“Love and Hope” – How Colten Boushie’s Death and Gerald Stanley’s Trial Will Change Canadian Law

After the verdict a week ago in the Stanley trial, I was struck by the immediate and visceral reaction of so many I trusted and respected. Whether it was the lack of justice after the senseless death of a young Indigenous man from Red Pheasant First Nation, or the process that appeared to weed out any visibly Indigenous members of the jury which acquitted Gerald Stanley, or just the spectre of this verdict after so many devastating miscarriages of justice and missed opportunities for justice emerging from the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, many expressed the sentiment, in one way or another, that enough was enough.


In the wake of so much frustration and hurt, I wanted to truly take the time to listen and learn from what others around me had to say before gathering together my thoughts – so I listened carefully to those commenting on the case and its implications, led by Indigenous law professors, lawyers and students but including many criminal justice experts and observers of the administration of justice more broadly.

I learned from Jeffery Hewitt at the University of Windsor, for example, to be skeptical about quick fixes to the justice system, and that anything less than deep changes to law’s architecture will be tantamount to the status quo. The promise of serious reform by the Prime Minister and Minister of Justice today matter but will this be a cosmetic patch or a lasting shift?

 

I learned from Kent Roach, who reminded us in a recent op-ed that the Canadian way of selecting jurors “may be efficient, but it is not fair.”

 

More compelling still was Jade Tootoosis (Colten Boushie’s cousin) talking about how it felt to “watch every single Indigenous person be challenged by the defence.” For the family, the experience with the justice system was clear: “the deck is stacked against us.”

 

I learned from the “Justice for Colten Open Letter from Indigenous Faculty and Allies,” signed by so many I admire, how important it is for Universities to provide leadership and support for those working for change.

 

I learned perhaps the most from Osgoode’s Indigenous Students Association (OISA), which issued a powerful statement reflecting the effect of the Stanley verdict and the experience of Colten Boushie’s family in the justice system on law students. They quote a recent University of Saskatchewan law graduate, Leon Thompson, who observed the “waves of anger and sadness bursting from profiles of all colours” and cautioned that racism “is emboldened when in situations like this we allow ourselves to feed, consciously or not, on anger, sadness and fear. I will not feed my enemy. I would rather starve it with love and hope.” The students commit to fight for Indigenous peoples “so that they may have a justice system that works for them, not against them.”

 

I have been heartened to see so many in my communities express sentiments of hope in the face of despair, and also respect the many others who are not yet ready to look forward to be a better future, or who believe #JusticeforColten represents unfinished business right now. I believe all the statements of support for the family of Colten Boushie matter – including one issued today by Rhonda Lenton and Ruth Koleszar-Green, on behalf of the York University community.

 

Many faculty, staff and students throughout the Osgoode community are planning academic panels, community supports, advocacy and activism in the days and weeks ahead. These events and opportunities to come together and share “love and hope” will be a meaningful balm. That said, until and unless facts on the ground change, public confidence in our system of justice will continue to erode. This is not a problem for Indigenous communities alone – this is a problem for every community that cares about justice. This is and must be personal. And there is, will be and has always been more each of us could do to bring about the change we need.

 

It is clear that the loss of Colten Boushie and the Stanley Trial represent a tipping point. There is more agreement on what we are tipping from (enduring and systemic racism) than what we are tipping towards (which must include but cannot consist only of more Indigenous judges, prosecutors, lawyers, jurors and leaders throughout legal and political institutions).

 

The arc of history may be bending toward justice but it is not clear our institutions as they are can bear the weight of this change? Can a common law legal system so enmeshed in the legacy of colonial structures and worldviews truly decolonize? And will it alter the realities experienced by Indigenous communities? A status quo needs to be destabalized before it becomes untenable -and listening to my communities this past week, I sense the the need to move beyond it is broadly shared and deeply felt. As we share in the many calls to action being issued in the aftermath of the Stanley trial, we should do so alive to the individual and collective work that lies ahead, and open to the ways in which we all need to listen and learn in order to do justice to the life of Colten Boushie.