We have updated our Privacy Policy, effective May 25, 2018, to clarify how we collect and process your personal data. By continuing to use this website, you acknowledge that you have read and agree to the updated Privacy Policy.

Dark Matters

After the deaths of Colten Boushie, Tina Fontaine, and so many others, Canadian society seems much more convinced about what didn’t cause them than what did.

Alicia Elliott is a Tuscarora writer from Six Nations living in Brantford, Ontario, with her...

Recent Articles

 

To say dark matter was “discovered” seems disingenuous since, theoretically, dark matter has always been here, filling space we once thought of as empty. In that way it’s not so different from these lands, which my people refer to as Turtle Island. To this day, people claim the Americas were “discovered” in 1492, despite millions of people living on these lands, creating on these lands, building histories on these lands for centuries before Columbus ambled along. Terra nullius, they called it. Empty land. It takes a certain kind of arrogance to assume that everything is empty before you choose to see it.

*

My family and I had just sat down in a Starbucks when I found out. I opened Twitter, looked at my mentions. An acquaintance had tagged me and a number of Indigenous people I knew. Three words were written at the end of the list: “I’m so sorry.” Nothing more needed to be said. I knew at that moment white Saskatchewan farmer Gerald Stanley had been found innocent of all charges related to his killing of twenty-two-year-old nêhiyaw man Colten Boushie.

There’s never a good time to get news that breaks you, but sitting in a Starbucks with your family in the midst of a vacation seems particularly inopportune. My husband and child were visiting Vancouver while I was on a fellowship at a major university. We’d visited the Contemporary Art Gallery that day. The main exhibit, “Two Scores,” was split between rooms. In the first room were Vancouver artist Brent Wadden’s giant woven blankets, which he apparently insists on calling “paintings.” They lacked the artistry of the Squamish weavings we’d seen a few days before at the Museum of Anthropology. The gallery write-up, however, spun this messiness into a positive, describing Wadden’s self-taught weavings as “exploratory… purposely naïve”—even if they were “often inefficient… [and] would confound a traditionally-trained practitioner.” I wondered whether this artist, who lived and worked on unceded Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh territory, had any idea of the Squamish history of weaving. I wondered if he’d care that Squamish blankets were placed in an anthropology museum while his were given a solo exhibit in a respected art gallery.

Some things only have value when a white man does them.

Cynical and unimpressed, we left the gallery to wander towards Granville Island. We spent nearly an hour in a specialty stamp store. We tried terrible virtual reality, which made my eleven-year-old cry. We had fake ketchup sprayed at us by the owner of a magic shop, which annoyed me, but made my husband and eleven-year-old absolutely giddy. We ate perogies and cake crafted to look like the Pride flag. It was, all in all, a pretty tame tourist experience. We only stopped at Starbucks to use the free WiFi to map our trip back to our hotel room.

Then I saw the tweet. As I sat there reading the first article I could find, a lump lodged in my throat. Colten Boushie, who was a firekeeper, who would mow the lawns of elders in his community, whose friends were reportedly trying to get away from Gerald Stanley’s farm shortly before Stanley’s gun fired into the back of Boushie’s head, would receive no justice. His family would know no peace.

As soon as the story of Boushie’s death came to light, Gerald Stanley came to be considered something of a folk hero among white rural Canadians. He’d done what they all seemed willing—or even eager—to do: kill an Indian. Stanley’s rationale—or lack thereof—didn’t matter. The fact that Boushie was an important part of his community didn’t matter. All that mattered was Stanley had killed an Indian, and like the Hollywood cowboys his actions emulated, he deserved not only his freedom, but a bounty. Over the next few days, he’d get one. A GoFundMe campaign created on his behalf amassed over $100,000 within seventy-two hours.

Some things don’t matter when a white man does them.

*

The first person to realize dark matter existed was Fritz Zwicky, an astronomer at the California Institute of Technology. In the 1930s, he was studying orbit patterns within the Coma Cluster, a cluster of over 1,000 galaxies. Zwicky tried to calculate the total mass of the cluster based on its velocity, which should have been straightforward using the virial theorem and Isaac Newton’s theories on gravity. What he found, however, was that there was much more matter in the cluster than the light of its stars suggested. There was something unaccounted for that couldn’t be seen. Zwicky called this mysterious, invisible force “dark matter.”

*

The lump in my throat grew the entire bus ride home. I felt like I was going to vomit. I thought about Debbie Baptiste, who, upon hearing her son had died, screamed and collapsed to the ground. The RCMP, who were searching her house without her consent, asked if she was drunk. When you aren’t seen as human, your human emotions are no longer relatable, but indecipherable—evidence you’re unstable or an animal or a drunk.

The injustice of Colten’s death; the injustice of Colten’s friends not only witnessing his death, but then themselves getting arrested; the injustice of Stanley drinking coffee with his family while Colten’s body grew cold in their yard; the injustice of Debbie Baptiste’s grief being read as drunkenness by RCMP officers tearing apart her house; the injustice of so many white Canadians referring to Colten as a criminal when Stanley was the one on trial for murder—it had all simmered inside for a year. And when I read that verdict and understood that, even in this era of so-called reconciliation, Canadians would continue to see Indigenous people as worthless criminals, and that pain finally, finally boiled over, I wanted to cry or scream or collapse. But I couldn’t. I was in a Starbucks, then I was on a bus. Public pain was impolite. Someone could think I was drunk. Someone could call the cops. I kept myself composed, the way society expected me to; I tried to smile and laugh, the way society expected me to. My body was shards of sharp glass I dutifully held together.

A few Indigenous friends told me later they couldn’t sleep after the verdict. All I wanted to do was sleep. Plunge headfirst into a dreamscape where my family, friends and community weren’t seen as disposable, where our deaths mattered, where our lives mattered. As long as I was dreaming, we could be respected and loved and seen as human.

I slept for nearly twelve hours that night.

*

In 1973, Princeton astronomers Jeremiah Ostriker and James Peebles were studying how galaxies evolve. They built a computer simulation of a galaxy using a technique called N-body simulation. What they found, however, was that they couldn’t recreate the elliptical or spiral shapes observable in most galaxies—until they added a uniform distribution of invisible mass. Suddenly, with the introduction of this dark matter, things reacted the way Ostriker and Peebles expected them to. Things started to make sense.

As Ostriker and Peebles were doing their simulations, astronomers Kent Ford and Vera Cooper Rubin were studying the motion of stars in the Andromeda galaxy at the Carnegie Institution of Washington. They measured the velocity of hydrogen gas clouds in and around the galaxy, expecting those outside the visible edge of the galaxy to be moving at a much slower rate than those on the edge. But the rate of velocity was the same.

For this to be the case, there had to be a considerable amount of dark matter both outside the edge of the Andromeda galaxy, and within the galaxy itself. Rubin concluded that, despite being unable to see dark matter, it must be there—and in levels that increased the farther from the galactic centre one got.

It would appear dark matter was affecting the entire universe.

*

APTN, a news organization that focuses on Indigenous issues, reported on a Facebook post by an unnamed RCMP officer regarding the Stanley verdict. “This should never have been allowed to be about race… crimes were committed and a jury found the man not guilty in protecting his home and family,” the officer wrote. “Too bad the kid died but he got what he deserved.”

Colten Boushie was sleeping when the SUV he was in pulled up to Gerald Stanley’s farm. As far as we know from the testimony of both sides, he didn’t try to steal anything. He never even left the vehicle. We would later learn his friends had attempted to break into another car earlier that day, after they realized theirs had a flat. But at the time, Stanley didn’t know this. He saw them pull up, he heard Colten’s friend get on an ATV and attempt to start it. From there, Stanley’s son ran at the SUV with a hammer and smashed the windshield. Stanley himself kicked out the taillight before going to get his gun.

I have a feeling the Stanleys’ actions were not what the RCMP officer was referring to when he or she said “crimes were committed,” though their damaging the SUV could have, in fact, been considered mischief under the Criminal Code of Canada. No, I have a feeling the officer was referring to the actions of Boushie’s friends and their failed attempts at theft, despite the Criminal Code of Canada stating that theft is only completed once a person who intends to steal an item causes it to move. Since neither the car nor the ATV moved, theft did not occur. Still, the RCMP officer claims the violent, gun-toting Stanley was “protecting his home and family” and Colten “got what he deserved.”

The first time I stole I was in grade four. My family had just moved to Painesville, Ohio, from the motel in Cleveland we’d been living in. Before that, we’d been living at a Salvation Army shelter in Buffalo, New York. You could say we were moving up in the world, though moving up from nothing doesn’t require much.

There was a convenience store a few blocks from the mostly-empty house we were renting. It sold twenty-five-cent Little Debbie pastries, which my sister, brother and I loved. My favourite were Fudge Rounds—two chocolate cookies smashed together with chocolate cream in the middle, drizzled with fudge. My siblings loved Oatmeal Creme Pies, which were pretty much the same as Fudge Rounds, except with oatmeal cookies and vanilla cream. I don’t recall exactly when I decided we should steal them, but I knew that I wanted to make my siblings happy. I knew that we didn’t have a lot of reasons to be happy. Little Debbie pastries seemed as good of a reason as any.

If I bought something at the store, I reasoned, I’d be less suspicious. Obviously you can’t be both a thief and a patron—or so I hoped the store clerks thought. My siblings and I would scan the streets for pennies, nickels and dimes, dig through couch cushions and crawl under car seats until we had twenty-five cents. Then we’d pull off the heist—taking far more pastries than we wanted when the clerk wasn’t looking, sticking a few in our pockets, then putting the rest back before settling on just one to buy.

The first few times it went well. Everyone in our neighbourhood looked poor; we fit in completely. When we moved to Mentor, Ohio, however—a much richer city—we were no longer just another poor mixed-race family in a community of poor mixed-race families; we were the poor mixed-race family in a white, middle-class community, living well outside our means.

The first time I tried to pull off a pastry heist there, I was caught. The clerk’s eyes were on my sister and me as soon as we stepped in the door—taking in our stringy, uncut hair, our ill-fitting, donated clothes. She followed us around the store. She wasn’t subtle about it. When my sister and I came to the cash register, the clerk said she knew we were stealing. She saw us pocketing treats in the reflection of the glass. She looked at us with such disgust. She couldn’t tell we were Indigenous, but she could tell we were incredibly poor.

The total cost of our attempted theft was no more than five dollars. Probably closer to three. It was almost nothing, but it was enough. We were no longer an eight- and ten-year-old under this woman’s gaze; we were not sad kids trying to cope with poverty and abuse. We were thieves, criminals. Not-quite-humans who would one day get what we deserved.

But what did we deserve? To go to some juvenile detention facility and have our responses to poverty punished? How would her reaction have changed if we were visibly Indigenous? Would she have called the cops then and there, as opposed to giving us the chance to leave and “wise up”? Did our white skin give us a chance at redemption my brown cousins wouldn’t have gotten under the same circumstances?

When Stanley looked at Colten, did his face resemble that clerk’s face when she looked at my sister and me? Was the same disgust curling his lip? The same sense of righteousness? Did he think of himself as some modern-day cowboy keeping the savage Indians at bay?

Unlike my sister and me, Colten didn’t steal anything. So what did Colten, a twenty-two-year-old nêhiyaw man, deserve? To be killed after a day out with friends? To have the white man who fired the bullet that ultimately led to his death cleared of all legal and criminal responsibility for killing him? How is any of this “not about race”?

I suppose, in one sense, the RCMP officer is right. This should never have been allowed to be about race. Stanley and his son shouldn’t have grown up in a society where Indians are portrayed as the biggest threat to life in the prairies, where cowboys killing Indians is viewed as heroic and worthy of hundreds of films, where enacting “the final solution of our Indian Problem” was crucial to the country’s success. Perhaps if those things hadn’t been allowed to have been made about race, Colten and his friends might have felt comfortable asking white people like Stanley for help when they first got a flat tire, knowing that even though they’d been drinking, they’d still be seen as people who needed help, and not just drunken Indians and potential threats. Or, if Colten and his friends were making reckless decisions—the types of decisions people sometimes make, whether they’ve been drinking or not—the punishment might have been something less severe and more humane than death by vigilante.

Maybe, if none of the history of Canada or Saskatchewan were allowed to be about race, Colten would still be here today.

*

According to NASA’s website, despite over forty-five years of research since 1973, “We are much more certain what dark matter is not than we are what it is.”

It is not in the form of stars or planets. It is not in the form of dark clouds or normal matter. It is not antimatter or black holes. It is not any of these things. It is always something else.

Perhaps we can’t see dark matter because we don’t know what to look for. Perhaps we can’t see it because we don’t know how to look.

*

The next morning the lump in my throat was still there, and my family was still, technically, on vacation. We’d had plans for a full day in the city, ending with a trip to the HR MacMillan Space Centre and Observatory. The Stanley verdict changed everything. I didn’t have the energy to keep pretending I was a blissful tourist on unceded, stolen Indigenous land. I didn’t have the privilege to forget what the Stanley verdict meant for my family, friends, community. I wanted to be around people who were mourning with me, who felt that deep, inescapable sorrow threatening to swallow us all.

My eleven-year-old was on the hotel room bed watching TV. I laid down next to them, took a deep breath, and explained the Stanley case, as every Indigenous parent no doubt did that morning. I told them that I was going to go to a rally to support justice for the Boushie family, that they didn’t have to come if they didn’t want to.

“No, Mom, I want to come,” they said. I nearly burst into tears, hugged them to my chest. I thanked genetics for giving them white skin to protect them from the racism that has killed both my visibly Indigenous grandfather and my visibly Indigenous uncle, felt sick that this was something I had to be thankful for.

“We’ll still go to the space centre later,” I promised.

The vacation would go on, the way the rest of the world had.

*

My kid, my husband and I shivered in the cold outside the CBC Vancouver building. It seemed fitting that the rally started there. A year and a half earlier, just three days after Colten’s death, CBC Saskatoon chose to publish an editorial on Canadians’ right to defend property, carelessly framing Colten’s death as potentially justifiable before any information was really known about the case. CBC’s Ombudsman Esther Enkin even defended this article, claiming that since the RCMP hadn’t immediately laid charges against Stanley, and three of Colten’s friends had been taken into custody for potential “property-related offenses,” the self-defence argument was part of public discourse. Apparently CBC had a responsibility to the public to offer “diverse perspectives”—though Enkin did admit that a line in the article which implied self-defence would form the backbone of the criminal proceedings was unclear and misleading.

By now, we can say that Stanley’s lawyer should have known better than to argue the fifty-four-year-old was defending himself against a group trying to drive away from him and his hammer-wielding son on a flat tire, that a just-woken twenty-two-year-old posed any significant threat to a man trying to commandeer their vehicle while holding a gun. By now we also know that many, many others were eager to make that argument for him. It materialized on social media, in Facebook posts and online comments made largely by white Canadians. It materialized in a resolution to call for the federal government to expand self-defence laws in Canada, passed by ninety-two percent of the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities less than a month after Colten’s death. It materialized in my Twitter mentions when I posted anger and pain at the injustice of Stanley’s acquittal. It was everywhere, all the time. In that sense, I suppose we could have started the rally outside nearly any building in Canada and it would have had the same symbolic effect.

There were over three hundred people there that day. Speaker after speaker came to the front of the crowd, from the Skatin and Sts’ailes dancer and missing and murdered Indigenous women advocate Lorelei Williams, to Stō:lo/St’át’imc/Nlaka’pamux multimedia artist and hip hop musician Ronnie Dean Harris, to Sapotaweyak Cree Nation slam poetry champion and artist jaye simpson. Some people were passing out traditional medicines to the crowd. Some were handing out red ribbons for people to wrap around their arms in solidarity. Some were taking around smudge, filling the air with the warm, comforting scent of sage. Some carried photos of Colten they’d printed out before coming.

Even though I was only standing in a crowd, even though I was only marching through Vancouver streets, even though I was only lighting candles on the steps of the courthouse where we eventually stopped, it felt good to be doing something with my body. It felt good to think there was a plan others had laid out for me, and all I had to do was follow it. It felt good that there was a place to hold my pain, my child’s pain, that other Indigenous people had made this space for us.

“When I say ‘Justice,’ you say ‘For Colten,’” Nuxalk and Onondaga hip-hop artist JB The First Lady called to us.

“Justice!”

“For Colten!”

“Justice!”

“For Colten!”

My kid, my husband and I yelled until we were hoarse. Our voices, it seemed, were all we could give—that, and ten dollars to go towards speaker rentals.

*

It’s strange to think that most of the matter in the universe is invisible. We know dark matter exists, we see its effects, but we cannot point to it and say, “There it is! That’s dark matter! Look at it! I told you it existed!”

Maybe our single-minded focus on the light makes us unable to see the dark that’s all around, always. Like when you turn off the lights in a bright room and, for the first few seconds, you can’t make out shapes you saw so clearly moments before. In those first few seconds of dark, your eyes would have you believe there’s nothing else there. But your eyes are wrong. Something is there, whether you see it or not.

*

The first recorded use of the word “racism” was in 1902. The man who used it was an American named Richard Henry Pratt. He was criticizing racial segregation, arguing that it “[killed] the progress of the segregated people” and all classes and races should come together to “destroy racism and classism.”

But, as writer Gene Demby points out, “Although Pratt might have been the first person to inveigh against racism and its deleterious effects by name, he is much better-remembered for a very different coinage: Kill the Indian…save the man.”

Pratt was what might be called a benevolent racist. Unlike his more extreme contemporaries, Pratt believed that there was no need to kill all Indians, that the problem was not Indians themselves, but “all the Indian there is in the race.” In other words, he wanted the same things that Canada has wanted for centuries: assimilation. He even advocated for Indian boarding schools, the United States’ version of residential schools, ultimately creating the infamous Carlisle Indian Industrial School out of an abandoned military post. Indigenous children were taken from their homes and forced to speak English, wear Western clothing, cut their hair, forsake their ceremonies and traditions. They were told to be ashamed of being Indigenous, to be ashamed of their own families. Many could not communicate with their parents when they went home, if they went home at all. Many were abused. Many were malnourished. Many got sick. Many died.

These stories filter through our families, told in actions more than words—each former student now raising their own kids the way their boarding school teachers had raised them. A legacy of shame and violence, trauma and pain, passed on from generation to generation like so many secrets.

And this, from the mind of a man who spoke out against segregation and racism.

If Pratt lived to see the impact of his life’s work, I wonder if he would feel remorse. If he would see that what he did to Indigenous families was another form of the segregation and racism he claimed to denounce. I wonder if, upon hearing the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Canada refer to residential schools as “cultural genocide,” he’d realize that he was responsible for that exact thing in America, and apologize until his vocal cords stopped working.

More than likely, though, he’d just tell us we had it coming. That what he did wasn’t racist at all, and we shouldn’t be allowed to make any of this about race.

*

When we finally got to the HR MacMillan Space Centre, the sky was too cloudy to see any stars at the observatory. Instead my husband, my kid and I decided to head into the planetarium to watch a film called “Phantom of the Universe: The Search For Dark Matter.” We leaned back and stared at a giant dome screen as Tilda Swinton explained the origins of the universe to us.

Dark matter forms the skeleton of our universe.

Dark matter doesn’t emit light or reflect it. That’s why scientists can’t detect it.

The dark matter particle doesn’t let anything stand in its way.

I wondered how something could be so pervasive, so all-encompassing, responsible for the world as we know it, and still not be able to be clearly seen.

Then I remembered what Gerald Stanley’s lawyer said about Colten’s death in his closing argument: “It’s a tragedy, but it’s not criminal.” I remembered the Saskatchewan Association of Rural Municipalities trying to push for stronger self-protection laws while simultaneously denying the impact the Boushie killing had made on this decision. I remembered the white people on Twitter flooding Indigenous people’s accounts with racist slurs; claims that Stanley was acting in self-defence; claims that Colten was a criminal who had it coming; that Stanley’s white lawyer dismissing all visibly Indigenous people from the jury as soon as he saw them was not racist; that an all-white jury finding Stanley innocent of any wrong-doing when he shot Colten point-blank in the head was not racist; that none of this was racist. I remembered all the times I’ve pointed out racism in my life and the white people around me claimed I was imagining it. I remembered that, eventually, I started to wonder if I really was imagining it. I am always made to feel as if I am imagining it.

To these people, the only words, actions or thoughts that can be considered real racism are those they can’t be blamed for. Could any one of them point to an instance of racism they’d witnessed today? Could they listen to you describe one and not stare blankly until you doubted your own perceptions, your own sanity?

Racism, for many people, seems to occupy space in much the same way as dark matter: it forms the skeleton of our world, yet remains ultimately invisible, undetectable. This is convenient, of course. If nothing is racism, then nothing needs to be done to address it. We can continue on as usual. Answer emails. Teach classes. Go to dinner with our families. Go to space centres. Continue our vacations, untroubled. We can keep our eyes shut inside this dark room we’ve created and pretend that, as long as we can’t see what’s around us, there’s nothing around us at all. After all, there’s no proof of it. If the man who coined the term “racism” can despise everything that makes me Indian and get away with it, why the hell can’t you?

*

I’m writing this less than a week after the Raymond Cormier verdict. He was the fifty-six-year-old white man accused of murdering Tina Fontaine, a fifteen-year-old Anishinaabe girl from Sagkeeng First Nation. Tina’s seventy-two-pound body was found in Winnipeg’s Red River, weighted down with rocks and wrapped in a comforter that witnesses claim Cormier owned. After decades of grassroots work by Indigenous women and family members went unrecognized, Tina’s death finally brought the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited people into Canada’s national consciousness. This is racism, Canada finally seemed able to say. This is wrong.

Then came the trial. In recordings, Cormier talked about how he had sex with Tina, how he was furious that she was only fifteen, how he was worried he’d be imprisoned if the cops found out he’d slept with her. He was seen fighting with Tina after he sold her bike for drug money. She threatened to call the cops on him for stealing a truck. In the recordings, Cormier seems to admit that he killed her. Still, a jury found him innocent. His lawyer didn’t even have to offer a defense. He called no witnesses, offered no evidence. I suppose he didn’t have to. The evidence washed away in the river.

Police officers, emergency workers and social workers saw Tina the day she died. When police pulled over the truck she was in, they ran her name and saw that she was the subject of a missing person report, but they didn’t help her. They left her there. When she was found hours later sleeping between cars in a parking lot, paramedics took her to the hospital. The doctor expressed concern that Tina was being sexually exploited, reportedly urging Tina not to run away from Child and Family Services, but still discharged her. From there, Tina’s social worker took her to eat some McDonald’s and set her up at a new hotel room. She encouraged Tina to stay on the premises, but later said there was no way to stop her from leaving if she wanted to. Then she drove away. Tina’s great-aunt Thelma Favel wasn’t informed any of the four times her niece went missing while in CFS’s custody. When Favel called on August 15 to check on Tina, her social worker said she’d been missing for two weeks. The woman had apparently forgotten to tell Favel. Two days later, Tina, who once wanted to grow up to be a CFS worker, was found dead. But none of this is evidence of racism, I suppose. It never is.

When I heard the Cormier verdict, my family was back in Brantford. I was alone in a residence room waiting for the verdict to be announced. As soon as my phone started buzzing, I knew what had happened. What had happened again, and will no doubt happen again and again and again and again to Indigenous people in this country.

I want to end this on a positive note. I want to say that I have hope. But at this point I’m so far away from the light, all I can see is the dark.

Next

‘You Have to Be Slightly Uncomfortable to Walk Down the Street and Notice Things’: An Interview with Sloane Crosley
The author of Look Alive Out There on neighbours, Generation X, and pot-smoking hippies in Northern California. 

Previous

The Origin of Species
At first, it was just this hazy glow on the horizon, but then it got brighter and took on more of a definite shape. It…