Canada's justice system treats Indigenous peoples as inherently criminal. This is why I'm becoming a lawyer

My earliest memory of law enforcement was the death of Neil Stonechild.
Law student Andre Bear decided to become a lawyer following farmer Gerald Stanley's acquittal in Colten Boushie’s shooting death on Feb. 9, 2018. Bear is pictured here in the College of Law on the University of Saskatchewan campus. (Liam Richards/The Canadian Press)

This Opinion piece is by Andre Bear, a law student, former youth representative of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and co-chair of the Assembly of First Nations National Youth Council.

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My earliest memory of law enforcement was the death of Neil Stonechild.

Stonechild was a young Indigenous man allegedly left to freeze to death by police just on the outskirts of Saskatoon. This, along with similar incidents that became known as the "starlight tours," highlighted concerns with racism perpetuated by law enforcement in Canada.

An inquiry found that Stonechild was seen in the back of a Saskatoon police cruiser. The officers who were in the car denied this. No one would ever be charged for his death.

This was my introduction to the Canadian legal system.

My mom would often warn me about the dangers of being in the presence of police as a young Indigenous man. I grew up convinced that this system was not meant to protect people that looked the way I did.

A powerful narrative

You might be surprised that I chose law as a career path. I didn't have lawyers in my family to show me the way. I decided to leave my career as a high school teacher and go to law school because of the hopelessness I witnessed within the Canadian legal system.

This feeling was solidified as I sat in the courtroom for the entire trial of Gerald Stanley, who was acquitted of second-degree murder in the death of Colten Boushie. I watched the lawyers exclude potential jurors who looked like they could be Indigenous.

Colten Boushie is shown in an undated handout photo. Farmer Gerald Stanley was found not-guilty of second-degree murder in Boushie's death. Andre Bear attended the entire trial and was motivated to become a lawyer by what he saw. (The Canadian Press)

Despite the public and media sensationalizing Boushie's killing as a case about trespassing and defending property, I knew after listening to witness testimony that Colten was asleep moments before he was shot.

The worst part is knowing that, even if the public knew that Boushie was asleep moments before he was shot, they likely wouldn't have cared.

Defending your family or property from a car full of drunk Indigenous peoples is a powerful narrative. It likely convinced the all-white jury to acquit Stanley based on his defence of a hang-fire, an extremely rare situation that I have never heard used as a defence for murder.

I remember sitting in that courtroom with a white prosecutor, a white defence lawyer and a white judge, and watching them make an Indigenous family relive a traumatic experience and put an entire nation of Indigenous peoples across the country into shock. Nothing in my entire life has made me feel so small and meaningless.

'Something is terribly wrong in the Canadian legal system'

Everyone remembers where they were the very moment Gerald Stanley was acquitted. If you ask an Indigenous person, it's hard to explain the deep sense of dread and hopelessness.

Not long after, a young man named Jordan Lafond was killed after a car chase and violent crash in Saskatoon. I sat with his mom in the courtroom watching videos showing a police officer kneeing him in the head. Jordan died from blunt force trauma to his head. A pathologist testified that the crash was likely a factor and that the exact source of the fatal head trauma could not be confirmed. No police were found guilty of causing his death.

A few months after that, I sat through an inquest with Austin Eaglechief's mother, watching video of a police chase that left another young Indigenous man dead. No one was prosecuted.

Something is terribly wrong in the Canadian legal system. The longer we treat Indigenous peoples as if we are inherently criminals, the more this system will consume us through over-incarceration.

As a law student, I believe the only way Indigenous peoples will ever find justice is by building our own legal system through our Inherent right to self-determination. This means asserting our jurisdiction to make laws and beginning to enforce them on our Treaty territories in a way that peacefully co-exists with Canadian law.

This was the original intent of our Treaty relationship. Until it is honoured, we will witness more Indigenous families become subjugated by the Canadian legal system.

This is the hope I have been searching for since deciding to come to law school.

Soon, I will become a lawyer. I want Canadians to know that I could have been any of the young men mentioned here. It could have been my mother crying in those courtrooms, praying for justice to be served.

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