SASKATOON — Before she even opened her mouth, Debbie Baptiste had already sent her message.
Wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with “Justice for Indigenous,” the mother of Colten Boushie stood before microphones Monday to address discrimination that a complaints commission confirmed she faced when RCMP officers told her of his death.
“I did not deserve to be treated the way I was treated,” she said as she held back tears at a news conference on the Whitecap Dakota First Nation’s reserve, just outside of Saskatoon.
“We’ve been waiting for this justice for a long time. It did so much hurt to our family and our community … we fought for this justice and we continue fighting.”
Boushie, 22, was shot and killed when an SUV he was riding in went onto farmer Gerald Stanley’s property near Biggar, Sask., on Aug. 9, 2016. Stanley was charged with second-degree murder and acquitted by a jury in 2018 after he testified he fired warning shots and that his gun “just went off.”
The Civilian and Review Complaints Commission for the RCMP investigated how officers in Saskatchewan handled Boushie’s death.
While finding that, generally, RCMP did a professional investigation, the independent agency made 17 recommendations to address missteps, including those made with the family.
“Our family was never going to give up,” said Baptiste. “We were not going to be swept away and treated such as less than human beings.”
The commission detailed how, after the shooting, officers took a tactical approach as they went to Baptiste’s trailer to inform her of her son’s death.
Police told Baptiste, who had broken into tears, to “get it together,” the commission wrote. It said officers questioned whether she had been drinking, smelled her breath and searched her home.
The watchdog noted it was “hurtful” when police checked the microwave to see if Baptiste was telling them the truth about placing her son’s meal there when he didn’t return for dinner.
“If that doesn’t speak of discrimination and racism, I don’t know what does,” Eleanore Sunchild, a lawyer for Baptiste, told the news conference.
The commission also identified that officers inappropriately visited Boushie’s wake to update his mother on the case.
In reviewing a second complaint filed by the family, it found an initial RCMP media release about the death mostly focused on alleged property crimes instead of a homicide investigation.
“That set the entire tone for the country to spit hatred at Debbie and her family,” Sunchild said.
The commission said Boushie didn’t appear to have left the vehicle or touched any of Stanley’s property. His family added he had no criminal record.
Other deficiencies the commission found included RCMP not properly protecting the SUV Boushie was shot in, which resulted in blood spatter evidence being lost.
Sunchild said that since the commission’s findings became public on the weekend, there’s been a repeat of hateful and racist comments posted online.
She urged Saskatchewan justice officials to take action. Justice Minister Gordon Wyant said in a statement anyone who believes a hate crime has taken place should contact police.
Federal Public Safety Minister Bill Blair added that the RCMP has implemented 16 of 17 recommendations stemming from one of the reviews, and that all Saskatchewan Mounties are to complete mandatory cultural awareness training by April 1.
“We need to look at these incidents while accounting for the scars and ongoing impacts of systemic racism within our communities,” Blair said in a statement. “We are committed to doing everything in our power to never let this happen again.”
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a news conference that the way the Boushie family was treated was unacceptable.
“We have seen unfortunately examples of systemic racism within the RCMP, within many other institutions, and we need to do better.”
Chief Perry Bellegarde with the Assembly of First Nations said the RCMP needs to make changes, including in oversight and in member recruitment.
Chris Murphy, another lawyer representing Baptiste, said having officers watch a video isn’t enough to deal with the kind of discrimination faced by his client.
He pointed to comments circulated by the National Police Federation, a union for front-line RCMP officers, that questioned the commission’s finding of discrimination.
“There has to be some sort of fundamental change in the RCMP, from the top up or the bottom up,” said Murphy.
Although the commission found the RCMP’s next-of-kin notification to be the only time discrimination happened, Sunchild said the family believes there were other instances and that what happened to them isn’t unique among Indigenous people.
“We’ll never know what was said between the members,” said Sunchild.
“Systematic racism underlines this entire case.”