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Behind the Lens
The Colten Boushie case sparked a call for justice for Indigenous peoples
By Tasha Hubbard, director

On Aug. 13, 2016, I was travelling across Saskatchewan with my young son and nephew, visiting family both on reserve and off. On our way back to the city, we decided to stop at a small regional park to eat. The boys gave me their order and wandered off toward a giant wooden chair.

As I waited for our burgers, I noticed they were lounging on the chair with two other boys their age who were visibly white. The two boys were asking my son and nephew what a reserve was, what it was like living there, if they went to school there and other curious questions. My son and nephew nonchalantly answered their questions before the subject naturally drifted to hockey and Minecraft.

“We made new friends.” That’s what the boys had to say when they finally got hungry enough to look for their food. Those words were a much-needed sliver of hope.

Earlier that week, 22-year-old Colten Boushie from the Red Pheasant First Nation was shot and killed at close range in the back of the head by 56-year-old farmer Gerald Stanley. Stanley was charged with second-degree murder two days later.

The RCMP’s initial press release, rather than focusing on the use of a gun to kill a human being, instead said that some of the young people with Boushie were suspected of theft and had trespassed on Stanley’s farm and that someone died as a result of a verbal exchange on private property. News media published that message and very quickly, vitriolic racism flooded social media, with people saying that Stanley was a hero, that he should have killed all the Indigenous youth and left no witnesses, and that Boushie was now simply “brown bread.” Less outwardly hateful, but no less damaging, were the posts maintaining that Stanley was within his rights to protect his property, despite Canadian law saying differently. What was made clear was the notion that property rights are more important than the lives of Indigenous people.

Tasha Hubbard on Frog Lake

Director Tasha Hubbard on Frog Lake

I grew up in Saskatchewan and lived there for most of my life. As a fair-skinned Indigenous person, adopted into a white family who lived in several farming and oil communities, I witnessed racism firsthand. After the shock wore off that a white farmer had shot and killed an Indigenous youth within the first two to three minutes of their arrival in his yard due to a flat tire, I realized that while I was deeply saddened by what happened, I was not surprised.

Gone forever is a young man who was at the start of adulthood, with concrete dreams and a plan to achieve them. When I started working on nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up, a film from CBC Docs POV and the NFB, I planned to follow Boushie’s family as they pushed for a simple goal: that there be consequences and remorse for taking a life. When that didn’t happen, what was meant to be a short film turned into something much larger, as we watched the family push for justice for all Indigenous peoples. It is a call that has been largely ignored by those who have the power to make changes.

Saskatchewan and the other prairie provinces are built on the back of several powerful myths. The first is terra nullius — that settlers arrived on empty land that was just waiting to be utilized properly, ignoring Indigenous peoples’ territorial rights and thousands of years of relationships with the lands, waters, animals and plants. Another is the myth of Canadian benevolence, which erases the military attacks on Indigenous families, the starvation policies created by those in power, and the deliberate and consistent erosion of Indigenous sovereignty.

Learn more about the history of Indigenous people in the prairies.

Sometimes I think back on that day with the four boys sitting on the big chair. Those boys didn’t feel or experience hate, only the possibility of a summer friendship. But the two white boys began to learn fear when their mother quickly dragged them away once she noticed who they were sitting with. My son and nephew were oblivious, but my hope was tempered.

I encourage people to watch the film with an awareness that hate and fear are learned, that Boushie’s family loved their child as much as any other family. And that they do what they can so that my boys and other Indigenous youth can live their lives without fear.