*post contains discussions on death of child/ren, depression, and grief *
Four years ago, my son died.
He was 6 months and 1 week old. He was named after stars and fire. He was the most beautiful thing to ever exist. I’ll fight you on it. And so will anyone who ever met him.
Since he left, I expend an exorbitant amount of energy just trying to survive. The first counselor I had after his death said to me – “But you HAVE survived” – and in that moment I knew she couldn’t help me. She thought my surviving was something I had accomplished, something that was over. I told her I didn’t know if I’d ever feel like I’d truly survived. I have come to learn that grief and survival are never finished.
Even though I have the best people around me and there is always someone I can call on, I am never fully alive anymore. It’s true that I have experienced joy and happiness since his death. But, still. Grief is relentless and sneaky. I am always tired. I am always at a loss.
Debbie Baptiste found out her son had died when police arrived on her doorstep and asked her “What’s Colten Boushie to you?” When she replied, “My son,” they informed her, “Your son’s deceased.”
Debbie began to scream.
What would you do?
That’s what I did when my son died. I screamed. It’s the only thing to do. It is literally the least you can do as a mother. And it is not enough.
The police told her to “get yourself together” while they swarmed her house and asked if she had been drinking.
In the mid-19th century, a young Indigenous man was sent as a messenger to notify communities on Vancouver Island of the arrival of James Douglas. He took the swiftest route, which, unbeknownst to him, crossed over land that had been unilaterally claimed as the private property of either Douglas himself or a settler from his crew. The boy was shot and killed by a farmer who saw him “trespassing.”
The young man’s murder was taken as a sign of hostility and his family and community cornered Douglas on PKOLS – a mountain Douglas had claimed as his own. Realizing he was outnumbered, Douglas asked for mercy and offered a treaty of peace. Contrary to their original intent, the Douglas Treaties would later come to be interpreted by the Crown and colonizers as land cession treaties to justify further settlement by Europeans at the expense of Indigenous peoples.
But, the oral history remembers the boy who was killed and the real purpose of those treaties. The nations remember how they readied for war in the name of justice for the life of a young man.
I imagine his mother screamed when she learned her son had been shot and killed. I imagine her scream was unbearable to hear. That scream – her grief – was a battle cry.
What compels us about life and death is humanity. We know that we are born and that we die, but, in between is life itself and whatever meaning we ascribe to it – love, loss, vulnerability, possibility, hope. We are borne to families and communities. When our relatives die, we honour them with ritual and reverence. Even non-human creatures practice these kinds of ceremonies. While we try to explain our purpose and our mortality with theory or spirituality or religion, the truth is we don’t know. So, we do our best to make meaning out of mystery. If all we have is life, we come to understand that the most severe punishment we can administer is to take a life and the highest sacrifice we can offer is to give one.
Dr. Herbert C. Kelman, is the Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, Emeritus at Harvard University. His scholarship on violence, in particular sanctioned massacre, considers the necessity of dehumanization in the fulfillment of lethal ends:
Dehumanization of the enemy is a common phenomenon in any war situation. Sanctioned massacres, however, presuppose a degree of dehumanization that is considerably more extreme. People may fear and hate an enemy; they may be sufficiently angered, provoked, or threatened by him to be prepared to take his life. They may still be reacting to him, however, as a human being; in fact, they may even respect him and feel a sense of kinship with him, regretting that clashing interests have brought them into conflict. If they kill him, it is because they perceive him as a personal threat. By contrast, in sanctioned massacres…the killing is not in response to the target’s threats or provocations. It is not what he has done that marks him for death, but what he is – the category to which he happens to belong.
I grew up in rural Manitoba. My peers were the children of farmers. I grew up in town and I really only hung out on the rez for bingo, pow wow, and ceremony. (That is, until I got a bit older and realized the rez was more fun than town.) Not that I didn’t have fun with the white farmers’ kids: driving to socials in neighbouring towns with people packed in the beds of pickup trucks; two-sixes of whiskey and vodka stashed under seats; bush parties with raging fires and raging hormones and our first tastes of drugs. I remember more drunk driving than sober driving on those weekend nights when we are all coming of age. Even when our brothers and sisters and friends got into accidents and were hurt or even killed, we continued to make stupid, reckless decisions – the way teenagers are wont to do.
When Colten Boushie and his friends showed up in Gerald Stanley’s yard, they weren’t behaving any differently than the white farmers’ kids and I had behaved when we were teenagers. They had made some irresponsible decisions, and they were probably not thinking clearly. They were teenagers learning about their own limits and testing them the best they knew how.
In Anishinaabe teachings, we acknowledge young adulthood as an important stage of life where our children start to resist the status quo as a way to carve out a unique place for themselves. The job of teenagers is to question adults and the way things are done so as to keep our societies alive, relevant and responsive. Indeed, it is more worrisome to us if a teenager doesn’t rebel. How will they come to know who they are as individuals if they haven’t pushed the boundaries of the collective? The right to know who you are as separate from but connected to your community is a foundation of self-determination.
My brother took these teachings to heart. He learned hard life lessons from doing the same stupid things I did. One night, things went wrong. All he remembers is lifting his head out of water in a ditch and hearing some of his friends moaning. One friend was unresponsive. He couldn’t find one of them. The truck was upside down. The nearest farm was about a mile away. It was late. He was bleeding. He had been drinking. He ran as fast as he could for help. When he got there, nobody shot him, even though I can almost guarantee there were guns on the property.
Do you know what they did instead?
They helped him.
When Tina Fontaine’s 15 year old body was found wrapped in plastic in Winnipeg’s Red River, the police acknowledged that she had likely been exploited, taken advantage of, and not fully aware of or able to consent to the situations she found herself in. The lead investigator was sharp when he reminded media: “She’s a child. This is a child that’s been murdered. Society would be horrified if we found a litter of kittens or pups in the river in this condition. This is a child. Society should be horrified.”
But, as the trial of Raymond Cormier (who was charged with her murder) progressed, society didn’t seem horrified at all. Media reported on the story with headlines about Tina having drugs and alcohol in her system. They would repeat over and over that she had a history of running away. Instead of responding with horror, the media broadcast stereotypes that victim-blamed a murdered 15 year old girl.
The Indigenous community couldn’t help but wonder if a litter of kittens or pups would have been treated more humanely.
Following the news of Colten’s murder, racist comments almost immediately began showing up on social media. A municipal representative in Saskatchewan posted, “In my mind, his only mistake was leaving witnesses.” On a Facebook group called “Farmers with Firearms” a member commented: “There lucky only one drunk native was killed[sic].”
Colten’s sister, Jade Tootoosis was travelling on the highway when she learned of her brother’s death. She turned to social media to try and find out more.
She barely had time to register the devastating news when she was faced with hatefulness. She tried as quickly as she could to respond to comments and uphold her brother’s honour and humanity. Overwhelmed, she threw her phone at the windshield.
I can’t remember why I was having a bad day on the day they announced the verdict. But, I was. I was laying on my couch trying to find a mindless movie to watch when I saw the Tweets giving notice that the verdict would be handed down in 30 minutes. I was not hopeful. I smudged. I got my eagle feathers. My heart raced while I waited. I knew I wasn’t the only one feeling the magnitude of what was to come. I braced myself and thought I had enough armour to protect myself.
But, I didn’t.
I broke down. Even now, writing this, I cry. I knew it wouldn’t be a murder conviction. I just knew. That’s what I had braced for. But, not even manslaughter? There had never been any doubt that Gerald Stanley had shot Colten Boushie. At point blank range. In the back of the head. How could this not be manslaughter?
I watched images of Colten’s mom Debbie being held up by family as she left the courthouse – too weak to walk. I know what it feels like to be held up when you are too weak to walk because your son has died.
Meanwhile, Gerald Stanley was quickly ushered out the backdoor with security escorts to a vehicle that was ready and waiting.
Less than two weeks after Gerald Stanley was acquitted, Raymond Cormier was found not guilty in the death of Tina Fontaine.
Following Stanley’s acquittal, Colten’s family was invited to Ottawa to speak with politicians about how to improve the justice system. One of those politicians was Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Acting as spokesperson for the family, Jade Tootoosis passionately and articulately spoke to issues of systemic racism. She spoke of her brother with pride and laid out how Canada had failed him and their family in so many ways. The very-important-politicians suggested jury reform and public education. They looked for ways to fix the broken system.
The real problem, though, is that the system isn’t broken. It’s doing exactly what it’s supposed to do: uphold the law of the colonizing nation at all costs. Those costs are frequently paid by Indigenous peoples. The fundamental relationship between the colony of Canada and Indigenous peoples has always been based on the denial of our humanity in order to justify the continued occupation of our lands.
The crimes of both murder and manslaughter require the victim to be a human being. If a jury, or judge, or lawyer, or an entire judicial system doesn’t regard the victim as a human being – if the whole structure of the legal order depends on the erasure of the victim’s humanity – then what?
Tasha Hubbard’s nipawistamasowin: we will stand up is a candid, heart-wrenching document of Colten Boushie’s family as they fight for his, their, and our humanity. If you are Indigenous, you will recognize the steadfast support and strength we know exists in our communities. If you are not, you will be lucky to witness it. It is impossible to watch this film and not be moved by the fortitude, grace, and generosity of Colten’s family and community. Even in anger and frustration, they remain honourable and honest. To be Cree, to be Nehiywak, means to be The People and to remember the original instructions that were given by Creator about how we should live our lives. Colten’s family knows who they are, where they come from, and what it means to be human.
I can’t help but wonder: Does Gerald Stanley know what it means to be human? Do other Canadians?
Within minutes of the verdict, my phone started buzzing: texts from friends sending hearts or tears or just “I love you.” Mine wasn’t an isolated experience. We instinctively did this for each other across territories and time zones and nations. We were all there with Colten’s family. We were there with each other.
If you ask any Indian where they were when they heard the verdict, they’ll be able to tell you.
I was told once that you should never pray for strength. The only way to become strong is to face hardship and you should not wish that on yourself or anyone. So let me be clear: we didn’t ask for this. Yet, here we are. As a result of colonization, empire, greed, and capitalism, Indigenous peoples on Turtle Island (and around the world) share a collective hardship of survival and grief. Despite vast differences in our nations and traditions, this shared hardship fuels a shared strength.
We know that survival and grief are never finished. We know that a mother’s scream is a battle cry. We know that it is our responsibility to stand up.
This is what it means to be human.
Nipawistamasowin: we will stand up.
– tara williamson
Tara is a member of the Opaskwayak Cree Nation and was raised in Gaabishkigamaag (Swan Lake, Manitoba). She holds degrees in social work, law, and Indigenous governance. She is currently a Researcher with the Indigenous Law Research Unit at the University of Victoria and is a Research Fellow with the Yellowhead Institute. Tara is also a mama, aunty, writer, and musician.
For more information regarding Nipawistamasowin: we will stand up, please visit: http://www.wewillstandupfilm.com/