On a hot August day in 2016, a car full of young adults drove onto the property of a Saskatchewan farm. Those in the car say they were looking for help with a flat tire. Those living on the farm say the occupants of the car were trying to steal property and were trespassing on their land. Whatever the case, we know that by the end of this encounter the farm owner, Gerald Stanley, had shot and killed one of those in the car, a young man named Colten Boushie.
Gerald Stanley is currently standing trial for second degree murder, a trial that is scheduled to last until February 15. It is difficult to draw any conclusions about a trial while it is before the court – a trial that is already fraught with such strong emotions, and in which Boushie has been called ‘The Rodney King of Western Canada’ – but, as a Jesus follower and a Saskatchewan resident, there are a couple of big questions I keep returning to as this trial continues.
Would this be a different story if Colten Boushie was White, rather than a young Aboriginal man?
Driving across the expansive Canadian prairies I have from time to time found my vehicle (and myself) in some kind of trouble. I am grateful that on more than one occasion I was able to receive the help I needed after knocking on the door of a local farmhouse, receiving neighbourly assistance from people I didn’t know, and would never see again. But on each of these occasions, when I needed to “trespass” on farm property, I was doing it as a young White man.
Colten Boushie and his friends didn’t have the benefit of my skin colour when they drove onto Stanley’s property (Boushie was a young Cree man from Red Pheasant First Nation), and I can’t help but think that the colour of Boushie’s skin was a factor in how Gerald Stanley behaved that August afternoon, regardless of Boushie’s actions or intentions.
The hard truth is that Gerald Stanley was probably more suspicious of a Cree man like Boushie than he would have been toward a White man like Iain Stables, even though Colten Boushie is a young man without a criminal record whereas Stables is a criminal who was recently convicted of stealing $1.2 million worth of farm equipment. For being convicted of stealing over 15 pieces of farm equipment Iain Stables received the mild sentence of 2 years of house arrest.1 For being among a group that Gerald Stanley suspected of stealing, Colten Boushie received a death sentence.
I haven’t heard a lot of online hate directed toward Iain Stables, but I’ve seen plenty directed toward First Nations people. It’s not hard to see how a racial bias rooted in fear of First Nations people factors into these scenarios. This pervasive prejudice is not a made-up grievance, it’s an everyday reality for First Nations people and we should not ignore it, or perpetuate it.
What then is the Christian response to the deep racial fissures the Gerald Stanley trial continues to expose?
Over the past year and half, as I’ve reflected on the killing of Colten Boushie, I have returned time and again to the passage in the Lord’s prayer that says “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Perhaps it’s too obvious a connection, with so many people asserting farm owners’ rights to protect their properties from trespassers. But then, sometimes the most obvious connection is the best connection.
What this passage means most obviously for Christians is that we don’t seek revenge or take justice into our own hands when literal trespassers come on our property. We are not people who say (as I read in one comment online) “This area of Saskatchewan is rife with native crime and theft, they come on my property they will be shot and I will answer questions later.” It is important for everyone to recognize that people living in rural communities have some legitimate fears about crime and how they are able to respond to it, but that doesn’t justify bigotry, and it certainly doesn’t justify shooting someone.
As followers of Jesus we forgive those who trespass against us,
we don’t shoot people,
we don’t stereotype entire people groups,
we don’t let fear and anger dictate our actions.
Prayers extending forgiveness will be vital for reconciliation to take place. I believe that to be true whether your sympathies lean more toward Colten Boushie’s family, or more toward Gerald Stanley. Forgiveness doesn’t mean that we condone or tolerate crime and violence (regardless of the perpetrator), but it does mean we choose to stop, rather than perpetuate cycles of hate and violence. Forgiveness will be vital for all of us, regardless of what the outcome of this trial may be.
Of course, it’s not just that we need to extend forgiveness to others. We need to acknowledge our trespasses as well – we need to repent of our sins of prejudice and judgement. And here lies a deeper truth – I think that the Canadian Government and White Settler Culture need to repent and to acknowledge a number of trespasses that we have been willfully ignorant of for far too long.
The Stanley farm, just like my home in Saskatoon, is located on Treaty 6 land. So, while in one sense we can lay claim to the land we live on as our own private property, there is also a very real sense in which our homes are only our homes by virtue of the Treaty agreements made between the Canadian people and the First Nations people.
Treaty 6, first signed in 1876, gave Canada control over a massive swath of what would become the prairie provinces. In exchange Canada made a number of vital commitments to help and support First Nations people, commitments that we have not been very good at keeping, even as we continue to benefit from living on this land. Even in the first decade after signing the treaty the government began to break its treaty commitments. As Historian Bill Waiser notes, as far back as the 1880s the “Cree bands found that the surveying of reserves was often delayed and that promised agricultural equipment and supplies were not immediately forthcoming and generally insufficient.”2 These were key promises made to the First Nations people who would need to shift their life to include agriculture to make way for settlers, but these promises were never really kept.
Since that time, Canada’s record on fulfilling its side of the Treaty commitments hasn’t improved much, and First Nations communities have been perpetually and chronically under-supported and underfunded. So when people say ignorant things like: “Natives just want government handouts,” it’s kind of like saying “Can you believe it, my landlord actually wants me to pay my rent.” I realize it’s a crass metaphor, but if the Treaties are seen like a rental contract, then we are really, really far behind on our payments. If you keep returning to a house that you’ve been evicted from for not paying rent, that makes you a trespasser. We who live on Treaty land need to give that some thought, as we rethink some of our assumptions about First Nations people.
Jesus teaches us to pray “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Jesus asks us to recognize that we need to forgive others, because we too are trespassers. Jesus calls us to repent, which means that we who live on Treaty lands need to join with our governments to start keeping our Treaty promises – on paying the rent, as it were – for the privilege of living, and farming, and raising our families on this land. Repentance is not about feeling guilty or about apologizing, repentance is about changing our behavior, about doing the long work of redressing wrongs no matter how long it takes, it’s about reconciliation.
In a few weeks we will know the outcome of the Gerald Stanley trial. I pray that the trial brings the truth to light in such a way that allows for people to begin a process of healing and reconciliation that is sorely needed here on the Canadian prairies.