I had just begun reading a biography of Martin Luther King when the not guilty verdict was rendered in the Gerald Stanley murder trial. As is now widely known, Stanley shot and killed an Indigenous youth named Colton Boushie at close range after a vehicle containing Boushie and four others entered Stanley’s farm yard near Biggar, Saskatchewan in August 2016. An all-white jury acquitted him of any offence, buying the argument that Stanley’s handgun must have fired by accident.
Not about race?
The verdict produced an anguished and angry outcry from Boushie’s family, from Indigenous groups and those in solidarity with them. But others argued that criticizing the verdict, or even a trial in which the defence challenged and excluded all potential jurors of apparent Indigenous ancestry, would undermine faith in the justice system. A common refrain in Saskatchewan was that the trial was not about race but rather about rural crime. I am describing this far more politely than was frequently the case with comments that dominated the conversations on social media.
The U.S. experience
Removed in space and time, the oppression of blacks by whites in the U.S. is easy to describe. The rural economy of the American south was built on the enslavement of African Americans by whites – not to mention wars of extermination against Indigenous peoples. There was a civil war fought over slavery and in its aftermath the constitution was amended to enshrine racial equality. But Southern states resisted by passing so-called Jim Crow laws that effectively created a system of apartheid – criminalizing inter-racial marriage, barring blacks from voting and attending schools along with white students, and excluding them from good jobs.
To enforce their regime of oppression, whites also engaged in murderous extra-legal practices. Between 1877 and 1950, there were an estimated three thousand lynchings. In the rare court cases which arose out of such activities, white juries consistently failed to convict their peers for their crimes.
This was the backdrop to the campaign for desegregation, equality and economic justice led by Martin Luther King and others. They succeeded in part. The Civil Rights Act in 1964 was designed to end the most blatant forms of discrimination but King paid with his life for his activism when he was murdered in Memphis, Tennessee in April 1968, on the day after he spoke in support of garbage workers who were trying to form a union. Despite changes in laws and a variety of court judgments, much of the injustice against African Americans has persisted. Huge numbers of them remain poor and unemployed. They are incarcerated in numbers far exceeding their share of the population and are highly over-represented in state executions. The shooting deaths of African Americans by white police officers are both frequent and predictable.
But we Canadians have greater difficulty in naming the oppression in our own country. In Gerald Stanley’s murder trial his lawyer said that for farm people such as Stanley “your yard is your castle” – implying that one can justifiably defend that castle against unwelcome intruders by any means available. The historical irony here is too blatant to be missed. Boushie’s Indigenous ancestors were forcibly displaced from their homeland by governments representing Stanley’s ancestors, and my own grandparents who were also settlers. Yet today whites are reaching for their guns to keep Indigenous people off of their property.
Canada’s wealth and prosperity was not built upon the slave trade but rather upon stolen land. The Doctrine of Discovery and the laws and regulations emanating from it were the basis on which that land was deemed vacant and available, even though it had been inhabited since time immemorial by Indigenous peoples. As in the American South, the law in Canada was used as an instrument of subjugation. Indigenous peoples were not allowed to leave their reserves without permission, they were not allowed to vote until the 1960s, nor to advocate for their rights or to retain legal counsel.
In Canada, Indigenous people are also incarcerated at rates far exceeding their share of the population, and they believe that once again in the Stanley case they have not been dealt with fairly by the justice system.
The policies and actions of successive Canadian governments, including the forced attendance of Indigenous children at residential schools, have been described by Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), and by former Chief Justice Beverley McLachlin, as “cultural genocide.” The TRC, after its deliberations and many meetings with residential school survivors, produced 94 calls to action aimed at governments, educational institutions, churches and individual Canadians. Twenty years earlier, the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples also made more than 400 recommendations.
There is no excuse for settlers to claim ignorance or to cast blame upon people who have been victimized. There is a roadmap to the future and it is our responsibility to pursue it in good faith.