On Feb. 10, an all-white jury found Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley not guilty in the death of Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree man. The decision has led to an outpouring of anger and grief across Canada, with many Indigenous people decrying the result as a product of entrenched racism in Canadian society. Here’s why the case has been so controversial, and why it may spur reform of the criminal justice system.
How did Colten Boushie die?
On Aug. 9, 2016, Colten Boushie and four friends drove their SUV onto the farm of Gerald Stanley near Biggar, Saskatchewan. Some time later, 22-year-old Boushie died from a gunshot to the head from Stanley’s handgun.
What happened in between is less clear because accounts differ.
According to Boushie’s companions, they went to the farm that afternoon seeking help for a flat tire. They said they were confronted by Gerald Stanley and his son Sheldon before crashing the SUV into a parked vehicle. They said Stanley then approached the vehicle and shot Boushie in the back of the head at point-blank range.
The Stanleys, meanwhile, said one of the group got on an ATV and tried to start it, at which point they ran toward them yelling. Gerald Stanley kicked out a taillight and his son Sheldon Stanley swung a hammer at the vehicle’s windshield. After the vehicle crashed, Sheldon said he ran inside the house while Gerald retrieved his semiautomatic handgun to fire warning shots into the air. He would later say he approached the SUV thinking his gun empty, and that it went off accidentally, killing Boushie.
Stanley was charged with second-degree murder for Boushie’s death.
Colten Boushie’s family says authorities mishandled the case from the start.
Debbie Baptiste said the way she learned of her son’s death was traumatizing and insulting.
According to the Globe and Mail, Baptiste saw several RCMP squad cars driving up the roads with their lights flashing. The officers asked her whether Boushie was her son. When she said yes, someone told her: “He’s deceased.”
About a dozen officers then searched all the rooms in the house and asked the grief-struck family members whether they had been drinking. (An internal probe later cleared the officers of wrongdoing.)
That would not be the last time the family felt disrespected, according to the CBC.
RCMP officers left Boushie’s body lying facedown at the crime scene for 24 hours while they waited for a warrant, and the SUV was left with the door open during a rainstorm, potentially washing away valuable forensic evidence.
An initial RCMP press release about the shooting also infuriated the family and Indigenous leaders because it said three young people had been taken into custody as part of a related theft investigation. Bobby Cameron, chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, said it “provided just enough prejudicial information for the average reader to draw their own conclusions that the shooting was somehow justified.”
On the day of Gerald Stanley’s first court appearance, nobody from Boushie’s family was present because neither the prosecutor nor the RCMP had told them about it beforehand, CBC reported.
The trial was about much more than a shooting.
Concern about institutional anti-Indigenous racism in Saskatchewan has a long history. One of the most infamous examples was the practice of so-called “starlight tours,” when police in Saskatoon would drive Indigenous men outside city limits and abandon them there in the dead of winter. Several died of hypothermia, and a subsequent review of the province’s criminal justice system found evidence of widespread anti-Indigenous prejudice.
The Stanley case is inseparable from that painful history, and it has resulted in an outpouring of racist and hateful comments online. Things got so ugly in the days after Boushie’s death that the province’s then-premier, Brad Wall, publicly appealed for calm.
Many of Stanley’s supporters, meanwhile, said the shooting highlighted the problem of rural crime and the relative lack of law enforcement resources in small communities. Several months after Boushie’s death, the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities passed a resolution calling for stronger self-defence laws, which Indigenous leaders decried as a call for more violence.
The trial itself was held in Battleford, Saskatchewan, scene of the largest mass hanging in Canadian history when in 1885 eight First Nations men were executed and buried in a mass grave. All the Indigenous students from a nearby school were taken to witness the hanging.
An all-white jury.
Gerald Stanley was found not guilty of second-degree murder on Feb. 10 after the jury deliberated for 13 hours. But the make-up of that jury has been as controversial as the verdict itself.
Jury trials allow both the defence and the Crown to use a number of peremptory challenges — which lets them dismiss potential jurors without cause. According to The Canadian Press, Stanley’s defence team used peremptory challenges to disqualify several potential candidates who appeared to be Indigenous, leading to an all-white jury.
Legal experts say peremptory challenges are routinely used in Canada to exclude Indigenous people from serving on juries, even as Indigenous people are disproportionately by the criminal justice system.
Kent Roach of the University of Toronto said the Boushie trial was “just another in a long line of confirmations” that the system “has horribly failed with respect to our treatment of Indigenous people.”
Large protests took place in more than a dozen cities across Canada following Stanley’s acquittal, and anger at the outcome could spark reforms.
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould says her department is reviewing peremptory challenges, and top government officials including the prime minister have met with members of Boushie’s family.
“The most significant thing is that there was a general consensus that there are systemic issues regarding Indigenous people in the judicial system and that each person has promised to work with us to make concrete changes,” Boushie’s cousin Jade Tootoosis said afterward.
Gerald Stanley is due back in court next month for two firearms charges related to Boushie’s killing. If convicted, he could face a maximum of two years on a first offence and up to five years if he has prior convictions.
The Crown has a brief window to decide whether it will appeal his acquittal on the murder charge, but officials have not yet made a decision, according to the StarPhoenix.
Ishmael Daro is a social news editor for BuzzFeed and is based in Toronto.
Contact Ishmael N. Daro at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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