From 1876–1898, negotiations between the Crown and the Cree, Assiniboine, and other band societies led to the formation of Treaty 6, establishing the conditions under which land in what is now central Saskatchewan and Alberta was to be shared between Indigenous people and settlers. The treaty was formed with much apprehension by Indigenous leaders; Indigenous communities were already struggling to cope with the famine and disease brought about by settler intrusion, and resulting petty crimes only heightened existing tensions. In 1885, the Crown hanged eight Cree men in Battleford, which is in current-day Saskatchewan, in the largest mass execution in Canadian history.
In response to what had happened, then-Prime Minister John A. Macdonald stated, “The executions of the Indians ought to convince the Red Man that the White Man governs.”
On August 9, 2016, 22-year old Colten Boushie and his friends left the Red Pheasant reserve and wound up in the yard of a local, white farmer named Gerald Stanley. The events immediately leading up to Boushie’s death remain relatively hazy according to court and police records. Stanley said the youth came onto his property to steal, while Boushie’s friends and family maintain they were merely seeking help for a flat tire. Though Boushie’s friends say that Stanley took deliberate aim toward Boushie with his handgun, Stanley maintains he fired accidentally, a statement viewed with deep suspicion by community members. Boushie died from a gunshot to the head.
When the jury in the Battleford Court of Queen’s Bench declared Stanley not guilty of second-degree murder or manslaughter, several people in the courtroom reportedly yelled, “Murderer!”
Beginning in 1869, the Red River Resistance marked the struggle of the Métis people to assert their sovereignty against negotiations between Canada and the Hudson’s Bay Company, fearing their rights would disappear if Rupert’s Land were to be transferred to Canada’s control.
In 2014, 145 years after the Red River Resistance, 15-year-old Tina Fontaine’s body was found in the Red River, her 72-pound frame weighed down with rocks. Like many young Indigenous women who are violently victimized, Fontaine had gone missing prior to her death. Even despite a six-month undercover investigation, Fontaine’s alleged murderer, Raymond Cormier, was acquitted on account of insufficient evidence. The cause of her death remains undetermined.
The cases of Boushie and Fontaine have sparked massive uproar from Indigenous communities across Canada, who argue that the justice system continues to fail to protect Indigenous people from violence. The suppression of Indigenous people, lands, and sovereignty has a long colonial history, and their continued marginalization is often used as a thinly veiled excuse to justify their lesser treatment under the law.
The racial and gendered dynamics underlying Boushie and Fontaine’s deaths cannot be understated. In the Red Pheasant community where Boushie lived, racial tensions have been at a boiling point for decades. Boushie’s murder has been compared to the case of Rodney King, an African-American man brutally beaten by Los Angeles police in 1991, and Marie Baptiste, a member of Boushie’s family, has called her community “the Mississippi of the north.” Tensions between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous farmers underlie interactions in the community, rooted both in racial resentment and in a belief that Indigenous people are responsible for thefts.
Conversely, Fontaine’s death was part of the driving force behind the national inquiry started in December 2015. The inquiry was established following outrage against continued government and police inaction in response to what Indigenous women’s groups believe to be over 4,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls since the 1980s. Indigenous women continue to face high rates of violence.
Indigenous communities across Canada have expressed strong feelings that the police treat them unfairly. Stereotypes that paint Indigenous people as thieves, vandals, and criminals creep into every part of the justice process and contribute to their disproportionate victimization.
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) has been criticized by Boushie’s family and independent investigators for acting negligently throughout the investigation into his death, prompting the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission to initiate a new investigation into whether the officers’ conduct was reasonable and whether race had played a role.
Along with failing to test for gun residue and failing to send a key analyst to the scene of the shooting, the RCMP failed to protect the crime scene, leaving the car uncovered and the door wide open overnight. By the time forensics experts arrived, over 40 millimetres of rain had drenched the vehicle, virtually erasing the significant bloodstains that had soaked the seat where Boushie had been sitting. The evidence was destroyed.
Negligence on the part of the authorities also failed to protect Fontaine, despite several encounters with her in the hours leading up to her death. The morning of her death, Winnipeg police pulled over a truck and found Cormier and Fontaine inside and let them drive away, even though Fontaine had been reported missing at the time. This came two days after Fontaine had reported a stolen truck Cormier had in his possession. Hours after police let her go, Fontaine was spotted sleeping on the ground by a social worker from the Southeast Child and Family Services, who took her to a hotel. The social worker was aware of Fontaine’s intentions to meet friends at a place where children are known to be exploited and drugs are sold, but she left her alone nonetheless.
Some have questioned the uproar in response to the verdicts in Boushie and Fontaine’s cases, pointing out that the Crown could not prove the accused guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Admittedly, one should not be able to obtain a conviction on the basis of circumstantial evidence — yet law enforcement’s disregard for Indigenous people can be acknowledged independent of whether or not one feels the acquittals were warranted.
This is not to mention that negligence at early stages of the investigatory process can certainly shape the evidentiary record and the story that is told to a jury. One wonders what might have gone differently in the Boushie case had the RCMP bothered to shield the bloodstained vehicle from rain.
Backlash toward the victims in these cases has persisted and continues to perpetuate colonial stereotypes and power dynamics. While the deaths of Boushie and Fontaine sparked anger and sorrow within the Indigenous community, they also triggered a flood of racist comments on social media.
And, unsurprisingly considering the persistence of these stereotypes, such insensitivity reflects the authorities’ own conduct. Boushie’s family, for instance, noted the RCMP’s callousness when delivering the news of Boushie’s death. The police encircled the family’s trailer, some with guns drawn, and entered the home without permission. Ms. Baptiste, devastated at the loss of her son, was pulled to her feet by an officer who told her to “get [herself] together,” smelled her breath, and asked her if she had been drinking, despite no evidence thereof. The officer’s attitude is arguably indicative of the low opinion that many police officers and members of society continue to hold of Indigenous people in Canada.
Boushie and Fontaine’s deaths show us that Canada continues to drag the colonial chains of systemic violence forward into the twenty-first century. Much of the violence that Indigenous women like Fontaine continue to experience is linked to experiences of coerced sterilization, loss of Indigenous status upon marriage to a settler, and the toxic legacy of the residential school system sponsored by the state and Christian churches throughout the twentieth century.
Given Treaty 6, historical disputes between the Hudson’s Bay Company and the Indigenous peoples over Rupert’s Land, and countless attempts by Indigenous communities to maintain their sovereignty throughout the progression of the Canadian colonial project, there is also deep and disturbing irony in excusing — as Stanley’s wife, Leesa, allegedly tried to do — Boushie’s death by claiming he was trespassing. Land like that which the Stanleys now consider their property would not be under their ownership had the Crown not forcibly dispossessed and displaced Indigenous people from their traditional territories centuries ago. Boushie’s blood was spilled over land intended to be shared but never ceded.
We live in a time where ‘reconciliation’ is lauded as the miracle solution to hundreds of years of oppression. We continue forward in a desperate attempt to restore Indigenous people and settlers to the position of relative equality they occupied at the first point of contact. While the path is noble, let’s not kid ourselves about how far we have yet to walk. Centuries later, the White Man still governs.
Editor’s Note: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the weapon used in the Boushie case was a shotgun. The piece has now been updated to specify that the weapon was in fact a handgun.