Every morning, the public gallery at Gerald Stanley's murder trial arranged itself on racial lines.
On one side were the mostly First Nations family and friends of the victim, Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old man from the Red Pheasant First Nation. On the other, the friends and family of Mr. Stanley, the 56-year-old farmer accused of second-degree murder.
"It's like segregation," said Linda Whitford, Mr. Boushie's aunt. "They might as well just say dark people on this side, white people on that side … It's not good."
In a trial that has aroused sadness and bitter feeling, the tension in the courthouse has simmered. Some say this trial is not about race, and some say race lies at its heart.
Mr. Boushie and four friends drove onto Mr. Stanley's farm in a Ford Escape that had lost a tire in August, 2016. Mr. Stanley and his son confronted the group as one was trying to start his ATV. Mr. Stanley grabbed a gun and said he fired warning shots to scare them off. He was reaching into the vehicle in which Mr. Boushie was sitting when the gun went off, he testified. A jury is now deliberating his fate.
The wooden church-style pews in the old, 19th-century courtroom have been packed to capacity. The Stanley family has the support of many local farmers. The Boushie family has had sizable support from Indigenous friends and relatives, but also non-Indigenous people from Saskatoon and Regina and the chiefs of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN), the provincial First Nations leadership group.
The two sides have eyed each other warily.
Mr. Boushie's family believes it was racial prejudice that led Mr. Stanley, faced with First Nations people poking around his property, to reach for a gun. Mr. Stanley's account is that he was frightened for his family's safety. No one would have been hurt, his supporters say, if the young people had just asked for help with their flat tire, as they initially said, instead of trying to drive off with his ATV.
"If they saw young, white individuals they could relate to, I feel they would have responded differently," said Jade Tootoosis, Mr. Boushie's cousin and a family spokeswoman. "Because they saw dark-skinned individuals, they responded with violence."
The farmers are nearly unanimous in the view that the case is not about racism at all, but about crime in rural areas. Many say they simply don't have faith that police will respond quickly enough to protect them and are tired of losing property to theft.
"The media is responsible for turning this into a racist shooting. It is not," Jamie Blazek, a local farmer who attended nearly every day of the trial, wrote in a letter he provided to The Globe and Mail. "I understand the feelings farmers have … We have nothing but respect for anyone (especially natives) who work hard to provide for themselves and who are law-abiding. We have low tolerance for anyone who doesn't work, lives off the government and think that they have a right to come and steal from people who are trying to earn an honest living. I am telling you as a farmer that it wouldn't have mattered what race the thieves were, the attitude by the farmer would have been the same."
Tom Jiricka, a farmer who lives near Biggar, Sask, addressed reporters outside court to criticize their framing of the case. He said farmers are being portrayed as racist when they are not. "This has nothing to do with racism. This is to do with breaking and entering on farms," he said.
Ms. Tootoosis said she is still troubled by the possibility that the race of the victim played a role in how it was investigated.
The initial RCMP press release, she said, focused on the theft as much as the killing, leaving the impression that it may, somehow, have been justified. The First Nations witnesses were detained, while Mr. Stanley's relatives, also witnesses, were quickly granted their freedom. The RCMP didn't preserve evidence at the scene, didn't cover the vehicle in the rain, didn't bring in a blood-spatter expert and then sent it off to a towing lot, all steps that should have been handled more carefully, she said.
Mr. Boushie's uncle, Alvin Baptiste, said from the outset it felt as though the deck was stacked against his family. On the day the jury was selected, the defence used its peremptory challenges to block every potential juror who appeared to be Indigenous. The process was so bald that the last First Nations woman to step before the court simply smiled with resignation as she took her turn, certain that she would be sent away.
"We also have a First Nations perspective or view," Mr. Baptiste said afterward. "To not even give [the potential jurors] a chance to speak on our behalf or not have a say in what's going on," his voice trailed off. "I'm hoping the jury won't be biased."
Mr. Baptiste, a tall man with braided hair, sat in the front row of the gallery most days. When court was asked to rise as Chief Justice Martel Popescul entered, Mr. Baptiste would hold a fan of eagle feathers in the air, and he did the same every time the jury entered and exited.
The Chief Justice asked Mr. Baptiste, in the absence of the jury, if he could explain what he was doing. Mr. Baptiste said he was honouring the judge, the jury and the court process. The chief justice then relayed that message to the jury when they returned.
Later, when Mr. Stanley was testifying, the jury passed a note via the sheriff saying that the waving of feathers in the gallery was distracting. "It appears that you are motioning with the feather toward Mr. Stanley," the chief justice said, addressing Mr. Boushie's aunt, Ms. Whitford, who held a single eagle feather. She replied, quietly, it was to get the witness to tell the truth. He asked her to stop.
During the trial, the shifting accounts given by Mr. Boushie's companions were seized upon by Mr. Stanley's defence. Belinda Jackson, Eric Meechance and Cassidy Cross-Whitstone told different stories to police immediately after the killing, and then at the preliminary inquiry in 2017. Many felt it was the young Indigenous people who were being put on trial as they faced questions about how much alcohol they drank. Bobby Cameron, chief of the FSIN, could barely contain his frustration as he watched the proceedings, shaking his head in disbelief afterward.
What wasn't made clear to the jury, however, is that Ms. Jackson said she was held in custody for 19 hours before giving her statement. She was traumatized and hadn't slept or eaten, and was under the impression that police were charging her with a crime (they didn't pursue the charge). The Boushie family lawyer, Chris Murphy, said he finds it hard to believe that a non-First Nations person who was a witness to homicide would be treated that way. Mr. Cross-Whitstone admitted he lied because he was scared that drinking and driving and the suspected attempted theft would land him in trouble.
At the preliminary inquiry in 2017, Ms. Jackson testified that Leesa Stanley, Mr. Stanley's wife, said, in the moments after Mr. Boushie was shot, "That is what you get for trespassing." The comment was not raised at trial, but it remains particularly inflammatory to some in Mr. Boushie's family, because the issue of the land, who owns it and why, who is allowed to be where, gets right to the heart of the painful history of First Nations people in Saskatchewan.
Even at the preliminary inquiry, the courtroom was packed and similarly divided between Indigenous and non-Indigenous. On the day Ms. Jackson testified in 2017, one of the few empty seats was in the section intended for Mr. Stanley's family. A First Nations woman walked toward the empty seat and a relative of Mr. Stanley's stuck his boot out, resting his foot on the wooden bar of the court and blocking her path with an outstretched leg. He looked at her and said the seat was reserved. She looked around and said, "But the seat is empty." "That's too bad," he replied, staring her down. Afterward, astonished by the man's rudeness, she vowed she couldn't be pushed around. When court returned for the afternoon, she triumphantly claimed the chair.
As the trial neared its conclusion this week, the emotions started to pour out of those in the gallery. People reacted to what they were hearing, snorting or chortling to express disbelief or surprise. Often people got up and left, upset by the contents of testimony. Chief Justice Popescul decided to address the public "The jury is hearing snickering from the gallery. I know this is an emotional case … but that can't happen," he said.
"I've never had to warn a gallery to not do that. I don't think it really helps anyone … as a matter of fact, it might do the opposite," he said. "This is a courtroom, not a sporting event where we're rooting for one side or another."
As the jury continued its deliberations Friday, many sat waiting inside the Battlefords courthouse, anxiety and resignation etched on their faces.
"I'm hoping the jury will do the right thing," Mr. Baptiste said. "I just want to get this done and over with. It's been hanging over my family's head for quite a while and it's time that my family starts to heal and move on."