Paul Seesequasis is a writer living in Saskatoon.
The acquittal of Gerald Stanley in the killing of Colten Boushie has sent shock waves across Canada, with headlines comparing Saskatchewan to America in the 1950s and Colten Boushie to Rodney King. But these comparisons are erroneous at best. This is a made-in-Saskatchewan crisis, one that has deep roots going back to the signing of Treaty 6 and the first settlers coming into the region.
I remember being taken on a school trip to Fort Battleford National Historic Site, not far from the Court of Queen's Bench in Battleford, Sask., where the Stanley trial took place. Established by the North-West Mounted Police (NWMP) in 1876, the fort is symbolic of settler-Indigenous relations in the region. During the 1885 resistance, it was a shelter for some 500 settlers, a refuge from the perceived threat of Indigenous "hostiles" in the area. Our class was given only the briefest mention of this, as I recall. Instead, we were given scarlet tunics, white pith helmets and toy guns and subjected to pseudo-drilling by a sergeant so we could pretend to be NWMP, guarding the fort. There was little reference to the Cree or the Métis other than as some vaguely defined unknown existing outside the fort's walls.
Nor was there mention of the eight Indigenous men hanged there on Nov. 27, 1885, in the aftermath of the Riel resistance. Nor that their bodies were thrown into an unmarked mass grave. Nor that the Indigenous students from the Battleford Industrial School were brought out to witness this dispensing of "justice." Those eight men did not receive a proper trial. They had no knowledge of the workings of the court. No translation was provided.
There is a thread of continuity from that trial in 1885 to the Stanley trial of 2018. It is steeped in a history of distrust, fear and injustice. This simmered through the following decades, the divide insured by measures such as the Pass System, which kept the "other" confined like prisoners on day supervision to reserves in the area, including Mr. Boushie's home on Red Pheasant First Nation.
But by the early 1960s things were changing. There was increased activism and resistance to the Indian Act and its policies. The Indigenous population was younger and growing at a rate far exceeding the non-Indigenous population. Indigenous people now comprise almost 40 per cent of the population in the Battlefords region. But the history and the mistrust of both the RCMP and the judicial system continue. Incarceration rates for Indigenous men and women in Saskatchewan, as high as 70 per cent of the inmate population, reveal this is not mistrust based solely on past injustices.
In 1991, Cree trapper Leo LaChance, from the Big River First Nation, walked into the River Street pawnshop in nearby Prince Albert to sell a few pelts. The shop was owned by an avowed white supremacist named Carney Milton Nerland. Mr. LaChance would never get the money for his pelts. Instead, he stumbled out into the street, shot in the back. Mr. Nerland pleaded guilty to manslaughter, but served less than three years before being placed in witness protection by the RCMP.
The shooting sparked outrage in the Indigenous community and in the media – and demands for changes to the justice system. Many believed Mr. Nerland should have been charged with murder, not manslaughter.
In the ensuing public inquiry examining whether race was a factor in the death of Mr. LaChance, the lawyer for the RCMP, Martel Popescul, asked the Saskatchewan Court of Appeal to adjourn the hearings while the court heard about their appeal to protect the identity of any police informants. The public inquiry proceeded after that.
Mr. Popescul would go on to become a judge and preside over the trial of Mr. Stanley. However, it was the jury, not Chief Justice Popescul, that rendered the not guilty verdict.
The fate of Mr. LaChance and the sentence and protection given to Mr. Nerland is only one of many cases that point to the systemic failure of the justice system in the province of Saskatchewan. It only heightens the fear and mistrust many Indigenous people feel toward both the RCMP and the courts. There is little faith that justice will be served or that one will be judged by one's peers. History has borne this out, from the fate of eight Indigenous men 132 years ago to Mr. LaChance 27 years ago to Mr. Boushie last week. Justice was not served.
The people of Saskatchewan are all treaty people. The intent of the treaties is to establish a working relationship. One of trust and co-operation. The events of last week would indicate that day remains a long ways off.