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Op-ed: Catharyn Andersen and Dr. Julia Christensen

Colten Boushie's death should be a call to action to everyone at Memorial University

By Catharyn Andersen and Dr. Julia Christensen

On Feb. 9, 2018, a jury in Battleford, Sask., found farmer Gerald Stanley not guilty in the shooting death of Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree man from Red Pheasant First Nation.

Many Canadians are outraged over the lack of justice in not just the trial and verdict of Gerald Stanley, but in the treatment of Colton Boushie’s family by law enforcement, and the exposure that the case has given to anti-Indigenous racism at the individual and systemic levels across this land we call Canada.

Collective tragedy

In response, on Feb. 14, the national day of remembrance for missing and murdered Indigenous women, we held a panel discussion on the trial and verdict and what it means for us here at Memorial University.

Most of us understand why racism in the hearts of Canadians and in the systems we are supposed to trust (health care, the justice system, social services, and education, to name only a few) is a collective tragedy for Canada.

But why are these deep divides important to us here at Memorial? Why should we look at this as a call to action to those of us who teach, study and administer at this university?

Micro and macro racism

The injustice in this trial and verdict, and the racism expressed in its aftermath, are nothing new to Indigenous Peoples in Canada.

“That Gerald Stanley was found not guilty of the charges against him, by a jury that is reported to have been entirely non-Indigenous, came as no surprise to many Indigenous Peoples.”

Indigenous Peoples in Canada experience racism in micro and macro forms every day, from acts of deliberate physical violence, to being followed around in grocery stores, to being over-represented in the country’s child welfare system, jails and homeless shelters.

That Gerald Stanley was found not guilty of the charges against him, by a jury that is reported to have been entirely non-Indigenous, came as no surprise to many Indigenous peoples.

It did, however, come as a surprise to many non-Indigenous people in Canada; people who by and large believed that Canada has entered into a new era of reconciliation.

Insufficient self-image

What this case has brought into sharp focus is that Canada’s self-image as a nation of tolerance and hope is insufficient.

Reconciliation means more than being tolerant. It means more than cultural sensitivity. Reconciliation means creating a society that is equitable; one that recognizes that the very existence of this country rests on a relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.

“We don’t have to look too far to see evidence . . . in our own backyards — take, for example, the persistent racist discourse surrounding Muskrat Falls.”

And what we have seen over these past days is that reconciliation remains an aspirational, and painfully elusive, project. Racism towards Indigenous Peoples, both in individual interactions and systemically, is sadly alive and well in Canada.

We don’t have to look too far to see evidence of that in our own backyards — take, for example, the persistent racist discourse surrounding Muskrat Falls.

The fact that this racism is so pervasive should be a call to action for all of us at Memorial — faculty, administration, staff and students alike.

Indigenization Plan

In the days following the Stanley verdict, Canada’s universities reaffirmed their commitment “to fostering a renewed relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples in Canada, by examining and changing [their] own institutional approaches, policies, practices and structures.”

So, how can we do this here, and how can each member of our community play their part? Memorial University is about to embark on an engagement process for its university-wide strategic Indigenization Plan.

Engage. Take the time to fill out a survey, attend a session, read and learn more about what Indigenization is, and why it is important to Memorial.

Nurturing change-makers

Every year, a new cohort of students walks onto our campuses while another one leaves, and on to careers in fields like social work, education, health care, and policy development.

Every student who spends time at Memorial is a potential change-maker. It is our job here at this institution to recognize this opportunity; to nurture that potential through the active nourishment of an academic and social environment that celebrates Indigenous lands, knowledges and contributions.

“We need more engagement from allies in the pursuit of real change.”

We have come a long way in our efforts to build such an environment, through the tireless efforts of the Aboriginal Resource Office and other students, staff and faculty. Yet we still have a long way to go.

And if the past several days have shown us one thing, it’s that we need more engagement from allies in the pursuit of real change.

To change the structures and systems that allow racism to remain anchored in our society requires us to collectively commit to asserting more space for Indigenous teachers, elders and students and the epistemologies they bring; to making our campuses safe and inclusive and celebratory for Indigenous Peoples and their histories; and to recognizing and legitimizing Indigenous knowledges and their contributions inside the lecture halls of all our faculties and departments.

Memorial graduates must lead the way

A precious life was lost on the Stanley farm, a boy who is lovingly remembered by his family and friends as sensitive, an optimist, a ceremonial fire keeper.

His life mattered — it still matters.

At Memorial, we owe it to Colten Boushie to ensure that the significance and potential of his life is channeled into positive action, and that we will not be passive bystanders in the face of racism.

At this moment in our collective history, we must work to ensure that our university is not only a safe and welcoming space for all, but that the students who graduate from our programs lead the way in overcoming systemic racism.

To do this requires our collective embrace of Indigenous contributions and potential. This is how we can ensure that the life of Colten Boushie was not lost in vain.

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