While a jury inside a Saskatchewan courtroom heard conflicting accounts of how an Indigenous man was shot and killed by a white farmer, racial tension simmered outside on the courthouse steps.
From the beginning, Colten Boushie‘s death and the second-degree murder charge against Gerald Stanley exposed an ugly side in rural Saskatchewan – landowners who blame Indigenous people for high rates of property crime and First Nations who bear the brunt of that racism and hate.
“Everybody’s saying we’re racist or something. This has nothing to do with racist,” said Tom Jiricka, who farms near Biggar, Sask., and who showed up to see some of the testimony. “This is to do with breaking and entering in farms.
“I’ve been broken into and I never realized how violated you feel.”
Stanley, 56, was charged with second-degree murder in August 2016. Boushie, who was 22, was sitting in an SUV when he was shot in the back of the head.
Court heard that Boushie and four other people from the Red Pheasant First Nation were looking for help with a flat tire when they drove onto the Stanley farm.
The driver testified the group had been drinking during the day and tried to break into a truck on a neighbouring farm, but went to the Stanley property in search of help with the tire.
Stanley’s son testified that he and his father heard an ATV start up and they thought it was being stolen.
Stanley testified that he fired warning shots to scare the group off. He also said that the fatal shot occurred when he reached into the SUV to grab the keys and his gun “just went off.”
The case prompted a flood of angry reaction on social media.
Indigenous leaders were upset with an initial report from police that the young people had been taken into custody as part of a theft investigation. Boushie’s relatives said RCMP officers who came to the family home after the shooting were insensitive and treated them like suspects.
On the other side, there were countless racist and hate-filled posts on social media. One municipal councillor wrote that Stanley’s “only mistake was leaving witnesses.” He later resigned.
The tension prompted then-premier Brad Wall to call for calm.
“This must stop,” he wrote. “These comments are not only unacceptable, intolerant and a betrayal of the very values and character of Saskatchewan, they are dangerous.”
Tension continued as the trial began.
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and Boushie’s family raised concerns because there were no visibly Indigenous jurors selected.
Stanley’s lawyer, Scott Spencer, addressed the racism issue with a statement just before the trial began.
“If jurors feel that they have to pick a ‘side,’ then it will be very difficult for there to be a fair trial,” he said. “Unfortunately, racial tensions existed in Saskatchewan, and across Canada, before the Boushie tragedy and they continue today.”
Saskatchewan Chief Justice Martel Popescul attempted to insulate the jury from external distractions.
“It’s probably fair to say that this case has attracted some considerable attention in the media. You must ignore it completely,” he said in his opening comments.
Popescul also made it clear that he expected spectators sitting in the public gallery to behave and not to bring in signs or wear T-shirts with messages or photos on them.
Some members of Boushie’s family and supporters still wore shirts underneath their coats reading “Justice for Colten.”
Popescul clamped down inside the courtroom after jury complaints that included one about Boushie’s mother, Debbie Baptiste, shaking an eagle feather at Stanley.
“I want justice for my son and I will not give up,” Baptiste said outside court as she held a picture of Boushie high above her head.
Family members expressed frustration as evidence began to surface that Boushie’s group had been drinking on the day of the shooting and that some had lied to investigators about stealing.
“Colten Boushie is not on trial here,” Boushie’s cousin, Jade Tootoosis, said outside court as she fought back tears. “Those four other youth are not on trial here. Gerald Stanley is on trial here.
“You cannot shoot somebody, kill someone, over any … property or for jumping on a quad.”
Alvin Baptiste, Boushie’s uncle, carried an eagle feather with him to court every day. By the end of the trial he was frustrated.
“All I see is nothing but lies – lies – and that’s what’s happening there right now. I think it’s lies and planted evidence.”
The chief of the Red Pheasant First Nation said people were anxiously awaiting the outcome of the trial.
“The untimely death of yet another First Nations youth has had a far-reaching impact on the people of Red Pheasant First Nation and in the First Nations community,” Chief Clint Wuttunee said in a statement the day before the jury was sequestered.
Chief Bobby Cameron of the FSIN said the only thing that matters is that a young man was killed.
“In my own First Nation, if someone came into my driveway and was checking out my truck or quad or whatever it might be, does that give me the right to shoot someone and kill someone? Absolutely not,” he said.
“What’s more important? A stolen truck or the life of somebody?”