For a brief moment, the final rays of sun transform the snowy world around Skyler Brown to shades of blue and indigo before slipping below the horizon. It’s late February, and the 26-year-old is walking through a field on the Red Pheasant First Nation in central Saskatchewan to find the grave of his cousin. He’s forgotten his jacket, so he’s wearing a “Justice for Colten” sweater with his cousin’s face printed on the front. The snow is knee-deep in some spots. The only light comes from the distant headlamps of the truck that has brought Brown to this place. As he approaches his cousin’s gravestone, surrounded by weeds and leafless trees, “Colten Cale Boushie ‘Co Co’ ” becomes visible above the snow. Brown squats, takes off his hat and places his hand on the marker. And before he trudges back, he leaves a cigarette for Colten on the headstone. Lately, Brown says, he feels like he lost Boushie all over again.
In February, Gerald Stanley was acquitted of second-degree murder in the killing of Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree man from Red Pheasant, in a trial that marked yet another racially charged episode in the province’s fraught history. His defence rested on the claim that the fatal shot resulted from a “hang fire”—a delay between when the trigger is pulled and the bullet leaves the gun. The Crown’s firearms experts rejected the claim, saying not only that hang fires are extremely rare but that the firing difference is usually less than a second. Stanley’s gun was found to be functioning properly, yet his defence lawyer maintained that Boushie’s killing was a “freak accident.”
A visible divide in the courtroom throughout the trial in Battleford, Sask., would prove a sign of things to come: the Boushie family and Indigenous supporters sat on one side of the gallery; Stanley’s family and their mostly white supporters on the other. In the moments after Stanley was acquitted, the courtroom erupted with shouts of “murderer!” as Stanley and the 12-person jury were quickly escorted out the building’s back door. First Nations people outside noticed white men in pickup trucks circling the courthouse. Some interpreted it as a show of intimidation.
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That night, the mood of a wake descended on the courthouse. For Brown and many others, the glimmer of hope that flickered before the trial was extinguished. They had thought they might see justice for Colten; instead they were consumed by the same feeling Brown grapples with on his frequent walks to his cousin’s grave: that Boushie had died again.
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The implications, First Nations people say—that a white person can kill an Indigenous man without repercussions; that an all-white jury believed Stanley’s actions that day did not warrant at least a ﬁnding of manslaughter; that the RCMP had raided the home of Boushie’s mother, Debbie Baptiste, at night, then mishandled crucial evidence; that the two women in the vehicle at the time of Boushie’s death were placed in a police cruiser while Stanley conversed with officers rather than being handcuffed and arrested—cut at the already frayed thread of trust between First Nations and white people in the area. Indigenous people say the verdict has done worse than rob them of what little faith they had in the justice system; it has left them downright scared.
Yet on the other side, white rural residents seem no less aggrieved, saying their voices and concerns—most importantly their growing fear of theft and violence on their properties—have been ignored through the whole, awful saga. They feel increasingly betrayed by their political leaders, who in the wake of the verdict spoke out in support of the Boushie family without regard for facts on the ground. It has led to a rising sentiment among farmers and rural folks that they’re on their own, that they should have the right to arm themselves and, if they have to, shoot trespassers.
Though small in terms of population, the Battlefords and surrounding municipalities and First Nations, where roads are lined with farms and fences, have thus become the symbolic epicentre of a divide between Indigenous people and white Canadians in the sparsely populated areas where they coexist. In the aftermath of the Stanley verdict, previously unspoken bias has found its way to the surface. In this part of the country, racial stereotypes formulated in past centuries remain intact. It’s where Indigenous peoples are still referred to by some as “Indians,” and where the weight of a bloody history is never far from mind.
Near the southern edge of Battleford sits the Fort Battleford National Historic Site, a short drive from where Stanley walked away a free man. The fort, established by the North-West Mounted Police in 1876, would become a focal point for the violent relationship between white settlers and Indigenous peoples in the area. In 1885, Chief Poundmaker and Chief Big Bear led a group of Cree to the town of Battleford seeking food owed them under treaties. Frightened settlers fled behind the fort’s walls, while the empty town was looted (there are conflicting accounts of who did the looting). Weeks later, a force of militia, police officers and army regulars attacked the Cree and Assiniboine encampment at nearby Cut Knife Creek, only to be repulsed.
All this unfolded against the backdrop of the doomed North-West Rebellion led by Métis leader Louis Riel, whom Poundmaker was accused—wrongly, say historians—of supporting. After the rebellion, Poundmaker and Big Bear were imprisoned, while eight Indigenous men were hanged at the fort, their bodies thrown in a mass, unmarked grave. On the day of the hangings, Nov. 27, 1885, Indigenous students from the Battleford Industrial School were pulled from class and forced to witness what would happen to them if they, too, rallied against the Crown.
“There is a thread of continuity from that trial in 1885 to the Stanley trial of 2018,” wrote Cree writer Paul Seesequasis in a recent newspaper op-ed. “It is steeped in a history of distrust, fear and injustice.” The racial tension, Seesequasis noted, bubbled under the surface over the following decades due to discriminatory measures like the “pass system,” a regime that treated Indigenous people who ventured off-reserve like prisoners on day parole. The system, introduced in 1885 and in effect for 60 years, applied to (among other places) the Red Pheasant reserve.
Now a community of about 600, the First Nation sits about 40 km south of the Battlefords, recognizable like so many reserves by the end of pavement and beginning of gravel roads. It’s a place where everybody knows everybody. Its hockey team is known as the Rebels, a sly nod to the people’s history of defiance. Its band office, community hall and school look new, but there are residents living without heat, clean water and functioning sewage systems. The community hasn’t added new homes in more than 20 years, and some are contaminated. There is no secondary school—older students go to a high school in the nearby hamlet of Cando. But at Red Pheasant’s elementary school, young students are taught what happened to Boushie, and how to cope with racism.
The lessons are plenty relevant, because long after Ottawa began rolling back its overtly discriminatory policies, a relentless succession of violent incidents have strained Indigenous-settler relations in this part of the Prairies, prompting reactions that presaged those heard in the past few weeks. In 1991, Cree trapper Leo LaChance was killed by Carney Nerland, a notorious white supremacist. LaChance had entered Nerland’s pawn shop in Prince Albert, Sask., and as he left, Nerland shot him in the back with a rifle. Like Stanley, Nerland claimed the killing was an accident; he was convicted of manslaughter and sentenced to four years in prison, serving three-quarters of his term before being placed in witness protection. At the time, an RCMP lawyer named Martel Popescul made a failed bid to block an inquiry into LaChance’s death on the basis that it would compromise the safety of police informants. Popescul would go on to become a Court of Queen’s Bench justice. In February, he presided over the trial of Gerald Stanley.
On April 18, 1995, Pamela George, a 28-year-old mother of two from the Sakimay First Nation, was found dead in a ditch outside Regina. Her body was so badly beaten that her family opted against holding an open-casket funeral. Her killers, Steven Tyler Kummerfield and Alexander Dennis Ternowetsky, were originally charged with first-degree murder, but an all-white jury found them guilty of manslaughter. One of the accused’s lawyers called the two men “pretty damn good boys,” saying, “Had it not been for the alcohol, they would never have found themselves in this position, and that’s why the whole racial thing sort of burns me.” Said then-Sakimay chief Lindsay Kaye after the ruling: “There are two justice systems: one justice system for the white; one justice system for the Indian people. It’s all right for a white person to kill an Indian person.”
In 2003, another all-white jury acquitted two white men from Tisdale, Sask., of sexual assault charges against a 12-year-old Saulteaux Cree girl after they admitted to picking her up, getting her drunk and trying to have sex with her. “If you’ve got the dollars and the lawyers, you can go rape our children, come to court, and the white jury will say there was consent,” a relative of the girl was quoted as saying after the verdict.
This numbing pattern of grief, demands for justice and bitter disappointment can now be seen as prologue to Boushie’s killing. By his own admission, Stanley didn’t remember how many shells he loaded into his semi-automatic handgun on Aug. 9, 2016, the day Boushie and four friends rolled up his driveway in an SUV with a punctured tire. The group had been drinking, and one of them tried to start an ATV on the property. Stanley testified that he fired warning shots into the air before approaching the car, then reached across Boushie, who was in the driver’s seat, to turn off the ignition. “Boom. This thing just went off,” he said of the fatal shot to Boushie’s head.
Prior to the verdict, Chief Clint Wuttunee of Red Pheasant had released a pessimistic statement saying, “We are not hopeful that we will see justice done.” When Stanley was acquitted, Wuttunee conceded that the community was nevertheless “crushed.” “Colten Boushie was shot in the back of the head at point-blank range,” he said. “Nevertheless, an all-white jury formed the twisted view of that obvious truth and found Stanley not guilty.”
“We do not want to have another rebellion.” These words from one white resident in the Battlefords, spoken in the week after Stanley’s acquittal, summon that time of open conflict more than 130 years ago—and the dreadful possibility that it might happen again. Hyperbole, perhaps. But the emotions unleashed by the decision have arguably reached their highest pitch since that period. The woman requested that she remain anonymous, in part, she said, because she feared being labelled an “Indian lover” by friends and neighbours.
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Racism, the woman says, is alive and well in the Battlefords, and the trial’s aftermath has suffused the region with even greater antagonism. “The news media, we feel, was not exactly fair in presenting both sides,” she says, alluding to residents’ complaints of a perceived spike in crime (crime in Saskatchewan, including rural areas, is indeed high compared to the rest of the country, though the RCMP note that it declined five per cent in 2017). Farmers who carry guns in their combines—previously to control rodents or take deer in season—increasingly see the weapons as a safeguard against intruders. And groups such as Farmers with Firearms argue for the right to take matters into their own hands. “How else are you supposed to protect your family and your stuff from being stolen?” the woman asks.
For many, the counterargument to the media narrative centres on a 1994 incident involving a relative of Boushie, Colin Leonard Baptiste. A first cousin to Boushie’s mother, Baptiste and a friend named Ron Francis Caldwell committed a deadly robbery on a farm near Cando, in which Caldwell shot and killed two men, Bryan Kipp and Gordon Tetarenko, as they lay on the floor. Caldwell was sentenced to life in prison without parole for 18 years, while Baptiste received manslaughter. Baptiste’s lighter sentence sparked anger among white residents; Tetarenko’s sister called it a “revictimization,” while a Crown prosecutor on the case pleaded that Canada must “restore the people’s faith in the system.”
Wes Owen lives on a three-hectare plot about 30 km north of Cando with his German shepherd Tristan, who acts as his first line of protection against potential burglars. Clad in his camouflage jacket and sipping a cup of coffee at the A&W in North Battleford, he touches on the Stanley case, stressing, “I feel bad someone died.” But the verdict didn’t surprise him, as he subscribes to the widely held belief in this region that farmers should have the right to defend themselves (he has brothers, he adds, who farm). He goes on: “The First Nations—and I’m not prejudiced—but damn it, they cause problems.”
Owen initially thought the jury would consist of half Indigenous people and half white people to “make it fair.” Yet he claims that Indigenous youth are out of control with alcohol, and that their parents are “clueless.” Of the Boushie group, he says, “Who’s to say they wouldn’t have shot Sheldon?” referring to Stanley’s adult son, who had tried to confront the group that day, hitting the SUV with a hammer. (At trial, the jury heard there was a rifle with a broken stock in the SUV, though nobody other than Stanley wielded a gun; Stanley testified that he never saw the broken rifle.)
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Local leaders in Saskatchewan share this sense of ever-present risk. In 2017, seven months after Boushie’s death, members of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities (SARM) voted 93 per cent in favour of a resolution to lobby governments for expanded rights to defend one’s self and property. The motion was brought forward by delegates from Kindersley, a town 200 km southeast of Red Pheasant. (The mayor and councillors of Kindersley declined requests for comment.)
Ray Orb, president of SARM, says gang-related crime is happening across the province, adding that the resolution resulted from that frustration. Farmers tell him that not a single one of their neighbours hasn’t been broken into in the past year. Their concerns are borne out by numbers; in November, Maclean’s identified North Battleford as Canada’s most dangerous city, based on Statistics Canada’s severity index of violent and property crimes. Orb hears the concerns from First Nations, whose leaders say their people are grossly overrepresented in courts and warehoused in prisons, leaving them on an inexorable path to further crime. His organization has met with leaders from the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, reassuring the organization that the resolution “wasn’t directed in any way toward First Nations.” But where the two solitudes go from here, Orb can’t say: “I honestly don’t know.”
Many in the province seem less ambivalent. Following the verdict, the Angus Reid Institute reported that a sizable majority of Saskatchewanians appear to agree with the jury’s decision, while condemning Justin Trudeau’s statement of support for the Boushie family and promise to reform the justice system. Fully 63 per cent of respondents from the province said the ruling was “good and fair,” well above the 44 per cent in neighbouring Manitoba and Alberta. An overwhelming 71 per cent viewed Trudeau’s show of empathy on social media as inappropriate, with just 18 per cent believing the opposite and 11 per cent uncertain.
Rural inhabitants here sound no less convinced than Indigenous people that the system is up against them—a feeling they say has been made worse by urban politicians whose messages carried themes of peaceful coexistence and reconciliation, even as they stood with members of the Boushie family in front of cameras. They’re convinced they face a double standard. “What if the Stanley family had gone out and protested? Could you imagine what would happen? Something we don’t want to have happen,” the anonymous woman says. Ray Sadler, the mayor of Biggar, Sask., a town south of North Battleford, voices sympathy for Boushie (“He was working on being a [regular] guy, probably getting married one day”), but says his death came at a time of heightened insecurity among country folk: “It was a perfect storm.”
Staff Sgt. Rob Embree, a spokesperson for the RCMP in Regina, is careful not to touch on the racial divide, saying only, “We’re aware of areas we have to pay attention to.” But prior to the Stanley verdict, the Mounties warned they would be monitoring racist and hate-ﬁlled comments on social media surrounding the trial; Embree says they “encourage all people to remain respectful in all of their communications.” On slow police response times—a common complaint of landowners—Embree says it varies by detachments; some are larger, while others may have staffing shortages.
To be sure, not all rural landowners share the outrage. Michele Rast, a farmer near Kindersley, Sask., has lived on her 324-hectare farm for 22 years and says she’s never had a problem with theft. She worries about the proliferation of guns and was shocked at Stanley’s acquittal: “Guns don’t go off unless you haven’t put the safety on.” Still, with the growing uneasiness in the community, Rast believes more firearms will only create more conflict. “Saskatchewan,” she laments, “was built on people helping people.”
It’s a cold evening in late February, and about 30 people are gathered in a gymnasium at Sakewew High School in North Battleford. “Welcome to the home of the Kihiwak [“Eagles” in Cree]” proclaims a sign on the wall that shares space with paintings of medicine wheels and soaring bald eagles. The group, consisting of Indigenous people and a few white farmers, is here to grieve, and to reflect on the events that have just unfolded.
The Stanley verdict came less than a week ago, but the pain in the room seems as raw as it did nearly two years earlier, when Boushie was killed. “People who are oppressed are saying no. The response [by white people] is violence,” Colby Tootoosis, a life skills coach from the Poundmaker Cree Nation, tells the group before they break into discussion circles, where the sound of weeping echoes through the halls. Standing in front of the group, Tootoosis groans in agony, recalling the moment he learned of the ruling.
Tootoosis was working in Timmins, Ont., at the time, repeatedly refreshing Twitter to learn of the outcome. He was preparing for manslaughter, and when the decision came down, he experienced a wave of grief, followed by a stretch of sleepless nights. In North Battleford, the place where he grew up, the Indigenous community has always been on high alert, he says; after Boushie’s death, the tension seems close to a breaking point.
Growing up, Tootoosis and others were ridiculed for having long, braided hair, and others in the gymnasium spoke of similar racial and homophobic slurs thrown at their young boys. “I’ve had to talk my six-year-old son into keeping his hair and not chopping it off,” says Kimberly Night, a student at the University of Saskatchewan who is a teaching intern at Sakewew. “Now I have to worry about him being shot.”
Some students at this primarily Indigenous school are there because they couldn’t handle the hostile atmosphere in the run-up to Stanley’s trial anywhere else. One of Boushie’s close cousins, 16-year-old Darian Whitford, transferred from the North Battleford Comprehensive High School at the end of last year. Teachers there, she says, would suggest that her cousin “deserved it.” Boushie, she says, was labelled by the white community as a thug and a criminal. The effect left her struggling to focus in class and unable to finish homework. “Is my life even worth it as a young Indigenous woman?” she recalls thinking.
(When asked about Whitford’s account, Brenda Vickers, the director of education for the Living Sky School Division, which encompasses the Battlefords, said it’s not for the schools to judge the Stanley outcome, though many people have opinions about it. The division did bring in an Indigenous consultant to prepare teachers for tensions surrounding the case, she said, adding: “We really care about all kids, and it’s really important that they all feel affirmed in our schools.”)
Since the verdict, Tootoosis says, it’s not uncommon for people wearing Justice for Colten sweaters to be confronted—even grabbed by the arm—in public and told: “Sorry to tell you, but justice was served.” It has been, he says, “a constant shaming of who I am.” Interactions like these, he adds—ranging from hate-filled messages on social media to suspicious looks in the supermarket—have instilled a sense of despair in the First Nations community. Tootoosis has memories of his father confronting insidious racism, and from those experiences he’s developed a mental callus toward everyday discrimination. He’s taken a similar approach with his young daughter, who is playing freely inside the gymnasium: “I’ve made the decision to not be imprisoned by my own fear in my own lands—and among those I love and care about.”
On the Red Pheasant First Nation, there’s a long gravel road known as the “backroad.” It’s considered a shortcut to Saskatoon, used regularly by those who need to go into the city for meetings or to visit family in hospital. The route is lined with farms, whose inhabitants the Indigenous community believes can now shoot them with impunity. A short drive from Red Pheasant’s eastern boundary, along that same road, sits Stanley’s farm with a “for sale” sign out front.
Sabrina Peeaychew, a band councillor in Red Pheasant, tries not to drive that road anymore; if she has to, she lets family know. She fears what would happen if her truck broke down and she knocked on a door for help. “You go out into the white world,” she says, “and they make you feel like we are the ones that did wrong.”
Boushie, she recalls, was known for his playful personality and bright smile. His birthday fell on Halloween, and one year, he and Brown took their nephews trick-or-treating in Cando. They dressed up as warriors, painting designs on their faces. When they’d finished, Brown recalls, Boushie looked distinctly unwarlike—a “clown warrior” they teased.
Boushie spent much of his life in Montana with his mother and brothers before moving to Red Pheasant, which Debbie Baptiste considers her home community. Before he died, Boushie was working for a company that provides facilities for industrial camps while earning his firefighting certificate. He dreamed of fighting wildfires in California.
Brown and Boushie, who considered each other brothers, took pride in keeping themselves occupied even when they couldn’t find work. They’d chop wood for wakes and cultural ceremonies, and stay awake to keep those sacred fires burning. Brown moved into Boushie’s trailer after he died, where he thinks often about the times they shared. Frequently, he is consumed by frustration: Stanley, says Brown, “never said sorry for killing Co Co. He doesn’t know what we feel. He doesn’t know what he did to us.” But on the drive home from the cemetery, he reflects on his cousin’s life. Lately, he has come to believe that Boushie is toiling every bit as hard after his death as he did before it, opening countless eyes to the perilous road his people must travel.
MORE ABOUT COLTEN BOUSHIE:
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- Did Trudeau cross a line commenting on the Stanley verdict?
- Gerald Stanley’s trial highlights the colonialism of Canadian media
- Why has Colten Boushie’s mother had to work so hard just to prove her son’s humanity?