Blue Line

Former Saskatchewan RCMP boss warned officers to watch opinions after Stanley verdict

August 8, 2023  By The Canadian Press

Aug. 8, 2023, Saskatoon, Sask. – The RCMP braced for backlash across rural Saskatchewan and kept a close eye on Indigenous groups after the not guilty verdict of a farmer charged in the death of Colten Boushie, emails show.

The former top Mountie in the province also warned officers to watch their opinions, and police carefully watched and weighed in on testimony in the highly charged murder trial that exposed racial divides.

This week marks seven years since Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree man from Red Pheasant First Nation, was shot and killed on in a rural area near the town of Biggar, about 95 kilometres west of Saskatoon.

Gerald Stanley was acquitted of second-degree murder in 2018, after testifying at trial that his gun accidentally went off.

After a five-year wait, The Canadian Press recently obtained RCMP emails sent during and immediately after the trial.

Partially redacted documents indicate that Mounties monitored threats and were bracing for backlash, particularly after the verdict was read out Feb. 9, 2018.

“Please be diligent on rural patrols in your areas,” one commander wrote in an email that evening to colleagues. “As you can all appreciate, the not guilty verdict will produce some backlash in all of our communities.”

One day earlier, the commanding officer of the province’s RCMP division encouraged members to pay “close attention” to what was unfolding in their communities.

“Carefully consider the associated risks and responsibilities of engaging in the ongoing public debate around this case,” wrote Curtis Zablocki, who now oversees the Alberta RCMP.

From the time Boushie was shot, social media lit up with users making derogatory comments, prompting then-premier Brad Wall to call for “racist and hate-filled” comments to stop.

During the trial, Mounties sent daily updates about testimony and which high-profile Indigenous leaders were in attendance. There were conversations about Indigenous demonstrators and their supporters outside.

“It was really one-sided right from the moment Colten was killed to the moment of the decision not to appeal,” Eleanore Sunchild, co-counsel to Boushie’s family, said in an interview.

“I’m not surprised at all – this is Saskatchewan.”

Saskatchewan RCMP said in an emailed statement the force routinely monitors trials and that employee messaging at the time reminded staff “there could be amplified interest in any public dialogue about this investigation and trial.”

Zablocki also said in a statement that the debate was significant and it was his responsibility “to remind employees of the risks associated with engaging in this public debate.”

The RCMP added the force continues to work toward reconciliation with Indigenous people.

Sunchild said Boushie’s family members were aware they were being monitored by RCMP, but it didn’t feel like it was intended to keep them safe. Any offers for assistance from Mounties felt insincere, she added.

“There could be no relationship between the RCMP and the Boushie-Baptiste family during the trial because of all the mishandling and racism that the family observed and felt from them from the moment Colten was killed,” Sunchild said.

A Civilian Review and Complaints Commission report in 2021 found RCMP racially discriminated against Boushie’s mother during their investigation.

It found the way she was informed of his death to be insensitive, with officers smelling the grieving woman’s breath for alcohol and looking in a microwave to verify she had made her son food.

That report also found officers mishandled witnesses and crucial evidence. It said an early RCMP media release about the shooting could have left people under the impression “the young man’s death was deserved.”

Emails during the trial detail what happened when court heard that officers had left open a door on Boushie’s vehicle, allowing rain to wash away blood evidence.

“Surprisingly, the defence did not dwell on this issue,” one officer wrote.

RCMP also kept detailed notes about evidence presented at the trial, including a firearms expert who testified for the defence that the shooting could have been the result of a “hang fire,” or a delay between when a gun’s trigger is pulled and a bullet is fired.

“If I’m comparing the effectiveness of experts to the jury,” one officer wrote, the “(Crown’s expert) was the easiest to follow and make sense of things.”

“(Defence expert) talked a lot about measurements and it made it really hard to follow.”

One week after the verdict, Zablocki emailed officers thanking them for their work during a “challenging and emotional” time. He noted it had generated many rallies, media attention and other commentary, “including the quality of the RCMP’s investigation and our relationships with Indigenous communities.”

The emails show police monitored the social media accounts of some Indigenous groups about protests after the trial.

Sunchild remembers pickup trucks revving their motors outside court and questions if the same effort was put toward monitoring Stanley supporters.

She also wonders why more resources weren’t put into the actual investigation of the shooting.

“Those same resources were not placed towards the Boushie family and those resources were not put towards a fulsome and fair investigation,” she said.

Ken Coates, chair of Yukon University’s Indigenous Governance program, said the case created one of the most volatile legal situations in recent Canadian history.

“First Nations in Saskatchewan and further afield were angry about the investigation, the trial and the judgment,” Coates said in an email. “Politicians, government officials, and police across the country were worried about the potential for protests and violence.”

Coates said the emails show RCMP prepared for upheaval that never happened.

But, he said, the emails also demonstrate restraint by Boushie’s family, Indigenous leaders and their supporters after the verdict.

“The manner in which the Boushie family and First Nations leaders across Saskatchewan managed their response and the not guilty verdict is one of the most remarkable, decent and restrained in recent memory, made more impressive by the volatile nature of the death of Colten Boushie and the complaints made about the police investigation and the trial.”

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