Photo: (L) Michelle Good, (R) Eleanore Sunchild
On March 23, J.V. Clyne lecturer Michelle Good invited a surprise guest, Eleanore Sunchild, co-counsel to the family of Colten Boushie, a member of the Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan and owner of Sunchild Law, to speak on the recently released report from the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC) on the case of Colten Boushie. The report concluded that the RCMP investigation was generally reasonable but was insensitive and racially discriminatory towards Boushie’s mother and that police mishandled witnesses and evidence during the investigation of Boushie’s death. Good and Sunchild both share a history of representing residential school survivors and both were and are connected to the Boushie family.
On August 9, 2016, 22-year-old Colten Boushie was shot and killed by Gerald Stanley on Stanley’s farm near Biggar, Saskatchewan. In February of 2018, Stanley was acquitted of manslaughter and murder, claiming that the discharge of his restricted firearm into the back of Boushie’s head was because it malfunctioned in the form of a ‘hangfire’—an exceptionally rare occurrence where the malfunction creates a delay from when the trigger is pulled and when the bullet actually fires. Stanley was tried by an all-white jury after several Indigenous potential jurors were dismissed through the use by Stanley’s defense team of peremptory challenges which allows counsel to reject a certain number of potential jurors without having to provide justification for doing so. As a result of the discriminatory reasons for weeding out Indigenous people from the jury pool, a campaign was launched and peremptory challenges were subsequently abolished. In spite of the errors that occurred in the Boushie trial, the Crown elected not to appeal the acquittal, a choice that further exacerbated the experience for many that justice in Canada does not extend to Indigenous people. Boushie’s mother, Debbie Baptiste, filed a lawsuit against the RCMP for their handling of the case which is ongoing. The RCMP had initially informed Baptiste of her son’s death while conducting a search of her house with weapons drawn. According to the CRCC report, officers also asked whether she had been drinking and smelled her breath.
Sunchild has been connected with the case from the very beginning. Sunchild recollected being contacted by the family immediately after Boushie’s death, when they were still just trying to figure out what had happened. “They felt,” she said, “and they were right that the discrimination and the justice system stacked the deck against them.”
“Right from the start, right from the next day after Colten was shot, they’ve been looking for accountability,” Sunchild said. She has accompanied the Boushie family at the United Nations when they made a public statement on the “pervasive, systemic racism that was the primary underlying factor in how the death of Colten Boushie was handled by the justice system,” as Good described. Sunchild received a Queen’s Counsel designation in 2018, a recognition for her work in the legal profession. Receiving that recognition, Sunchild said, was due to a lot of hard work, but was also likely because of how much controversy she helped raise after the acquittal, calling for an inquiry and greater investigation. “So, I dedicate that QC to Colten and I did that when I accepted it,” she said. “I also dedicate it to the memory of all the Indian residential school survivors that I assisted, that at this firm I think we helped thousands anway, and now we’re doing day school claims as well.” At a press conference following the release of the CRCC report, Baptiste spoke about continuing to fight for justice for her family. “If Colten could hear me now, he’d be proud that we continued fighting and we never gave up,” she said. Of arranging that conference in response to the report, released three years after the initial complaint, Sunchild said, “Whenever we do the advocacy work, even as a lawyer, it does take me right back to the time he was shot and killed.”
The CRCC report is the result of years of advocacy and fighting for accountability by the Boushie family and their supporters, including Sunchild. However, even though it highlighted many things about the RCMP’s conduct and the investigation that were troubling, there are parts that Sunchild feels still aren’t telling the full story. For instance, Sunchild disagreed with the conclusion in the CRCC report that an early press release from the RCMP on the shooting was not racist. The CRCC, while not labelling the release as discriminatory, concluded that it gave the impression that “the young man’s death was ‘deserved.’” For Sunchild, the press release contained only enough information for people to form an uninformed decision about what had happened and framed the incident as a theft-related incident and not explicitly a killing. “It seemed from that initial press release that they were treating the killing as a property crime and not a murder and therefore they weren’t investigating the killing to the degree of care that it required,” Sunchild said. “This is the systemic racism that we’re talking about.”
“After the news of this hit the press and specifically because of those references by Sergeant Olberg that this occurred in the context of a theft investigation, the media comments, the outcry of right-wing Saskatchewan was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever seen in my life,” Good said. “There were comments in the media in response to these stories like ‘the only mistake Gerald Stanley made was not to kill the other three and bury them in the back forty.’” These comments and vitriol have continued ever since the first day of the case, but with the report’s release may be stirred up again.
From the excessive presence of the RCMP on the first day of court, at the bail hearing and at the preliminary hearings, which drew a stark contrast between the protection of the Stanley family and Indigenous supporters, there were several things that Sunchild pointed to which were concerning to her about the RCMP’s conduct and weren’t included in the CRCC’s final report. “What is even more troubling to me is how the RCMP treated the family of the accused,” Good remarked in response to Sunchild’s recalling of the RCMP’s behaviour during the trial itself. There are, Good pointed out, certain realities of an investigation in a rural area, including the distances between crime scene and police detachment. However, Good said, “following the killing of Colten, Mr. Stanley, his wife and his son went back into their home, sat down and drank coffee and waited for the police, and in my submission, drank coffee and got their stories straight.” Even after the RCMP arrested Stanley, Good said, they allowed his wife and his son to travel together to give their statements to the RCMP in Biggar. “They made no effort to do what is, I think, one of the most basic investigative procedures which is to limit the contact between witnesses,” Good said. “From the very beginning, there was this perceivable discrepancy in terms of how the family of the victim was treated and how the family of the accused and the accused was treated. It was physically visible.”
Other issues with the investigation highlighted in the CRCC report was the mishandling of evidence, including waiting to get a warrant while leaving the vehicle in which Boushie was killed out in the rain for two days and not bringing in a blood-spatter expert to look at the scene. “I’ve seen mischief charges pursued and prosecuted in a more diligent manner than this one was,” Sunchild said of the handling of evidence. “In my opinion, had they got a warrant right away, starting processing the scene right away, Colten wouldn’t have had to lay out in the rain,” she said. “The family has, and they should have, such an issue with that, Colten laying out in the rain for a long time, longer than he should have, on the ground, just being rained on. That’s how they treated his body.” Another issue highlighted by the CRCC report was the treatment of the other witnesses who had been driving with Boushie on the day they found their way onto Stanley’s farm. These young witnesses, Sunchild said and was noted by the report, were “traumatized” both by witnessing the shooting of their friend and by their treatment afterwards in custody. The key witness who had been present when Boushie was shot was taken on a high-speed chase in the back of a police cruiser, an oversight that, according to the report, happened when police officers “forgot she was there.” Another witness gave their statement while wearing clothing covered in Boushie’s blood.
Of the court proceedings themselves, Sunchild noted troubling aspects of the procedure including the type of prejudicial language that she heard being used by the defense. “There were phrases thrown around that courtroom that shouldn’t have been, like ‘your home is your castle,’” Sunchild said. “Throwing around terms like ‘protecting property rights’ even though that wasn’t part of the defense. The defense was an accidental hangfire. The defense wasn’t self-defense, it wasn’t defense of property, yet the language, the lingo, the terms were being thrown around in that courtroom and they shouldn’t have been allowed to because a jury is there.”
“It was creating an inference, it was creating a belief in the people who would ultimately make a decision that a person has a right to defend their property against trespassing by violent means and that is not the law, at all,” Good added. But this inference, Good said, also fed the vitriolic message of the killing being deserved or justified. “Right from the very beginning, and I think probably Eleanore you feel the same way, that we were waiting there with bated breath for justice to occur. Right from the beginning it was clear to us what was going to happen. And it did.”
A documentary film, We Will Stand Up, covers the story of Colten Boushie in great detail and was highly recommended by both Good and Sunchild as a way of understanding a perspective on the case differently from the one presented by the media.
The recording of this talk can be found on the College's YouTube channel here: https://youtu.be/Tzx9UK-l6mc.
The J.V. Clyne lecture series at Green College this year, organized by Good who is herself a lawyer and novelist, have focused on the topic of “Indigenous Resurgence and Colonial Fingerprints in the 21st Century.” The series has brought speakers Waubgeshig Rice, John Borrows and Kateri Akiwenzie-Damm to the College to speak on Indigenous resurgence and colonial presence through fiction, law and media. The series will be on break over the summer but will resume in the fall. Future lectures can be found on Green College’s events page here.
by: Jane Willsie, Department of English Language and Literature, UBC; Green College Work Learn Content Writer, 2020-21