Nora Loreto is a Canadian freelance writer and author of “From Demonized to Organized: Building the New Union Movement.”
On the night of Feb. 4, 2016, Peter Khill woke up to sounds coming from his driveway. He went to the window and saw someone in his pickup truck, a 2001 GMC.
He walked outside, toward the truck, and fatally shot the man inside from behind and at close range. Khill said he thought Jon Styres had a gun. He didn’t. On June 27, a jury acquitted Khill of second-degree murder, deciding he had acted in self-defense.
The story sounds like it could come from an American town where so-called “stand your ground” laws give landowners the right to protect private property, even if someone dies as a result of an altercation.
But it wasn’t in the United States. It was in a suburban driveway in Hamilton, Ontario. Hamilton, a city with more than 550,000 people, is about 30 miles southwest of Toronto.
Styres was from Oshweken, a community in the Six Nations of the Grand River, a First Nations reserve close to Hamilton. Khill, a former army reservist, referenced his military training as part of why he ran out to confront Styres.
Khill’s acquittal is the third high-profile murder acquittal in Canada this year. In each case, the victim was Indigenous and the alleged perpetrator was white. On February 22, a jury found Raymond Cormier not guilty of second-degree murder in the death of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine, whose body was found wrapped in a duvet at the bottom of the Red River of the North, which passes through Winnipeg.
Two weeks before Cormier was acquitted, Gerald Stanley was also acquitted of second-degree murder. Stanley, a Saskatchewan farmer, allegedly shot and killed Colten Boushie in August 2016, after seeing Boushie and four others from the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in an SUV on his property. Stanley argued that his gun accidentally discharged as he confronted Boushie and his friends, and the jury agreed. Stanley’s acquittal set off waves of protest and anger, notably because the jury appeared to be comprised of only white jurors.
In the United States, Florida’s stand-your-ground law rose to international prominence when George Zimmerman was acquitted in the 2012 shooting death of African American teenager Trayvon Martin. The Tampa Bay Times investigated how “stand your ground” is applied and found a significant racial impact: 73 percent of alleged perpetrators were not penalized when the victim was black. That number drops to 59 percent when the victim was white. The Urban Institute found an even greater discrepancy when it pulled from FBI data from across the United States: White-on-black homicide was 281 percent more likely to be labeled justified than a white-on-white homicide.
More than half of American states have some kind of shoot-first law.
Canada’s love affair with guns is far less explicit, which makes it more difficult to see. There are no constitutional amendments or laws that protect one’s right to gun ownership. But in 2013, Prime Minister Stephen Harper changed the criminal code to allow property owners to use “reasonable force” to protect private property. Since 2013, there have been very few court cases to test what reasonable force means. Self-defense remains a fluid concept open to interpretation.
Its fluidity collides with broadly held racist ideals of who is dangerous and who must be policed. As in the United States, the racial impact of who is considered dangerous, and therefore who is justified in shooting in self-defense, is undeniable.
The intersection of the defense of private property and the use of racism to justify protecting private property is quintessentially Canadian. Canada was founded on the myth of Terra Nullius — that the territory that Canada currently occupies was empty forest at the time of European exploration and settlement. In reality, North America was home to hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people who spoke hundreds of languages and dialects, had complex governance systems and diverse communities. Before 1867, imperial forces carved up these nations and waged wars against people across the Americas. After July 1, 1867, Canada’s rule of law was used to justify the detention and forcible removal of Indigenous people in an effort to eliminate them entirely.
One of the tactics used was the residential school system, in which children were stolen from families and placed into institutions. Parents who refused were arrested and abuse was rampant. The intention of these schools was to erase Indigenous culture and language. The last one closed in 1996.
There was also the creation of the North-West Mounted Police (now the Royal Canadian Mounted Police) and Canada’s transnational railway, both of which forced Indigenous peoples off their land and made way for white settlements. Through federal laws, the Mounted Police enforced a pass system that kept Indigenous people on reserve lands, and made Indigenous ceremonies illegal.
Private property in Canada has always been about domain over territory. Harper’s 2013 changes to the Criminal Code are intimately tied to this, just as are the outcomes of Khill’s and Stanley’s trials.
In Stanley’s case, the repeated defense for why he confronted Boushie and his friends was that he thought they were going to steal from him. In December 2017, a white rancher was convicted of stealing $1.2 million in farm equipment in the same region as Stanley’s farm. He received a suspended sentence and probation.
In 2016, just 3 percent of all violent crimes in Canada were committed with a firearm. Acquittals are rare: 4 percent of violent crimes in 2015 resulted in an acquittal. Both Stanley and Khill are statistically very lucky, if you consider their cases from individual points of view. But they fit into a broader reality: that racist stereotypes are used to justify violence. These acquittals are not one-off coincidences; they are tied to a settler-state mentality that continues to form Canadian identity.
After celebrating the 151st birthday of Canada on July 1, Canadians have yet another reason to feel shame and to reflect: How can we confront the colonial practices that have caused so much destruction and harm on this territory? At the very least, it starts by refusing to put property’s value ahead of human life.