Colten Boushie case has many questioning how far we have come

Progress never takes a straight line and the road to a better future is often punctuated by set-backs which can be disheartening and make it seem as though little has changed at all.  For many, that has been the case after a jury acquitted Saskatchewan farmer, Gerald Stanley in the murder of Colten Boushie, a member of the Cree Red Pheasant First Nation.  The verdict sparked protests across the country and calls to reform our justice system.  While it is not parliament’s job to look at the details of any specific case, there are ways MPs can address institutional roadblocks that impede justice for Indigenous peoples.

For anyone who might be tempted to believe that this action is not necessary, they need only look at the overrepresentation of Indigenous peoples in the criminal justice system under any demographic - youth or adult, male or female,  victims or incarcerated individuals. 2014 statistics show that the rate of violent victimization among Indigenous peoples was more than double that of non-Indigenous people, and for Indigenous women it was double that of Indigenous men and close to triple that of non-Indigenous women.  In 2015, Indigenous people accounted for 25% of homicide victims, at a rate which was about 7 times that of non-Indigenous people. While only 5% of the population in Canada is Indigenous, they account for more25% of those incarcerated. 

With respect to the Colten Boushie case it is important to remember that members of a Canadian jury are not allowed to speak about their decision.  What we do know is there was no Indigenous representation on the jury and that the defence team used an outdated measure to remove a number of potential Indigenous jurors from consideration.  That measure is known as peremptory challenges, which is a practice that allows both defence and prosecution lawyers to exclude jurors a set number of times for no reason at all during jury selection. 

The US Supreme Court has ruled the use of peremptory challenges to exclude jurors based on race is unconstitutional, and the UK has abandoned the practice. In Canada, Ontario and Manitoba studies have recommended ending the practice, but successive governments have been slow to act.  This is where parliament can begin, by undertaking a review of the way in which peremptory challenges are used, in order to amend and possibly revoke their use. Parliament could also commit to removing barriers to Indigenous participation on juries such as travel costs which can often prove to be prohibitive.

In addition to jury imbalances, Indigenous peoples are under-represented on judicial benches. As of 2016, there were no Indigenous judges on the Supreme Court, the Federal Court of Appeal, and the Tax Court. When it comes to federally appointed judges on provincial courts, Indigenous peoples are still underrepresented when compared with their­­ share of the population.

It isn’t just New Democrats who are calling on the government to take concrete steps to tackle the huge legal inequities that are faced by Indigenous people in Canada.  The Colten Boushie case has invigorated activists and casual observers alike.  When the justice system fails individuals, there are appeals and a process, but when the justice system fails a people for hundreds of years it might take a watershed moment to bring about real change.  Will this be it?