McGill lecturer to open his class with public talk on justice and race in Saskatchewan

The death of Colten Boushie in Saskatchewan and Gerald Stanley acquittal sparked a national discussion on the Canadian justice system and anti-indigenous racism in Canada.

In an effort to address this issue, Veldon Coburn, course lecturer for the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada, will open his classroom on Friday (February 16, 11:30 AM – 12:30 PM in Arts W-215) to students and anyone interested with a public talk on justice and race in Saskatchewan, followed by a Q&A session.

Veldon Coburn answered our questions about his thoughts on the trial and what could be done to fight marginalization of Indigenous people in Canada.

How did you react to the jury in Saskatchewan finding Gerald Stanley not guilty of second-degree murder?

Veldon Coburn: “I was quite taken aback largely with disappointment. Like all other observers, I had only a very limited knowledge of the evidence presented and the arguments proffered by both the Crown and the defense. Everything I knew about the case was from closely following media reports. Even still, however, I think a cautious judgment of the facts reported could reasonably lead one to the conclusion that Gerald Stanley was guilty, at least, of the lesser charge of manslaughter.

Despite the disheartening outcome—from my view—it wasn’t altogether surprising.

I say this based on my own personal experience. I’ve lived in Saskatchewan. I did complete my master’s degree at the University of Regina. I’ve seen instances of pernicious anti-Indigenous racism and, as a white-coded Anishinaabe that is considerably fair skin, I’ve been around unreserved expressions of hate filled anti-Indigenous racism, spoken freely by everyday Saskatchewan residents that had no knowledge of my Indigeneity. And I’ve also done some work—and published—research on anti-Indigenous racism and justice in Saskatchewan.

So I have more than personal anecdotes to inform my view that white, settler Saskatchewan is considerably hostile to Indigenous peoples. Thus, I wasn’t terribly surprised by a verdict that would defy a seemingly reasonable conclusion.

Looking forward, what are your thoughts on justice and racism in Saskatchewan and Canada?

Veldon Coburn: “It is difficult to harbour much hope, but that’s what my ancestors have relied on for centuries. The high-minded thing is to be hopeful because others that have lived with unspeakable injustice, survivors of Indian Residential Schools for instance, have held onto hope without any reason to do so.

Nevertheless, I have considerable misgivings that anti-Indigenous racism and similar negative sentiments will subside anytime soon.

That said, considerable injustice against Indigenous people will continue across Canada, particularly in Saskatchewan where anti-Indigenous racism is quite amplified. Many of the reasons that Indigenous people arrive within the formal justice system (i.e., policing, courts, corrections) stems from the injustice of their lived existence: substantive inequality in all aspects of social, civil, cultural, economic, and political domains.

The same is true throughout Canada. Insidious racism maintains Indigenous peoples as marginals of society, and the law is designed to ‘police and correct’ those on the margins.

In other words, marginalization is prior to entering the formal justice system, and there is a significantly strong degree of causation between being a marginal of society and being located somewhere in the justice system.  For Indigenous people, life is an unjust existence, even outside the formal institutions that exercise the procedural administration of justice.

What will you discuss in your public talk on Friday?

Veldon Coburn: “I had long-since planned to discuss anti-Indigenous racism this very week. It was an accident of circumstance that the Gerald Stanley verdict was delivered on the very week that I was about to deliver this lecture to the CANS 306 (Issues in Native Studies) class.

A couple of the readings that I had assigned were focused on anti-Indigenous racism and justice in Saskatchewan, namely the provincial inquiry into the death of Neil Stonechild—famously known as the Stonechild Inquiry—as well as the murder of Pamela George, another high-profile case. The analysis in the readings provides important insight into Indigenous-settler relations in Saskatchewan, and the paper by Metis/Ktunaxa scholar, Joyce Green, outlines some policy prescriptions. Published nearly 12 years ago, the paper by Green looks at the outcomes of the Stonechild Inquiry and what lessons it could yield for shoring up social cohesion in a fractious relationship. This was a decade before we began to seriously talk about “reconciliation,” so it is worth reviewing what opportunities for improved relations were missed as we contemplate the fallout of from the Stanley verdict.

Consider, for instance, that Colten Boushie was only 10 years old in 2004 when the final report of the Stonechild Inquiry was released. Although the inquiry focused on police conduct, it held wider implications for dealing with anti-Indigenous racism. Could things have improved in the span of a decade had a concerted response to this reality been addressed in post-Stonechild years? And would that have changed the public reaction to the Stanley verdict?

Put another way, would reconciliation be well underway if there had been a meaningful amelioration to the stark division between Indigenous and settler populations in Saskatchewan? These are some questions that I’d like to visit during the talk.

Who can come i.e. is this open to the general public?

Veldon Coburn: “The talk is open to the public. I’m grateful that the McGill Institute for the Study of Canada and the Indigenous Studies program are co-sponsoring this talk. I think it shows that McGill is making space for public discussions on reconciliation and making honest efforts to meet the expectations of the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions Calls to Action, particularly for post-secondary education institutions.

To attend, please register following instructions here.