The justice system has once again failed Indigenous people after a Saskatchewan jury found Gerald Stanley not guilty of killing Colten Boushie of the Red Pheasant First Nation. Angry shouts of “Murderer!” echoed through the courtroom on Feb. 9 as the jury read their verdict, and this anger swept the whole nation overnight. Rallies were immediately held the following day in various cities, including Saskatoon, Regina, Edmonton, Calgary, Toronto, Ottawa, and many others, drawing thousands of people.
For more than a year since Colten was shot in the back of the head at point-blank range in August 2016, the court proceeding had brought to the fore the deep racism that Indigenous people face in all aspects of their life. Since the beginning of the case, public opinion has been stirred toward blaming Colten Boushie for his own death. Since he and his friends were trespassing into Gerald Stanley’s farm and “up to no good”, they were deemed responsible for creating a charged situation where a “gun accident” could happen. Such victim blaming is not dissimilar to the outrageous recent Globe and Mail headline—Tina Fontaine had drugs, alcohol in system when she was killed: toxicologist—that gave the impression that 15-year-old Tina wouldn’t have been murdered if she was a “good girl”; that she essentially had it coming.
Everywhere, people are also asking this question: Would the same “gun accident” happen if instead of a group of Indigenous youth, it had been a group of white youth driving through Gerald Stanley’s farm? For all members of marginalized communities, who have suffered racial profiling throughout their life, the answer is an emphatic “No!” It could not be otherwise. At every step of the way, Indigenous people are faced with a system that is designed to discriminate against them.
In their encounters with the labour market, whose invisible hand is supposed to be fair in its dealings, Indigenous people find themselves at a massive disadvantage, with an unemployment rate far higher than the national average. Indigenous workers also earn 15-19 per cent less than their non-Indigenous counterparts. In their dealings with the health-care and education system and various other government services, Indigenous people often find themselves treated like third-class citizens.
In their encounters with the law, which is supposed to “serve and protect” everyone, Indigenous people are more likely to be served with abuse and brutality. A recent survey in Edmonton showed that black people and Indigenous people, particularly women, are more likely to be carded by the police than the general population. Such racist treatment by police was even extended to the grieving mother of Colten Boushie. Debbie Baptiste reported that on the night of her son’s death, officers arrived at her home—some with weapons drawn—entered her house without permission, and began searching each room. One officer grabbed her wrist, smelled her breath, and asked her if she had been drinking. Further adding insult to injury, an internal RCMP investigation cleared its own officers of any wrongdoing in their treatment of Boushie’s family.
Almost everyone from Indigenous communities feels, and rightly so, that the trial against Colten’s murderer was rigged from the start. No Indigenous people were chosen as jurors for this trial. The defence lawyer craftily used the jury selection system to block every visibly Indigenous juror in the jury pool. Even the Crown prosecutor, who is supposed to be fighting for Colten’s justice, was found severely wanting. Since the preliminary hearing, the family of Colten Boushie had asked that Bill Burge, the Crown prosecutor, be replaced with another lawyer. “We knew this Crown prosecutor would be absolutely incapable of handling such a high-profile case. Watching him in the courtroom, he was humdrum. He wasn’t passionate and didn’t take pride in his work,” said Bobby Cameron, the Federation of Sovereign Nations Chief.
Such indifference is not the exception but the rule. It features prominently in the cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women, which police often take lightly, regularly dismissing reports of disappearances when Indigenous women are involved. In one case, when 22-year-old Pamela Holopainen was reported missing by her family back in 2003, police told them dismissively that she was probably out drinking and to give it a few days, and also accused her of being a prostitute. It was therefore not surprising that one of the speakers at the Edmonton vigil for Colten said: “If it was a white boy, justice would have been served and there would be no need for a rally like this.”
The killing of Colten, the one-and-a-half-year trial that ensued, and its resulting not-guilty verdict strike a chord with all Indigenous people. They see their own lives mirrored in the racial discrimination that Colten had to go through while he was alive and even after he was murdered. The case of Colten’s murder has served as yet another symbol of injustices that the Indigenous people have suffered from generation to generation. For hundreds of years their people have been murdered, their land taken, their culture eradicated, their children stolen from them, and the very people who committed all these atrocious crimes always get away with it, just like Gerald Stanley.
But the racism against Colten and all Indigenous people is part of the wider systemic prejudices created and perpetuated by Canadian colonialism. Indigenous people are said to be too “savage”, “barbaric”, and “irresponsible” to manage their own affairs, let alone their land. Thus the Canadian government in this view has the right, nay the responsibility, to deprive the First Nations of their lands and the natural resources located on them, and hand these riches to the responsible capitalist to develop. If, in this process of dispossession, Indigenous people have their culture destroyed, their communities uprooted, and are consequently plagued with crime, drugs, and poverty, and have their children taken away from them, it is their own doing. Kimberly Jonathan, vice-chief of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), is therefore right to say that this verdict is a continuation of the atrocities against the Indigenous people, such as the residential school system and the Sixties Scoop.
Reconciliation “has failed First Nations people right across this country,” said Bobby Cameron, Chief of FSIN, at a press conference not long after the verdict was read. This is a sentiment now widely shared by many Indigenous people, especially the youth. At the vigil for Colten held in front of the Alberta legislature, many youth spoke passionately of how this system is not designed at all to give them justice. One spoke about how she no longer believes in reconciliation, as “it has become a catchword with no meaning on the lips of many politicians.” Gerald Stanley’s exoneration after killing Colten Boushie in cold blood reveals the murderous racism that continues to lurk beneath Canada’s smiling “progressive” surface. Making any progress on this front remains a low priority for those at the highest echelons of power, as is illustrated by the resignations and delays that have plagued the long-awaited federal inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Any illusion that the interests of the Indigenous people can be reconciled with the current Canadian state, the very same state that is continually repressing them, is now being washed away. More and more people are learning the hard way that the Canadian state and the capitalist system that it defends cannot be reformed into one that respects the rights of the Indigenous people. The Canadian state serves the interest of capitalist profit, and the interest of capitalist profit clashes with the interest of the Indigenous communities. These two diametrically opposing interests will always clash when an oil pipeline needs to be built (the mass mobilization against Kinder Morgan pipeline today), when a nine-hole golf course needs to be expanded (the 1990 Oka Crisis), and when Indigenous people are told that there is no money for the reserves while corporations are given billions of dollars in bailouts. This makes any kind of reconciliation impossible.
Furthermore, the constant talk about reconciliation is a way for the government to divert the anger of the Indigenous people into a safe channel. Now that it is being questioned, it is no wonder that politicians of all stripes are calling for calm. Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe, shortly after the verdict stated that, “I would urge everyone to be measured in their reaction”. He is reassuring everyone that “(he) is listening, our government is listening.” The Indigenous people have been measured in their reactions for far too long, and in return for this they are rewarded with unmeasured abuse and violence. And how could the government be listening when it is the same entity that has been stifling the voices of the oppressed First Nations for hundreds of years? Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his cabinet ministers also chimed in to reassure people that “we have to do better.” These are empty words that will not soothe the anger that is now boiling over in all Indigenous communities from coast to coast.
There has been a lot of talk about reforming the justice system. This is what Justin Trudeau was alluding to when he said “we have to do better”. But what we need is not another cosmetic change. We need a fundamental change. The whole justice system has to be taken down and a new one built. It starts with the police, that state apparatus of violence that has brutalized members of marginalized communities, broken up peaceful demonstrations and workers’ strikes (anti-G20 demonstration in Toronto where almost 1,000 were arrested), and in essence protected the interests of capital. In place of this unaccountable body, we need to fight for direct democratic control of security bodies by the workers and the oppressed through trade unions and marginalized community organizations. Judges and prosecutors at all levels need to be elected with the right of recall at any time, so that these “arbiters of justice” are accountable to the people. Justice should be democratic.
In the final analysis, the fight against racism and the struggle for the rights of Indigenous people are inseparable from the fight against capitalism, which encourages racism as a means of dividing working class people. Ending the poverty and inequality that marginalizes Indigenous communities, and giving First Nations control over their own land, resources, education, language, and social services, would overcome centuries of oppression and racism and lay the foundations for a more just society—yet such a profound transformation is impossible on a capitalist basis. Only through a united struggle for socialism can we eliminate the precarious conditions that breed racism and violence, and achieve lasting justice for Colten Boushie and for all Indigenous people.