Canadian activists are calling for political and judicial reforms after a white farmer was found not guilty in the 2016 shooting of a young indigenous man by a seemingly all-white jury, spurring thousands of Canadians to demonstrate across the country.
Protests spread around Canada after the jury acquitted Gerald Stanley, a 56-year-old farmer, in the murder of 22-year-old Colton Boushie, a member of the Cree Red Pheasant First Nation in the central province of Saskatchewan, on Friday. Two years ago, Boushie and his friends drove onto Stanley’s land in search of assistance with a flat tire near the town of Biggar. The young people caught Stanley’s attention when he heard a vehicle start; believing it was being stolen, the farmer confronted them. A verbal back-and-forth ensued and Stanley fired a handgun, hitting Boushie. He was pronounced dead at the scene.
In Canada, the use of a firearm to defend private property is illegal. But Friday’s verdict means that Stanley will walk free. A jury reportedly containing no members of color — or indigenous members more specifically — found the farmer not guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter. The decision devastated Boushie’s family, who announced following the verdict that they would meet with government officials and demand changes to Canada’s justice system.
“Today, we saw no justice,” said Jade Tootoosis, Boushie’s cousin. “We are angry, we are upset, and we are hurt. But we will continue to speak out for the injustices indigenous people face in this society. This is unacceptable.”
“Some people state that race has nothing to do with this process, yet the defense felt threatened by an indigenous person being on the jury,” she said, referencing the fact that indigenous would-be jurors were rejected in favor of white jurors. “I think that speaks volumes.”
The Boushie family reportedly met with Indigenous Affairs Minister Carolyn Bennett and Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott on Monday to discuss the decision. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould both offered their sympathies following the verdict, with Trudeau acknowledging that “we understand there are systemic issues in our criminal justice system we must address” in Canada.
“I am going to say we have come to this point as a country far too many times. Indigenous people across this country are angry, they’re heartbroken and I know Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians alike know that we have to do better,” Trudeau told reporters.
The verdict comes after a bitter case, one that has sparked heated debate across Canada. Stanley testified after the shooting that he did not intend to fire at the car but the gun “just went off.” But Boushie’s family say the case was mishandled from the beginning. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) took three of the car’s occupants into custody following the shooting, part of a separate investigation. Much of the initial investigation surrounding Boushie’s death also centered on the indigenous young people involved, rather than Stanley. A junior constable initially headed the investigation and the car where Boushie died was left out in the rain for two days, washing away evidence. His body was left, face-down, in the gravel for 24 hours while officers awaited a warrant.
Boushie’s family learned of his death when RCMP officers arrived with weapons drawn, later asking his mother if she had been drinking. The family were also not present at an August 2016 court appearance for Stanley because the RCMP failed to inform them it was happening. Racist messages peppered social media following the shooting, including on a Facebook page for Saskatchewan farmers.
“F–king indian,” wrote one poster.
“In my mind his [Stanely’s] only mistake was leaving witnesses,” wrote Ben Kautz, then-councillor for the Rural Municipality of Browning, who later resigned over the comments.
At the time, the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) blamed the RCMP for the vitriol and for presenting the shooting in a way that disproportionately cast Boushie as the aggressor. Following Friday’s verdict, indigenous communities slammed the decision as a victory for racism, one pre-determined by the treatment indigenous people face in Canada.
“White people — they run the court system. Enough. We’re going to fight back,” Debbie Baptiste, Boushie’s mother, told a crowd on Saturday. “They’re not sweeping us under the carpet. Enough killing our people. We fight back.”
“Justice for Colten” has become a popular rallying cry in the time since the shooting, drawing attention not only to Boushie’s murder but to the larger situation facing indigenous Canadians, who disproportionately live in poverty and lack access to basic necessities. Cases involving the murders and disappearances of indigenous women have haunted the country for years, something Trudeau’s government has pledged to look into.
But indigenous communities say that process has been halting and slow. Meanwhile, suicides and poor health conditions plague majority-indigenous areas of the country — many First Nations communities have been forced to organize because they do not have access to drinking water. And while indigenous Canadians represent around 3 percent of the population, they are close to 26 percent of the country’s incarceration rate.
Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe reportedly met with Boushie’s family over the weekend and emphasized the need for soul-searching in Canada, especially with regards to racism and the rights of indigenous communities.
“We respect the decisions of the justice system and its independence, but as we move forward it’s incumbent on us as a government to have those very important, very challenging conversations with our aboriginal community here in the province,” he said.
Across the border, conversations surrounding racism and police framing have dominated headlines for several years as movements like Black Lives Matter have gained traction. Indigenous activism in the United States has also seen an increase in coverage, as Native communities have fought against projects like the Dakota Access Pipeline.