Photo by Liam Richards with Canadian Press
April 06, 2018

Illusions of Equality: Canada's Failure to Uphold Justice for Colten Boushie

Matt Aijala

The murder of Colten Boushie, a young resident of Cree Red Pheasant First Nation, has not resulted in justice for the victim, his family, or his community. This incident shines a light on problems with the treatment of First Nations people in Canada’s justice system and how such incidents are presented to the public.

The Verdict

On Aug. 9th, 2016, 22-year-old Colten Boushie was swimming, drinking, and shooting rifles with his friends along the Maymont River in Saskatchewan, Canada. After a few drinks, the group of friends visited a nearby farm where, according to a police document, they attempted to steal a truck on the property. Unsuccessful in this attempt, the group fled the property and popped a tire in the process. In attempts to receive help getting the vehicle back into working condition, the group drove onto a neighboring farm, owned by a man named Gerald Stanley. Here, Stanley and his son were performing maintenance on a fence and witnessed the group of young Native adults arrive on his property.

The testimonies of Boushie’s friends recall the driver and others entering into a nearby truck and onto an All-Terrain Vehicle. Boushie then moved from the backseat into the driver's seat to control the vehicle. Soon thereafter, Stanley's son smashed in the front windshield with a hammer, bringing the vehicle to a halt. Boushie was left sitting in the driver's seat, while Stanley's son chased those who had fled.

Shortly after that, Gerald Stanley fired two warning shots into the air, the only bullets he says he thought were in the gun. He then approached the vehicle, where he reached over Boushie and pulled the keys out of the ignition.

In the process, Stanley's gun discharged, sending a bullet into the back of Boushie's head at point-blank range.

Gerald Stanley was arrested and charged with second-degree murder the evening of the shooting. He was tried earlier this year and acquitted on the basis that a 'hang fire' caused the gun to discharge. This means that, if the defense is truthful, Stanley pulled the trigger a third time while firing warning shots, and the third bullet fired with a delay.

Loud sobbing and screams, including chants of “Colten!” and “murderer!”, could be heard from outside the courtroom door following the verdict.

A Broken System

Colten Boushie’s case is emblematic of the many tragedies that still plague First Nations communities, and a criminal justice system that seemingly allows non-Native perpetrators to go without consequence for their crimes when committed against a First Nations member.

Gerald Stanley’s defense, for example, employed peremptory challenges to curate an all white jury, demonstrating a racist abuse of the rules of the court. Allowing the defendant’s counsel in a racially charged case to exempt persons of color from deciding the outcome disproportionately favors the majority race.

This, unfortunately, is just one of many examples of how Canada’s institutionalized racism allows for white people to kill First Nations people, face a justice system that favors their race, and walk free.

Outside the courthouse, the acquittal of Gerald Stanley also resulted in public backlash and demonstrations against Canada's criminal justice system, demanding justice for Boushie and his community.

Red Pheasant First Nation Chief Clint Wuttunee called the ruling "absolutely perverse," stating that "Colten Boushie was shot in the back of the head at point blank range. Nevertheless, an all white jury formed the twisted view of that obvious truth and found Stanley not guilty.”

“Canadians know it’s wrong. Canadians know it’s flawed” said Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations to The Weekly. He also suggested implementing public reform ideas to better represent minorities in Canada's justice system.

Ridicule of the ruling isn’t exclusive to First Nations communities, either. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who typically acts and votes against the interest of First Nations communities, seemed dissatisfied with the outcome of the ruling, stating that "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."

It seems as if both white politicians and indigenous leaders feel the same way about the verdict. So why does this issue persist?

Legacy of Racism

While Canada’s justice system, having allowed Gerald Stanley to walk free, may not be directly at fault for the death of Colten Boushie, it continues to exhibit a troubling pattern: the murder of Native people consistently does not warrant the same condemnation as the murder of white people. Without immediate and just action, similar incidents in the future are likely.

Also likely is that Canada’s historically racist treatment of indigenous people played a role in the Stanley acquittal. It is no secret that Battleford, the area of Saskatchewan where this incident occurred, has a long history of racism towards Natives from white settlers. This racism is fueled by fears of difference and a miseducation that does not accurately portray of the cultures of First Nations and Native American people.

Unfortunately, this fear-driven racism continues to paint a target on the backs of First Nations people, and has allowed for their killing in the past and present.

It is not unlikely, given the circumstances, that Canada’s legacy of fear-driven, anti-indigenous racism played a large role in the death of Colten Boushie. Instead of opting for the safe and rational approach, Stanley advanced towards the vehicle with his gun pointed at the driver, immediately defensive. It doesn’t seem far-fetched to chalk this up to his initial impression of Boushie and his friends, people of color. Had the group been white, would Stanley have reacted in such a violent and confrontational way?

More importantly, would Colten Boushie still be alive?

Beyond the Border

Fear-driven racism, the kind that kills young people like Colten Boushie, isn’t just a Canadian issue, either. The United States knows all too well that people of color can be murdered without any reprimand from the law — especially if that murder is done on behalf of the law.

In the US, Native Americans are disproportionately discriminated by law enforcement as well as the court system. When they are jailed, they are more likely to die in prison.

American racism, just as Canada’s, runs deep in the roots of this nation. Many elected officials, vested with the responsibility to uphold justice, hold and act on racist beliefs; many law enforcement agencies, which exist ostensibly to protect and serve every single individual, hold racist beliefs; and, unfortunately, much of the citizenry holds racist beliefs.

All of these beliefs stem from the same place of fear that resulted in the death of Colten Boushie. Institutionalized, this fear creates and permeates the environment that allows for the unjust deaths of Trayvon Martin, Sarah Lee Circle Bear, Alton Sterling, Allen Locke, and, too many others to name.

As First Nations and Native American communities and their allies grieve for the loss of Colten Boushie, they also continue to advocate for a more just and equitable treatment under the law. May the light prevail.

To learn more about the unjust treatment of Native Americans in the US justice system, read the Native Lives Matter report by Lakota People’s Law Project.