Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould faced a flood of correspondence from Canadians imploring the Liberal government to act in the wake of a Saskatchewan farmer’s acquittal in the shooting death of Colten Boushie.
Wilson-Raybould received hundreds of letters and emails after the Feb. 9, 2018 verdict finding farmer Gerald Stanley not guilty of second-degree murder. The overwhelming majority of correspondents called for an appeal, a public inquiry, reforms to the jury selection process or some form of remediation.
Many saw the verdict as a watershed moment and a test for the government on its commitment to reconciliation with Indigenous people.
“For a government that has made reconciliation a priority and a nation that is faced with a suicide crisis of young Indigenous people who fear their lives will not be valued, the acquittal of Stanley for killing Boushie sets a very dangerous precedent in this nation’s efforts to reconcile with its dark past and ensure a better future for Indigenous peoples,” warned one writer.
The letters and emails, which poured in from all parts of the country, were released under the Access to Information Act.
Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree man, was shot and killed by Stanley near Biggar, Sask., on Aug. 9, 2016, when he and four other young people from the Red Pheasant Cree Nation reserve drove onto Stanley’s rural property.
During Stanley’s trial, the jury heard that he believed the individuals were there to steal property, and that he feared for his family members’ lives.
One writer who signed off as “Outraged Citizen” called Stanley’s subsequent acquittal “atrocious.”
“The selection of an all-white jury was wrong in so many ways. This government talks about justice for Indigenous peoples and then this happens. Do something.”
The trial heightened racial tensions and raised questions about the jury selection process. Some observers said they believed the process was biased because the defence team excluded five potential jurors who appeared to be Indigenous, though CBC News has not independently determined the reason for their exclusion.
Under Canada’s Criminal Code, defence lawyers and Crown prosecutors can exclude people from a jury without giving any reason through so-called “peremptory challenges.” Critics say the long-standing procedure can lead to discrimination against potential jurors — and can deliver a jury that is biased or lacks an understanding of Indigenous culture and customs.
As part of a package of criminal justice reforms in Bill C-75, the government is planning to eliminate peremptory challenges.
Wilson-Raybould’s spokesman Dave Taylor said the change will help make juries “more representative of the communities they serve.” The legislation also aims to reduce the over-representation of Indigenous people and other marginalized groups in the prison system through reforms to bail and administration of justice offences.
Committed to change
Taylor said the government understands there are systemic issues and is committed to change.
“Too many Indigenous and marginalized people are victims of crime. Too many are in in jail. Too few are serving on juries,” he said.
Taylor noted that the decision not to appeal the verdict was taken by the Saskatchewan Provincial Crown and was entirely a matter under provincial jurisdiction.
In the wake of the verdict, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the RCMP announced it would conduct a review of the RCMP’s investigation of Boushie’s death. A spokeswoman for the commission said the investigation is underway and could take a year or longer.
Meantime, a GoFundMe.com page in support of Stanley has collected $ 223,327 in donations to help him and his family “rebuild their lives.”
Fundraisers for Stanley, Boushie families
The page says the fundraiser isn’t meant to be a platform to promote or justify violence, racism or vigilantism, and was not intended to condone or glorify Stanley’s actions that day.
“The events of August 9th impacted the Stanleys’ lives forever. As a result of other people’s actions and negative decisions, the family has suffered tremendous personal and financial losses, as well as intangible losses such as sleepless nights, stress, fear, and general upset,” reads the page, which has been shared 16,000 times on Facebook.
Another page raising funds for Boushie’s family — to “support them in their time of mourning and healing, for their legal costs, and on their continuing journey for justice” — has raised $ 203,645 to date.
“We believe that Indigenous youth deserve safety and the ability to travel freely on these lands without fear of racism or persecution. We are not trespassers,” the page reads.
Some letters supported verdict
While the vast majority of those who wrote to Wilson-Raybould decried what they viewed as a miscarriage of justice motivated by racism, a small number suggested it was the unfortunate consequence of escalating frustration over stolen vehicles and home break-ins.
“Colten paid the ultimate price, due to his own, and his friends’, poor choices. Agreeing with the verdict doesn’t make me a racist. It makes me a realist,” one person wrote.
Another warned against reforms that influence the composition of juries.
“Does this mean that when a Muslim, black or LGBT person is on trial then they will also be similarly accommodated? Be careful you do not open a can of worms here.”
Other comments from the letters and emails:
- “The justice system’s failure of Colten Boushie is our collective disgrace.”
- “As a young adult, I don’t think I have ever felt so disappointed to be a Canadian in my life.”
- “Let this be a precedent-setting case and pave a way for a real chance at truth and reconciliation because this verdict is unacceptable, and a loud and passionate jury of Canadian citizens, including myself, are saying this is not right.”
- “This was a national disgrace, a gross miscarriage of justice that sends the message that property is worth more than the lives of Indigenous youth, and that the state will uphold white supremacy through a justice system that systematically removes any hope for Indigenous peoples on both sides of the criminal/victim divide.”