No, rural Prairie dwellers, you can’t shoot to protect your property

Gerald Stanley never claimed such a right, but his trial resurrected a dangerous fallacy among residents that could cause future grief

The trial of Gerald Stanley stirred debate beyond the courtroom about the use of deadly force to protect property (Liam Richards/CP)

The death of Colten Boushie has exposed many ugly attitudes in Saskatchewan, and few as troubling as the idea that a person has some inherent right to shoot to protect property like ATVs, trucks and tools. The argument has taken root in online debate around the trial of Gerald Stanley, the man accused of killing Boushie, and it’s hard to say what’s more astounding: the ignorance underlying it, or the arrogance it implies.

Ignorance, because anyone with a passing familiarity with the Criminal Code as it pertains to self-defence should know the argument has zero basis in law. Worse still is the swelling tide of rhetoric about how it should be legal in Canada to shoot to protect property “like it is in the United States.” (It’s not legal in the U.S. either—homicide is defensible only in some states under specific circumstances. Use-of-force laws vary by state, as does their interpretation by police, prosecutors and judges; even in so-called “stand your ground” and “Castle Doctrine” states, there is no allowance to attack without cause, and the law varies regarding use of lethal force.)

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Arrogance, because only someone with a grossly inflated sense of him- or herself would consider his possessions more valuable than a human life. Think of your sister, your father or your son, then think of the all the material objects over which they should be killed. Can’t think of any? How, then, can you apply that standard to someone else’s sister, father or son?

Yet it’s stunning how many people are trotting out this argument, stirred anew by Stanley’s trial in the death of 22-year-old Boushie, who was part of a group of First Nations individuals who had come up Stanley’s rural Saskatchewan driveway in an SUV. Stanley testified that—far from shooting Boushie to protect himself, his family or his property—he’d approached the vehicle when the gun he’d been wielding discharged accidentally. He told court he’d previously fired a few warning shots into the air with the semi-automatic handgun, but removed the magazine before he approached the car and thought the gun was disarmed. He was reaching in across the steering wheel to turn the keys off, he testified, when the gun somehow went off.

RELATED: What the tragedy of Colten Boushie says about racism in Canada

“Protecting your assets is a part of protecting your life,” said Darryl on Facebook, one of many commenters leaving similar posts on news stories covering the trial.

“I’m sorry but I have recently had my garage broken into and I feel violated as I grew up and was taught you don’t touch people’s property,” said Gary. “I have lived in Peace country of AB to South western SK and I’m sorry, properties are being violated and I don’t care if the violation is done by white, Asian, African, indigenous or a lawyer, it is wrong and people need to protect their property.”

Well, Gary, you’re in luck, because you can protect your property. You can lock it up, you can build a fence, you can get big dogs, you can even get insurance. What you can’t do is shoot another human being to defend it.

You could dismiss the views of Darryl and Gary as drivel from the online fringe if they didn’t echo a much louder, collective signal set off by the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities (SARM). Seven months after Boushie’s death, 93 per cent of delegates attending SARM’s 2017 annual convention voted in favour of a resolution to lobby governments for expanded “rights and justification” for concerned property owners dealing with what was described by the resolution’s proponent as “out of control” rural crime.

Saskatchewan’s Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) immediately condemned the resolution and its implications. Vice-chief Kim Jonathan said she was “disgusted,” and concerned it could lead to “more violent confrontations and (the) deaths of more innocent people.”

RELATED: In Saskatchewan, a trial’s jury selection reveals a legal injustice

FSIN Chief Bobby Cameron asked SARM delegates to reconsider the message they were sending with an overwhelmingly, almost unanimous voice.

“We understand protecting your property, protecting things like that,” Cameron told reporters. “But in all honestly, let’s get back to the human spirit — is a tractor tire or a stolen vehicle worth killing someone? I don’t think so … We’ve got to continue working together.”

But let’s consider, for a moment, this scourge of rural property crime rocking the Prairies. According to Statistics Canada, total actual incidents (meaning all reported incidents minus any the RCMP deemed unfounded) of criminal code violations involving property crime in rural Saskatchewan increased 10 percent from January 1, 2012 to December 31, 2016. The sharpest increase was between 2014 and 2015, which coincides with the drawing to a close of Saskatchewan’s resource-based economic boom, which arguably hit the province’s oil patch and its workers hardest.

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Stats Can reported that in 2016 there were 33,863 actual incidents (meaning all incidents reported to law enforcement, minus any that were deemed unfounded) of property crime in 80 rural Saskatchewan communities. Some 8,500, or 25 per cent, of those incidents were committed in just six rural Saskatchewan communities. Four of those six communities are in the upper north quadrant of the province—far from the vast majority of those complaining about property crime, who largely seem to live south of an imaginary line crossing Saskatchewan from Lloydminister to Prince Albert to the Manitoba border. Further, only 10,000 per 100,000 of the rural population, or 10 percent, were affected by property crime. Seems high, perhaps, until you consider that number is skewed by northern Saskatchewan communities where the rate of property crimes committed per capita reaches anywhere from 68 to 92 percent.

Nevertheless, the narrative prevails, and local Indigenous residents have been implicated as the culprits.

“In Saskatchewan ‘rural crime’ is a dog-whistle term that means aboriginal people,” wrote Postmedia columnist Doug Cuthand last summer in response to the provincial government’s announcement of a new “rural crime response team,” which included expanded powers of arrest for conservation and highway officers as well as more rural cops. “This is an act of aggression on our people and it will only result in more incarceration and a siege mentality among our people.”

While Cuthand’s ratcheted rhetoric isn’t particularly helpful, he’s not wrong about the coded language. Inherent in every comment insisting that the right to use lethal force to defend property isn’t racist, is the silent addendum of “it’s not my fault the criminals happen to be Indigenous.” True, it may not be directly, but if we’ve learned anything by now, it’s that the current, largely colonialized societal systems in place fail to serve, in fact are further hurting, the Indigenous population.

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Many Saskatchewan residents appear to cling to the idea that by being “tough on crime” we will reduce crime rates. Yet the social science research makes it clear that harsh punishment, or the high rate of incarceration for Indigenous peoples, has been linked to systemic discrimination and racial prejudice, which in turn feeds substance abuse and intergenerational loss, violence and trauma.

Anyone else see the problem here?

Suffice to say, it’s hard to imagine Stanley’s trial doing anything to ease the distrust already sown—regardless of the evidence heard in court. If he walks, or is convicted on a lesser charge, it will feed a vicious cycle, reinforcing belief among Indigenous people—and those non-Indigenous people who believe it already—that all the systems, including the justice and correctional, value property over Indigenous lives. Given what they’ve heard in the court of public opinion since Boushie’s death, could you blame them?