Indigenous responses to Canada’s acquittal of the white murderers of Indigenous youth
Natalie Knight (Yurok/Navajo), Sadie Morris (Nuu-chah-nulth/Irish) and Pauline Morris (Nuu-chah-nulth/Gitxsan/Irish)
On February 9, 2018 a jury in Saskatoon, Saskatchewan acquitted Gerald Stanley of the murder of 22-year-old Cree youth Colten Boushie from the Red Pheasant First Nation. Stanley murdered Colten Boushie on August 9, 2016 by shooting him in the back of the head at close range while Boushie sat in the back seat of his friend’s car, stopped on the driveway of Stanley’s farm, near Biggar, Saskatchewan. Gchi’mnissing Anishinaabe author Hayden King tweeted in the aftermath of the acquittal, “If it was an accident, the conviction should have been manslaughter. Instead, a not-guilty verdict means the jury thought Stanley was justified in killing Boushie.” Rather than weighing the level of responsibility Stanley had for murdering Colten Boushie, the jurors found that a young Indigenous man moving across his peoples’ land was guilty of trespassing on a white man’s private property.
Two weeks later, on February 22, 2018, a jury in Winnipeg acquitted Raymond Cormier of the murder of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old Anishnaabe youth from Sagkeeng First Nation. On August 17, 2014, Fontaine’s body was found in the Red River, wrapped in a blanket and weighted down with rocks. Again, during Cormier’s trial, Tina Fontaine seemed to be the one being judged. News headlines focused on whether the 15-year-old had drugs in her system. Rather than make a defence, Cormier’s attorney leaned on anti-Indigenous racism to exonerate their client, arguing that it was not possible to know how Tina Fontaine died because she lived in the “underbelly” of Winnipeg. Cormier was, like Stanley, charged with second-degree murder and acquitted. Jurors found that this Indigenous child was responsible for her own death, affirming a white man’s violence upon her body as an inevitable circumstance of her Indigenous womanhood.
Indigenous reactions to these trials were swift – thousands of Indigenous people poured into streets in every major city and many towns across Canada. Participants in these mobilizations talked about Canada’s acquittal of white murderers as both deeply personal – often as an intimate family loss – as well as a structural, political problem of colonial relations between Indigenous peoples and Canada. The resistance to these acquittals has been complex: on social media, as well as in the streets, responses and protests have been a complicated and sometimes contradictory mix of sorrow, disappointment, rage, and empathy. Indigenous protestors have said that the Canadian legal system has failed Indigenous people and they have said that the Canadian legal system is built to break Indigenous people. They have called for justice and they have said justice is impossible under colonialism.
Rather than interpret these reactions as contradictory, we should see that they capture the difficulty of our political moment: Indigenous peoples are rejecting colonial relations with Canada – which, until Canada is dissolved can only ever exist as domination over Indigenous nations, which includes the murder of Indigenous people – but do not have the power to realize a world without Canada. Indigenous rage and mourning for Colten Boushie and Tina Fontaine protests the colonial rearticulations of our “reconciliation” moment, and aches for a way to both mourn and rage, to combine our individualities into a combative Indigenous nationhood that can overcome Canada and Canadians.
This article is jointly written by three Indigenous women who, as members of Alliance Against Displacement, are active in anti-colonial struggle in Metro Vancouver. The language in this article is sometimes written in first person, sometimes with a collective “we,” and sometimes in a journalistic third person. We wrote it from a transcript of a conversation we had a few days after the second verdict.
“The violence against our bodies doesn’t fucking stop”
There’s no way to separate violence of white Canadians against two Indigenous youths from how we personally experience Canada. When these murders happen, my automatic thoughts go to my daughter, my nephews and niece, and then my cousins. And how many people have been hurt and how many people have grieved losses. The murder of one Indigenous youth is so devastating for not just one person or family but for our communities. Sometimes I avoid parts of the internet that would show me articles about violence against Indigenous people because I get affected emotionally, mentally, and spiritually and I can’t always afford to take another blow. The murder of one Indigenous youth reminds me that my daughter is vulnerable – we see her as a beautiful intelligent Indigenous person but some Canadian will see her as an Indian who’s disposable.
As an activist, I see how Canadian violence against any single Indigenous person is colonial. Canada’s violence against our bodies is tied into their domination of our land, into manipulating water, earth, and forests into products to sell. Every act of violence and every death and every loss of every Indigenous person is an assault on Indigenous nationhood. Some people say they don’t see the connection, but I see colonial violence and the violence against our Indigenous people as completely connected. We’re grieving and grieving and grieving and we never get to have justice. That’s what makes it hard to struggle on the national, political level – the violence against our bodies doesn’t fucking stop so I never stop reeling, I never feel like I can really find my balance to fight back with the power we need in order to end this violence.
Canada is a “total institution” for Indigenous people
I wonder about the psychological effects on Indigenous people when we live in a situation where this happens so often. I wonder about the psychological and emotional stress that this creates. We experience violence against Indigenous people who we have never met as our own vulnerability to violence, and as warfare against our peoples; we experience it as an ongoing but always exceptional state of war. For us, trauma is an ongoing component of life, of moving through life in Canada, but trauma and pain is then interpreted by Canada as being an Indigenous people’s problem, not Canada’s problem.
Canadians treat our trauma like it’s miniscule, trivial. Canadians act like colonial violence is something that happened in the past and we should just get over it. These are not things that happened in the past, it’s 2018 and it’s still happening. To explain Indigenous trauma, Canada treats it as a weakness or a defect. It gets labeled as a mental health problem or maybe it results in addiction, unemployment, or homelessness.
We were recently talking about theorist Irving Goffman’s idea that prisons are “total institutions,” where a prisoner’s sense self is obliterated as part of being incarcerated. Goffman says that a total institution does not try to replace an inmate’s consciousness – their ontological understanding of being and knowing who they are in the world – it is purely destructive. We discussed the residential school system as a total institution. Canada used assimilation as a logic for the operation of the Schools but really the Schools were just about destruction. If you really think about it, Canada as a nation state is a total institution that incarcerates Indigenous people. Canada either attempts to annihilate us and get rid of us entirely or to disappear us within Canada and wreck us of what makes us different. The psychological trauma we experience at our point of contact with Canada is the wrecking work of a total institution.
Every Canadian is the Canadian state, and every Indigenous person is Indigenous nationhood
I feel like these trials show the systematic oppression faced by Indigenous people more obviously than the day to day hate crimes, racism, and discrimination that we always face. By not having a fair trial it’s showing the world that it’s okay to go after us and it’s a get out of free jail card if you only attack a certain ethnicity, and that happens to be Native people. Canada has structures and cultural norms that oppress us. Residential Schools and the RCMP were structures made to alienate us. And culturally, it’s also okay for us to go missing and murdered, raped, sexually assaulted, be abandoned in deserts or bullied in school, or any of the above. It’s okay for us to live in poverty. Canada’s laws set up every instance of everyday violence against Indigenous people, but it is not always so visible as when it is set up in a courtroom and played out.
A white man’s freedom is more important, more valuable than an Indigenous person’s life. We already know that there’s a hierarchy of people along racial lines, and that people who are racialized as white are on the top end. We already know that, but what these verdicts showed me is that their freedom is more important than Indigenous lives – they can’t even be put behind bars, these two men.
It feels like justice is not for us. It feels like politics is not for us. I don’t know why we expect the legal system to give us anything else when it’s a colonial structure that’s designed to defend colonial property rights and colonialism in general. It doesn’t make sense for us to try to find justice in a system that oppresses us structurally already. Canada’s legal system doesn’t need to be reformed, it is a colonial system from the very beginning, it can’t be reformed – we should be fighting for it to be abolished.
Indigenous pain and Canadian reconciliation products
I wonder about how people have been conditioned to perform grief publicly after so much attention to the Residential Schools. Canada’s “reconciliation” politics have bracketed Indigenous expressions of grief and pain in ways that feel somehow compromised. Reconciliation has packaged Indigenous grief and pain as a product. If you think about it psychologically, reconciliation has taken people whose trauma has created really intense feelings of anger and rage and grief and sadness and given them an opportunity to say what happened to them and it can feel very cathartic. It is supposed to be healing, but we have to ask who it is healing ultimately. Who packages this pain? Who consumes it?
Reconciliation takes out the intensity of social conflict behind the range of those feelings. The link we have been talking about – that individual Indigenous lives and deaths are intimately intertwined with Indigenous nationhood and collective destinies – is muted by reconciliation that packages Indigenous pain as part of a Canadian story. We end up expressing our feelings in grief and sadness, and anger and rage get dispelled. So maybe with reconciliation we’ve gone through a 6-year process of expelling our anger and rage into a neat package of grief and pain so that we don’t rise up.
When the Canadian courts protect white men who have murdered young Indigenous people it reveals the interlaced complexity of Canadian colonialism. We are criminalized and brutalized when we are treated as trespassers in our daily interactions with Canadians on Canada’s property that has overlaid our land. We develop mental health crises and addictions when we experience trauma in our bodies and spirits from Canada’s violence against our own selves and against members of our nations. We experience Canada as a total institution that negates, destroys, wrecks our Indigenous ontologies, subjectivities, selves. Canadian reconciliation has offered a misdirection to this colonial complex –reconciliation offers Indigenous pain and grief a colonial state-sanctioned space for expression that interrupts our autonomous resistance.
We need to feel our pain, grief, and rage, and we must be able to be heal. But we must not allow our rage to be combed out from our pain. We can use our rage and our love as fuel for rising up against the colonial state that oppresses us. To all Indigenous peoples who find ourselves in Canada, we see your resiliency. All our relations.