When Gerald Stanley went on trial for the murder of Colten Boushie in 2018, it captured the nation’s attention. Stanley had fatally shot Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree man, in the back of the head, and his subsequent acquittal by a jury that included no visible Indigenous people sparked questions about racism in Canada’s legal system.
In nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up, a documentary from CBC Docs POV, filmmaker Tasha Hubbard follows Boushie’s family as they fight for justice following the trial. But Boushie’s story is only one of many similar stories.
"This acquittal sends the message that it's open season on indigenous people," says Eleanore Sunchild, the Boushie family's lawyer.
“I think what’s important [to know] about the Colten Boushie case is how common this actually is,” says professor Robert Innes, head of Indigenous studies at the University of Saskatchewan. “I think for many Indigenous people, this wasn’t a shock.
“A lot of people were very disappointed, very angry, but not really shocked by the way in which Colten Boushie was presented in the case — the way he became the person on trial. All of that is what Indigenous people are used to.”
Here are a few examples of cases that, like Boushie’s, spurred Indigenous and other communities across the nation to speak out and seek justice.
The death of Jon Styres, an Indigenous man from Ohsweken, Ont., bears striking similarities to the death of Colten Boushie. On Feb. 4, 2016, in Binbrook, Ont., Peter Khill heard 29-year-old Jon Styres breaking into his truck. Instead of calling the authorities, Khill grabbed his shotgun and confronted Styres as he was leaning into the passenger side of the truck.
Khill said that he shouted for Styres to raise his hands and thought he was holding a gun. He fired twice, hitting Styres in the shoulder and chest. In court, Khill claimed that he was acting in self-defence and following his military training.
Styres was not carrying a gun that evening, and at the trial, experts testified that from the angle of the shots, they believed Styres was still facing into the truck when he was shot. Khill was found not guilty.
Pamela George was a 28-year-old single mother from the Sakimay reserve, east of Regina. Struggling with poverty, George sometimes relied on sex work to support her two children. In 1995, Steven Kummerfield picked her up with his friend, Alex Ternowetsky, hidden in the trunk of his vehicle.
Kummerfield and Ternowetsky took George to the outskirts of Regina where they raped and beat her, leaving her in a ditch. While the pair testified that George was alive when they left the scene, their friends reported that they had bragged about beating her to death. Kummerfield and Ternowetsky were charged with first-degree murder, but drawing on a defence that the victim was a sex worker, they were only convicted of manslaughter — to the outrage of Indigenous communities and women’s groups.
In 2011, 36-year-old mother of three Cindy Gladue was found in an Edmonton motel room after having bled to death in a bathtub. The man who reported her body, Bradley Barton, was charged with first-degree murder.
During his trial, Barton’s defence was that he had hired Gladue for sex work and that the wound to her vaginal wall had occurred during rough but consensual sex. His eventual acquittal sparked outrage across Canada following the courtroom proceedings. Gladue had been referred to as a “native” or “prostitute,” rather than by her name, many times during the hearing; her preserved vaginal tissue was controversially exhibited to the jury; and the judge had failed to hold a “rape-shield” hearing.
Canada’s rape-shield law bars admitting evidence about a victim’s sexual activity that could suggest they were more likely to have consented or that they are less worthy of being believed. Judges can hold hearings to determine if past sexual history is relevant in certain cases, but this must be done in a separate hearing in the jury’s absence.
This law is what led the Supreme Court of Canada to order a new manslaughter trial for Barton in May 2019.
Leo LaChance was a trapper from Big River First Nation in Saskatchewan. On Jan. 28, 1991, LaChance hitchhiked to Prince Albert to sell pelts, but when he arrived, his regular fur trader had closed. Instead, he went to a nearby pawn shop owned by Carney Milton Nerland.
Nerland ended up firing an assault rifle at the floor, hitting LaChance in the back. LaChance collapsed in the street and died the next day, and Nerland was charged with manslaughter.
It was later revealed that Nerland was involved with white supremacist groups. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to four years in prison — another sentence that outraged the Indigenous community and led to a public inquiry into whether racism played a role in LaChance’s death.
Nerland was released early and entered into witness protection, reportedly for acting as an informant for the RCMP.
A young girl’s sexual assault
In September 2001, a 12-year-old Saulteaux Cree girl left her home after a fight with her mother. She then met three men on the steps of a bar, and they offered her a ride in their pickup truck.
According to the victim’s testimony, after telling the men she was 14 years old, she was given alcohol until she was stumbling and eventually blacked out. When she came to, she says she found the three men taking turns sexually abusing her. She was then left, bleeding and unconscious, at the farmhouse of one of her friends.
Two years later, those three men would be acquitted of sexual assault charges, claiming they took reasonable steps to determine the girl was over the age of consent, which was 14 at the time, and that she had initiated the sexual contact.
Both the Saskatchewan Coalition Against Racism and the Saskatchewan Action Committee for the Status of Women spoke out about the court process and reportedly said they were ashamed of the justice system.
In November 1990, 17-year-old Neil Stonechild was the alleged victim of an old Saskatoon police practice referred to as “starlight tours,” in which police officers would pick up intoxicated individuals, drive them to the outskirts of the city and drop them off in the middle of winter to sober them up. Stonechild is one of at least three Indigenous men who are believed to have frozen to death as a result of this practice.
After another Indigenous man named Darrell Night reported that two Saskatoon police officers had abandoned him on the outskirts of town in 2000 without any warm clothing, and the officers were convicted of unlawful confinement, an inquiry was opened into Stonechild’s death. In 2004, a final report declared the initial police investigation into Stonechild’s death was “superficial and totally inadequate.”
This report led to two officers being fired and another forced into retirement. The police chief was also fired, and an Indigenous woman was appointed to head the city police commission.
Watch nîpawistamâsowin: We Will Stand Up on CBC Docs POV.