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Conservatives accuse Trudeau of ‘political interference’ for comments on Stanley acquittal

VANCOUVER—The federal Conservatives are accusing Justin Trudeau of “political interference” after the prime minister responded to the acquittal of a white farmer in the death of a young Indigenous man by saying the criminal justice system has to “do better.”
Trudeau made the comments after a jury in Battleford, Sask., Friday found Gerald Stanley not guilty of second-degree murder in the 2016 death of 22-year-old Colten Boushie, a resident of the Red Pheasant First Nation.
“I’m not going to comment on the process that led to this point today, but I am going to say we have come to this point as a country far too many times,” Trudeau said in California, where he was wrapping up a four-day trip to the U.S. “I know Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians alike know that we have to do better.”
Trudeau’s comments appeared to reflect concerns expressed by hundreds of Indigenous people who took to different sites across Canada on Saturday to protest what they described as injustice and a lack of fairness within the court system.
Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould and Indigenous Services Minister Jane Philpott, meanwhile, took to Twitter to express their support for Boushie’s family and assert the need for improvements.
“My thoughts are with the family of Colten Boushie tonight,” Wilson-Raybould wrote Friday. “I truly feel your pain and I hear all of your voices. As a country we can and must do better — I am committed to working every day to ensure justice for all Canadians.”
Many concerns have been raised about discrimination toward Indigenous People in the criminal justice system; retired Supreme Court judge Frank Iacobucci, for example, raised flags about a lack of Indigenous representation on juries in Ontario in 2013.
Iacobucci’s probe was launched after an inquest into the 2007 drowning death of a high school student in Thunder Bay, Ont., was stopped because of a lack of Indigenous people on the jury.
But federal Conservatives, some of whom also expressed their condolences to Boushie’s family, nonetheless blasted Trudeau and his ministers for weighing in on a specific case.
“The tragic death and pain for the family of (Colten Boushie) is unimaginable, and our thoughts are with his community,” Conservative Indigenous affairs critic Cathy McLeod wrote on Twitter.
However, she added, “we need to let the many steps of an independent judicial process unfold without political interference.”
Conservative deputy leader Lisa Raitt and finance critic Rob Nicholson also criticized Trudeau and Wilson-Raybould, with Raitt questioning whether the prime minister and justice minister were implying that the jury arrived at the wrong verdict.
Concerns have also been raised by lawyers following federal Wilson-Raybould’s comments on the acquittal of a white farmer charged in the death of an Indigenous man in Saskatchewan.
Edmonton-based criminal lawyer Tom Engel said when politicians, especially the justice minister, appear to criticize verdicts, the public may believe that future decisions by the courts are influenced by the remarks.
He said if the case is appealed, he doesn’t believe the politicians’ comments would colour the decisions made by the appeal courts or Supreme Court of Canada.
The problem, he said, is that the public may perceive that there is an influence.
“You can’t have even that kind of appearance in our justice system,” he said.
Michael Lacy, a partner in the criminal law group Brauti Thorning Zibarras LLP in Toronto, also said politicians “have no business at all” in commenting on the outcome of a trial.
“It undermines the independence of the judicial branch,” he said in an email.
“Saying anything that amounts to commenting on the correctness of the verdict, to improve your public image or ensure an appropriate approval rating, should be criticized in Canada,” Lacy said, adding public figures should stick to offering sympathies over the tragic loss of life.
Rallies were held across the country Saturday to show support for, and solidarity with, the Boushie family.
The trial heard that Boushie was shot in the head while he was sitting in an SUV that had been driven onto Stanley’s farm near Biggar, Sask. Stanley testified that he was trying to scare off Boushie and the others in the vehicle. He said the fatal shot occurred when he reached into the SUV to grab the keys out of the ignition and his gun “just went off.”
The Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations and Boushie’s family have raised concerns about the trial because there were no visibly Indigenous jurors selected.
Perry Bellegarde, national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said Saturday that the courts are rife with systemic racism and the justice system is in need of an overhaul.
Engel said the case does raise questions about the diversity of a jury and how members are selected. He said politicians could use this as an opportunity to look at how legislative changes can improve those processes, while steering clear of discussing the verdict.
The use of peremptory challenges to eliminate certain people from juries is a procedure that needs to be reconsidered, he said, adding it’s understandable that people are questioning the apparent whiteness of the jury in this case.
“You can’t go from that fact to say the verdict was wrong. Nobody knows that,” Engel said. “I think the perception that’s been created here is just awful in terms of the integrity of that trial and whether racism played a part.”

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