A Disturbing Incident …
Usually, when I write a column, I have a pretty good idea of where I stand on whatever I am writing about. This time however, I am not so sure.
There was a disturbing incident this week that caught my eye and has also caused quite a kerfuffle in the media and in political circles in Ottawa. A jury in Regina rendered a not guilty verdict in the case of a farmer charged with second degree murder. What makes this interesting is that the victim, 22-year old Colten Boushie, had an indigenous background. He was a member of the Cree Nation. There was no question about the fact that Gerald Stanley, the Saskatchewan farmer, shot and killed Boushie. That was admitted. Nevertheless, the all-white jury, with no aboriginal representation, returned a verdict of Not Guilty.
We will probably never know what really happened on that sad day in 2016. It is clear that Colten Boushie and two friends left a nearby Reservation and at some point that afternoon, drove on to the Stanley Farm. Police believed that prior to doing so, the trio had broken into a truck on a neighbouring farm. Boushie’s friends argued that they were only on the Stanley farm to seek help for a flat tire. Gerald Stanley and his son were, at the time repairing a fence and contended that the young people had entered their truck and also started an ATV. Gerald Stanley said that he feared for his wife who was outside at the time. He said that he retrieved a gun from his barn and fired two warning shots in the air. Subsequently there was an altercation and his gun fired again, killing Boushie. Stanley said it was an accident. The jury obviously agreed.
Following the verdict, there was a huge hue and cry, many believing that the victim, Colten Boushie, did not get the justice he deserved and that there were racial undertones to the verdict. Both Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his Justice Minister raised doubts about the outcome of the trial. This was somewhat surprising as only a few years ago, Trudeau was all over then Prime Minister Stephen Harper for expressing an opinion on judicial issues.
In recent days, the Prime Minister has met with the Boushie family, following which he promised to “fix the system” and create a new legal framework for indigenous people. Later, in the House of Commons, he said, “We have a problem. We have much to do to fix the system in the spirit of reconciliation.” My question is, what exactly are they going to fix?
Are they going to differentiate between how an indigenous Canadian faces trial for a criminal offence from other Canadians? Are they going to insist on indigenous representation on juries where a First Nations individual is involved? Who would those individuals be representing? An especially important question, since a single juror can affect the entire outcome of a trial. Will there be different standards or procedures at trial, when indigenous Canadians are involved? Will Crown Counsels be instructed to treat cases involving indigenous people differently? Will the sentencing structure be different? How can the system be “fixed” without giving special status to a particular group of people?
I have had a considerable amount of experience in my lifetime as it relates to indigenous issues. I have seen first hand the abject poverty, the depression, the addiction and the mental health issues and the sense of hopelessness, all at a much greater rate than other Canadians. I am fully aware that we have not solved any of these issues and that many indigenous people are treated as second class citizens. There is much to be done and the need for reconciliation is real.
But when it comes to the criminal justice system I wonder if it is wise to differentiate between one group of Canadians and another. Where could it lead? What kind of precedent will it set? With Canada’s growing diversity who else will feel that our justice system should be geared to their particular heritage or way of life? For example, would we be one step closer to Sharia law for Muslim Canadians? How can we say no to one culture when we say yes to another?
Gerald Stanley was acquitted of second degree murder by a jury of his peers. That is the way it is in Canada. It’s not a perfect system but it works fairly well. Was racism involved in this particular verdict? We will never know for sure. Did Colten Boushie get the justice he deserved? Possibly not. But before we tinker with the criminal justice system in Canada based on the outcome of this one trial, we should be very careful about where that will lead us. At least, that is the way I see it.
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