Analysis

In the angry wake of Colten Boushie's death, Justin Trudeau tries to find the words

Faced with a sense that justice has not been served and a verdict that could seem to exemplify a century and a half of foundational and continuing injustice, Justin Trudeau and his government have understandably seen a need to say something. But the words have not come easy.

'We have come to this point as a country far too many times,' Trudeau says

Justin Trudeau says his government understands "that there are systemic issues in our criminal justice system that we must address." (Charles Rex Arbogast/The Associated Press)

Faced with a belief, shared by many, that justice has not been served — and a moment that could seem to exemplify centuries of continuing injustice — Justin Trudeau and his government obviously feel the need to say something.

But in the wake of a jury's ruling that Gerald Stanley did not commit a criminal offence in the death of Colten Boushie, the words haven't come easily.

On Monday afternoon, for instance, there were loud grumbles in the House of Commons when the prime minister prefaced his response to a question about the case with the proviso that "​it would be completely inappropriate to comment on the specifics of this case."

"We understand," he said in the next breath, "that there are systemic issues in our criminal justice system that we must address."

The grumbles spoke to a suspicion in some quarters that the Liberals already have inappropriately commented on a judicial proceeding — a case that might still be appealed.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau comments after a jury found Gerald Stanley not guilty in the shooting death of Colten Boushie 0:41

Wilson-Raybould's promise to 'do better'

Trudeau's first response on Friday night was to acknowledge the personal loss and send his "love" to the Boushie family. Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould offered empathy and a vague opinion.

"As a country we can and must do better," she wrote. "I am committed to working everyday to ensure justice for all Canadians."

"Do better" suggests something or someone has failed. And so, on Saturday morning, Trudeau was asked whether he and the attorney general were questioning the judicial process.

"I'm not going to comment on the process that led to this point today," Trudeau said. "But I am going to say that we have come to this point as a country far too many times. Indigenous people across this country are angry, they're heartbroken. And I know Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians alike know that we have to do better."

People attend a vigil in Halifax for Colten Boushie. (Shaina Luck/CBC)

On Monday, Wilson-Raybould pleaded that she had been speaking "about the justice system generally." 

Maybe she was — and maybe she thought she was staying on the right side of the line. But at the very least, she could be accused of cutting it rather close.

A government that questions a particular verdict, or suggests the legal system itself is deficient, can expect to be accused of weakening the reputation and independence of the judicial process itself.

But the moment also seems to demand more than a no-comment.

So it might be a moment to look back at Barack Obama's response to a not-guilty verdict in the death of Trayvon Martin, the black 17-year-old who was fatally shot in Florida in 2012.

Family of Colten Boushie are in Ottawa and met Monday with ministers Jane Philpott and Carolyn Bennett. 0:29

How Obama did it

On the day that a jury acquitted George Zimmerman, the U.S. president released a 10-sentence statement. Five days later, he addressed reporters at the White House, speaking for nearly 20 minutes

In the statement, Obama described Martin's death as a tragedy for his family and for the nation. At the White House, he began his remarks with thoughts for Martin's family. Then he went further, addressing the "context" of that death.

"I think it's important to recognize that the African American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away," he said.

"The African American community is also knowledgeable that there is a history of racial disparities in the application of our criminal laws."

Though the first black president was uniquely qualified to comment on this issue, he was speaking about a reality that every American should have been able to understand. The same could be said of the Indigenous experience in the justice system and Canadians.

Trudeau's remarks on the weekend also included a nod to the context — "that we have come to this point as a country far too many times." He went deeper into it in the House on Monday:

"When Indigenous adults make up three per cent of our population but 26 per cent of our incarcerated population, there is a problem," the prime minister said. "When Indigenous Canadians are significantly under-represented on juries and in jury selection pools, we have a problem.

"We have much we need to do together to fix the system. In the spirit of reconciliation, that is exactly what we are going to be doing."

In 2012, Obama asked Americans, "Where do we take this?" He spoke about reducing mistrust in the justice system, repealing unhelpful laws, improving the lives of young African American men. He talked about the need for Americans to work within themselves and their communities to confront racism.

That is where the Trudeau government seems to be moving now.

After Canadian politicians weigh in on the Colten Boushie verdict, Indigenous leaders call for real change to the justice system. National Chief of the Assembly of First Nations Perry Bellegarde speaks with The Weekly’s Wendy Mesley about what he says is a ‘wrong’ verdict 5:48

Explaining the anger

Obama made clear at the outset of his remarks that he was not quibbling with how the judicial system had functioned in a particular case.

Trudeau might think about trying to follow suit — even if the racial make-up of the jury in the Stanley verdict is a prominent point of contention.

Having set aside the matter of the trial itself, Obama was able to acknowledge and explain the anger that people were feeling, to attempt to channel that frustration toward change. Of course, he wasn't trying to do it in the span of a tweet, or in the 35 seconds afforded to a response in question period.

Boushie's family members met with two cabinet ministers in Ottawa on Monday. They will meet with two more ministers on Tuesday and sit down with the prime minister. Such meetings might put pressure on the Liberals to act, both to respond to the current anger and to make good on their stated commitment to reconciliation.

But in the days ahead, if the country continues to strain under the weight of the Stanley verdict, if public opinion polarizes, there could be also be new pressure on Trudeau to say even more.

Reactions to the not guilty verdict in the death of Colten Boushie have come from his community, politicians and Indigenous activists. Many were calling for changes to the justice system after Gerald Stanley was acquitted of second-degree murder on Friday. 4:11

About the Author

Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail.