On Friday, as news trickled across Twitter that a jury of people who look like Gerald Stanley had acquitted him, I found myself uttering the lies programmed into me as a white Canadian. “Broken country,” I wrote in a bitter Facebook post. Many other liberal-minded white folk like me said similar things.
The truth is tougher. I wrote what I did to soothe my feelings of complicity. Canada is not broken. A jury has found that Stanley, the Saskatchewan farmer charged with second degree murder in the bullet-to-the-back-of-the-head death of a 22-year-old Indigenous man — who I won’t name out of respect for Nehiyaw taboos about naming the dead — is innocent, even of manslaughter. The incident is sad but, somehow, acceptable. Our settler-colonial state is strong. The only thing broken is my naïve belief that this was no longer the case.
Two Canadas have made themselves clear in the differing angry reactions to the Stanley verdict. People like me, liberal-minded settlers whose ancestors came from elsewhere but built lives here, have spilled their disbelief and are indeed shaken to the core. But Indigenous people have carried the weight of their own unique Canada. Sure, they had dared to hope — #justiceforcolten — but their angry, tired reactions also show a deep lack of trust in our justice system to produce actual justice. Regardless of legal arguments about “hang-fire” or whether a pistol was believed to be empty, a lack of belief in a justice system is a cancer for a nation.
It’s little surprise this disbelief exists. Canada was built by setters to enable the prosperity of settlers. Few of us consider that this means an ongoing attack on Indigenous peoples and lands. Fewer of us question the lies we’re taught that allow us to swallow this pill — that these lands were more or less empty upon our arrival (wrong), that the few Indigenous peoples here were struggling (incorrect), that the treaties we signed were beneficial contracts to confiscate land in exchange for reserves and supports (laughable).
More recently, as truths about the depravity of our actions have blossomed into mainstream consciousness, this lie has shifted to become insidious and cynical. We are told today that Canada is genuinely attempting to reconcile its genocidal policies of the past. That was then but this is now. And then we see the past is the present in a courtroom in Saskatchewan.
Indeed, today, if Wikipedia can be trusted as a barometre for the banal and the normal, the entry for Biggar, Saskatchewan — the small farming town close to where Stanley returned home Friday night, and where the young man died — tells you all you need to know about the true state of reconciliation. There is no mention of Biggar as sitting within Treaty 6. There is no entry on the Red Pheasant First Nation. Instead there is erasure, a different form of a bullet to the head. Biggar’s story on Wikipedia begins in 1909, when the railroad arrived (see picture). Before that, nothing.
The way Saskatchewan and much of Canada was settled is why this story is told in this way. The Dominion Lands Act of 1872 offered 160 acres of land in western Canada for nothing more than a $10 administration fee for any outsider who promised to farm it. Europeans, desperate to escape poverty but ignorant of where the prairies were, let alone if they were as “empty” as the Canadian government had said, slowly began to occupy the land. But once there, like all colonizers, they faced an existential dilemma: concede you are a trespasser and leave or dig in and erase the other group’s power to write the place’s history.
Make them the trespasser. Fear them.
Canadian law says it is illegal to kill to defend one’s property, and defending property is a trope in full swing about the Stanley trial on comments sections and social media. The defence never argued this, but regardless of the emptiness of this claim, the truth in Canada is that defense of property obtained through questionable processes, like colonial occupation, has meant 200-plus years of looking the other way at certain deaths. The man who died in August 2016 dared to exist in a space he had been removed from. Should it really surprise white settlers like myself that it was his actions and character that was put on trial in Saskatchewan?
In a country where a courtroom can still find a settler who held a pistol that fired a bullet into the back of an Indigenous man’s head innocent of any and all charges, there is not justice. Instead there is the system, working as it always has, sustaining the original lie of a country. It’s as plain as day.