Tracing the Likeness of Coulten Boushie in the Law Classroom (cross posted on Ablawg.ca)

On January 29, 2018, the nation’s gaze was decidedly fixed on Battleford, Saskatchewan where the second-degree murder trial of Gerald Stanley was commencing. From that first day of jury selection to the present, there is a general sense of shock, outrage and disbelief from so many corners of our country. In the legal community, there is much debate on the legal issues arising from the trial as well as concerns with jury selection and the presence of discriminatory practices that are embedded in our justice system. Many voices are being heard that are challenging the traditional common law perspective. Many of these voices are from the Indigenous community who are speaking from their heart and from their own personal experiences. As part of this reaction, the legal community is debating these issues through a variety of lenses and all sides of the issues. Like most everyone touched by this issue, I have read these accounts with interest. As a lawyer who practiced criminal law and now teaches it, my initial reaction is typically lawyerly: to parse the charge to the jury for legal errors, to debate the efficacy of peremptory challenges and to call for change in our justice system. But the overwhelming message, in my view, the message which needs to be presented in the law classroom is not just one promoting a legalistic analysis but one providing a broader more meaningful message presenting this case and this verdict as part of an overarching theme or subtext, which can be traced in the law classroom.

As mentioned, there are many salient legal arguments to be made in wake of the acquittal of Stanley for the murder of Colten Boushie. Most of those arguments are legalistic involving the law of homicide and the mens rea requirements for unlawful act manslaughter, the legal significance of the so-called “defence” of accident, opinion and expert evidence, instructions to the jury, and jury selection. But overlaid onto these legal arguments is the brutal truth – that our criminal justice system is slow to embrace the kind of change needed to make our justice system reflective of our Indigenous peoples. In fact, we have been meandering toward change in a very familiar and comfortable manner. To my case-law attuned mind comes the expression “incremental” change (i.e. R v Salituro, [1991] 3 SCR 654) as a description of how the justice system has responded to the dire issues raised by the Indigenous voices attempting to awaken the system. I cannot pretend to speak on behalf of those voices nor do I have the right to do so but I can through my own personal perspective add to this much needed call for change. To trace the likeness of this issue though the law classroom is an important piece of the awareness or awakening which needs to happen in our legal profession. We are the defenders of the rule of law but also the framers of that law and we need the future of our profession to be mindful of this awesome duty to create sustainable and meaningful change through law.

The trail must start somewhere, and I will choose to start it with a case which resonated with me as a young law student and then lawyer and still catches in my throat today: the story of Donald Marshall Jr., a young Mi’kmaq man wrongfully convicted of murder. His story was an egregious example of the miscarriage of justice our system could generate, and a shameful example of the discrimination and racism tolerated in that system. Out of that example came an acquittal, after years in prison, a royal commission advocating change, and a man who dedicated his life and voice to Indigenous rights. As inspirational as he is even a decade after his death in 2009, his example dates back to the 1980’s, some 35 years ago. His fight for traditional fishing rights culminated in a decision by the Supreme Court of Canada in 1999 (R v Marshall, [1999] 3 SCR 456) in which he was vindicated yet again for breaches of the Fisheries Act but this time on behalf of his people. This story exemplifies the subtext that can be found within the borders of case law and between the words enunciated by a jury verdict.

But I do not need to go back that far to continue the trace or the shadow cast by the “long arm of the law.” When I taught as a sessional instructor human rights and civil liberties to undergraduate criminal justice students in the 2000’s, I was sure to discuss Burnt Church First Nation’s struggle with fishing rights, the Neil Stonechild tragic and unnecessary death, and the treatment and incarceration of Indigenous peoples in the prison system as seen through Michael Jackson QC’s perspective on prisoner’s rights, the Arbour Report on the Prison for Women and the numerous reports from the Correctional Investigator of Canada. Added to this narrative is the Truth and Reconciliation Report and the call to action for monumental change, not incremental change, needed to eradicate injustice in our system. This mountain of information is more than a discussion piece it is the reality of our criminal justice system.

But the Stanley trial and the implications of the case shakes me out of past legal narratives to the present and to the continuing issues we see within the criminal justice system. In the 1L classroom my criminal law colleagues and I implemented curriculum changes to include Aboriginal sentencing issues and a panel discussion to hear, understand and experience the human connection between Gladue reports (R v Gladue, [1999] 1 SCR 688) and the criminal court room. Again, an example of how the law almost two decades ago changed but the impact of that change has not been a visceral one but a legalistic conversation which still haunts the criminal court room and the law classroom.

New cases emerge, adding to the memories of Donald Marshall and emphasizing the need to offer these examples as the contextual foreground in law classroom doctrinal learnings. Gladue comes easily to us as a paradigm of a discrete area of law involving clear statutory directions in s. 718.2 to include the aboriginal perspective. These newer examples are more difficult legally as they serve as counterpoints to the traditional trope of miscarriage of justice through the accused’s perspective. We are comfortable in law dressing our outrage in the language of legal errors directed toward our most cherished values as embodied in the presumption of innocence. This is important as evidenced in the Donald Marshall case but what is not evident and what is harder to debate is the criminal justice system as a societal mirror of how we implement the rule of law on behalf of the entire nation. To push ourselves to view justice in a big picture way is counterintuitive to the lawyer who is trained to peer through the magnifying glass and find those lacunae, those minute errors which provide us with the “Aha” moment when we can decry a miscarriage of justice on behalf of the accused who must face the imbalance of state authority and power. But it behoves us all to take up the mantle of lasting change by widening the focus and emboldening a deeper conversation involving the entirety of the justice system. These cases sit at the edges of the law but also serve as the reminders of what is at stake when the criminal justice system provides space for the stereotypical characterization of Cindy Gladue in R v Barton, 2017 ABCA 216 (see my previous posting on the case) and the impassive resistance of the complainant in R v Blanchard (see Alice Woolley’s excellent posting on this case)

The subtext or context or trace of the likeness of Colten Bushie can and must be taken in the law classroom. We must approach the discriminatory and slow to change mechanisms of our criminal justice system not as a mere legal problem or as a simple teachable legal moment akin to an in-class case hypothetical but as a mindful approach to what the legal principles and case law really mean. These discussions are hard and debatable but that does not mean we do not do it. We should question and debate the role of law in our society. A society committed to diversity, change and tolerance as reflected in our laws and our application of those laws. Sometimes incremental change works but sometimes it merely pulls from behind and pushes forward the vestiges of our legal past. If we want real change we need to listen to the echoes of the past through the lens of today and that includes the black-letter law we teach in the classroom.

We have the tools of reconciliation – desire and willingness to change but we need courage to do so. Our justice system is slow to embrace and integrate indigenous learning and practices. It should not be a question of accommodating or conforming. It should be a question of inclusivity. We are a unique nation and we need to recognize injustice when we see it and welcome those voices into the law classroom.

 

 

Blog Interruption: To Kill A Mockingbird

I interrupt my blog scheduled for today for good reason. Yesterday, I saw the excellent Theatre Calgary production of To Kill a Mockingbird. The play, based on the book by Harper Lee, recounts a seminal year in the childhood of Jean Louise (Scout) Finch in the backdrop of a rape trial of a Black man in the deep American South of the 1930s. Scout's father, Atticus Finch, is the lawyer, representing the accused.

The case has already been decided by the townspeople many years before the trial even starts; the victim is a White woman. The audience knows this and knows the inevitable will happen; an innocent man will be convicted and put to death because of the colour of his skin. We know this and yet we hope. As Jean Louise, her brother Jem, and her friend, Dill, hope, so we too hope. But like a train wreck waiting to happen, it happens and the shock of the inevitable is still crushing no matter how we try to cushion ourselves from it.

This play/book is an important reminder of the frailty of human kind and the impact which justice and injustice has on it. Indeed, one cannot help but feel, after reading the book or watching the play or movie, that equality and justice is the paramount goal for which we all strive, even if it takes us a long time to get there.

In order to get there, according to Atticus Finch, we must have empathy for others, live in another man's shoes so to speak, see the world through another woman's eyes; the disenfranchised, the vulnerable, and yes, even the prejudiced. Only then can we truly recognize each other and make steps, even baby steps, toward a free and just society.

Thank you Harper Lee for this reminder.

For more on literature, law, and miscarriages of justice see my October 18 blog on Julian Barnes, Sherlock Holmes, and A Miscarriage of Justice. For more on the backdrop to the case dramatized in To Kill A Mockingbird, read about the Scottsboro case here.  On the banning of this book in schools read the 2009 Toronto Star article here. Finally, read the book, go to the play, or watch the movie!

Tomorrow, I will reconnect with the Supreme Court of Canada and the case they should and, possibly, will take.

Julian Barnes, Sherlock Holmes, and A Miscarriage of Justice

Yesterday, the British writer, Julian Barnes, won the 2011 prestigious Man Booker Prize. I have read many of his books, some of which are particularly clever, such as The History of the World in 10 and A Half Chapters, with one chapter dedicated to a discussion of Theodore Gericault's 1819 painting of the aftermath of a shipwreck in The Raft of the Medusa.

Barnes also recently wrote a book simply entitled Arthur & George. This book fictionalizes the real-life relationship between Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, and a unassuming solicitor named George Edalji. This semi-fictional account juxtaposes the lives of these two men in the backdrop of one of England's infamous cases of injustice. Edalji, of Indian ethnicity, was wrongly accused and convicted of mutilating cattle and sending poisonous letters in support of the crime. He was sentenced to seven years of hard labour and disbarred until Conan Doyle "took up his case" in a purely Holmesian manner, and managed to clear Edalji's name and restore his law society membership.

This case reminds us that one miscarriage of justice is one too many. In Canada, where such miscarriages have been revealed, not by celebrity writers, but by hard-working individuals, committed lawyers, and dedicated associations, we must be watchful and protective of justice and the repercussions of injustice. 

On September 15, 2011, the Canadian Federal/Provincial/Territorial (FPT) Heads of Prosecutions Committee on the Prevention of Miscarriages of Justice released an update to their 2005 Report. The original Report is large in scope and contains many recommendations. It tackles a broad range of issues, including systemic injustices caused by Crown/Police tunnel vision. This update, entitled The Path to Justice: Preventing Wrongful Convictions, reviews prosecutorial practices and makes further recommendations. Interestingly, the update starts with a quote from another British writer of justice, Charles Dickens, in his book The Mystery of Edwin Drood:

Circumstances may accumulate so strongly even against an innocent man, that directed, sharpened, and pointed, they may slay him.

Barnes, Conan Doyle, and Dickens reminds us, in a literary and engaging way, of the importance of justice in our legal system. It is up to us, however, to translate these works into reality.This requires, as stated in the FPT Update, "continued vigilance."