Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh says not having representative juries reduces confidence in the justice system in cases like the acquittal of a white farmer who had been charged with killing Colten Boushie.
However, Singh stopped short of calling for an end to the practice of arbitrarily dismissing potential jurors without cause.
On Friday, an all-white jury acquitted Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley of second-degree murder in the shooting death of Boushie, a 22-year-old from the Red Pheasant Cree Nation. That decision quickly sparked protests in cities and towns across Canada.
Several Indigenous potential jurors had been rejected by Stanley’s lawyers during the jury selection process through what is known as peremptory challenges. Following the acquittal, Boushie’s family, as well as Indigenous leaders, pointed to the lack of diversity on the jury as evidence of systemic racism against Indigenous people and an impediment in the way of them receiving justice.
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Singh, formerly a criminal defence lawyer, spoke to reporters in Ottawa Tuesday morning and said “we didn’t have justice for Colten” and neither were concerns among Indigenous people about racism in the justice system adequately addressed.
“There wasn’t addressing of the systemic racism, there wasn’t addressing that it seems so painful that a young man can be killed in such a matter. This court case hasn’t addressed the pain that people feel, that there’s disregard for an Indigenous life, that that life is disposable,” Singh said.
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“People have been made to feel their lives don’t have value, and that’s ongoing.”
Singh pointed to the fact that Indigenous people are severely underrepresented on juries and that there needs to be a discussion around how to get more Indigenous people on juries.
He noted that in cases like Boushie’s, the question is not only whether the process unfolded according to the rules but also whether it was seen to be fair by those watching the trial and court process play out.
“There’s also an appearance of justice and when you don’t have representation from an entire community, it reduces confidence in decisions that are made,” he said.
In August 2016, Boushie was shot in the head after he and four others drove onto the rural farm owned by Stanley.
Stanley had testified that the shooting was an accident.
The jury deciding his case had several options that included finding Stanley guilty of second-degree murder, manslaughter or not guilty.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould both tweeted shortly after the jury delivered the not-guilty verdict on Friday evening to say their thoughts were with the Boushie family. Critics quickly argued that both should have refrained from weighing in, given the possibility that the verdict could still be appealed.
Trudeau said in question period on Monday that under-representation of Indigenous people on juries and in jury selection pools needs to be addressed.
“When Indigenous Canadians are significantly under-represented on juries and in jury selection pools, we have a problem,” Trudeau said. “We have much we need to do together to fix this system in the spirit of reconciliation and that’s exactly what we’re going to be doing.”
Trudeau is meeting Tuesday with members of the Boushie family as are Wilson-Raybould and Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale.
That comes on the heels of meetings in Ottawa on Monday between Boushie’s cousin, Jade Tootoosis, his mother, Debbie Baptise, and his uncle, Alvin Baptise, and Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott and Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett.
A press conference with the family scheduled for Tuesday morning on the steps of Parliament Hill was cancelled but is now expected to take place on Wednesday.
The meetings are expected to focus on a push for reforms to the criminal justice system, including how juries are chosen.