After the killing of a young Indigenous man near Biggar, Sask., in August, local Anglicans and Lutherans have been confronted with the challenge of putting what they have learned about reconciliation into practice, says the Rev. Mark Kleiner, priest-in-charge at St. Paul’s Anglican Church and Redeemer Lutheran Church in Biggar.
On August 9, 22-year-old Colten Boushie was on his way home to Red Pheasant First Nation from an afternoon of swimming when he and his friends pulled into the farm of Gerald Stanley.
Boushie’s cousin, Eric Meechance, who was with him at the time, said their truck had gotten a flat tire and they had pulled into Stanley’s yard to fix it. However, an altercation reportedly ensued that culminated in the shooting of Boushie. RCMP have charged Stanley with second-degree murder; he has pleaded not guilty.
In the days and weeks that followed, Biggar became a headline not only for the shooting itself, but also for the outpouring of vitriolic and racist comments on social media from some members of the non-Indigenous community.
Kleiner, who has served Biggar for five years but will assume a new post in Saskatoon next month, says the incident has revealed a deep undercurrent of racial animosity in the area that has been festering for years.
The community, he said, is one where Indigenous and non-Indigenous people often do not interact. (Neither of his congregations have Indigenous members.) Many of the non-Indigenous people in Biggar and on the surrounding farms also believe that Indigenous people are responsible for a rise in crime in the area, he said. Kleiner said there has been a concerted effort among many locals to shift the focus to the issue of property crime, rather than racism.
“In the wake of the shooting, what really stunned me was the extent to which people around town hunkered down into a very defensive posture,” he said. “Regardless of the circumstances, which are going to be discussed in the courts, there is a family here whose loved one is dead. And I wasn’t encountering empathy, just basic human empathy.”
Kleiner said that many want to paint the shooting as an isolated event. But he argued that Boushie’s death cannot be isolated from the much wider context of Indigenous and non-Indigenous relations in Saskatchewan and Western Canada.
“There is a legacy of hurt and pain that runs very deep through this part of the world,” he said, noting that the area was deeply affected by the discredited Indian residential school system.
In an interview, National Indigenous Anglican Bishop Mark MacDonald shared Kleiner’s view about the issue, adding that the relationship between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people is not an equal one.
“This incident, which is quite stunningly violent and difficult…is part of a larger pattern of racial conflict in the area-and I would even describe it as racial oppression,” he said. “It is not like this happened out of the blue.”
MacDonald noted, however, that the prominence given to the story is a sign of changing attitudes around violence against Indigenous people in Canada.
“I think that it could have gone by unnoticed, say, a few years back,” he said. “I think today the consciousness has been raised, not just among Indigenous people, but by non-Indigenous people as well, and certainly by the non-Indigenous media.”
While Kleiner agreed, noting that Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) has done much to raise awareness of issues around racism directed at Canada’s Indigenous people, he was also careful to note the gulf between people’s cognitive understanding of an issue and what they hold in their hearts.
His tenure at the church coincided during the creation of the TRC, and in that time, the church hosted a number of events around reconciliation. These included talks to the congregation by the treaty commissioner and a residential school survivor, the facilitation of an event for the wider community, and services for National Aboriginal Day and for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
However, in the aftermath of Boushie’s death, Kleiner said he heard people talking about frustrations with the Indigenous community that had never been discussed before.
“There can be such a disconnect between our own worshipping liturgical life and what is actually on the hearts and minds of people in the pews,” he said, noting that some people admitted that they have held back from making comments out of fear of censure.
“How do we have a conversation where it is safe to speak honestly what is on one’s heart, especially when one is aware that, ‘You know what, what is on my heart may get me branded a racist’?”
If there is an upside to the ugly things that have been said, Kleiner said, it is that they are finally being said in public-which means there is a potential chance for real change to happen.
“Things, I think, in some ways can get worse before they get better,” he said. “As ugly as that is, at least there is almost something we can begin to work with.”
With Kleiner moving back to Saskatoon, however, the future of reconciliation lies with the members of the community itself. But he is optimistic that some members from the churches will take up the torch and be a “prophetic voice,” leading the way.