The RCMP acted in a racist, discriminatory manner when it notified a Cree mother her son had been killed, a civilian complaint process has found, resolving one aspect of a family’s four-and-a-half year pursuit of accountability in a case that inflamed racial tensions across Western Canada.
Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old First Nations man, was shot to death by Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley after he and four companions drove on to the Stanley property in August, 2016. An all-white jury eventually found Mr. Stanley not guilty of second-degree murder. The verdict sparked protests around the country and prompted the federal government to change the way juries are selected.
Two reports on police conduct in the case have now been completed by the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC), an independent, impartial body that investigates RCMP actions. Their release was delayed more than a year as the RCMP reviewed the contents.
The Globe and Mail has obtained copies of the reports, one of which will be released publicly Monday. They deal with a range of issues from the death notification to ill-considered press releases and errors in the collection of evidence and the treatment of witnesses.
The CRCC said the family suffered discrimination based on their racial or ethnic background in the way they were treated when told of Mr. Boushie’s death, but did not find a racial bias in other RCMP actions. The commission called the RCMP handling of the case generally “professional and reasonable.” But it found a number of errors in the investigation and serious shortcomings in the RCMP’s dealings with Mr. Boushie’s family.
RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki agreed with the commission finding on discrimination during the death notification. In her written response to the two reports Commissioner Lucki pushed back in some instances but accepted most findings and endorsed measures to address them, including providing operational guidance to several RCMP officers, revising the operational manual and boosting cultural awareness training throughout the force.
An admission of racial discrimination by the RCMP is relatively rare. Only a year ago Commissioner Lucki expressed doubt about the existence of systemic racism in the force. She clarified her position shortly after amid an outcry and committed to ensuring the RCMP is free of racism and discrimination.
The CRCC called Commissioner Lucki’s response to their report a “missed opportunity” to take responsibility for the way in which Mr. Boushie’s family and friends were treated. The RCMP Commissioner’s response had few words for the issues at the heart of the case and went into great detail about minor staffing issues, the CRCC said.
Many of the CRCC’s findings contradict a 2017 investigation of the same complaint by a senior RCMP officer, which largely exonerated the force. The family subsequently appealed to the CRCC, leading to one of the two reports. But the body also initiated its own public interest investigation into whether the force conducted a reasonable investigation, whether it ran according to policy and training guidelines and whether there was discrimination based on race.
Debbie Baptiste, Mr. Boushie’s mother, said she’s satisfied some of her concerns have finally been acknowledged.
“I was going to keep going until they admitted it,” Ms. Baptiste said. “It feels good that we were heard.”
She said she’s shocked that the RCMP admitted wrongdoing after denying it and delaying the investigation for so long.
“We shouldn’t have to fight this hard for justice,” she said. “If I was a white woman, would I have had to wait this long?”
On the night Mr. Boushie died, his mother was at home on the Red Pheasant Cree Nation, worried because he was late returning from a swimming trip. She was watching television with her sons William and Jace when police cars surrounded their trailer.
The investigation confirmed that police officers had carbines in hand and lights trained on the house. The police said they took a “tactical approach” because they had two purposes: to conduct a death notification but also to search for one of Mr. Boushie’s companions, Cassidy Cross-Whitstone, who had hitched a ride back to the reserve.
The RCMP believed Mr. Cross-Whitstone might be at Ms. Baptiste’s residence based on a vague description of the spot where he was dropped off. They were also concerned he might be armed, although not all RCMP officers present were told that was the case.
The CRCC concluded that surrounding the house wasn’t in keeping with a reasonable risk assessment, nor was it culturally appropriate or compassionate in the circumstances. Commissioner Lucki defended the tactical response, saying that officers need to be able to protect themselves.
Officers approached the home and told Ms. Baptiste her son had died. She screamed and collapsed before being helped inside. One officer asked her whether she had been drinking. Another told her to “get it together.” One or more officers smelled her breath, the report concluded.
“Not only were these words and actions insensitive, they are also linked to a stereotypical understanding of Indigenous peoples,” the investigation found.
Commissioner Lucki agreed on that point.
“The manner in which the next of kin notification was communicated to the family was insensitive and demonstrated poor judgement. I also acknowledge the existence of a link between the manner by which the service was provided in this case and the Indigenous historical context,” Commissioner Lucki said in her response.
As Ms. Baptiste lay on the floor weeping, the RCMP searched the house.
Ms. Baptiste mentioned her son’s dinner was waiting in the microwave, and an officer opened it to check, which the CRCC described as “particularly hurtful” because it suggested officers doubted her credibility.
The commission found that the search was unreasonable, unlawful and a violation of the family’s Charter rights, because the RCMP did not obtain informed consent. But it found no evidence to indicate the RCMP discriminated on the basis of race when choosing to surround the home with weapons drawn and search it without authorization.
Ms. Baptiste’s lawyer Chris Murphy disagrees with that finding. He said the significance of these events taking place on a First Nations reserve is undeniable.
“They would never do that on Main Street in North Battleford or in Saskatoon,” Mr. Murphy said. “They acted the way they did for the same reason they asked [Ms. Baptiste] if she had been drinking.”
The commission said that police actions, in the context of historical over-policing of Indigenous communities, could have led the family to believe race was a factor in the RCMP’s conduct. But it did not find evidence to prove it played a role.
A few days after going to Ms. Baptiste’s home, RCMP officers went to Mr. Boushie’s wake to update her on the investigation. The commission said speaking to a grieving mother at a wake was unreasonable and had a negative impact on relations with the family. Commissioner Lucki agreed.
During the trial of Gerald Stanley, one of the issues that arose was the handling of evidence at the scene of the shooting. On the night Mr. Boushie died, the forensics officer -- despite knowing bad weather was coming and having access to a tarp -- did not protect the vehicle in which Mr. Boushie was shot. While they waited for a warrant, 44 millimetres of rain fell and altered the crime scene.
The CRCC concluded the officers involved knew the failure to protect the vehicle was a significant mistake that should never have happened. Its impact on the investigation can never be known, the report said.
Commissioner Lucki agreed that important evidence was lost.
After the shooting, three of Mr. Boushie’s companions were taken into custody by the RCMP. They were witnesses, but they were also arrested for criminal mischief (charges that weren’t pursued). The three were intoxicated and the officers decided to hold them in cells overnight before taking statements. They were advised by police beforehand to avoid incriminating themselves when they gave their accounts.
The resulting witness statements were marked by confusion and misunderstanding. Police were frustrated by what they interpreted as a lack of co-operation. The report said the interviewers did little to establish trust.
“Given the historic distrust of police by Indigenous communities, the trauma, shock, and chaos of the previous day’s events, the lack of sleep and lodging in cells, and potentially severe hangovers, the interviewers did not reasonably foster a state of mind that was conducive to witness co-operation,” the CRCC wrote in a preliminary report.
One of the witnesses, Belinda Jackson, later described being handcuffed, told she would be charged and placed in the back of a cruiser. She was kept in a cell overnight and couldn’t sleep with Mr. Boushie’s “blood all over my body still,” confused about why she was being treated “like a criminal,” she said.
The commission concluded that the way the three interviews were conducted was unreasonable.
The CRCC also said that detaining the witnesses in cells after they gave their statements wasn’t justified under the Criminal Code. Commisioner Lucki agreed.
The RCMP approach to the witnesses could appear to be coercive and intimidating and, when combined with the faults in the investigation, give the impression that discrimination played a role in how police handled the case, the CRCC said. But it didn’t find evidence to indicate that those errors and shortcomings were the result of discrimination.
The treatment of the Indigenous witnesses stands in contrast to the way police dealt with Mr. Stanley’s wife Leesa and son Sheldon.
After police arrived, the two were allowed to re-enter the crime scene to retrieve a vehicle so they could travel together to the police interview. It’s generally forbidden to enter a crime scene and witnesses are usually kept separated until their statements are taken. The RCMP didn’t warn the Stanleys not to discuss what had happened, counter to standard practice.
“The segregation of witnesses is essential, particularly with key witnesses to a serious crime. Precautions must be taken to avoid creating an opportunity where witnesses may inadvertently or intentionally cross-contaminate each other’s recollections, or in some cases perhaps concoct a falsehood to cover up some element of culpability,” the CRCC wrote.
In the days after Mr. Boushie’s killing, the RCMP issued a number of press releases that upset the family. Although they were factually accurate, the CRCC said they featured a disproportionate emphasis on the theft allegations.
“The approach used by the RCMP could be seen to imply that Mr. Boushie’s killing was somehow justified or ‘deserved’ -- a narrative that immediately emerged on social media after the news of the death came out. This fuelled racial tensions on social media and in the community,” the CRCC wrote.
Commissioner Lucki agreed that the partial release of information could have led people to infer information about Mr. Boushie that was inaccurate. Shortly after the incident Saskatchewan RCMP altered its communication protocols.
Eleanore Sunchild, co-counsel to Ms. Baptiste, said her client is pleased the CRCC said there was no evidence that her son participated in property offences.
“People were always looking for a justification for his killing and we’ve always said Colten had no criminal record, he wasn’t committing a criminal offence,” Ms. Sunchild said.
Ms. Baptiste said it brings her some measure of relief to feel as though she has finally been heard.
The tragedy has taken a toll on her family that she says is difficult to put into words.
“It did a lot of damage. It’s just this constant feeling, the injustice,” Ms. Baptiste said. “This [report] is a start. Maybe we can work on it for the next generation.”
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