If three plainclothes RCMP members wondered whether they were welcome at a memorial feast for the slain Colten Boushie, any doubts were erased with a hug.
North Battleford RCMP Staff Sgt. Darcy Woolfitt and his colleagues mingled following an elaborate ceremony and meal at the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan on Wednesday afternoon.
Boushie's mother, Debbie Baptiste, walked toward them. The officers extended their right arms. Instead of shaking their hands, Baptiste hugged them.
It's been one year since 22-year-old Boushie was fatally shot in a North Battleford, Sask.-area farm yard. The owner of the property, Gerald Stanley, has been committed to stand trial in January on a charge of second-degree murder.
The RCMP has come under intense fire for its handling of the case, from the initial news release, which some labelled as "victim-blaming," to the alleged mishandling of key evidence.
Family and friends started a petition demanding a new Crown prosecutor and a new lead RCMP investigator on the case, claiming the justice system discriminates against Indigenous people. The petition was endorsed last month by 2,000 delegates at the Assembly of First Nations gathering in Regina.
But at the feast Wednesday, the atmosphere was not one of animosity.
Family members gave the RCMP officers a blanket, one of a handful of guests to receive the honour.
Woolfitt said they appreciated the family's generosity.
"The reason we came here today is to support the family, to continue to build the relationship we have with the family that's very important to us," Woolfitt said.
"We need to work at it all the time, in good times and bad."
The day began early with preparation of wild meat soups, bannock, rice with raisins and other dishes.
Later in the morning, Boushie's brothers, William and Jace, lit the ceremonial fire outside Red Pheasant's Chief Glen Keskotagan Community Centre. Colten had also tended to fires, one of his duties as an oskapeo, or elder's helper.
As guests began to arrive around noon, Colten's uncle Alvin Baptiste conducted a smudging ceremony inside and around the perimeter of the building.
Guests came from nearby First Nations, North Battleford, Saskatoon and other centres.
Everyone sat in a circle and listened to elders and the pipe carrier recite Cree prayers. A dozen oskapeos doled out food and drinks. Everyone ate in relative silence. A portrait of Boushie was passed around the circle.
Woolfitt and the other officers sat cross-legged in the circle with 150 others.
In spite of the climate of tension and mistrust, Boushie's family said it's vital for everyone to work peacefully toward reconciliation.
Woolfitt was asked about the tension between RCMP, First Nations and area farmers. He said RCMP officers need to "help build healthier communities and also bridge that gap … to help them heal and let them know we're here to support them."
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