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March 8, 2018

Canada's Indigenous Communities: The Truth is Enough

On February 9, 2018 Gerald Stanley was found not guilty of second-degree degree murder in the shooting death of Colten Boushie of Red Pheasant First Nations. Almost two weeks later, Raymond Cormier was found not guilty of second-degree murder in the death of Tina Fontaine. Both cases have drawn considerable attention in Canadian media due to the racial tension they have created between the Indigenous communities that Boushie and Fontaine were from, and the "Systems" and people in Canada that they feel have failed them.

In the case of Stanley, even Prime Minister Justine Trudeau tweeted support for the family of Boushie after the verdict: “I can’t imagine the grief and sorrow the Boushie family is feeling tonight.  Sending love to them…” (my opposition to this is for another article perhaps)

The families of Boushie and Fontaine, along with the majority of Indigenous communities have been calling for justice for their loved ones who were laid to rest much too soon.  They have also garnered support from Canadians who feel that it is time to address the marginalization of the Indigenous community, and as a result the Canadian justice system has been put at the forefront of the demands for change.

There is no denying the Indigenous communities of Canada need their situation to change.  Not because of the past and what their ancestors experienced, but because of their present situation. It has been widely known that Canadian Aboriginal people in comparison to their non-aboriginal counterparts have poorer health, lower education and income levels, less adequate housing including crowded living conditions and higher rates of unemployment, incarceration and suicide.

Its evident that changes need to be made but what is not evident is how to proceed and succeed at making these changes. 

However, one thing is for sure; change cannot start from a position of weakness, and that is what I see happening here.

I see people grasping for straws and generalizations about non-Indigenous Canadians that end up helping no one.  I see demands for justice in the cases mentioned above when justice based on the evidence appears to have been served.  And I see all of this polarizing a country at a time that we should be trying to work together.

The position of weakness I’m talking about is one I see more and more due to factors I don't quite fully understand including social justice warriors, a 24 hour news cycle, social media, the agendas of main stream news organizations, etc.  All of these have resulted in an avalanche of competition for attention, glossing over of the facts and propagating generalizations.  Its a shame when issues of importance and significance such as the plight of Indigenous Canadians get caught up with these powerful forces.

This was seen in the aftermath of the Boushie verdict. At a rally at Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square the Ontario regional Chief of the Assembly of First Nations, Isadore Day was quoted as saying the verdict in the trial “indicates that there is racism in Canada’s legal system”. I don’t necessarily disagree with Mr. Day, as racism is difficult to eradicate in most systems, however this position becomes weak when you look at the trial in detail and the evidence that was put forth.

Two of the friends who were with Boushie in the SUV on the day he was killed, contradicted their initial statements with testimony in court.  Cassidy Cross-Whitstone admitted that he had lied to police in his initial statement about carrying a gun, how much alcohol he had consumed and about breaking into a truck on that day. Belinda Jackson, another one of Boushie’s friends, initially told the police that she saw a woman shoot Boushie, but then testified that she saw Stanley shoot him twice in the head.  In response to this Chief Justice of Saskatchewan's Court of Queen's Bench Martel Popescul told the jury,” Common sense tells you that if a witness says one thing in the witness box but has said something quite different on an earlier occasion, this may reduce the value of his or her evidence”.

With very little solid evidence, and conflicting stories from eye witnesses, I think that it would be irresponsible to say that the case was straight forward. 

So ultimately the assumption being made is that because Gerald Stanley was white and Colten Boushie was Aboriginal, the verdict had to be racist. One of the primary reasons for this assumption is the reportedly all-white jury that found Stanley not guilty. This is where I can’t help but be disappointed in the way in which a demand for change is being made.  Suggesting that those 12 jurors were racist and that is why they returned the not-guilty verdict is salacious and frankly offensive.  It is tantamount to calling every white Canadian racist which will not result in the change they hope to see or at least alienate Canadians that may have been allies.

In the case of Tina Fontaine, the evidence was thinner and the calls of the verdict being racist get even more frustrating when you delve into the evidence that was used to charge Cormier, as well as his extensive criminal past.

After the verdict the Mayor of Winnipeg Brian Bowman commented by saying, “All of us have a responsibility to challenge racism and discrimination when we see it. And all of us need to work to repair the broken relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people”. He even said that there is no question in his mind that Canadians are continuing to fail young Indigenous people.

What racism is he talking about? The racism of the jury.  They were the ones that returned the not guilty verdict so they must be racist. Otherwise why say this after the verdict? I’m sure if you asked Mr. Bowman he would say that isn’t what he meant, but try reading between the lines.  I don’t know about you but I hope my Mayor doesn’t call me a racist for making a decision based on the evidence that is presented to me.

So what evidence was presented to the jury? No forensic evidence, no eyewitnesses linking Cormier directly to Fontaine’s death, and no cause of death was established. What they were presented with was secretly recorded statements made by Cormier during a police procedure called “Mr. Big” which the Crown prosecutors argued were admissions of guilt.  However, this technique is highly criticized and it basically amounts to entrapment, which can elicit unreliable confessions.

What was even more disappointing about the case was that Cormier was on trial as opposed to being in prison already. He has at least 92 past criminal convictions, including serious violent crimes, and was described as being a “danger to the public”. In light of Cormier’s past it seems like the system failed all Canadians not just Indigenous youth.

So it is not clear why these two cases are being used to point out the injustices that the Indigenous people have experienced in the past.  There is no arguing that many of them have experienced injustices, and as mentioned above there is no denying Indigenous communities of Canada need their situation to change. However judging people and situations without having all the facts (or making assumptions) lead to unwarranted conclusions and these conclusions can weaken an argument.  This is especially detrimental when the truth is enough. 

The truth is that the Indigenous communities in Canada need help.  They need to be given the same opportunities, assistance and respect as all Canadians. Not everything or everyone has to be accused of being racist for this to come to fruition.

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M. Elmasry

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