There are striking parallels between the murder cases of Colten Boushie, a young Indigenous man fatally shot on a Saskatchewan farm in 2016, and Helen Betty Osborne, a 19-year-old Cree woman abducted and brutally murdered in The Pas in 1971.
Both were marred by sloppy RCMP investigations, each was fuelled by racial discrimination and both contributed to a culture of injustice against Indigenous people.
The Civilian Review and Complaints Commission released its final report Monday into the murder of Mr. Boushie, who was shot and killed after the vehicle he was riding in entered the property of Gerald Stanley near Biggar, Sask. The report found myriad problems with the RCMP investigation, including a failure to preserve the crime scene, resulting in the loss of important bloodstain evidence.
The RCMP’s major-crimes unit did not visit the property, and police failed to employ forensic specialists to analyze evidence. It took the RCMP three days to obtain a warrant to search the property.
It is impossible to know with certainty how those departures from investigative norms affected the prosecution (which ended in the acquittal of Mr. Stanley), the commission found. However, it would stretch credulity to suggest they had no impact.
The murder of Ms. Osborne nearly 50 years ago, one of the most well-known cases of racist and sexualized violence against Indigenous women, was also fraught with investigative errors by the RCMP. Mistakes were made at the crime scene and police failed to follow up on important leads. They chose not to arrest four white male suspects during the initial investigation; many Indigenous people, by contrast, were brought in for questioning as possible suspects (all were cleared).
Only one of four suspects, Dwayne Archie Johnston, was convicted, but not until 15 years later (and only because of the enterprising efforts of one RCMP constable).
Neither the commission’s findings in the Boushie case, nor Manitoba’s 1991 Aboriginal Justice Inquiry (which probed the Osborne murder) found conclusive evidence that racial discrimination materially affected the outcome of the police investigations. The full legal impact of racial bias in the justice system is not always verifiable. However, its existence in the broader scope of both cases was demonstrably evident.
The commission found RCMP officers discriminated against Mr. Boushie’s mother, Debbie Baptiste, when they surrounded her home with police officers while she was informed of her son’s death. They asked if she had been drinking and smelled her breath, as officers scoured her home without permission in search of a witness they believed (based on a flimsy lead) had a firearm. Officers opened Ms. Baptiste’s microwave oven to verify claims her son’s dinner was there awaiting his return.
"Not only did the RCMP members’ actions show little regard or compassion for Ms. Baptiste’s distress and pain, they compounded her suffering by treating her as if she was lying," the commission found.
The RCMP issued a press release following the shooting that focused on an alleged property crime, with no mention of a murder investigation. It gave the impression Mr. Boushie’s killing was justified, the report said.
Circumstances surrounding the Osborne case were also rife with racial discrimination. The failure by the RCMP to follow up on some leads was likely influenced by racial bias, as was the silence of white townspeople in The Pas who refused to come forward with relevant information about the case, the AJI found.
Almost 50 years after the killing of Helen Betty Osborne, racial discrimination remains an infuriating and deeply disturbing feature of Canada’s justice system, which feigns enlightment as it allows racial inequalities to fester.