OTTAWA — When seven police officers arrived at the home of Debbie Baptiste in August 2016, encircling the house and carrying rifles, they informed her that her son was dead. Then, instead of comforting the grieving mother, they asked if she had been drinking and told her to “get it together.”
The callous treatment of Ms. Baptiste, a Cree woman, as well as other incidents of racial discrimination by the police against her family, were detailed in an independent review released to the public Monday that inquired into police conduct and their investigation of the death of Colten Boushie, a 22-year-old Cree man in Saskatchewan.
The scathing report by the Civilian Review and Complaints Commission for the Royal Canadian Mounted Police found that the officers treated Ms. Baptiste “with such insensitivity that her treatment amounted to a prima facie case of discrimination.” The watchdog group, which has no power to penalize, also found that the police failed to protect evidence at the crime scene where Mr. Boushie was killed and destroyed records related to its handling of the case.
“It felt like I was forever fighting a battle that could never be won,” Ms. Baptiste told a news conference on Monday. “The injustices of racism in the courtroom, the discrimination needs to stop. Things need to change. We need a change for the future generation.”
Mr. Boushie was shot and killed after he and four other Indigenous people drove onto the property of Gerald Stanley in August 2016. Mr. Stanley testified at trial that he believed their goal was theft, which he and his son tried to prevent.
Mr. Stanley was acquitted in 2018 after testifying that he had unintentionally shot Mr. Boushie in the back of the head when his semiautomatic pistol experienced a rare mechanical malfunction. The verdict shocked many Indigenous Canadians.
In a country where politicians usually demur when asked about court decisions, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has made healing Canada’s relations with its Indigenous people a priority, posted a message of support and met with Mr. Boushie’s family following the 2018 trial.
On Monday Mr. Trudeau told reporters that the treatment of Mr. Boushie’s family and friends “was unacceptable,” adding, “We have seen, unfortunately, examples of systemic racism within the R.C.M.P., within many of our institutions, and we need to do better.”
The National Police Federation, a union representing the mounted police, countered the report’s findings, saying it “advances a perspective that disrespects our members and brings their impartiality, dedication and professionalism into question.” In a separate response to the report, the union dismissed the commission’s account of events at Ms. Baptiste’s house contending that it “solely reflects the Boushie family’s interpretation of the interaction,” and did not reflect the accounts of the attending officers.
“The R.C.M.P. union is still asking people in this country not to believe this woman,” Chris Murphy, a lawyer for the Boushie family told reporters. “Shame on them.”
The killing and the acquittal remain sources of anger for many Indigenous Canadians who have argued the case exposed significant flaws in Canada’s legal system. Mr. Boushie’s family and others said that police were racially discriminatory toward them while being deferential to a farmer who was ultimately charged with murder.
Mr. Boushie had gone swimming with friends when a tire went flat on their Ford Escape near Mr. Stanley’s farm in central Saskatchewan. Mr. Stanley testified that he and his son thought the group, many of whom were intoxicated, was trying to steal vehicles. The two men came out with guns and also attacked the Escape with a hammer. After Mr. Boushie was killed, the others fled.
As a result, the commission found, police descended on Ms. Baptiste’s house on the Red Pheasant Cree Nation, her Indigenous community, with two goals: to inform her of Mr. Boushie’s death and to search for a member of Mr. Boushie’s group of friends as part of a related investigation into theft and attempted theft. No one from the group was ultimately charged with theft.
Officers armed with rifles encircled Ms. Baptiste’s house and told her about her son’s death when she came to the front porch. After hearing the news, Ms. Baptiste collapsed and was brought inside by police.
“Ms. Baptiste displayed distress at the news they had just given her, one member told her to ‘get it together,’” the report found. “One or more RCMP members smelled her breath” apparently for signs of alcohol.
Even though they lacked a required search warrant, police officers searched Ms. Baptiste’s home.
Back at the crime scene, the report found lax investigative practices. Little effort was made to collect forensic evidence in the immediate aftermath and little was done to protect evidence at the scene. Despite forecasts of poor weather, the Ford Escape in which Mr. Boushie was killed was not covered, allowing rain to wash away blood-splatter evidence before forensic experts arrived about three days later, according to the commission.
The commission said that it also had “significant concern” over the major crimes unit’s failure to visit the crime scene when it took over the case. It also criticized the police for failing to tell Mr. Stanley, his wife and son not to discuss the case among themselves before giving statements and for allowing them to travel together to a mounted police station in a family car that was part of the crime scene.
The report also noted that the police destroyed recordings and transcripts of their communications from the time of the killing, which did follow standard retention protocols, but occurred knowing that Mr. Boushie’s family and the commission had initiated complaints for which these files would have been relevant.
“We have acknowledged that systemic racism exists in the R.C.M.P.,” the Saskatchewan division of the mounted police said in a statement, adding that it plans to carry out the recommendations in the commission’s report.
In addition to recommendations that involve reviewing procedures with the officers involved in the case, as well as reviewing the general practices of the Mounties in that part of Saskatchewan, the commission said that cultural awareness training should be provided for all employees of the police force “bearing in mind the factors identified in recent inquiries.”
The Royal Canadian Mounted Police commissioner, Brenda Lucki, who was given the opportunity to comment on the commission’s findings in advance of its release, said that she accepted its main findings although she rejected some small points in the report
“This whole justice system from the top down needs to be restored,” Chief Bobby Cameron of the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations, which represents First Nations in Saskatchewan, told a news conference. “Brenda Lucki, what are you going to do rather than just say we agree with what’s been found? Big deal. Brenda Lucki, do something.”