On Friday, February 16, the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada (MISC) held a talk on anti-Indigenous racism and the law, following the Stanley verdict delivered the week before. Gerald Stanley is the white Saskatchewan farmer who shot and killed 22-year-old Colten Boushie, an Indigenous man from Red Pheasant First Nation, in August 2016. Boushie was murdered after he stopped at Stanley’s farm with some friends to ask for help with a flat tire. At the trial, Stanley pleaded not guilty, presenting a defense that the gun went off by accident. He was acquitted of all charges by a visibly all-white jury on February 9, 2018. In the aftermath of the verdict, Indigenous activists and allies all over the country expressed their grief at the anti-Indigenous racism and colonialism in Canada’s legal system.
The talk, titled “Anti-Indigenous racism and justice in Saskatchewan: challenges and impediments to reconciliation,” was given by Professor Veldon Coburn as an extension of his course “CANS 306: Issues in Native Studies.” Coburn is mixed-race Algonquin from Pikwakanagan First Nation, currently in his first year of teaching at McGill, after having previously worked in both the public sector and at the Conference Board of Canada, one of the country’s largest think-tanks.
“This seems to me very obviously something Canadians should be talking about,” said MISC director Elisbeth Heaman to The Daily. “We don’t live in an ivory tower: when people are really concerned and upset and debating things, there are times and places where the MISC cannot not notice that. We have to help people think through these things. We have to speak to people’s concerns.”
The contents of Coburn’s lecture weren’t originally created for the context of the Stanley verdict, but happened to suit the current political backdrop, focussing specifically on anti-Indigenous racism and violence in Saskatchewan. The talk was attended by students and community members alike, and was tailored to be accessible to those with even a basic level of knowledge on Indigenous issues. Coburn wanted audiences “to understand the pernicious and heinous atmosphere that Black, Indigenous, and people of colour live in every day,” he said in an interview with The Daily. “Not just […] formally through the justice system — – in more than just the legal domain, in everyday life.”
The talk explored an idea inspired by the work of Charles Taylor: the tension between the “two solitudes” apparent in the country, that of settler and Indigenous nationhoods. It also centered on understanding justice as greater than the law alone. “Justice as recognition,” Coburn said, is “recognising one another in our difference, and not demanding homogeneity.” He explained that Indigenous peoples need to be acknowledged as nations, as people, and as a people, in the context of a state built on the dehumanisation of Indigenous people, from the legal system to social media platforms and everything in between.
“Justice as recognition […] is not demanding homogeneity.”
“Our view of justice was somehow thrown into doubt because of the verdict delivered by the jury, but that’s the most narrow perspective on Colten’s life,” Coburn said. “Long before he was born, his family, his community, his nation was subject to a system of domination and oppression under colonialism. […] Four years […] into adulthood he’s dead, and it’s not just the trial in the aftermath of his death, but an entire existence where he was less than equal. He wasn’t recognised as someone who was worthy and deserving of equal concern […] and respect.”
Boushie is one of many Indigenous people killed by racist Canadians, Coburn reminded the room. He brought up the cases of Barbara Kentner, Neil Stonechild, Dudley George, and the violence at Mercier bridge during the “Oka crisis.” This resistance took place over the course of 78 days, leaving a decades-long legacy in its wake. Indigenous protesters, the police, and the Canadian army began the standoff following Quebec government’s authorization to expand a golf course and develop luxury condominiums on disputed land that included a burial site in Kanesatake. These incidents, all violent and racist crimes, are reminders of the way the white-supremacist settler state has been and continues to be responsible for devastating violence against Indigenous peoples.
These cases also illustrate that anti-Indigenous racism is not limited to Saskatchewan alone. Through an analysis of pre-election polls taken in 2015, Coburn concluded that between 20 and 50 per cent of settler Canadians in settler-majority provinces expressed unfavourable sentiment towards Indigenous peoples. “These are nameless people who live in our neighbourhoods,” Coburn said, referring to the widespread and common nature of this racism. Amidst tensions, especially now with the Stanley verdict and the discussions it has re-opened, reconciliation seems near-impossible.
“In [the] two years [since the final Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report], whatever ‘justice’ transpired between white Saskatchewan and Colten Boushie really drove a stake through reconciliation,” Coburn said to The Daily. “My own view is that it’ll be another generation before we begin talking about it more meaningfully.”
He added that the circumstances around Boushie’s life and death are a microcosm of settler-Indigenous relations in Canada. “He never experienced substantive justice — justice as equality, justice as fairness, but also […] justice as recognition,” he stated. “It’s emblematic that that recognition has eluded Indigenous peoples.”
Coburn emphasised that the process of reconciliation, if even possible, would be a long and difficult one. When asked what settlers needed to do to moving forward, he reminded us that, “long before you were born, you were instrumentalised by the crown.”
“Acknowledge us as individuals with national identities, and a shared colonial history. […] Resist racism, understand difference and respect it,” he continued to The Daily. “Reconciliation is hinging on true justice — justice as recognition.”