How some Sask. classrooms are navigating the Gerald Stanley verdict

The death of Colten Boushie and the trial and acquittal of Gerald Stanley have been top of mind for many in Saskatchewan, including the province's youngest and most impressionable.

Some school divisions have talked guidelines, productive discourse following the trial

A sign and photo of Colten Boushie sits in front of the Court of Queen's Bench on the day of closing arguments and first day of jury deliberation in the trial of Gerald Stanley, the farmer accused of killing the 22-year-old Indigenous man, in Battleford, Sask., Thursday, Feb. 8, 2018. (Liam Richards/Canadian Press)

The death of Colten Boushie and the trial and acquittal of Gerald Stanley have been top of mind for many in Saskatchewan, including the province's youngest and most impressionable.

Saskatchewan's Ministry of Education encourages school divisions "to provide opportunities for students and staff to engage in healthy, respectful dialogue," but each school division is approaching conversations around Stanley's acquittal in its own way.

The Greater Saskatoon Catholic Schools division sent a memo to principals and senior administrators to guide discussion. The role of educators, according to the message, is to "listen and be attentive to the needs of individuals and groups, to provide safe environments for people affected or hurt to conduct age-appropriate, respectful dialogue, and to remain objective in providing opportunities to learn."

Saskatoon's public school division is reacting in a similar manner. There have been conversations with senior administration about how best to deal with difficult discussions in the classroom, according to the division's First Nation, Inuit, and Métis education co-ordinator.

"I'm hearing there are many reactions to the verdict and teachers are doing what they can to support all our students, and all the reactions that are taking place in schools," said Darryl Isbister.

As a teacher, you have to be able to say 'I don't know that.'- Darryl Isbister, Saskatoon public school division's First Nation, Inuit, and Métis education co-ordinator

"It's generally the students who begin with the questions," he said, rather than teachers bringing up the event as a topic of in-class discussion.

Last week, Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley was acquitted of charges in the death of 22-year-old Colten Boushie, a man from Red Pheasant First Nation. Stanley had been charged with second-degree murder in Boushie's August 2016 shooting death.

Isbister acknowledges that some teachers may have their own feelings about the verdict in Stanley's case, but his advice, as a veteran educator, is to "ensure that your emotions don't become part of the conversation."

Darryl Isbister is the Saskatoon public school division's First Nation, Inuit, and Métis Education co-ordinator. (CBC)

Student support is key

The teacher's utmost responsibility in this case is to support the students, Isbister said, or direct them to counselors who may be in a better position to provide support.

Tensions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the province have been highlighted throughout the Stanley trial, and Isbister believes teachers must be aware of these issues and deal with them appropriately.

"As a teacher, you have to be able to say 'I don't know that.' That's one of the strongest things you can say as a teacher."

Students tend to see teachers as central figures in their lives, and ask them questions they may not be able to ask their own parents, putting teachers in the challenging but important position of explaining difficult-to-understand issues.

"Sometimes home life gets too busy to have those discussions so it is ideal for students to have those discussions about things they're wondering and things they're seeing online," said Patrick Maze, the president of the Saskatchewan Teachers' Federation, which represents the province's educators.
Patrick Maze says students are sometimes more open to new ideas about reconciliation and relationships than older generations, whose values are less malleable. (CBC)

Since Boushie was killed, social media has been home to strong discussion on the case, veering into racist and destructive language and accusations.

The same kind of language can crop up in classroom discussions, too.

"Sometimes parents' values are reflected in students' discussions, and that's an opportunity for teachers to talk about being respectful," said Maze.

It may also be an opportunity to delve deeper into conversations about reconciliation.

According to Maze, students are more open-minded and accepting of new ideas and ways of doing things, while the older generation tends to be more resistant.

"They've got their values and their values can be difficult to change. Students, on the other hand, have values that are not quite set and are a bit more malleable, so they're open to having those discussions."

Some school divisions were unwilling to provide information about how they plan to deal with such discussions, and did not respond to CBC's request. Others would not confirm any approach to the discussion.

The Saskatchewan School Boards Association, which oversees all school boards in the province, was unable to provide comment since there is no province-wide plan to deal with the Stanley verdict in classrooms, and it is not part of the curriculum.