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February 21, 2018

A Killing in Saskatchewan

Gabrielle Scrimshaw

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Last Friday, a jury in Battleford, Saskatchewan, found Gerald Stanley not guilty of second-degree murder. Mr. Stanley, a farmer, had killed Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old indigenous man who he believed was trying to rob him. Mr. Boushie was shot in the head while sitting in the back seat of a parked vehicle.

No one denies that Gerald Stanley shot Colten Boushie. The problem for many Canadians is Mr. Stanley’s claim that Mr. Boushie’s death was an accident. The all-white jury agreed with Mr. Stanley’s defense, even dismissing the lesser charge of manslaughter.

The verdict prompted a huge outcry. Last weekend, thousands marched in rallies across Canada, with indigenous activists pointing to the systemic racism in the justice system.

The conduct of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers who investigated the shooting and the legal process itself have come under intense scrutiny. Alvin Baptiste, Mr. Boushie’s uncle, said the authorities treated the family as though “they did something wrong.” And in the run-up to Mr. Stanley’s two-week trial, the defense excluded five potential jurors who were visibly indigenous. In response to complaints, the police admitted that their actions “could have been perceived as insensitive,” and the government plans to review the jury-selection process.

While on tour in California, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau acknowledged the grief of Mr. Boushie’s family, stating he was “sending love” from the United States. Later, he added, “There are systemic issues in our criminal justice system that we must address,” and this week he met with Mr. Boushie’s family.

For many indigenous people, the verdict in the Boushie murder trial is part of a cycle of government apologies and tears followed by limited progress on achieving equality for indigenous people. If Canada is to mend its systemic inequalities, it needs to first address its problem with racism.

A national truth and reconciliation commission reported in 2015 that Canada committed cultural genocide against indigenous people through long-term government policy, including separating children from their families, forced migration, and outlawing language and cultural practices. The intergenerational trauma wrought by these policies has left indigenous people at the bottom of nearly every social and economic indicator.

Suicide rates for indigenous youth are among the highest in the world. Indigenous people are 10 times more likely to be incarcerated, nearly twice as likely to be unemployed and can be up to three times as likely to experience food insecurity.

In Saskatchewan, a large agricultural province with just over one million people, one in 10 residents identifies as indigenous. The province had the second-largest number of Indian Residential Schools in Canada — the government-funded, church-run schools that forcibly took generations of indigenous children from their communities in an attempt to assimilate them into white society.

Thousands of children perished while attending these schools, and the physical, mental and sexual abuse many endured is well documented. In Saskatchewan, tensions between indigenous and non-indigenous people run several generations deep.

Yet for many people in Canada, the reaction to the Boushie verdict has come as a surprise. A study in 2016 found that Canadians have only recently begun to understand the discrimination faced by indigenous people, and many feel it is no different from that faced by other minority populations in the country.

This can be explained partly by an urban-rural divide. Eighty percent of Canadians live in cities, and half of indigenous people reside in rural areas, leaving many urbanites unaware of the systemic and longstanding racism plaguing indigenous people. But if you look beyond the urban enclaves to Canada’s rural backyard, you see a more complete picture.

I grew up in a small Saskatchewan town two hours east of where Mr. Boushie was killed. As a Dene girl of 7, I was accused of stealing while I was browsing the aisles of a girls’ accessories store. I was 15 when a friend, a Cree hockey player, said a white man spat on him during a game.

When I was in college, a young man (whose father, brother and uncle were members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) declared one night that he wanted to be a police officer so that he “could shoot” some Indians. I was young, trying to make friends, and didn’t challenge the comment. Later, when I mentioned the incident to a person there that evening, he told me that the comment wasn’t about race, but the fact that “natives just commit more crime.”

Failing to call out racism makes it easier for people to believe there isn’t any. Worse yet, racism becomes so acceptable we stop being able to recognize it. In November, a major political candidate said that when he was growing up in Saskatchewan he “didn’t even know that racism existed.”

It took me years to find the courage to call out racism when I see it. Canada doesn’t have that long. One in three indigenous people is under the age of 14, and these young people are growing up facing discrimination at every turn. While Canadians debate the role of racism in the Boushie trial and verdict, indigenous people are losing faith in the justice system, the government and the idea of reconciliation.

Canadians need to absorb the century-long history of systemic racism that led to Colten Boushie’s killing. Reading the findings from the truth and reconciliation commission’s final report would be a good start.

Until our leaders — and regular Canadians — state plainly that Canada has a problem with racism, indigenous people will continue to have their lives cut short.

Gabrielle Scrimshaw, a joint degree candidate at the Stanford Graduate School of Business and the Harvard Kennedy School, is a co-founder of the Aboriginal Professional Association of Canada.

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