In Canadian courts of law, justice should not only be done, it should be seen to be done.
On this principle hangs the credibility of our entire legal system.
Yet regrettably, vast swaths of the Canadian public believe in their hearts that they have not seen justice done in the trial of Gerald Stanley, a white man who was accused of killing Colten Boushie, a young Indigenous man.
Stanley’s acquittal last Friday sparked a firestorm of anger and prompted protests across the country by Indigenous and nonindigenous Canadians alike.
In their eyes, the jury’s verdict was the latest outrage committed by a Canadian institution against First Nations people.
This was always going to be a hard case to bring to trial. Boushie was with a group of Aboriginal youth who drove onto Stanley’s farm near Biggar, Saskatchewan, on Aug. 9, 2016.
An altercation erupted and when it was over Boushie was dead, killed by a handgun that had been fired by Stanley.
Stanley’s defence was that the fatal bullet was the result of a “hang fire,” and that what he intended as a warning shot into the air went off later and unintentionally when he was beside Boushie.
Of course, to those demanding justice for Boushie, this is fiction.
We don’t know who’s right. It’s difficult for people who weren’t in the Battleford courtroom where Stanley stood trial to play armchair judges and deliver their own verdict based on limited media accounts of the proceedings.
That said, legitimate concerns have been raised that the jury which let Stanley go free had no visibly Indigenous members and could possibly have been biased in his favour.
Given the racial tensions between Indigenous and nonindigenous people in Saskatchewan, the composition of the jury undermines its decision for a lot of people.
Politicians have also leapt into the debate, in some cases inappropriately.
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould, for instance, declared: “Canada can and must do better.”
Whatever she meant, many Canadians will interpret her remarks as a condemnation of the jury’s decision — and possibly the presiding judge.
This is ill-advised, not only because it violates the independence of the judicial branch of government but because it could be considered political interference and derail any appeal of the verdict.
In the coming days, powerful federal politicians should keep their fingers off the scales of justice.
This doesn’t mean they should do nothing. There are grounds for them to carefully re-examine the laws surrounding jury selection and, most of all, the “peremptory challenges” that allowed Stanley’s lawyer to reject Indigenous jurors.
While there are good reasons for peremptory challenges, which are available to both the defence and prosecution, it would have been better in this case to have some Indigenous jurors involved in settling Stanley’s fate.
It could be tricky to find a fair way to make juries more diverse.
Yet if there had been Indigenous members on that jury in Battleford, Canadians would have had more confidence that they had just witnessed justice being done.