A jury’s recent acquittal of a white man for the killing of an Indigenous man highlights some of the deepest divisions in this country.
One of those divisions is between people living on reserves, and the farmers and townspeople living in the vicinity of those reserves.
The Red Pheasant First Nation, where Colten Boushie lived with his mother, Debbie Baptiste, and her family, sounds like most of the reserves on the Prairies that I’m familiar with. They are communities of chronic unemployment, where welfare dependency and alcohol abuse have become a way of life.
The residents of these communities are often held hostage by corrupt administrations and can only watch as their young people descend into a destructive lifestyle. Unfortunately, these young people have little to do except party. Heavy drinking and drug use often leads to criminal activity that erupts on reserve communities first and sometimes spills into adjoining communities.
Not all Indigenous communities are like this. One reserve to the southeast of my rural home is noted for its progressive and peaceful lifestyle.
However, most of these communities would more closely resemble the picture painted of the Red Pheasant First Nation. One such community to the northeast of my home is notorious for groups of mainly young people trespassing on private property, stealing and destroying property.
Anyone attending a provincial court sitting in a town or city close to such a First Nation community will immediately notice the disproportionate number of Indigenous people charged with criminal offences. This disproportion exists not because police lay too many charges but because so many offences are being committed by Indigenous people from these lawless places.
The majority of the farmers and townspeople living close to these dysfunctional communities, as well as many of the residents of those First Nations, feel trapped. They’re afraid for their property and the safety of their families, as some of these thefts have involved violence.
This is what happened on Gerald Stanley’s farm the day Boushie died. The five people clearly entered Stanley’s property intending to steal a vehicle. These young people were not there to fix a flat tire. The group attempted to steal a vehicle from a nearby farm, smashing the window of the vehicle with a rifle they had with them. The rifle – damaged but loaded and operational – was with the five when they trespassed on the Stanley property. It was found right beside the body of Boushie in the SUV he was driving.
As soon as they entered the property, one member of the group jumped into a truck Stanley was fixing for one of his neighbours. He exited that truck and got onto one of Stanley’s ATVs and attempted to start it. Meanwhile, Stanley’s son smashed the windshield of the SUV that Boushie was almost certainly driving, in an attempt to stop the brazen theft in progress. The driver of the SUV promptly smashed it into a vehicle that belonged to Stanley’s wife.
The situation was out of control. One of the five testified he had consumed 30 shots of liquor that day. Boushie’s blood alcohol was over .3, four times the legal driving limit.
It was in that alcohol-fuelled and highly volatile atmosphere that Boushie was killed.
And only now are we discovering disturbing details about the criminal records of the members of this group.
How would any of us behave in a situation like this?
It’s impossible to know. But experts say that in unpredictable life-and-death situations, our primitive brains take over. There’s an adrenaline rush, and it’s fight or flight. We become solely focused on saving our lives and the lives of our loved ones.
The Stanley family were in a highly unpredictable, fast-moving and terrifying situation.
And for farmers like Stanley, it seems break-ins and theft by Red Pheasant First Nation residents were not uncommon.
Twenty years ago, another Baptiste – Colin – took part in the murders of two Saskatchewan farmers a short distance from the Stanley farm. This case is well known to the farmers within the vicinity of the Red Pheasant First Nation.
What happened at the Stanley farm that day is the rural equivalent of a violent urban home invasion. The only real difference is that the next neighbour may be kilometres away and the police could be hours away.
No charges have been laid against the young people who carried out this farm invasion. Why this ‘get out of jail free’ card for home invaders? Is this a new, and very disturbing, racially-based policy?
Could it have something to do with the fact that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould immediately criticized the criminal justice system? Are they telling the police that there are to be two distinct sets of rules, depending on one’s race? Will we be able to find juries to deal with highly-charged cases like this as a result of these thoughtless tweets?
The prime minister seems committed to adding to the legal differences between Indigenous people and the mainstream, instead of trying to dismantle this destructive, divisive system.
What about the way the media described this as a case of young people innocently going onto a farm for help with a flat tire? This is blatantly untrue. This is a case of intoxicated young criminals, armed with a loaded weapon, brazenly entering the property to steal in broad daylight.
What about the families and community leaders on the Red Pheasant First Nation? What are they doing to control their young people?
And why does the federal government continue to fund a corrupt and broken system on reserves, while turning a blind eye to the legitimate safety concerns of citizens on and off those reserves?
It took an Indigenous politician to do the right thing in this unfortunate case.
Winnipeg MP Robert-Falcon Ouellette recognized the devastation to both the Boushie-Baptiste and Stanley families. He reached out to both of sides. Although he later backtracked after facing vicious criticism from strident chiefs, his initial reaction was the right one.
In fact, Ouellette did what the prime minister should have done in the first place.
Brian Giesbrecht is a retired judge and a senior fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy.
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