'We feel like Colten died again': Boushie family, Indigenous leaders say they've lost faith in justice system

A University of Saskatchewan professor says it will take more than changes to the jury system to achieve true justice for Indigenous people.

U of S prof says true justice will require change in power balance

Colten Boushie's mother, Debbie Baptiste, is seen standing with his uncle, Alvin Baptiste. Alvin Baptiste has said police treated the family like "culprits of something, like they did something wrong," when notifying them of Boushie's death. (Jason Warick)

Screams and guttural moans echoed through the Red Pheasant Cree Nation band hall in August, 2016 during Colten Boushie's funeral wake.

Boushie's mother Debbie Baptiste and his grandmother or "kohkom" Verna Denny broke down frequently, crying out for their "Coco" while showing a visitor the shrine containing baby photos, spelling bee awards, firefighting equipment, beaded mocassins and other items.

Similar sounds filled a Battleford, Sask. courtroom Friday evening just seconds after a juror spoke the final words of Gerald Stanley's murder trial: "not guilty."

The 56-year-old farmer was acquitted on on all charges after a two-week trial in Battleford, 130 kilometres northwest of Saskatoon.

As Stanley was rushed out of court and into a waiting vehicle by security, several in the gallery swore and shouted.

We all have to live together. We can't live with hatred, passing it down through the generations.- Alvin Baptiste

Late Friday, emerging from a Boushie family smudging ceremony, Mylan Murdo whispered to a visitor, "We feel like Colten died again."

Denny was too pessimistic, too broken to attend the trial, relatives said. But Baptiste sat quietly through most of the often graphic testimony, exhibits and eventual verdict.

Baptiste, her brother Alvin and others had spent much of the past 18 months demanding "Justice for Colten," but also pleaded for peace as tensions rose.

"We all have to live together. We can't live with hatred, passing it down through the generations," Alvin Baptiste said as vile, often racist social media posts swirled online.

They encouraged calm as hundreds showed up for rallies outside the courthouses during Stanley's bail and preliminary hearings. They invited and welcomed North Battleford RCMP officers to the anniversary feast last August at Red Pheasant, and gifted officers with blankets. They said they were willing to give the justice system a chance.

Jace Boushie, brother of Colten Boushie, left to right, Jade Tootoosis, cousin of Colten Boushie, and Alvin Baptiste, the uncle of Colten Boushie, attend a media event at the Battlefords Agency Tribal Chiefs head office after the verdict. (Liam Richards/The Canadian Press)

That confidence appeared to erode on the trial's first day. Jade Tootoosis and other family members watched as each Indigenous-looking juror was rejected through challenges by the defence team.

"The deck is stacked against us," Alvin Baptiste said, predicting an acquittal.

"Where is the First Nations say in this? We don't have a voice."

Minutes before the verdict, Baptiste walked outside the courtroom and took a few deep breaths. Tightening his grip on the eagle feather he'd brought to court every day, he looked down at the floor, shook his head and said, "I knew this day was going to come. I have to be strong."

Stanley's lawyer Scott Spencer had argued his handgun went off accidentally when he reached inside Boushie's vehicle to turn it off, killing the 22-year-old with a single shot to the back of the head. The Stanley family has not spoken publicly about the case. Neither they nor Spencer has been available for comment since the verdict.

Chief Justice Martel Popescul had told jurors to avoid any publicity or conversations about the case. He told them they should be independent and not swayed by bias, passion, public opinion or political pressure.

Only the evidence matters, and a conviction requires proof "beyond a reasonable doubt," Popescul told them.

Gerald Stanley leaves the Court of Queen's Bench out a back door with members of the RCMP after a jury delivered a verdict of not guilty of killing 22-year-old Colten Boushie. (Liam Richards/Canadian Press)

Saskatoon lawyer Brian Pfefferle and others also noted deliberations are secret. No one but the seven women and five men on the jury know the exact reasons for the acquittal.

Senior Crown Prosecutor Bill Burge said he thinks jurors took their jobs seriously because he could see the emotion on their faces.

Outside court after the verdict, Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations vice-chief Kim Jonathan said the case is one more item on a list of "atrocities" visited on Indigenous people.

Jonathan referenced residential schools and the Sixties Scoop. Others referenced other "government" actions such as the century-old treason conviction against Chief Poundmaker, the denial of benefits to returning First Nations war veterans or the RCMP surveillance of FSIN co-founder John B. Tootoosis.

The family attended rallies Saturday in North Battleford and Saskatoon, but thousands of Canadians came out in cities and on First Nations to press for changes to the justice system.

'Justice for Colten' rally attendees outside Saskatoon Court of Queen's Bench. (Guy Quenneville/CBC)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau lent his support to the Boushie family and said more must be done to repair Canada's relationship with Indigenous people.

University of Saskatchewan Indigenous Studies assistant professor Damien Lee said it will take more than changes to the jury system to achieve true justice for Indigenous people.

Lee is a self-described "white man" who was adopted as a boy into Ontario's Fort William First Nation. He said many people are "recoiling" when they are told reconciliation is about more than holding hands or using appropriate language, Lee said in an interview Saturday.

"It includes feeling uncomfortable and it includes giving up power."

University of Saskatchewan Indigenous Studies assistant professor Damien Lee said it will take more than changes to the jury system to achieve true justice for Indigenous people. (submitted)

The case has provoked radically different reactions from the start, both online and in person. Some observers say that yawning gap appeared to widen as the trial progressed.

The night before the verdict, in a North Battleford restaurant bar, a couple who say they farm nearby discussed the case.

"I'm not prejudiced, but it's pro-Stanley all the way," said the man.

"Yep. Someone comes onto my property, gets on my quad? They'll have that coming," said the woman, referring to the attempted vehicle theft referenced in testimony.

As they spoke, the Indigenous-looking bar manager standing within earshot fixed his gaze on the ceiling.

About the Author

Jason Warick

Reporter

Jason Warick is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.