Jade Tootoosis is Colten Boushie’s sister. Jade and her husband Lyle, her family, and many of her extended family are dear friends of mine. I was one of the MCs of Jade and Lyle’s wedding round dance just a few years ago and I was struck by the beautiful spirit, generosity, and love that filled the auditorium in Enoch Cree Nation that night.
I thought about that night a lot over the past year-and-a-half as I’ve watched their family struggle through the experience of navigating a justice system that has traditionally failed Indigenous peoples.
It’s been heartbreaking to see Jade Tootoosis react to the news that Gerald Stanley's defense team dismissed Indigenous peoples one by one in the jury selection process, essentially ensuring an all-white jury would decide his fate.
Yesterday, Indian Country collectively held its breath as we awaited the jury's decision in the case of the death of Colten Boushie. Boushie was 22 when he was shot dead by Stanley after driving onto Stanley’s farm with a flat tire. Stanley claimed it was an accident when he fired at Boushie at close range. The Crown argued the farmer meant to fire his weapon.
I didn't check social media all day for fear that Jade and her beautiful family would not receive the justice they deserved in the loss of their loved one. In a country that talks so much about righting the wrongs of the last 150 years, there was a tinge of hope that maybe justice would be served for Colten. However, many Native people I know outright rejected the idea that the Crown would do their job well and secure a conviction.
On Friday, after a day of deliberations, the jury found Stanley not guilty of second-degree murder. The courtroom erupted in pain. “You're a murderer. You murdered my son,” Colten’s mother, Debbie Baptiste, said.
Disbelief or shock are not even words that describe the very idea that Gerald Stanley was sleeping in his own bed last night. The very idea that Gerald Stanley was able to walk free without a lesser charge, which could have been considered by the jury, is unfathomable to me. With that said, of course, it's not surprising.
It’s not surprising to those who acknowledge a fundamental truth, even though it’s hard to do so. We need to get better at looking at what the Canadian project started out as and what it continues to be—a project in keeping Whiteness comfortable. We need to start naming White Supremacy for what it is—the roots of this country. Start naming colonialism for what it is, the system this country was built on. Start naming racism for what it is, the backbone of the spirit that kills Indigenous Peoples.
I spent the last week in Vancouver as faculty at Simon Fraser University’s masters of publishing intensive week, and while there I've presented my arguments against indigenization efforts under the guise of reconciliation in Canada. I hosted a talk this past Wednesday night that was standing room only, and much to the surprise of many I problematized the very notion that indigenization should be a practice in Canada right now.
I argue indigenization is an effort to tinker around the margins of systems, institutions, and programs that historically have not worked for Indigenous peoples. Indigenization, as I see it, is a project to make this country feel better about itself without having to address structural and systemic inequality. As far as I see right now, indigenization is a tinkering around the edges in an effort for those at the top to meet their minimum quotas—for those with the keys to the mansion to avoid giving up the keys.
This country doesn't need incremental change and it should not aim to take baby steps towards the future. The imbalance of power and the inequities in the systems we live and work in need to be fundamentally shifted with the balance of power, decision making, and resources going back to Indigenous peoples. This applies in the education system and the Canadian economy, in the political system and, yes, the justice system. Indigenous Scholars like John Borrows, Val Napoleon, and Tracey Lindberg work extensively to support the notion that Indigenous legal orders and Indigenous justice systems create a more equitable and fair system for all of Canada.
This past week Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould was on TVO's The Agenda talking about justice reform and a more culturally sensitive approach to rehabbing and dealing with Indigenous inmates. There is no culturally sensitive approach to putting Indigenous peoples in jail. While there are good people doing good work with Indigenous peoples currently incarcerated, investing in sweat lodges and smudging inmates with sweet grass when they wake up in the morning sets the bar pretty low in terms of reform and change. What if all the resources that were being used for reform actually went to prevention, support, and cultural programming that rebuilt Indigenous communities after the harm of the last 150 years in this country. To think about reforming the justice system in a culturally appropriate way is a morally bankrupt concept—the playground-to-prison pipeline should not be resourced with our Indigenous knowledge systems because the prison pipeline doesn't deserve our knowledge. There is no justice for Indigenous People whether we are IN or OUT of prison.
From the time Indigenous kids are able to leave the house and go outside to play in this country, they are warned about going on other people's property and talking back to white people. Kids are urged to stay out of trouble and essentially be invisible in their homelands. Ask any Indigenous person if, when walking on the Rez or in rural areas with their friends, they've ever “hit the ditch” when they heard a vehicle approaching and they'll tell you it's a common practice—something they were told to do when they were kids.
Will indigenization and reconciliation ensure that Native kids playing in reserve and rural areas of this country are going to be safe? Will indigenization and reconciliation ensure that when one of our relatives’ cars break down they can count on a neighbour for help? Will indigenization and reconciliation change the minds of those who value property over Indigenous lives?
It's hard to talk about reconciliation in a country that cannot serve you justice. It's hard to talk about reconciliation in a country where you need to fight to stay alive. It's hard to talk about reconciliation when families and communities literally don't have time to wipe away the tears from one tragedy to the next.
Here's the thing, Indigenous peoples in Canada are well-versed in not receiving justice. A short list: stolen land; the Indian Act; residential schools; the 60s scoop; Indian hospitals; the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women; a lack of clean drinking water; poisoned land and water sacrificed to the resource-based economy much of this country survives on; and the uncountable failings of the justice system—premature and mysterious deaths, disappearances, and unsolved murders.
You can look to Louis Riel, Neil Stonechild, Leo LaChance, the deaths of seven youth over a period of just years in Thunder Bay, or the dozens of lives taken at the hands of serial killer Robert Pickton to know that we know what it feels when people from our community die at the hands of violence. Many families and their communities are well-versed in the numbness that follows the violent death of their loved ones. In many of these cases, Indigenous peoples themselves are blamed for their deaths. Colten's death was used against him and it’ll be used against us again. Many believe he should not have entered the Stanley's property after he had been drinking with friends that summer day, something every teenager in the Prairies does throughout their lifetime. Somehow, it is Colten’s fault that he was asleep in the front seat of that SUV when he was shot in the head and killed.
I’m frozen with fear today. What do I need to tell my daughters about staying alive in this country? How do I reassure them that they are safe in Canada.
The irony here is Colten Boushie's family has called for peace and prayer as Indigenous peoples across Canada plan for a day of action today. They're calling for peace and prayer after their son was shot in the back of the head with a handgun by a white farmer in Saskatchewan. So I ask, who are the Savages here?
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Ryan is an Anishinaabe/Metis comedian and writer based out of Treaty #1 territory (Winnipeg, Manitoba).