Darkness on the prairie: The death of Colten Boushie

Indigenous youth will account for almost 25% of Saskatchewan’s young people by 2031; attitudes need to change or more lives will be wasted.

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Image Credit: meadowlakeNOW

It was a little after 5 o’clock on Saturday, August 9th, 2016 and Gerald Stanley, now 56, and his 28 year old son, Sheldon, were putting up a fence on their cattle farm near the town of Biggar, Saskatchewan. Gerald’s wife Leesa was nearby, doing yard work.

An SUV, one of its front tires flat and down to the rim, pulled into their long driveway; this was not so unusual an occurrence, considering Stanley had a sideline fixing automobiles in his garage. The gray 2003 Ford Escape stopped and, according to the Stanleys, at least one person got out and ran toward an ATV parked nearby.

The young people in the Explorer, who ranged in age from 18 to 24, were Eric Meechance, Belinda Jackson, Kiora Wuttunee, Cassidy Cross-Whitstone, and Colten Boushie, all from the nearby Red Pheasant Cree Reservation. They’d spent the afternoon swimming and had been drinking. After the incident, they said they’d come up the driveway looking for help with the flat.

What happened next is murkier, as the testimony of the witnesses diverged and some of the young people in the Escape were accused of changing their stories by authorities. Even the media, local and national, sometimes said different, even contradictory, things about what happened that day.

Saying they feared the youths were trying to steal the ATV, Stanley ran over and kicked the tail-light of the Escape while Sheldon chased the youths away from the ATV with a large hammer, then used it to hit their vehicle’s windshield. Seconds later, when the vehicle lurched forward and hit his wife’s car, Gerald Stanley went into a nearby storage shed and, at some point, Sheldon ran into the house, saying after he was getting the keys to his truck. The whereabouts of Leesa Stanley during these events is difficult to discern.

While chaos unfolded outside, Stanley loaded a semi-automatic pistol with what he said after, he thought were two bullets, though under oath he admitted he, “wasn’t 100 per cent sure.”

Rejoining the ongoing fracas, Stanley says he fired two warning shots and took the clip out of the pistol. The shots caused Meechance and Cross-Whitstone, who were seated in the driver’s and front passenger seats, to exit the truck and flee in panic down the gravel driveway. Gerald Stanley then approached the now stopped Escape, gun in hand, and later told police that he was reaching for the keys through the driver’s side window when the gun went off, shooting Boushie. He is believed to have been sleeping through some of what happened and had moved from the back of the vehicle to the driver’s seat in a panicked attempt to get away. The shot, fired at point blank range to the back of his head, immediately ended the 22 year old’s life.

Sheldon later said when he came out of his house he saw his father walking toward the Escape, directly contradicting Gerald Stanley’s account that he’d run toward the vehicle after firing the warning shots, fearing that his wife might be underneath it.

“It just went off. I just wanted to scare them”, he reportedly told his son when he got to his side, later forensic evidence didn’t seem to bear this out.

A bent .22 caliber rifle barrel, said to have been owned by Cross-Whitstone, was found by police next to Boushie’s body but he was never reported to have used it or pointed it at the Stanleys. It needs to be remembered, although gun control laws in Canada are much stricter than in most of the United States, long guns are quite common in rural areas, certainly more common than the Russian made pistol that killed Boushie.

In a press release shortly after the events of that day, Canada’s national police, the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police), who often have jurisdiction in rural areas, claimed the people in the Escape were being questioned as part of a “theft investigation” though no charges were ever laid, something that surely had an effect on public opinion and perhaps the legal proceedings that followed.

Adding insult to injury

After taking Stanley temporarily into custody, police descended on Boushie’s home where his mother, Debbie Baptiste and his older brothers, Jace and William, were awaiting his return. William’s two young sons were asleep in another room.

While police surrounded their trailer with cars, and some got out with their weapons drawn, four uniformed police officers from the local RCMP detachment knocked on the front door.

As reported by Canada’s national newspaper, The Globe and Mail, the officers asked Baptiste, who answered the door, “Is Colten Boushie your son?”

“Yes, he is,” she answered.

“He’s deceased,” one told her.

As she reeled from the news, the officers reportedly forced their way into the trailer and searched it, “without asking permission and without offering much comfort”, as Baptiste told The Globe and Mail.

At one point, an officer grabbed her by the wrist, trying to pull her up from the floor where she lay sobbing reportedly saying, “Ma’am, get yourself together,” and asked if she’d been drinking, going so far as to smell her breath (she hadn’t, nor had anyone else in the house).

The RCMP found after an internal investigation that, in its insensitive treatment of the family it had done no wrong and that the officers, who claimed that they thought there might be someone with a gun in the home (there wasn’t), would receive no reprimand. The family plans to appeal this decision using legal means.

Any compensation that may result from this will do little to assuage the trauma inflicted on the two young boys sleeping in the trailer that night, who awoke to police searching their home, their grandmother screaming in grief, and the news that their uncle was dead.

After doing what they didn’t do in the case of Baptiste’s home, police obtained a warrant to search Gerald Stanley’s property and charged him with 2nd degree murder the following day.

In the aftermath of Boushie’s shooting, social media in the province was awash with everything from excuses for vigilantism to outright racism. A Rural Councillor from the south east of the province resigned his position after posting on Facebook concerning Stanley’s actions, “His only mistake was leaving witnesses.”

Eventually, the now former Premier of the province, Brad Wall, released a statement via Facebook about the racist and incendiary posts being made, “These comments are not only unacceptable, intolerant and a betrayal of the very values and character of Saskatchewan, they are dangerous. There are laws that protect citizens from what this kind of hate may foment. They will be enforced.”

The racism, certainly not uncommon in rural Canada, where much of the country’s indigenous population lives, was further stoked by rumors that people from the reservation were involved in a large number of thefts targeting isolated farms and businesses. There was just one problem with this theory: it was unfounded.

There had been a series of thefts in the area, but they were undertaken by Iain Stables, a 39 year old rancher. Police found $1.2 million dollars of stolen property on his land in early 2016 and he pleaded guilty to multiple charges of theft in late August last year..Unlike many indigenous people caught up in Canada’s legal system, he was shown leniency, being required to pay restitution of just over $100,000 and sentenced to two years of house arrest.

On Friday, February 9th, an all white jury, after just 13 hours of deliberation, found Stanley not guilty of either 2nd degree murder or the lesser charge of manslaughter, offered to them as a second option.

One notable injustice in this case was that every person who appeared to have indigenous ancestry was disqualified from the jury by Stanley’s defense using the doctrine of peremptory challenges, “that allow them to strike a prospective juror without providing a reason”.  Stanley still faces gun charges, which could result in up to 5 years in jail if he has more than one prior conviction (two years maximum if he doesn’t). Prosecutors have not yet announced whether the government will seek an appeal to have a new trial on the murder or manslaughter charges.

“He was loved”

In most media, Colten Boushie, the person, was rarely discussed. In death he became an invisible victim, just as too many indigenous people in Canada have been throughout the country’s history. Little known both inside and outside the country, Canada’s Indian Affairs Act of 1876 was one of the models for South Africa’s apartheid policies.

Skinny and younger looking than his age, in some pictures with a faint dusting of facial hair on his upper lip and chin, Colten had worked hard to realize his dreams, despite a neurological problem that affected one of his hands. He’d recently earned his certificate in fire-fighting and once joked to his mother, “In case the rez burns down, I’m ready to fight it.”

He was involved in his community and its religious life; noting the irony, his mother explained to the national broadcaster the CBC, “We have our traditional ways out here, how we do things around here. And one of the things [is] where we’re burying somebody, a fire is lit and somebody has to watch it all night until morning… my sons would do that.” .

The family has an American connection as they had lived in Montana until 2011 when they decided to return to their roots at the Red Pheasant First Nation. By the accounts of friends and relatives, the move from an urban to a more rural environment had suited Boushie. Those who knew him said he took an optimistic approach to life, an often difficult thing to do in places like the Red Pheasant reservation, where poverty is widespread.

His cousin Jade Tootoosis told The Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, “He never had much. But he didn’t ask for much and he didn’t expect much.”

This gentle soul, like so many before him, including those caught up in what’s called the ‘60s Scoop’ (that lasted until the 1980s), in which indigenous children were separated from their parents and put up for adoption to make them ‘Canadian’ and those who suffered in residential schools, where many were abused physically, emotionally and sexually until 1993 in the name of assimilation and Christianity, could have become a light in his community and nation.

Indigenous youth will account for almost 25% of Saskatchewan’s young people by 2031, attitudes need to change or more lives will be wasted.

Opponents of Idle No More, of Standing Rock and the camps that have flowered throughout North America in its wake, and other civil rights movements like Black Lives Matter, always complain about ‘political correctness’, but not acknowledging our savage settler colonialist past is the real political correctness in Canada, just as it is across the border. How can we be proud of a country built on the murder and displacement of innocent people? How can there be reconciliation between our peoples when significant numbers of Canadians celebrate a young man’s violent death?

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