Andre Bear remembers pain building deep inside him as he digested news of a controversial acquittal of a Saskatchewan farmer who shot and killed a young Indigenous man.
“It really tore my world apart,” Bear says from his home in Saskatoon.
“It made me feel hopeless that I would never see justice in my lifetime as a young Indigenous man in this country.”
It sparked a change inside him, he says, and he decided to become a lawyer.
Gerald Stanley’s acquittal on Feb. 9, 2018 in the death of 22-year-old Colten Boushie prompted rallies and outrage across the country.
Bear, 25, is Cree and a member of the Canoe Lake First Nation. He was working towards an education degree at the University of Saskatchewan as the trial was going on.
He’s now a law student at the university and the student representative on the Indigenous Bar Association in Canada’s board of directors.
He wants to spend his life challenging a system that he says needs to change if there is to be equal justice for everyone.
Jade Tootoosis, Boushie’s cousin, attended a conference hosted by the association last year. She urged the Indigenous legal community to make the second anniversary of Stanley’s acquittal a day of action to highlight the treatment of Aboriginal people in the courts.
The association is calling on students, faculty and allies to dedicate this Sunday to Boushie.
The National Indigenous Law Students Association has organized a demonstration beginning with a vigil at the University of Ottawa. Participants will then walk to Parliament Hill and eventually to the Supreme Court of Canada.
Bear never met Boushie but he grew up with the young man’s family members in North Battleford, Sask.
Court heard how Boushie, who was a member of the Red Pheasant First Nation, and four other young people drove onto Stanley’s farm near Biggar, Sask., in August 2016. Boushie’s friends testified they were looking for help with a flat tire.
Stanley told court he thought they were trying to steal an all-terrain vehicle and he accidentally shot Boushie in the back of the head.
Stanley was acquitted of second-degree murder. He later pleaded guilty to unsafe storage of an unrestricted firearm and was fined $3,000.
He has not talked publicly since the court case.
Boushie’s family called for changes following the verdict, including the end of peremptory challenges, which allow lawyers to reject potential jurors without having to provide a reason. The challenges were criticized during the trial with suggestions that they excluded Indigenous people from the jury.
The federal government brought in legislation that bans the challenges. However, an Ontario judge struck down the ban last November and similar decisions are expected to follow. Uncertainty remains about the ban’s longevity if it is brought in front of the Supreme Court of Canada.
Boushie’s family wanted a public inquiry, but Saskatchewan’s justice minister rejected that. He said the trial showed what happened and an inquiry wouldn’t make a difference.
Boushie’s death and the trial inflamed racial tensions in Saskatchewan. At one point, then-premier Brad Wall asked people to stop posting racist and hate-filled comments online.
Bear says he believes the province’s response to the verdict, such as strengthening trespassing laws, did not do anything to repair the fractured relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people.
He has spoken with friends, students and colleagues and sat in on town-hall meetings in rural communities. He says Indigenous people still feel that there hasn’t been justice and many farmers do not understand the laws on defending property.
Boushie’s family also has said they would like to see more Aboriginal judges and Crown prosecutors. Bear suggests all lawyers should be educated on anti-racism and Canada’s colonial history.
“Lawyers and law students hold a responsibility in decolonizing the legal system and understanding how Indigenous legal principles may guide Canadian law.”
Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press