Canada has a benign reputation as a land of cold weather, politeness, and small-town blandness.
While most people waxing poetic on colonial settler Canadian identity prefer to focus on Hockey Night in Canada, the way we say “eh,” a vague notion of equality, and how we are not as bad as Americans, generally these same folks will acknowledge a handful of the empire’s shameful moments. Forced displacement, intentional starving, residential schools, and starlight tours – only a small selection of crimes committed against Indigenous people by the state – can no longer be denied.
What most of the apolitical crowd will refuse to acknowledge is that the deadly legacy of colonialism upon which this country was founded is actively upheld by the state today. Institutional racism – particularly, the systemic devaluation of Indigenous lives – is as Canadian as maple syrup.
Earlier this month, Gerald Stanley – the 56-year-old white man who killed 22-year-old Indigenous man Colten Boushie by shooting him in the back of the head at point blank range in front of two witnesses – was acquitted of second-degree murder by an all-white jury in Saskatchewan. Stanley claimed the killing was an accident, and the jury believed him.
Polls show that Canadians are divided on the verdict. Of those surveyed nationwide, 30 per cent said they agreed with the jury’s decision, while 63 per cent of Saskatchewan residents surveyed agreed. A GoFundMe page set up for Stanley raised over $220,000 in 21 days, while a GoFundMe for Boushie’s family has raised only $190,818 in six months. This illustrates the terrifying reality of how dangerous it is to be an Indigenous person in Saskatchewan right now.
If that is not close enough to home, Raymond Cormier, 56, was acquitted of Tina Fontaine’s murder this past week. In August 2014, Fontaine, 15, was found wrapped in a duvet weighed down with rocks in the Red River. During the trial, recordings were presented to the court that included Cormier speaking of his desire to have sex Fontaine, saying “She got killed because we found out, I found out she was 15 years old,” further remarking on throwing her body into the river.
In a courtroom across the hall from the one where Cormier’s trial took place, the inquest into the death of Errol Greene has been unfolding over the last four weeks. Greene, a father of four, was admitted into the custody of the Winnipeg Remand Centre (WRC) on a breach of probation April 29, 2016. He died May 1, 2016 following two seizures he suffered after being denied access to epilepsy medication for three days.
Rochelle Pranteau, Errol’s common-law wife and the mother of his children, was on the phone with Greene when he had his first seizure. A cellmate claims corrections officers forced Greene’s face to the ground. Another, who was on the phone next to Greene, said he was handcuffed, kicked, and told to “stop faking it.” Greene was then taken to a cell alone where, according his cellmate, his requests for water were ignored until he had another seizure and fell silent.
That same evening, Pranteau went to the hospital to search for Greene’s body after receiving a call from the WRC saying he died. It took an hour to find his body because his name was absent from the hospital system, and when he was found, Pranteau was not allowed to kiss him goodbye.
Four other people died in custody in the WRC in 2016. On March 17, Hollie Hall died of a “flu-like illness” after about a month in custody. On Sept. 4, Robert McAdam died after being picked up for breach of probation. On Oct. 12, Russel Spence, father of two, died after a struggle that occurred during his intake processing. Lance Harper died Oct. 25, although little information is known concerning the circumstances.
Four of the people who died were Indigenous, and all of them were on remand – awaiting trial, sentencing, or a bail hearing and having not necessarily been found guilty of a crime.
These inmates and their deaths are reflective of the prison population in Manitoba – while only representing 15 per cent of the population, over 70 per cent of the province’s inmates identify as Indigenous. 70 per cent of all inmates in Manitoba are on remand.
Indigenous people in Canada are being incarcerated at a rate far beyond that of the rest of the population – often without being found guilty of a crime – and they are dying because of it.
A white man can kill a young Indigenous man in front of multiple witnesses and be found not guilty of murder by the same judicial system, and afterwards be financially rewarded by his peers. If that is not institutional racism, it is hard to imagine what is.
White Canadians and Canadian institutions kill Indigenous people and then excuse themselves for it in courts they designed and operate. The state of Canada is a racist colonial institution that has always, and will always, protect the interests and lives of white Canadians at the expense of Indigenous people and people of colour in general. Do not forget that for a second.
Remember Tina Fontaine. Remember Colten Boushie. Remember Errol Greene. Remember Hollie Hall. Remember Russell Spence. Remember Lance Harper. Remember Robert McAdam, the only white man who died in the WRC in 2016.
Fight for justice for the dead so those who are still here might have a fighting chance.