How should the church respond to Colten Boushie’s death, and the acquittal of his killer?

A few weeks ago, the man charged with killing Colten Boushie was acquitted by a jury, and Canada had a lot to say about it. Indigenous leaders called it a major blow to reconciliation, and many non-Indigenous Canadians rallied in support of acquitted Gerald Stanley. So we want to know how are churches responding? Pastor Paul Matheson of Saskatoon First Baptist church wrote the following reflections as his community deals with the aftermath. 

The Justice for Colten rally in Vancouver.

“I can’t believe it! Did you hear what the jury decided? How could they do that? I’m so discouraged.”

So a young professional person from our congregation greeted me after the Sunday morning church service. The verdict in the Gerald Stanley case had been delivered in the Battleford, SK courtroom on Friday night. Already news of this trial was spreading like a prairie grass-fire, inflaming the passions of a divided population.

The story in a nutshell is this: On the afternoon of August 9, 2016, Colten Boushie, a 22 year old Cree man from Red Pheasant First Nation, was fatally shot by a farmer, Gerald Stanley. Boushie had been out for the afternoon with friends, swimming and drinking, before they drove onto the Stanley property. Stanley testified that someone appeared to have been trying to steal his quad. He claimed the fatal shot was an accident, possibly caused by a malfunction in his pistol. The 12 member jury had the option of convicting Stanley of second-degree murder, manslaughter, or acquitting him. They chose the latter.

Whether justice has been served in this situation is a matter of varied opinion. Many of us are wondering how this result will affect the process of reconciliation that has been gaining momentum after the Truth and Reconciliation Commission held hearings across the country, including in Saskatoon.

As Christians, we have a significant stake in this. Our history with Canada’s Indigenous people is a complicated one. The residential school system, established by the government to assimilate the native population, was operated by churches. As a pastor, I wonder how to respond to this situation, and how to encourage my congregation in the way of Jesus.

Several things come to mind. First of all, the events surrounding this trial have exposed things that we need to pay attention to. Often those things remain hidden beneath the surface. But at a time like this we are able to see them more clearly. These can lead to “Aha” moments, when we finally are able to connect the dots, or commit ourselves to action.

The Stanley trial has exposed the fault lines in our society – the divides and different perspectives that exist among us. It has exposed the blatant racism that flows so freely on social media. (At one point, the Premier of Saskatchewan intervened to call for civility and respect.) It has exposed problems with the justice system, including the process of jury selection. It has exposed the problems of poverty, unemployment, and addictions. It has exposed problems in policing and the insecurity faced by isolated rural residents. Until these things are named, we cannot begin to address them.

Secondly, the trial and its aftermath remind us that progress in these matters does not come quickly. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” This reminds me that the progress we long for in healing, justice and right-relationship with our neighbours does not come about easily. The path forward is hardly ever a straight line. There are bound to be setbacks and detours, times of discouragement and even despair. But these are moments for us to strengthen our resolve.

Jesus said, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.” (Lk. 9:61-62) This is a moment for us to fix our eyes even more firmly on the kingdom goal that is set before us. God has given us a unique opportunity in this moment of our shared history to embrace change and move toward something better. There is an urgency to this task that should make us more determined than ever.

Thirdly, the trial is an invitation for leaders to rise up and speak the truth in such a way that brings out the best in all of us. I have been encouraged by the response of our civic leaders (provincial and municipal), and tribal chiefs (including the Saskatoon Tribal Council and Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations) who have stood together, promoting partnership. The Boushie family has called for change, asking people to respond with love, not violence. Rallies have been held across the country, and have remained peaceful.

Faith leaders have publicly called for people to pursue reconciliation with “renewed passion and commitment.” This is something that all Christians can be part of, each in our own way. Pastors and their congregations can learn, listen and pray. Individuals can reach out to re-assure those who feel isolated, building friendships in the community and in the workplace.

Finally, the trial is a call for followers of Jesus to return to the very things that represent who we are called to be. Reconciliation, justice, peace and inclusion are signs that God’s kingdom has come near, and so we must strive to embody them. Love for God and love for neighbour are at the heart of our faith. (Lk. 10:27) And make no mistake, both Indigenous people and rural residents of Saskatchewan are our neighbours. Though aware of our divisions, we are family. We all remain God’s people.

And did I mention prayer? After a workshop on reconciliation sponsored by CBWC and CBM this fall, I made a commitment to pray. This is something our Indigenous neighbours have asked for from the churches. And it too is at the centre of who we are, and who I am. Prayer is not nothing. In fact, it may be the most important response of all.

— Paul Matheson, Pastor at First Baptist Saskatoon, SK