OPASKWAYAK CREE NATION, Canada — Two Manitoba women arrested over online comments that threatened violence against Indigenous people were asked to read what was written out loud to elders this week as part of a process to resolve the case.
The two are taking part in a mediation circle instead of the court system.
“There was a lot of ugly words and things said, but you could also hear in their voice the shame and the remorse that they had, because now they’re having to say it publicly rather than behind a computer screen,” said Christian Sinclair, chief of the the Opaskwayak Cree Nation, where the meeting was held.
The two women, who have not been identified by police or Manitoba Justice, were arrested on suspicion of uttering threats and public incitement of hatred, but were never formally charged after the comments appeared on Facebook last summer.
Last July, a Facebook account under the name Destine Spiller posted photos of a vandalized car in the northern town of Flin Flon and proposed a “shoot a Indian day” in retaliation.
Another Facebook user applauded the idea and suggested a “24-hour purge.”
“Let’s grab Budweiser and some shot guns,” read one reply.
The comments were quickly condemned by many people. A hair salon in Flin Flon said one of the women who posted was no longer an employee. The area’s school division said another woman had long since departed as an employee and the comments do not reflect the division’s values.
The provincial Justice Department said the circle was arranged in consultation with Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak, which represents 26 northern Manitoba First Nations.
“Manitoba Prosecutions referred the investigation of a hate crime incident from last summer to the Restorative Justice Centre, which then organized the mediation circle,” the department said in a written release.
Sinclair said some 20 elders, chiefs and other representatives shared their thoughts on how the online comments had affected them.
The women seemed remorseful as they read the comments, Sinclair said.
“It allows us … to hold those people accountable, and ask why they did it. And it makes them think of their actions, why they did it.”
The mediation circle is part of an Indigenous justice approach that focuses more on healing than on punishment, Irene Young, the elder who led the circle, said.
Everyone in the circle gets to ask questions, and the outcome could lead to the offenders making a public apology, restitution or other moves.
The circle lasted throughout the day Wednesday and will reconvene for one day next month.
Young said there was a range of views expressed on the first day, including concerns that the women were never charged by police.
“Everybody expressed to say, hey, what if it was a First Nations (person) … they would be charged immediately,” she said.
Sinclair said it’s important to address hateful comments because online words can lead to real physical harm.
“When you see what’s happening with hate being promoted throughout the United States, it won’t take much to trigger somebody to go and react and do whatever these people were threatening to do or encouraging others to do,” he said.
A third women who was arrested after the comments surfaced is not involved in the mediation circle because she lives in Saskatchewan and is being dealt with separately.