Manitoba Justice Minister says it would be 'inappropriate' to comment on Stanley verdict

Manitoba Justice Minister says it would be 'inappropriate' to comment on Stanley verdict

As emotions continue to run high and political leaders at the federal level weigh in following the acquittal of a white Saskatchewan farmer in the death of a young Indigenous man, Manitoba's Justice Minister is saying little on the subject.

On Friday, a Battleford, Sask., jury found Gerald Stanley, 56, not guilty in the 2016 shooting death of 22-year-old Colten Boushie.

The verdict set off rallies and public outcry in many Canadian cities — including Winnipeg — and has prompted Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and the federal ministers of Justice and Indigenous Services to make comments on the subject.

But on Monday, Manitoba Justice Minister Heather Stefanson said she would not follow suit.

"Our thoughts and prayers go out to the Boushie family and their friends, and you know, it's always difficult and tragic with a loss in a family and in a community. So our hearts go out to the family and the friends and the community," Stefanson said.

"I will say though, as the Attorney General and Minister of Justice of Manitoba it would be inappropriate for me to comment further on this."

On Monday, Trudeau said Canada needs to improve some aspects of its justice system.

"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 while in California, finishing a four-day trip to the U.S.

"I know Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians alike know that we have to do better."

Federal Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould echoed the sentiment in a tweet on 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," she wrote.

Asked whether she thinks Manitoba's justice system should improve, Stefanson reiterated her previous comment.

"I will not make a comment on this," she said.

Comments from Ottawa politicians were criticized by several members of federal conservatives, who called Trudeau's comments in particular "political interference."

On Saturday, former Conservative federal justice minister Peter MacKay called the comments from federal politicians "inappropriate." He said the case could still be appealed, so politicians are technically commenting on a case currently before the courts.  

"It undermines the system of justice, quite frankly, to have politicians weigh in," he said.

A criminal lawyer from Toronto, however, said Trudeau and the federal minister's comments shouldn't be classified as political interference, and wasn't convinced they'd sway an appeal.

"I say let's take a realistic view of this. Our judges are world-class. They are tough, they're smart, and what's more, they are independent," said David Butt in an interview on CBC Manitoba's Up To Speed.

Public comments about trials aren't admissible in appeals, Butt said.

Political leaders are expected to comment in periods of emotional turbulence, he said.

"Obviously the jury verdict let loose a real tidal wave of emotion across the country. It was a big deal for Canadians from coast to coast to coast, and in those circumstances, I think any politician of any stripe who is an elected leader would really have a tin ear if they didn't say something."

'They're absolutely right'

Political comments about how a jury should decide on an ongoing case would be problematic, but that's not what federal politicians offered, Butt added. Instead, he said comments were focused on structural problems: identifying a problem in Canada's justice system, as opposed to the Stanley case itself.

"They're saying we need to do some structural reform, we need to make the justice system better, and goodness knows they're absolutely right. It does need to improve in some important respects," he said.

Gerald Heckman, an associate professor of law at the University of Manitoba, and Butt both pointed to a 2013 report written by former Supreme Court of Canada judge Frank Iacobucci for the province of Ontario. Iacobucci's report says that province's justice system is "in crisis" as it relates to Indigenous people, and under-representation of Indigenous people on juries is a symptom.

"Whatever Canadians think about the verdict, we all accept that public confidence in the justice system and in its outcomes is eroded when that system produces jury panels on which members of First Nations are under-represented or not represented," Heckman wrote in an email to CBC News.

"Stating that 'Canada can and must do better' is stating the obvious. It's something all Canadians need to hear from their government now, at this moment in time, not another five or 30 years from now."