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Trial begins for death of Colten Boushie, a killing that exposed racial divide in Saskatchewan

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Trial begins for death of Colten Boushie, a killing that exposed racial divide in Saskatchewan

White farmer stands accused of second-degree murder in shooting death of Indigenous man in 2016

William Boushie, Colten’s brother, speaks to media during an August, 2016, rally.

A young Indigenous man shot to death on an isolated farm, a white farmer charged with his murder, a community inflamed by speculation and anger.

The killing of Colten Boushie in August, 2016, riveted Saskatchewan and laid bare its racial divide.

On Monday, Gerald Stanley, the farmer accused of second-degree murder, will stand trial in Battleford.

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For Mr. Boushie's family, it's a test of faith.

Colten's mother, Debbie Baptiste, has spent the past 18 months learning to cope with a loss that upended her life. Now her focus has narrowed to a single question: whether the courts can deliver justice in her son's case.

She doesn't leave her apartment much these days. She's anxious and even the simplest thing can trigger a downward spiral. Last week, as she looked out her window, she saw a young man walk past the local high school in North Battleford, Sask. He had his back to her, but he wore a workman's safety vest like her son once did and something about his shape and stride made her think for a moment it was him. Her heart lifted at the thought, as it has done dozens of times before. Then reality set in.

Christine Deene, right, the aunt of Colten Boushie, and his mother, Debbie Baptiste, speak with media during a rally outside of the Saskatchewan Provincial Court in August, 2016.

"This pain is just so bad," she said. "It's just a nightmare every day."

She keeps the photos of him locked away out of sight. She tries not to think about him. She pretends that he's away on a long trip, working in the mining camps up north as they had talked of doing before he died. But he's always there at the edge of her mind, the unfairness of his end waiting to consume her.

"People tell me to get over it," she says

"But I don't think I will."

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Social networks lit up

On a summer afternoon under gathering clouds, a car with three young men and two women pulled off of the gravel road near Biggar, Sask., and drove toward the farmhouse belonging to Mr. Stanley. The group had spent the day swimming in a nearby river. According to one account, the young people needed help with a flat tire. According to another, they intended to steal something. What happened next will be the subject of evidence at the trial. The end result was that Mr. Boushie, 22, died of a gunshot wound to the head and Mr. Stanley was charged with his killing.

The case is a flashpoint in Saskatchewan because it evokes historical currents that lurk just beneath the surface, particularly the sometimes tense relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the province.

Mr. Stanley's lawyer, Scott Spencer, said he did not did not wish to comment for this article. But on Friday, he issued a lengthy statement, saying that Mr. Stanley's trial is not a referendum on racism.

"Unfortunately racial tensions existed in Saskatchewan, and across Canada, before the Boushie tragedy and they continue today," Mr. Spencer said. "It is dangerous to deny them, but it is perhaps equally dangerous to allege racism where it does not exist. Either way, race has nothing to do with the proper outcome of Gerry's trial."

The fraught atmosphere was evident from the beginning, starting with the the initial RCMP news release, which angered many First Nations people. Loud protests greeted Mr. Stanley's court appearances. Police, including armed officers on rooftops, monitored the crowd, which sang and drummed and waved signs demanding "Justice for Colten."

Social networks lit up as people rushed to condemn or defend the accused. The discussions were ugly and filled with racial prejudice. Hundreds rallied to Mr. Stanley's defence. Some made comments that were racist, some were base and cruel. To take one example, a municipal councillor from another part of Saskatchewan wrote that the perpetrator's "only mistake was leaving witnesses." The councillor later resigned.

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Premier Brad Wall was compelled to address the unrest publicly.

Gerald Stanley leaves in custody after a court hearing in North Battleford, Sask., in August, 2016. Loud protests greeted Mr. Stanley’s court appearances.

"In the wake of a shooting near Biggar, there have been racist and hate-filled comments on social media and other forums. This must stop. These comments are not only unacceptable, intolerant and a betrayal of the very values and character of Saskatchewan, they are dangerous," Mr. Wall wrote in a message published on Facebook in August, 2016.

As anger grew among Mr. Boushie's family members, some groups grew more vocal with their concerns about crime in rural areas. Those sentiments surfaced in Facebook groups in which photos depicting farmers brandishing weapons emerged. The RCMP went public asking rural residents not to resort to vigilantism. Most who posted publicly denied that their views were shaped by racial prejudice, saying it was actually about the threat of crime in rural areas.

That current of thought seems to run deep in rural areas. It found expression at the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities, an influential lobby group. In the year after Mr. Boushie's killing, delegates voted overwhelmingly to push for an expansion of the right to defend oneself and one's property. The resolution, which received 93-per-cent support, was compared with "stand your ground" laws in the United States..

Indigenous groups felt threatened. The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, an umbrella group that represents First Nations in the province, said it was shocked and disgusted by the resolution and that it would only encourage more violence.

The provincial government responded by creating a new rural safety initiative of 258 armed officers called the Protection and Response Team.

As Mr. Stanley's trial approached this week, those opinions started to circulate again. One person wrote on a Facebook group called Farmers with Firearms: "I think it should be posted somewhere, anywhere, that farmers support Gerald Stanley and the ability to defend our property. … I would like it to be asked for people to rally in support of protecting one's family." Dozens of affirming replies followed.

'You can feel the racial tension'

Saskatchewan is the most rural Canadian province outside the Atlantic region; a land of farms, small towns and First Nations reserves, where racism and reconciliation are the stuff of daily life and where the weight of history is ever present.

Mr. Boushie, originally from Montana, was living on the Red Pheasant Cree Nation, one of a handful of reserves surrounding the Battlefords area.

Rural crime is relatively high in Saskatchewan compared with other provinces, according to Statistics Canada. The crime severity index is higher in the province's rural areas than in urban areas, which is unusual for Canada, but not for the Prairie provinces. Rick Ruddell, a professor of justice studies at the University of Regina, said many rural residents are fearful because police often take a long time to respond in their areas. That sense of vulnerability is what's coming out in some of the public statements about the case.

"In some places, people are more fearful," he said.

More broadly, an aging, rural, white population that tends to be wealthier and more likely to own land and resources is bumping up against a young First Nations population that is emerging from decades of Canadian policies that separated families, restricted movement and economic development, targeted First Nations language and culture and provided substandard education. The potential for friction is obvious.

Ms. Baptiste, Colten’s mother, and her son, Jace Baptiste, leave court during a break in proceedings on the first day of the preliminary hearing in North Battleford, Sask., in April 2017. ‘This is a moment that will divide,’ a family member said of the trial.

Rob Innes, a professor of Indigenous studies at the University of Saskatchewan, said what was most notable about Mr. Boushie's killing was the way people responded. A wave of explicit racism burst forth in the public realm via Facebook and Twitter, in many cases with real names attached. It went far beyond what had previously been seen as "acceptable," and happened to coincide with the coarsening of debates in the United States during the presidential election.

"In Saskatchewan, people work very hard to deny that racism exists," Prof. Innes said. "But this case made it undeniable."

When people talk about high rates of rural crime, he says, it's really "a dog whistle" for crimes committed by Indigenous people.

Eleanore Sunchild is an Indigenous lawyer in the Battlefords area. She traces the legacy of racism in the area back to 1885, when eight Indigenous men were hanged at Fort Battleford in the aftermath of the Northwest Rebellion. The racism that she knew growing up here feels more dangerous now. She hears people saying they're wary of travelling south into farm country.

"They're worried about their personal safety," Ms. Sunchild said. "You can feel the racial tension."

She wonders how people would react if her daughter was out driving and needed help with her car. Could she approach any property and trust that she would be safe?

"I think this is an offshoot of what happened with Colten Boushie," she said. "All the racism and all the fear, all the stereotypes that have been taught and accepted came to a head with Colten Boushie."

'People will be watching'

A little less than a year ago, Mr. Boushie's uncle, Alvin Baptiste, sat in a North Battleford restaurant over a cup of coffee. He said he was looking forward to the day when the trial would come and everything could be out in the open. The wait for justice was a strain, he said, although he wasn't sure if he should allow himself to hope for a just outcome. First Nations people never seem to get a fair shake in the justice system, he said.

"People will be watching," Mr. Baptiste said.

"This is a moment that will divide. This is a moment for us as Indian people to know if the justice system is also for us."

The case will be overseen by the province's most senior judge, the Chief Justice of Saskatchewan's Court of Queen's Bench, Martel Popescul. A jury, drawn from a panel of more than 700 citizens summoned from the Battlefords area, a district with a significant Indigenous population (more than 25 per cent in North Battleford, nearly 100 per cent on reserves), will be selected on Monday. The jury panel is initially selected at random using provincial health-card information. Opening statements are expected on Tuesday.

Debbie Baptiste is comforted at the Saskatchewan Provincial Court in North Battleford, Sask., in August, 2016.

Mr. Spencer, the lawyer for Mr. Stanley, said in a statement he's dismayed by the coverage that links the trial to issues of racism. He says if jurors feel they have to pick a "side" in a referendum on racism, "then it will be very difficult for there to be a fair trial."

"It is truly unfortunate that the original narrative set off the vile exchange of uninformed comments, which in many instances were racist," Mr. Spencer said. But the focus in the trial must be on the facts, he argued, and he's confident the jurors will keep an open mind.

"We hope that a proper verdict grounded on the evidence will be respected," Mr. Spencer said. "Saskatchewan will be judged by how we conduct ourselves under the extreme pressure of the next couple weeks. Let's conduct ourselves rationally, intelligently and respectfully, and allow the court process to proceed without interference or distraction."

Ms. Baptiste said she won't attend the jury selection, but she will be paying close attention to its outcome.

"If it's an all-white jury, then I don't think we have a chance," she said.

Ms. Baptiste thinks often of how things used to be, before her son was killed.

They lived in a trailer on the reserve without heat or running water. Life was difficult, but they got by, she says. Mr. Boushie was an optimist who insisted on keeping his mother's spirits up, always sure of better days ahead. He worked odd jobs around Red Pheasant cutting wood and Ms. Baptiste sold fry bread from her front porch.

Although Ms. Baptiste's roots are in Red Pheasant, she and her children returned there relatively recently. Mr. Boushie was born and raised in Montana and she says he was shaped by the good relations they had with white neighbours in the United States. When they came to Canada, things were different, she said.

"We didn't know the racism was this bad. I'd see a bit of it, but I just ignored it. We had no idea," she said.

After Mr. Boushie's death, she found the outpouring of vitriol in the online comments about the case deeply upsetting and they contributed to bouts of depression and anxiety.

She plans to attend court with a support worker to help her face the emotional toll.

"I don't know what's going to happen," she said. "I pray that justice will be served."

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