The Colten Boushie case should be a wake-up call for Canadians, says Jerilynn Webster, an activist from Nuxalk and Onondaga nations who did much of the planning for Vancouver rallies Saturday and Tuesday.
Hundreds of people came to Saturday’s rally to show their dissatisfaction with an all-white jury’s decision to find farmer Gerald Stanley not guilty of all charges in the killing of Boushie and lament yet another young Indigenous man lost. Similar rallies were held in at least 13 other Canadian cities.
On Tuesday, people gathered outside federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould’s Vancouver office to keep the pressure on in another event Webster helped organize.
“This is not a surprise to us of how our people are being treated in the justice system,” Webster said. “This case just brought it to light for non-Indigenous people to realize what state we actually live in. Which is a state where the racist system was not built for us, but to delete us, to take us away. It wasn’t built for Indigenous people. It was built for, essentially, white supremacy.”
“It just showcases that, with the verdict, with the all-white jury, with...” Webster pauses to collect her thoughts. She’s still grieving, and the last few days have been a whirlwind of planning the rallies and arguing with people who are telling her it’s not a racist issue, that she shouldn’t be so mad.
It’s classic “whitesplaining,” she says, telling a person of colour how they should feel and what is and isn’t racist when you don’t experience racism yourself.
“You would never tell a grieving family member to do that,” Webster says. “So why are you telling Indigenous people? But it’s because we’ve been demonized, criminalized, dehumanized through media, film, television, photography, mascots, misguiding headlines. The message that dehumanizes us gives permission for predators and for murderers to attack us.”
The depth of emotion stirred up by this case reflects a broader picture of racism and inequality in Canada, from missing and murdered Indigenous women to disproportionately high numbers of incarcerated Indigenous people and children in foster care.
“Another Indigenous young man has been taken and stolen from us,” Webster says. “When are Indigenous people ever going to have a break and not have all the odds stacked against us? And it’s not in a freak, random way, but these are all odds stacked against us as a Canadian policy.”
The jury’s decision to find Stanley not guilty even of manslaughter in Boushie’s shooting death sends a dangerous message, says Ronnie Dean Harris, who spoke at Saturday’s rally and is involved in Indigenous nation-building throughout the Lower Mainland.
“We have murdered and missing Indigenous women in this country. So you just gave a green light to fucking murderers, you know what I mean?”
“This is why people are so upset: it’s because we’re frightened,” Harris said. “People like me who have been fighting my whole life, we’re a little bit frightened. The young two-spirited gentlemen, the young people who aren’t alpha males in a world full of mainstream CrossFit dude-bros and huge trucks across the country. And the government just goes, ‘Yeah as long as it’s an accident.’”
Harris was 11 when the Oka crisis gripped the country in 1990. “I watched those warriors have to give up and surrender and be arrested. I felt that humiliation along with them at 11 years old, and I understood in my heart that I didn’t have the same rights as the white kids I was going to school with.”
Almost 30 years later, Harris is still working towards equality, hoping his little brother won’t have to fight the same fights.
Racism that has come to the surface in the reaction to Stanley’s verdict is painful, but needs to be looked at, he said.
“You have to face it and try to get people to understand what it means for us to feel this way,” he says. “Why is it that we can’t get these people to understand human rights? What are the fear-based blockages and communications that we cannot get through to each other?”
He’s hopeful that this case will be an awakening for some people, like Oka was for him.
“Colten Boushie, for some people it’s like this new thing. So if this is the entry point for some non-Indigenous people, that’s great. Welcome to help us carry this thing, help us, stand around us.”
Theresa Warbus (A:a’liya), a mother, activist and filmmaker from the Stó:lō Nation, says it’s hard to accept that the decision would have been the same if the victim had been a young white man.
And she notes the racist reaction to the verdict, online and in the media, have added to the pain.
“People say, ‘Don’t read the comments, don’t read the comments.’ But we’ve lived the comments all of our lives. This is just an affirmation for us that average Canadians still believe that Aboriginal people are not on an equal level with the rest of Canadians,” she says.
“For so many people this has taken reconciliation and brought us 10 steps backward,” Warbus adds. “We feel like we came so far and really wanted to believe the things that Justin Trudeau was saying, we really wanted to believe that this Liberal government coming in was going to invoke change. But something like this tears all of that work down and shows us exactly where the average Canadian sits in terms of their understanding of our history and injustices that we have endured up until now.”
Look at all the missing and murdered Indigenous women, Warbus says. “The numbers are staggering. They make up 11 per cent of the missing and murdered people in Canada, but yet they make up less than one per cent of the population. Those numbers right there speak the truth about what Canada cares about.”
Today marks the 26th year of the Women’s Memorial March in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, as the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls struggles on.
Webster agrees, saying that Canadian politicians are all about tweeting, not action.
“Nothing has changed. And still our Indigenous people are strong, resilient, loving, forgiving, speaking out, peaceful.”
At Tuesday’s rally, Webster was clear the message is support for Wilson-Raybould. She wants the justice minister to know she has the support of the Indigenous community. “This is her time. We say to her, ‘Go, go all the way. Create change. And ask for help; we’re here.’”
As discouraging as the backlash feels, Warbus is also seeing peoples’ awareness and energy to fight towards true reconciliation increasing.
“We might take 10 steps back, but we’re going to fight with the energy to take a hundred steps forward.”
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