jury found Stanley not guilty, setting off cries of anguish from Boushie’s relatives and supporters.
For the past 17 months, the case had been hotly debated in Battleford, stirring deep feelings about the treatment — both past and present — of the province’s indigenous population.
Stanley’s supporters have used the episode to call for American-style “stand your ground” self-protection laws. Meanwhile, online vitriol has exposed the province’s divide between indigenous and non-native communities with a torrent of overtly racist comments that led to a call from the province’s premier for everyone to “rise above intolerance.”
Ben Kautz, a member of the municipal council in Browning, Saskatchewan, wrote, under his full name, in a Facebook page for farmers, now defunct, that Stanley’s “only mistake was leaving three witnesses.” He has since stepped down from the council.
At the same time, many non-indigenous people in Saskatchewan view Boushie’s death as an injustice, including a group that stood in front of the courthouse Thursday in bone-chilling cold holding signs and banners calling for justice.
Boushie’s family and their supporters were angry about the police inquiry, which they called flawed and inadequate, contending that it initially focused more on the actions of the five young indigenous people than on the killing of Boushie. They also said the case has exposed a lack of progress in Trudeau’s reconciliation effort.
“If we are making progress why would it have exploded so much when he got shot?” Jade Tootoosis, Boushie’s cousin, asked the other day in the living room of their grandmother’s house at Red Pheasant. “I pity them because I don’t understand why they feel so much hate for someone they don’t know.”
Eleanore Sunchild grew up in the Thunderchild Cree First Nation north of Battleford. Now she runs a legal practice in town that specializes in resolving claims by former pupils of mandatory boarding, or residential, schools the federal government established in the 19th century.
In 2015 a national truth and reconciliation commission found the program to be “cultural genocide” against indigenous people. Saskatchewan had more of the notorious schools than any other province, which both the commission and Sunchild blame for destroying indigenous families for generations.
Sunchild, 45, said her home province was the national laggard on reconciliation.
“Saskatchewan is just beginning, I don’t even know if we have really started on reconciliation,” she said. “I’m not saying that Indian people deserve a break because we’ve been victimized. I’m saying that both sides have to take accountability and responsibility for what got us into this situation in the first place.”
The area is also an outlier on crime. Using data from Statistics Canada, a government agency, Maclean’s magazine found that North Battleford, Battleford’s sister community across the North Saskatchewan River, is the most dangerous place in Canada.
Car theft is common, and farmers in the sparsely settled region complain about agonizingly slow wait times for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to arrive. A Facebook group, Farmers With Firearms, appeared after Boushie’s death to call for allowing citizens to arm themselves, and also to support Stanley’s actions on that fateful day.
Last year, an association of rural municipalities in Saskatchewan passed a resolution asking the federal government to expand self-defense laws.
Both groups say their efforts are directed against criminals, not indigenous people. Alvin Baptiste, Boushie’s uncle, gave a tour of Red Pheasant to visitors this week. He acknowledged that some of the reserve’s young people, along with white youths in the area, passed too much of their time with drinking, drugs and petty crime. For that he blamed the lack of job opportunities since the decline in oil prices, the lingering effects of the residential schools on families and the general dysfunction of the reserve.
A relatively new and well-maintained school is an exception in the area. No footprints lead through the snow to a hockey arena seemingly too large for the 500 or so people who live there. Money and energy to keep it operating ran out some time ago.
Pointing to the community center across the street, Baptiste said that its basketball programs had stopped and that the building was used only for wakes and ceremonial occasions. Next to it are the abandoned gas pumps and building of what had been Red Pheasant’s only store.
“There’s nothing much to do on this reserve, there’s nothing for them,” he said, referring to young people.
Evidence presented at the trial showed that the group in the car, while driving on a flat tire, had tried to steal a car at another farm before going to the Stanleys. In court, Stanley’s lawyer acknowledged that a toxicology report showed that Boushie was “so impaired it’s hard to believe that he could function at all.”
Chris Murphy, a lawyer retained by the Boushie family, said a junior constable was initially put in charge of the investigation, forensic experts were not brought in and the car in which Boushie died was left uncovered, its doors open, for two rainy days, washing away evidence.
The police force declined to comment.
Stanley testified at trial that he grabbed his semi-automatic pistol to fire two warning shots. He said he was trying to turn off the engine of the car the men were driving while holding the pistol when the fatal bullet fired in what he testified was a complete surprise.
Experts brought in by Stanley’s lawyer said that on rare occasions, bullets can briefly linger inside guns and rifles after a trigger is pulled — although neither those experts nor ones with the police were able to re-create the flaw using Stanley’s gun and ammunition.
For Tootoosis, the social media hatred prompted by the killing of her cousin may also prove to be his legacy.
“Ultimately Coco’s death needs to have a purpose,” she said using the family’s nickname for Boushie. “It’s brought to light such a divide, and the question now isn’t what is the government do about it, what are the courts going to do about it? It’s, ‘What am I going to do about it?'”