Several hundred people gathered in Regina Feb. 10 to protest the acquittal of Gerald Stanley in the death of Colten Boushie. It was one of many across Canada. Photo by Mickey Conlon

Mickey Conlon: Tragedy should not derail reconciliation

  • February 15, 2018

REGINA – The trial of a Saskatchewan farmer charged in the death of a 22-year-old Indigenous man has ended with an acquittal. But other than that, what have we learned from this?

If you were to read the explosive headlines in the days after the trial — such as this one from the National Post: “‘Enough killing our people’: Stanley verdict generates rallies and pleas for change”  — you would get the impression the trial was about much more than the terrible death of a young man or the farmer who pulled the trigger. What often seemed to be on trial was far greater than that — reconciliation between Canada’s Indigenous peoples and the settlers of this vast land. It was almost as if the details of the case were secondary to the grander issue of how this trial had the potential to derail the reconciliation process.

Those details are quite horrific. A young man died, how can that not be horrific?

As the jury in a provincial courtroom in Battleford, Sask., heard over nearly two weeks of testimony, Colten Boushie and four friends set out from the Red Pheasant First Nation on Aug. 9, 2016 for some adventure, not unlike what thousands of other youth have done and will do until time stands still. The difference is Boushie never returned from his adventure. He was shot in the head by Gerald Stanley, all sides agree, when Boushie and his friends ventured onto the Stanley farm. An all-white jury ultimately was swayed by Stanley’s account that his gun went off by accident. 

Trying to put the reconciliation process on trial over Boushie’s death only serves to mask the true tragedy. Two families are forever changed — the Boushies, having lost a child at 22, are devastated; the Stanleys, although the family patriarch was found not guilty, will forever be stained by the events of that day. 

But trying to pin the future of reconciliation on this trial is wrong and quite frankly shameful. Sure, it fits a narrative to suggest the shooting of an unarmed Indigenous man could derail reconciliation — and make no mistake, media nationwide were quick to latch onto that narrative, slightly toning down the rhetoric during the trial, only to jump all over it again once the verdict was rendered — because racism is often front and centre in interactions between Indigenous and white people. But the facts that emerged at trial didn’t necessarily square with this.

Stanley’s lawyer Scott Spencer expressed “serious concerns” about the media coverage and stressed the “trial is not a referendum on racism.” There was plenty of noise on social media, but the rantings of cowards sheltered by anonymity is a poor substitute for facts. In reality, beyond legitimate complaints by Boushie’s family that no Indigenous person was accepted to be part of the jury (a very fair objection) and small protests outside the courtroom, racism was not a factor during the trial. When the verdict was rendered, however, protests sprang up across the country with even the prime minister and the justice minister expressing concerns.

But this one case, as tragic as it was, cannot be allowed to determine the future in the Indigenous-settler relationship. One trial, even with so controversial an outcome, should not make or break attempts to reconcile past wrongs on Canada’s Indigenous. What will break it is if Canada’s commitment to the recommendations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are put on the back burner. It will break if nothing is done to fix the myriad problems on reserves — the lack of adequate housing, the continued problems with drinking water, chronic unemployment. It will break if the Indigenous voice is not heard and respected on an equal footing.

Despite this trial, there is evidence that things are moving ever so slowly towards a better relationship between Indigenous and the rest of Canada. Our schools are leading the way and it may be left in the hands of our youngest generations to complete the healing. The federal government has also signalled a willingness to right past wrongs, and though its execution has been quite clumsy to date (look no further than the inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women), it has at least upped the conversation. As long as it stays honest and true to its commitments, progress will be made. 

True reconciliation is a complex issue that will take time. Pinning its future on one tragic case is just plain wrong.

(Conlon is a writer in Regina.) 

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