Indigenous lives matter in Canada

In the early evening of 9 August 2016, Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old man from Red Pheasant First Nation reserve in Saskatchewan, Canada, was riding as a passenger in an SUV with four of his friends.

Two of Boushie’s friends got out while he remained inside the vehicle. Stanley said he believed the group were attempting a robbery and fired two warning shots in the air from a semi-automatic pistol. The gun then went off ‘accidentally’; the third bullet entered the back of Boushie’s head and killed him.

This February, a visibly all-white jury acquitted Stanley of second-degree murder and even dismissed the charge of manslaughter, accepting his defence that the gun fired accidentally. Thousands of Canadians – indigenous and non-indigenous – took to the streets in cities across the country, with slogans including ‘I am Colten’ and ‘No justice, no peace’. Stanley had his supporters too, hundreds of whom contributed to his legal fees through online crowd-funding.

Boushie’s family formally complained about the way the police treated them after the shooting. They also objected to the jury selection process, pointing to the state’s use of ‘peremptory challenges’ – the right to dismiss potential jurors without stating a reason – to exclude five potential indigenous jurors. Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, an advocate of indigenous rights, has been tasked with reviewing the system, with the possibility of abolishing peremptory challenges.

Since the public outcry after the verdict, Prime Minister Trudeau and other federal ministers met with Boushie’s mother, uncle and cousin. The family stated afterwards that they finally felt they were being listened to.

‘I was not in the least surprised at the verdict,’ says Trent Gauthier, an indigenous Canadian who has worked in Canada’s criminal justice system. ‘The ugly underbelly in Canada needs to be exposed,’ he adds, comparing attitudes towards First Nations people, especially in provinces like Manitoba and Saskatchewan, to the treatment of African-Americans in the American South.

The Boushie case was held within a short distance of Fort Battleford, a symbol of Canada’s colonial past. In 1885, the area was the site of an uprising against white settlers. Among those punished by the victorious government forces were eight indigenous men, who were tried without a translator or knowledge of legal procedures, found guilty and hanged.

The first sustained wave of indigenous activism in the post-War era was in the 1960s. Today, more voices are emerging in public to continue that legacy. As an indigenous Canadian told Canadian broadcaster CBC after Boushie’s death: ‘Progress never happens in a straight or easy line: it takes twists and turns and has setbacks. But we must continue forward.’