The Current

Saskatchewan on trial: Race relations under spotlight as death of Colten Boushie reaches court

Farmer Gerald Stanley is charged with second-degree murder over the death of 22-year-old Indigenous man Colten Boushie.
Colten Boushie was shot to death on Aug. 9, 2016. (Facebook)

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Jury selection was held in a Saskatchewan court today, in a case that has left many wondering if the province itself — and its race relations — are on trial.

On Aug. 9, 2016, Colten Boushie drove on to a property in rural Saskatchewan and was shot to death. The 22-year-old was a Cree man from the Red Pheasant First Nation reserve.

Gerald Stanley, the property's owner, was charged with second-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty.

The case gained national attention, with commentators highlighting racial tensions in the province. In an effort to find an impartial dozen, 750 potential jurors were called for interview. Eventually five men and seven women were chosen.

"Racism ebbs and flows here in Saskatchewan," said James Daschuck, an author and professor at the University of Regina.

"For the last year and a half things have been somewhat quiet. But I think those opinions are always in the undercurrent. And so with the trial coming up, emotions are being ramped up and people are mobilizing on both sides."

Gerald Stanley has been charged with second-degree murder. He has pleaded not guilty. (The Canadian Press)

The area has a tragic and terrible past, Daschuck said, citing a history of broken treaties, mistreatment and residential schools.

"In 1885, the largest mass execution in Canadian history took place in Battleford," he told The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti, noting John A. Macdonald and Edgar Dewdney's involvement.

"They wanted a spectacle. And in their words, 'to convince the red man that the white man governs.'"

"For as long as our European ancestors have been here," he said, "we have had a racial divide in Saskatchewan."

Daschuck said he understands the perspective of the rural farming population.

"The demographics here in Saskatchewan are changing. The Indigenous population is growing leaps and bounds," he said.

"And I think for what few farmers remain on the land, there's an increasing sense of isolation."

Colten Boushie's mother Debbie Baptiste holds a photo of her son outside of court in Battleford, Sask. (Jason Warick/CBC)

Robert Alexander Innes is an associate professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Saskatchewan. He said the anger he has seen online is largely coming from the white community, expressing anti-Indigenous rhetoric.

He quotes online posts that say "they should have killed them all," or "if any Indian comes on my property, I will kill them."

"Interestingly the RCMP has decided to not charge anyone with hate crimes for those comments," he told Tremonti, "but at the same time are encouraging people to be respectful."

"It kind of says that the bar for respect has been lowered, while the bar for hate crimes has been raised."

No matter what the outcome, one of those communities is going to be outraged and will be dissatisfied.- James Daschuck

For Innes, who is a Plains Cree member of Cowessess First Nation, it's time to have "tough conversations" about "the racism [that] is really the foundation of this province."

If the trial is emblematic of race relations in the province, Daschuck believes that it is those wider problems that must be resolved. If not, Saskatchewan "will go bankrupt."

"We've got inequity in education. We've got inequity in health. We've got inequity in corrections," he told Tremonti.

"Children are committing suicide. Kids in Battleford are taking their own lives because they don't see any help. We've got to do something about this."Daschuck worries that with emotions "rising to boiling point," the trial could prove to be a catalyst for more violence.

"I just hope that calmer heads prevail and that the trial can can work itself out in a proper way," Daschuck said.

"That said, no matter what the outcome, one of those communities is going to be outraged and will be dissatisfied."

Listen to the full audio near the top of this page.

This segment was produced by The Current's Pacinthe Mattar, Samira Mohyeddin and Kori Sidaway.