An acquittal in the shooting death of a young Indigenous man by a white farmer in Saskatchewan has left First Nations stunned and outraged, with protesters taking to the streets across Canada against what’s being seen a symbol of a racist and severely broken criminal justice system.
After deliberating for 13 hours, an all-white jury in Battleford, Saskatchewan found 56-year-old Gerald Stanley not guilty of second-degree murder in the 2016 death of Colten Boushie of the Red Pheasant First Nation.
Cries of despair filled the courtroom and family members burst into tears as the verdict was announced Friday night. “You're a murderer. You murdered my son,” said Colten’s mother, Debbie Baptiste.
News of the acquittal left Boushie’s uncle Alvin Baptiste “shocked,” he told reporters outside the courthouse.
"My nephew has been denied justice," said Baptiste. "A white jury came out with a verdict of not guilty of Gerald Stanley, who shot and killed my nephew. This is how they treat us First Nations people, and it's not right. Something has to be done about this."
“We hoped for justice for Colten,” said Boushie’s cousin Jade Tootoosis. “However, we did not see it. We did not feel it throughout this entire process. We will fight for an appeal, and answers to all the racism that my family has experienced from the day that Colten was shot until the jury delivered the verdict of not guilty. We will not stop our pursuit of justice.”
Indigenous people and their supporters across Canada took to the streets on Saturday in solidarity with the grieving family.
About 500 people gathered in front of City Hall in Toronto on Saturday afternoon after the verdict, praying and burning sage.
“Murdered on stolen land,” read a sign that lay on the ground in the middle of the crowd.
"There's no justice for people. ...it's alright to shoot an Indian perceived to be stealing," said one speaker.
“I believe there should be 1.5 million people on the streets of Toronto today. There should be millions. If Canadians want to walk around and say they’re not racist, they have to be anti-racist. They cannot calmly sip coffee like that murderer did,” said a speaker named Shandra, who didn’t say her last name.
“The Canadian legal system had 12… racists determine that this killing was not just an accident, but that it was justified,” said another speaker, a First Nations grandmother and a lawyer from the Prairies.
Similar rallies are being held in solidarity with Boushie’s family across Canada, including in Saskatoon, Regina, Ottawa, Edmonton, Vancouver, Victoria, and Halifax.
“Gerald Stanley was not acting alone,” said a representative of Black Lives Matter at the Toronto protest. “He is part of a widespread, state-sanctioned white supremacy that has facilitated the murder of Indigenous and Black people at alarming rates across this north part of Turtle Island. He is not an exception, he is not a bad apple, he is not a lone shooter. He is part of a system. A system set on our destruction and annihilation. And this is why he was acquitted.”
Boushie’s death has drawn comparisons to similar racially charged cases south of the border, like the shooting of Black teenager Trayvon Martin.
The killing and trial have been flashpoints for racial divisions in Canada between Indigenous people and their white neighbours, especially in the Prairie provinces.
The court heard that Boushie was shot in the head after he and four friends drove an SUV onto Stanley’s farm near Biggar, Saskatchewan. The driver testified that the group had been drinking earlier and tried to break into a truck on another nearby farm, but had come onto Stanley’s property because they needed help with a flat tire. One of them tried to start an ATV on the property, and that’s when Stanley and his son Sheldon came to confront them.
Stanley testified that he had fired warning shots to scare the group away. He said he believed his gun was empty, and that it “just went off,” as a result of a hangfire, when he reached into the SUV to get the keys out of the ignition.
The jury could could have convicted Stanley of manslaughter, rather than second-degree murder, but he was also acquitted on that lesser charge. A guilty verdict for manslaughter would’ve meant the jury found Stanley didn’t intentionally kill Boushie, but that he showed a reckless disregard for his life. The acquittal implies the jury did not find Stanley culpable at all in Boushie’s death, and that the shooting was justified.
"In the US South for many decades, it was impossible to convict anyone for lynching Blacks because all-White juries would acquit White killers. Even by Stanley's own testimony, this was definitely manslaughter," Paul Champ, a human rights lawyer in Ottawa, wrote on Twitter.
"This verdict is a dark stain on my home province," Champ wrote.
Red Pheasant First Nation Chief Clint Wuttunee called the ruling “absolutely perverse.”
“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,” Wuttunnee told The Canadian Press.
Reaction from Ottawa has been swift, with both the prime minister and the justice minister weighing in on Twitter.
“I can’t imagine the grief and sorrow the Boushie family is feeling tonight,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau tweeted from Los Angeles. “Sending love to them from the U.S.”
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould added that “As a country we can and must do better.”
Shortly after the verdict, Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe issued a statement, urging the public to be “measured” in their reaction.
“Let us all remember our personal responsibility for our thoughts, our actions, and our comments — including those on social media,” he wrote.
On Saturday morning, Senator Murray Sinclair, who headed Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, posted a poem on his Facebook page.“Today I grieve for my country,” it read. “ I grieve for a family that has seen only injustice from the moment a farmer with a handgun (why does a farmer need a handgun?) killed their son.”
'Push for positive change'
The Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO) and the Federation of Saskatchewan Indigenous Nations, in a joint statement, urged the government to act on recommendations made by recent studies and inquiries on policing and court systems in Canada, and the challenges First Nations face when it comes to representation on juries.
“We fear for those still alive. When our kids leave our homes, we wonder if they are going to come back... we wonder if they will be killed or injured by the very systems that are supposed to protect the people within Canada,” Sheila North, grand chief of the Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, said in a statement .
FSIN Vice Chief Kim Jonathan added that it is “natural to be angry at a time like this, but we must push past that, if we want positive change.”
“Now is the time to come together in unity, to show the strength and passion we have for making Colten’s senseless death come to have some kind of meaning,” said Jonathan. “These heart-breaking, negative events can be the beginning of something positive.”