Rival fundraisers reveal a country divided online post-Gerald Stanley verdict

The online response to the acquittal of Gerald Stanley in the death of Colten Boushie has taken on a life of its own with people hurling hate and throwing a substantial amount of money at two rival GoFundMe fundraising campaigns.

Donations to GoFundMe campaigns for Stanley and Boushie families surged in the days following verdict

Colten Boushie, left, was fatally shot in August 2016. Gerald Stanley, right, was found not-guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter on Feb. 9. (Facebook/Liam Richards/Canadian Press)

The online response to the acquittal of Gerald Stanley in the death of Colten Boushie has taken on a life of its own with people hurling hate and throwing a substantial amount of money at two rival GoFundMe fundraising campaigns.

On Feb. 9, a Battleford, Sask., jury found Gerald Stanley, 56, not guilty of second-degree murder in the death of Colten Boushie, 22. Boushie was shot and killed after he and four others from the Red Pheasant Cree Nation drove onto Stanley's rural property near Biggar, Sask., in August 2016.

Reaction to the verdict was swift and highly visible as people took to the streets to demand 'Justice for Colten' at rallies and vigils across the country. Support for the Stanley family has been less visible in public spaces, but is being expressed widely in online commentary and through online donations. 

'The division has always been there'

"I think the division has always been there," said Erica Violet Lee, who helped organize the fundraiser for the Boushie family with colleagues at the University of Saskatchewan.

Lee is currently a graduate student at the OISE Department of Social Justice Education in Toronto and is Cree from Saskatoon.

"This is just the starkest division of the things we've been saying exist for a long time now," she said in reference to the inequities that exist between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

The 'Justice for Colten Boushie' fundraiser began on Sept. 1, 2017 and was started by the Indigenous Joint Action Coalition student group at the University of Saskatchewan. (GoFundMe)

The division over the verdict is striking when looking at the two campaigns. The Boushie fundraiser began last September. The fundraiser for Gerald Stanley began the day of the verdict.

While the Stanley campaign has raised slightly more money than the fundraiser for the Boushie family, nearly 1,000 more people have donated to the 'Justice for Colten' fundraiser.

As of Thursday, the two fundraisers had each raised close to $200,000.

Campaigns disable comments 

The average donation to the Boushie family is just under $50, while the average donation to the Stanleys is $70, according to a calculation of donation amounts from their start dates until Tuesday night.

The fundraiser states it's raising funds to support the Boushie family, for their legal costs and their "continuing journey for justice."

Lee said she's really happy to see how much they've been able to raise for the Boushie and Baptiste family.

"It makes me excited because so many of our donations are smaller donations," she said.

"I had a younger person reach out to me earlier in the campaign and say, 'I can only donate five bucks, is that enough?' And I was like, of course that's enough."

Much of the commentary around donations to the Boushie fund have echoed the concerns of Boushie's relatives: the way the RCMP handled the investigation; the way police delivered the news of Boushie's death; the lack of visibly Indigenous people on the jury and the use of peremptory challenges.

Erica Violet Lee is a graduate student at the University of Toronto and a close friend of one of Colten Boushie's relatives. (Rachel Malena-Chan)

However Lee said she had to turn off the comments on the fundraiser shortly after the verdict because of a flood of hateful statements.

"I don't know how you can derive pleasure from harming other people over a member of their community being shot and killed," said Lee. 

Sifting through the comments about the campaigns, it's not hard to find those hateful comments. You will also find a marked difference of opinion over whether the verdict was correct and what the case speaks to (or doesn't) in the larger context of the Canadian justice system.

'I just figured I'd do what I could to help'

The fundraising page to support Gerald Stanley and his family describes the death of Colten Boushie as the result of a "terrible situation and circumstance," and states that Boushie's death was "a freak accident."

This narrative follows the version of events put forth by the defence during the trial — namely Stanley's testimony that he didn't mean to shoot Boushie, that the gun went off as the result of a "hang fire," a delayed discharge of a bullet after the trigger is pulled.   

The organizer of the Stanley fundraiser, a man named Sam Olson, states all the money raised will go to the Stanley family to help recoup some of their lost income and property damage. Olson has not responded to requests for an interview but a spokesperson from GoFundMe confirmed it has verified his identity.

A screencapture of the 'Gerald Stanley Support Fund' page shortly after it was launched on Friday Feb. 9. (GoFundMe)

That same spokesperson also confirmed that the fundraiser will not be taken down. An online petition calling for the Stanley fundraiser to be taken down has garnered more than 10,000 signatures. 

"Given the jury verdict, the campaign does not violate our terms of service," the spokesperson stated in an email to CBC News. 

Curtis Stachniak lives in Prince Albert, Sask., and said he donated to the GoFundMe campaign for the Stanleys after coming across a link through Facebook.

He said he's followed the case closely and believes the jury made the right decision in acquitting Gerald Stanley.

"I do not believe that he pulled the trigger and intentionally shot Colten Boushie in the back of the head like many people say he did," he said.

Stachniak said he doesn't know the Stanley family but wanted to support them in recouping whatever money was spent on legal fees, and possible lost income.

"I just figured I'd do what I could to help [Gerald] in that regard," he said.

Rural crime, as everyone knows, has run rampant.- Curtis Stachniak, resident of Prince Albert, Sask. 

In talking to CBC News, Stachniak also touched upon another topic that many who are supportive of the Stanley acquittal have brought up throughout the case.

"Rural crime, as everyone knows, has run rampant," said Stachniak, who works as a heavy duty mechanic and also runs a hobby farm.

"I've got many, many customers who've been victimized by it, on more than one occasion."

Several people who have donated to the campaign did so using the moniker "Rural Farmer," and most have chosen to contribute anonymously. 

The comments on that fundraiser have now also been disabled.

A screengrab of a comment made on the GoFundMe page in support of Gerald Stanley that has since been deleted. (GoFundMe)

While many people have echoed the sentiments of Stachniak online, comments also tend to follow another common narrative: people claiming they would have done the same if they were in Stanley's shoes. Littered among the comments are racist and disparaging characterizations of Boushie, his friends, his family and community. 

"Shoot at them, then put one in the ceiling. That way you can say you fired a warning shot first, self-defense is self-defense," stated a comment found in a Facebook thread about the case (Stanley's defence did not focus on a claim of self-defence).

Screengrabs that appear to show violent comments and threats made against Stanley and his supporters have also been circulating widely on social media.

Concern about online commentary after the young man's death has been expressed by politicians for over a year and a half now. 

Staff Sgt. Rob Embree of the Saskatchewan RCMP has said that the force is investigating a "number of complaints of concerning online content that have been brought to our attention since Friday."

Anyone who sees any suspected criminal content online is encouraged to contact their local RCMP detachment or police service.

'We're not in competition'

Erica Violet Lee, one of the organizers behind the 'Justice for Colten' campaign, said this will be the last time she uses GoFundMe to raise money.

She's not impressed that someone has been allowed to fundraise for the Stanleys on their platform, but said she's trying not to pay attention to it anymore.

"We're not in competition. We're just trying to raise the money to take care of Colten's family and help them appeal the verdict, help them pursue justice however it looks like to them and just take care of them as well," she said.

When asked about the people who lament the fact that the case is being talked about as an issue of race, Lee said you can't look at this case without acknowledging the different lived experiences of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.

"It's frustrating to see people wanting to make it seem like colour blindness. Like everyone is in this together when in reality we're not. We're positioned very differently in the world and in Saskatchewan specifically, so yeah. It's absolutely about race," she said.

with files from Guy Quenneville