Colten Boushie report highlights need for more RCMP training, say experts


An RCMP watchdog report that concluded police racially discriminated against the bereaved mother of Colten Boushie when its officers notified her of his death, underscores the need to address systemic racism in policing, experts say.

Debbie Baptiste holds up a photo of her son Colten Boushie as the family speaks in the foyer of the House of Commons in the aftermath of the Gerald Stanley case. (The Canadian Press)

An RCMP watchdog report that concluded police racially discriminated against the bereaved mother of Colten Boushie when its officers notified her of his death underscores the need to address systemic racism in policing, experts say.

Boushie, 22, was shot and killed after he and four others from the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan drove onto white farmer Gerald Stanley's property near Biggar, Sask., in August 2016.

A jury later acquitted Stanley of second-degree murder. The case sparked concerns about how police handled Boushie's death. The shooting and Stanley's not-guilty verdict also shone a spotlight on racism and racial tensions in Saskatchewan.

The RCMP watchdog group, the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission (CRCC), studied the police investigation and released its report this week.

Toronto lawyer Delia Opekokew said the report shows RCMP officers need more cultural training, but she also noted that systemic racism runs so deep within the police force she isn't certain how effective better training would be.

Canoe Lake Cree Nation member Delia Opekokew said the disregard police officers showed Debbie Baptiste when they entered her home shows a wider disregard for Indigenous people. (The Law Society of Ontario)

"Values and beliefs and customs are such that it's very difficult to change that type of attitude," said Opekokew, who is Cree and a member of the Canoe Lake First Nation in Saskatchewan.

Opekokew has received recognition forfurthering the cause of justice for Indigenous people and human rights for Canadians.

"There has to be a lot of work done to try to change those attitudes," she said.

In a statement, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki noted all Saskatchewan RCMP employees must complete a cultural awareness course by April 2021.

After Boushie's death, police officers visited Baptiste's home to break the news to his family and search the home for a witness they believed might have a gun.

The CRCC report found no signs of discrimination in the officers' approach and search of the home, but it did find evidence of discrimination during "the police's conduct towards Ms. Baptiste with respect to her sobriety and her credibility."

The report says officers told Baptiste to "get it together," questioned whether she had been drinking, smelled her breath and searched her home without permission.

The report also concluded that media releases sent by police early in the investigation fuelled perceptions that Boushie's death at the hands of Stanley was deserved.

Michelle Stewart, associate professor in the University of Regina's Department of Justice Studies, said implementing cultural awareness training for police officers may not go far enough.

Stewart said police need to engage with First Nation leaders and communities to create meaningful action.

"What this report gives us is a mechanism of some accountability within the RCMP and it validates the concerns that were already raised by the family," Stewart said.

"It's an example of systemic racism in action, but it's an opportunity for a lot of people to start to better understand what the family said all along, which was that they were treated unjustly and so too was their son."

She said it will be up to the younger generation to improve relations between police and Indigenous communities.

In response to the CRCC report, the RCMP's Lucki agreed Baptiste was racially discriminated against and that "there's no dispute the next-of-kin notification was handled insensitively and lacked good judgment."

She said the RCMP must ensure front-line officers are educated about the report and use it as a learning tool.

Union alleges report was biased

However, Stewart anticipates resistance among police. The union representing RCMP members, the National Police Federation, released a statement Sunday saying the report was biased against police accounts and that it "unconditionally" accepted the Boushie family's assertion of discrimination.

Stewart doubted police officers will buy into meaningful change if their union describes the watchdog report as an unjust characterization of the officers involved.

"This should be a moment for pause for the RCMP, for every member to really reflect on that investigation, what happened and how," Stewart said.

She said the union's response appears to be an honest reflection of the resistance to change among members.

The union declined an interview with CBC.

Chris Murphy, one of the lawyer's representing Boushie's family, also called out the union's implication that Baptiste fabricated what happened.

"In the face of the CRCC's decision, the RCMP union is still asking people in this country not to believe this woman. Shame on them."

With files from Bonnie Allen, Janani Whitfield, Guy Quenneville, The Canadian Press

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