Canada’s race problem

Last weekend, a court in Battleford, a small city of around 4000 people in north-central Saskatchewan, found Gerald Stanley not guilty of the murder of Colten Boushie. Stanley, a white farmer, stood accused of second-degree murder in shooting Boushie, a 22-year-old member of the Red Pheasant First Nation, after Boushie and some of his friends drove onto Stanley’s ranch. The sequence of events outlined in the media and in court testimony led to the fateful moment when the handgun Stanley was pointing at Boushie at point-blank range went off, killing him. Stanley’s defense team argued that this was an unfortunate accident resulting from a malfunction of the firearm. The all-white jury acquitted Stanley on Friday, sparking widespread condemnations of and protests against the jury selection process, the anti-indigenous racism that boils under the surface of Canadian society, and the court and legal systems themselves. Even Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould made statements opposing the verdict and arguing on social media that “[as] a country we can and must do better – I [said Wilson-Raybould] am committed to working everyday to ensure justice for all Canadians.” But as of now, a Canadian jury enacting Canadian law has acquitted Gerald Stanley, and justice seems an abstract and far-off notion.

Indeed, what might justice mean at all in this context? I don’t ask this to be cynical or pedantic or edgy. I mean it truly, what might justice look like after the killing of a young indigenous man and the white perpetrator’s acquittal, which was in accordance with Canadian law? Does it entail changes to the legal code or criminal court structures and processes, including revision of the jury selection process? Maybe, but as Robert Jago wrote at the website Canadaland the day after the verdict:

[D]on’t say that Canada failed Indigenous people – Canada just failed. It wasn’t a mob of racists that released a killer onto the streets – it was 12 regular Canadians. These are Canadians who have lived their entire lives hearing excuses for why they don’t need to care about Indians. … The defence presented a case that centred around a magic bullet. It is a hard story to believe, but you don’t have to believe it. You don’t need a hard sell to get an addict to buy your meth. And you don’t need a hard sell to push a fig leaf on people who don’t know how to live without one.

As an American who keeps close tabs on the US news, which for years has been regularly reporting the murder of racialized and poor people by police and private citizens, many of whom claim fear of imminent violence against themselves as justification for their own violence (as in the ‘stand your ground’ legal justification for preemptive violence in Florida), I am perhaps inured to this form of injustice, at least as portrayed in media coverage. But I am not the victim of these violent acts and so for me to be inured or not to them has limited moral or political weight; the problem is that this is common, so common as to be barely noticeable to those not directly affected, with killings and subsequent acquittals often barely cracking the top of the news feed anymore. The Stanley trial in Saskatchewan similarly was back-page news until the verdict came down, and (some) Canadians, more than before at least, took note that Canada has a race problem.

So of what does the problem actually consist? I am reluctant to explore the Boushie killing and Stanley trial itself in more detail than what is presented above, as I do not know all the constituent facts, and so I do not feel comfortable commenting on the case’s underlying dynamics or the fallout of the verdict, which in any case is only a few days past. Suffice to say that an all-white jury tasked with making a decision in a case riven with racial tension is not only problematic, it is an entirely predictable and even likely scenario in the Prairies and North, where a number of factors inhibit Native people’s participation as jurors in the criminal court system, even as an astonishing 80 percent of Saskatchewan’s prison inmates are indigenous people. Meanwhile, only 2 of 101 judges in the province are of indigenous background, and the RCMP is able to clear itself of any wrongdoing in how officers handled the immediate aftermath. From a geographic perspective, I would ask, what kind of places are these – the Canadian courtroom, the private ranch of a white Saskatchewan resident, the traditional territory of Boushie’s Cree band, the inside of an RCMP police cruiser – and how do they define and limit, and in many cases violently upend and destroy, the capacity of indigenous people in them? How do they make and remake the supremacy of white colonial settler society, through their ability to delimit the chances of life and death, to determine the meaning of justice and how it is or is not achieved, and to shape one’s self-identity and its social value? To what extent are these places the result of a long history of violent discrimination, and how do they impede the undoing of this discrimination and present other possibilities for reconciliation or a common future?

I don’t have easy answers, and nor should I, but it does seem there are some pretty clear limitations in majority Canadian identity and national self-awareness as these are finally made to contend with the history of settler colonial violence that makes and remakes these spaces and their relationship with each other every day. Weak liberal iterations of diversity and inclusion within a ‘big-tent’ version of Canadianness fail miserably to enact truth and reconciliation in meaningful ways, which both open metaphorical and physical spaces to indigenous identity, community, and autonomy, and close (or at least quickly bound and limit) that space to prevent or preclude a more radical expression of indigeneity that might accompany a true soul-searching on behalf of majority Canadian society. I simply don’t believe in a version of Canada in which the ‘two silences’ welcome a third indigenous voice in a tepid attempt to achieve inclusion so that majority society can feel better about having noticed it is built on a mountain of historical wrongs. There must be something more than back-patting and re-romanticization of indigenous people as seen through white eyes. I say this as an interloper, and as someone from a different but similar settler colonial society in the US, where this conversation is not even at the point it is in Canada, and may never be.

There is, I think, no ‘moving forward’ from something like the Stanley verdict, there is only the tectonics of sociocultural change, a slow and uneven pattern of subtle shifts and powerful tremors that make and remake our social landscape around constantly evolving fault lines and points of slippage and zones of upheaval and subsumption. I use this geological terminology not to naturalize social discrimination, settler violence, or weak versions of racial progress – clearly social change moves in unpredictable ways, and there are many contingencies along the way. Tectonics constitute a useful metaphor to indicate the uneven speed and unpredictable tensions and breaking points in the long history of colonial violence and displacement; there is nothing natural about the wholesale destruction of indigenous societies or the lingering forms of structural and individual violence and exclusion that persist today. How we correct them and establish a sense of common community and meaningful diversity are not going to be found in limited liberal notions of inclusion and the technicalities of jury selection, even if these might be necessary but insufficient first steps, but instead require some remaking and recasting of those specific places where inclusion and social change might happen in more just, respectful, and radical ways than what has been allowed so far.