When eight Plains Cree men were hanged in Battleford, Sask., in 1885, children from the nearby Battleford Industrial School were brought to the gallows to serve as witnesses, to warn against future resistance towards the dominion government. After short trials where none had legal representation, the men were hanged for their role in the Frog Lake Massacre.
In thick white paint on black crosses, the graves of the deceased at Frog Lake were marked with the bald description: “Massacred on April 2, 1885.”
Some of those children also lost their lives during their captivity at Battleford Industrial residential school. They were not offered the small grace of a grave marker, let alone any remembrance of their victimhood. After the school closed, their unmarked graves lay hidden until 1976; the many crimes perpetrated against them not uncovered until the last decade.
How these separate acts of violence were respectively remembered or buried are surface swells of the deep undercurrents of Canadian state-law and policy towards Indigenous peoples and European settlers on the prairies.
I raise them here not as incendiary images to provoke or sustain racial tensions, but to acknowledge, in the wake of the killing of Colten Boushie and the acquittal of Gerald Stanley, how one-sided systematic remembering in Canada has been.
For those who haven’t delved so deep yet, I offer this brief history as an invitation to join the deep unforgetting that Indigenous people must engage in as a form of survival each day. Just thinking about law, land and property in the Battleford area alone, there is much to remember.
Locked into prisons of grass
You can choose to remember how Canadian-state law created the mythical Wheat King from the homesteader, how this myth-making was and still is one of the more important tools of colonialism. To enable this myth, the Plains Cree in the area were imagined as a constant threat to the creation and maintenance of such prairie kingdoms.
We must remember the role of law in this. Promised quarter sections upon their arrival, homesteaders were assured of 160 acres where they would be governors of a “New Eldorado” under the protection of the government.
While the law opened the prairies for European settlement, it concurrently sowed much violence and discord into Indigenous communities. Aside from the residential school system that aimed to pulverize out the laws, languages and other forms of Indianness from Indigenous children, Indigenous peoples were denied the same access to land provided to homesteaders.
In spite of this, communities like Colten Boushie’s Red Pheasant reserve worked their tenuous land base to compete with non-Indigenous crop production.
They proved to be a potential economic competitor to the Wheat King. The Indian Act served as a tool to control such threat.
The pass system instituted by the Indian Act locked Plains Cree peoples into “prisons of grass,” stopping reserve crop yields from making it to market. In some cases “peasant farming systems” were instigated, where reserve farmers were stripped of modern forms of farming equipment in favour of rudimentary tools and given smaller acreage so they ostensibly would learn the value of “individual labour.”
As historian Sarah Carter notes: In 1902, members of the Red Pheasant reserve were prohibited by an Indian agent from purchasing new farming equipment that would advance their harvest.
Homesteaders were privileged in the most natural sense of the word. They enjoyed the benefit of private laws unattainable by the Plains Cree of the Battleford area that allowed them to dominate the ownership of property and land in the area.
Colten Boushie and the unpoliced imagination
While there are many who deny this, the killing of Colten Boushie — and the subsequent verdict acquitting Gerald Stanley of murder and manslaughter charges — has been guided by the deeply sowed force of this history.
We will never forget this. In the wake of the verdict, it has been dehumanizing for many Indigenous people that we are at the point of debating whether property is more important than life, whether being a stranger on someone’s property is an invitation to pull a gun, to shoot.
It is clear that Colten Boushie, despite breaking no law, was never provided the presumption of innocence before guilt that Gerald Stanley was given in his trial. The mix of being a stranger on someone else’s property, intoxicated and Indigenous were lethal to Colten’s life, and most likely fatal to justice afterwards.
While many are decrying that Colten’s indigeneity had nothing to do with his death, such a view dangerously ignores the century plus of evidence planted in the imagination of the prairie settler, one materially aided by law. Once planted, it has created a dangerous licence that continues to have devastating effects on Indigenous peoples.
It is the licence that allows us to be followed in stores when shopping, to be believed the sole authors of our experienced misfortunes even when it is violent, to be scoffed at in our claims of very obvious racism — as some reading this may be doing right now.
It allows people to make claims like that of a Battleford-area pastor, stating that the Stanley trial would be “the Rodney King of Western Canada,” heightening an imaginary threat of violence from Indigenous peoples towards people and property in the wake of the verdict.
It allows us to be shot in the back of the head moments after waking up in a vehicle. It allowed investigators to treat Debbie Baptise like a liar and her house a crime scene only hours after her son’s death, while neglecting the real one, allowing the evening’s rain to wash away potentially important evidence.
It gives licence for armed police officers to stand atop buildings at protests seeking justice for Colten, despite Plains Cree peoples’ long history of non-violent protest since 1885.
Deep unforgetting requires you to devour these hard histories, even when they have the taste of stone and the shape of broken glass.
There is always room in our chorus of strained throats. Cut and scarred, they may lose harmony from time to time, but melody is a simple sacrifice for truth.
We are not forgetting Colten. There are many who are adamant there is no intersection of race in this matter, that the violence loosed upon Colten was a lesson to criminals. I am reminded that such talk sounds a lot like the Indian agents of old, arguing that the rationale for peasant farming tools was not naked discrimination but to “teach the Indian about labour.” Such arguments are noted, but wholly unconvincing in relation to all that we have remembered.
This is not a call for less policing of property crime, or a failure to recognize the impact that theft has on those living in rural communities, even while RCMP data suggests a trend that crime has receded over the past year.
We ask you not to forget the roots of the unpoliced imagination and the fictitious licence it has created on the prairies.
Let the ‘castle’ imagery die
Wheat King imagery was very much alive in Stanley’s defence. While not raising a claim of self-defence, his counsel found it important to let the jury know that “we all know that a person’s yard is their castle.”
This sentiment is counter to Canadian law: We don’t have a Castle doctrine that would support shooting someone in the back of the head as they attempt to leave a property. Yet the idea of “the castle” remains an implicit legal principle in the minds of Canadians.
We must let the “castle” imagery die.
When invoked, it calls upon a history of racist policy that has dispossessed, imprisoned and sanctioned violence against Indigenous peoples. It also calls to an unwritten canon of prairie law, one traditionally decided around kitchen tables but seeping further into the light of social media, where Indigenous peoples are often suspected as criminals without evidence and adjudicated without process.
We ask this in hope that a recognition of personal ingrained biases, created by prairie mythology, will allow people to overcome these imaginary barriers — to interact and relate. And with these interactions, maybe there will be just enough pause in the next Gerald Stanley to recognize that those strangers are not fighting but fleeing.
Or perhaps at the very least, pause enough to remember the number of bullets in a chamber, or the consequences of pulling a trigger. At its highest, we wish it gives pause to remember the humanity of the Indigenous, for those who have lost sight of this, either momentarily or systematically.
We have not forgotten that the museum in Biggar, Saskatchewan, the closest town to where Colten was killed, has a section that memorializes the KKK presence in the area. And despite the racial divides brought by Colten Boushie’s death, we remember this is not so black and white, that our lives are shared in the greys.
The conversations I have with friends who farm are more and more channelled by them towards the various ways reconciliation is rooting in their communities. These talks (invariably almost always with the women of these families) are heartening as there is an earnest and genuine need to engage in education, understanding and healing of the history they have systematically been left ignorant to.
As a mixed-rooted Nêhiyaw (Plains Cree) person who is engaged in research about how our laws and land are intertwined, I am often touched by how the land is talked about in these conversations, by how they speak about their lives being sown into it, a movement towards the way I hear our kehte-ayak, our old ones talk about our deeper stitchings into our territory.
This provides hope that the “shoot, shovel and shut up,” “the only mistake was leaving two witnesses” and “he got what he deserved” people — and these are all things Indigenous peoples have heard since the verdict — are in a small minority.
Join in this unforgetting
We, however, will never forget the past because, as the saying goes, the past isn’t done with us. And despite the insulation that myth and law have provided, it is not done with any Canadian.
Like canola, wheat and barley, the myths of Indigenous peoples have been sown deep. So please join us in this unforgetting. A commitment to deep remembrance is not a metaphysical exercise, but has practical effects on the criminal justice system.
It allows us to remember and acknowledge how it has failed the late Colten Boushie and his family. How it structurally robbed Colten Boushie of representation by his peers in the jury pool. How it has, like all jury trials, left a void where normally reasons are given for a judgment. Thus, despite knowing how easily and often the doctrines of Canadian law can give way to the law in the imagination, Boushie’s family can only blindly trust that the reasons were just.
We can no longer engage in blind trust. This is the same void of reasoning Indigenous peoples dealt with in their interactions with Canadian state law in the past.
Why was it a criminal offence to refuse to let your children attend residential schools? Just because.
Why did we need permission from an Indian agent to leave the reserve? Just because.
Gerald Stanley, not guilty. Just because.
Indigenous people are looking for an acknowledgement that the pain of racism is real, and that racism can influence how Canada determines justice. Beyond a spoken recognition, we look for a remembering of the deep history of injustice aided by law, and how that carries into today. What we do not need is this resting on the tradition, idealism and imagined sanctity of the criminal justice system.
Canada has the power to transform its British-imported justice system.
Criminal lawyers concerned by possible changes to pre-emptory challenges in jury trials in the wake of the Stanley verdict, fearing they would be implemented in haste, fail to remember that such changes have long been considered but never implemented.
Such recommendations were not dreamt up overnight, but contemplated by people who have the same deep and long commitment to justice in this country. The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba made similar recommendations based upon a decade-long inquiry in the 1990s.
We must replace a sense of blind justice with one that is committed to an undiscriminating remembering.
This is not a call for hands to be placed on the scales of justice tipping them in favour of Indigenous peoples, but rather for us all to have our** eyes-wide open to the real possibilities of the myth of the Wheat King weighing in on those scales.
Then perhaps, in a small grace from the devastation of his death, the life of Colten Boushie will be a mark towards to a shared miyo pimatisiwin, a shared good life.