Colten Boushie and Saskatchewan’s Failure of Empathy

The verdict was disappointing but not surprising. In fact, on Friday night Sarah misread a tweet from a CBC reporter and yelled down the stairs “He was found guilty of first degree murder!” That was surprising. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I thought to myself “wow, things are actually changing around here.”

 

Screen Shot 2018-02-11 at 10.45.33 PMThen, only moments later, she realized her mistake. When she yelled down the stairs a second time my heart sank. Things are not changing. I imagined how that verdict must have felt to Colten’s brother and sister. For Colten’s mother. I imagined how it would feel to be Colten.

 

Then I start browsing social media for stories and analysis. I don’t like to wade into these issues half-informed. Perspectives are so important and we have a tendency towards being sucked into echo-chambers where we only encounter opinions that are similar to our own. So I seek out other opinions and perspectives. Especially ones different from my own. These are the kinds of things I read:

 

It’s a tragedy, but if they didn’t go ripping around somebody’s property it wouldn’t have happened.

 

The real victim here in Gerald Stanley.

 

This is not about race. It was an accident. Pure and simple.

 

I have no remorse for somebody who steals from people.

 

You don’t need to think that Colten Boushie was a good person in order to think that he did not deserve to die that day. You don’t need to think Gerald Stanley is evil in order to think he was wrong to start waving around a handgun that day. You don’t need to think the shooting was intentional to recognize that racism affects the lives of non-whites in ways that white people might have a hard time seeing and understanding. And you don’t need to be a bleeding heart to have a heart.

 

You don’t need to be a preachy social justice warrior to empathize with Colten Boushie and his family. The insistence that this is not about race belies an attitude of indifference or ignorance towards Canada’s colonial history.

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Imagine having your children taken away. Imagine having your culture taken away. Imagine growing up in a windowless trailer with no functioning toilet on a reserve outside of North Battleford. Imagine the growing up with the hopelessness, isolation, abuse, and disease associated with poverty in northern communities. Imagine this playing out over multiple generations.

 

If you step back from yourself, from the things you believe and things you want to believe, you can’t help but feel your heart breaking.

Imagine you are Colten Boushie’s mother waiting for her 22 year-old son to come home when you see the police cars with sirens headed straight for your home. They barge into your house, telling you your son is dead before searching his room. They ask you if you have been drinking and smell your breath. Just try to imagine how painful that must have been.

 

The people of Saskatchewan, of Canada, need to feel that pain before we can even begin to talk about reconciliation. Without empathy there can be no reconciliation.

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Insisting that racism played no part in this case, that racism is not a problem because you are not a racist, or that reverse racism is just as bad is the opposite of reconciliation. It sows discord and factionalism.

 

What we need right now is to hear the stories and listen with an open heart. We need to know what life is like in northern reserves. We need to hear about how many white kids have been day-drunk and ripping around farmer’s fields with little more than an angry phone call to the RCMP. We need to hear stories from residential schools. We need elders to tell us about the way things were, and the way they might be. We need to listen.

 

I am a middle aged, middle class, straight white guy with a nice home in a beautiful neighborhood. My wife and children love and support me. My neighbors smile and wave when I walk down my street to my business where I meet more and more of the wonderful people in my community. I have leveraged that privilege for many things, not the least of which is a public voice.

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Empathy demands that my privileged voice speaks out at this moment. This is not a decision made with my mind. It is the voice of my heart.

 

Justice for Colten means more than empathy. It means large-scale changes to the justice system, reconciliation, and some serious soul-searching when it comes to institutional racism in Canada. But it starts with empathy.

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