Two years ago, an indigenous boy was shot to death on a farm. The white farmer who is accused of killing him is now on trial. He says it was a freak accident. But the boy’s family and Indigenous people in the province say the death, and the police’s handling of it, has racism written all over it.
In a courtroom in rural Saskatchewan, Gerald Stanley is pleading not guilty in the 2016 death of Colten Boushie, who was shot and killed after he and his friends drove onto Stanley’s property.
The death has exposed longstanding racial tensions in the province between Indigenous people and rural landowners, while shocking social media comments about the case have exposed deeply held prejudices from some in the region. Whatever the outcome of the trial, many observers are worried about the implications it will have on the area’s already fraught race relations.
Over the last week, a more complete picture of the day of Boushie’s death in August of 2016, which has until now been shrouded in mystery, has come to light, although the details are still contested.
Boushie and four others from the Red Pheasant First Nation drove onto Stanley’s farm on the night of August 9. Stanley and his son said they went to confront the group when they saw one of the men get out of the SUV and try to start an ATV on the property.
Stanley, who testified on Monday, said he’d fired warning shots as two of the men from the car were running away, and believed the gun was empty.
"Boom. It just went off," Stanley said. The bullet entered Boushie’s skull and killed him.
According to Stanley’s lawyer, Scott Spencer, the shot was the result of a hangfire — an unexpected delay of a shot being fired after the trigger is pulled.
"This isn't a justified death. This death is not justified legally or morally," said Spencer. "This is really not a murder case at all. This is a case about what can go terribly wrong. … Hangfires happen. And that's what happened here."
'GO GET A GUN'
Those who were with Boushie that day told the jury a different version of events — one that has come under scrutiny because of inconsistencies between what they said in court and their previous statements to police.
"He shot Colten in the head," Belinda Jackson, one of the four young people who was in the Ford Escape, said in court. Jackson said she heard Stanley tell his son to “go get a gun,” and that he returned with a long one. She also said Stanley fired two shots at Boushie’s head. In her statement to police, however, Jackson said she hadn't heard any gunshots and didn't know who shot her friend.
Cassidy Cross-Whitstone, who drove the vehicle onto the property, testified that he started running after Stanley’s son Sheldon smashed the SUV’s windshield and heard a bullet fly right past his ear. During cross-examination, however, he admitted that he’d originally told the police he heard what he believed were warning shots. He also admitted to trying to break into a truck on another farm after their Ford Escape got a flat tire. When they came onto Stanley’s farm, he said they’d intended to ask for help with the tire.
Jackson explained in court that she’d been drinking when police took her initial statement, but recalled new details about what happened that day after seeing Stanley’s photo. Cross-Whitstone said he lied to police initially because he was afraid he would get into trouble — he’d had about 30 shots of liquor to drink that day, and wasn’t supposed to be driving.
On Thursday, the jury is set to start their deliberations. But for a number of reasons, all tied to race, the odds are stacked against Boushie’s family, their lawyer Chris Murphy told VICE News.
For one, the resources devoted by police forces to investigate crimes in which Indigenous people are victims are “completely inadequate,” said Murphy, comparing the case to the 2003 Toronto shooting death of 13-year-old Jane Creba, where “no stone was left unturned.”
The RCMP could’ve flown in expert interrogators to question Stanley and top investigators to look into the case, he pointed out. They also could’ve flown in a blood spatter expert, instead of having police analyze blood evidence through photos — a fact Stanley’s lawyer also raised in court, questioning the RCMP’s investigative methods and how they collected evidence in the case.
In the hours after Boushie was killed, police left the Ford Escape uncovered with a door open, leaving it exposed to rain in the 24 hours that it took police to get a search warrant. Blood spatter evidence was literally washed away.
The vehicle was also released to a towing lot before Stanley’s lawyers could examine it.
“Just fowl-up after fowl-up that made the successful prosecution of Gerald Stanley nearly impossible,” he said. “If instead of Colten Boushie, it was the mayor of Saskatoon or a University of Saskatchewan professor who got shot, the resources that would’ve been extended would’ve been different. That’s my honestly held belief.”
Murphy believes the discrepancies also extend to treatment of Indigenous witnesses. For example, while Jackson’s statement was taken after she’d been drinking, arrested, and held in custody with no food, Stanley’s wife Lisa and son Sheldon’s statements were taken after they were released, he said.
Jackson told the court she was “very intoxicated” while talking to the police officer, who “made it seem like I did something wrong so I didn’t know how to answer him.” Then in court, Spencer accused her of lying when she said she was uncomfortable demonstrating how Stanley was holding his gun.
“Or it didn’t happen, you didn’t see it,” Spencer said.
But the biggest obstacle to Boushie getting justice, in his family’s view, is the lack of Indigenous representation on the jury.
Each of the five visibly Indigenous potential jurors was challenged by the defence through peremptory challenges, which allow lawyers to reject a certain number of potential jurors without a reason. It’s an issue because of how some aspects of the case may get lost in translation, say critics.
“It’s important for people in the jury room to have an explanation as to why an indigenous witness might say something as opposed to something else,” said Murphy, adding that he saw instances during the trial in which it seemed the Crown and witnesses appeared to be speaking “different languages.”
In a column for the Saskatoon StarPhoenix, Doug Cuthand described how Jackson refused to mimic how Stanley held the gun, and how another witness broke down when the Crown showed him a picture of Boushie’s body.
“The reason was obvious to Cree people watching the trial. She would be mimicking the last moments of her friend’s death, and that was wrong,” Cuthand wrote.
It’s for this reason that having an Indigenous jury member is crucial — “giving a different perspective to some of the issues that might arise at the trial that would help the jury arrive at the truth,” said Murphy.
'RISE ABOVE INTOLERANCE'
Since he was shot in 2016, Boushie’s death has served as a lightning rod for the deep racial divisions in the province.
The tension began as soon as the RCMP put out their initial press release about the case, stating that those who were in the car were taken into custody as part of the investigation, but released without charges. Indigenous leaders criticized the press release, saying it was bound to make the public think the shooting was somehow justified.
The online comments that came afterwards, filled with anti-Indigenous sentiments and support for Stanley’s right to protect his farm through whatever means necessary, became so vicious that Premier Brad Wall stepped in, calling for people to “rise above intolerance.”
A local councillor resigned after posting in a Saskatchewan farmers’ group that Stanley’s “only mistake was leaving three witnesses.”
FARMERS WITH FIREARMS
Protesters supporting the Boushie family regularly showed up at Stanley’s pretrial hearings, prompting some local farmers to mobilize and do the same at the trial to show solidarity for him.
“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,” said a statement from a member of a group called Farmers with Firearms, a few days before the trial.
Ryan McIntyre, a spokesperson for the group, told VICE News farmers in the area have had firearms for decades to defend themselves against wild animals that might wander onto the property, but in the last 10 years, it’s become increasingly necessary to protect their land from break-ins, considering how long it would take for police to arrive.
“Media pushed the race thing,” he said. “We don’t give a damn what anyone’s ethnic background is. A criminal is a criminal. Lots of people are picking sides because of the race issues, but this has to do with the farmer.”
“If the courts [determine] that it’s second degree murder, then we fully support that and that’s what it is,” McIntyre added.
It’s the same lens Stanley’s lawyer Spencer, who released a statement before the start of the trial, hoped the jury will use to view the facts of the case.
“Saskatchewan will not be judged by a handful of online trolls. Saskatchewan will not be judged by the verdict in Gerry’s case,” he wrote. “Saskatchewan will be judged by how we conduct ourselves under the extreme pressure of the next couple of weeks. Let’s conduct ourselves rationally, intelligently and respectfully, and allow the court process to proceed without any distraction of interference.”