On December 14, 2020, Superior Court Justice Helen Pierce found Brayden Bushby, a white man, guilty of manslaughter and aggravated assault in the death of Barbara Kentner, an Anishinaabe mother from Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation.
One evening late in January 2017, Barbara and her sister Melissa Kentner were walking on Dease Street in Thunder Bay when Barbara was struck by a trailer hitch that Bushby threw from a moving vehicle. Kentner died five months later, on July 4, as a result of injuries sustained in the attack. She leaves behind a teenaged daughter, Serena Kentner.
Justice Pierce ordered Bushby, now 21, remanded on bail until his sentencing hearing, scheduled for February 9, 2021.
TVO.org spoke to three Indigenous women who live, or have lived, in Thunder Bay to get their reaction to the verdict and discuss its impact on the community.
Deanne Hupfield, a member of Temagami First Nation, grew up with the Kentner family in Thunder Bay. “We would just play and be kids and run around,” says Hupfield. “Barb and her sisters taught me how to swim when I was little, and we would go swimming every day.” It wasn’t until Barbara was in the hospital following the attack that Hupfield learned that they were cousins. “My mom’s like, ‘Yeah, we’re related,’” she says.
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Hupfield says she was “mentally preparing” herself for the verdict. “I didn’t think that Brayden would be held accountable for his actions, especially since they already downgraded the charges from second-degree murder to manslaughter,” she says, adding that the guilty verdict was “the best outcome.”
However, when asked whether she thinks justice has been served in this case, Hupfield says, “No,” as she thought Bushby should have been charged with a hate crime. Thunder Bay police considered charging Bushby with a hate crime but ultimately said the incident didn’t qualify under the Criminal Code. During the trial, Bushby’s defense argued the case wasn’t racially motivated, citing Melissa’s statement to police after the attack, where they asked if she thought it was targeted. She replied, “No, people just being stupid.” (Melissa has since said she believes it was a hate crime.) The judge may consider whether the attack was motivated by hate during sentencing.
Hupfield believes that Melissa initially said it wasn’t a targeted attack “because it’s so normal for Indigenous women and men to get shit thrown at them. It’s just normal. You don’t even think about it. The sky is blue, and you’re going to get shit thrown at you, and people are going to yell racial slurs at you,” says Hupfield. “I didn’t even think it was racist that people would throw things at me.”
Hupfield has lived in Toronto for over a decade, an experience that has changed her perspective about the place where she grew up. “Now that I don’t live in Thunder Bay, I don’t get things thrown at me walking down the street because I’m Indigenous,” she says. “Now I realize how sick that place was for that, and how people just get away with it.”
Sarah Nelson, a member of Couchiching First Nation and the northwest lead at Catalystsx, a non-profit youth network, wasn’t optimistic about the Bushby case before the verdict was delivered. “Just from talking to the community, I had the sense that I shouldn’t expect much of the justice system,” she says. “Even my own experiences have taught me not to expect anything.”
She wasn’t alone in her view. “The people that I trust the most were like, ‘Probably nothing’s going to happen,’” says Nelson. “It’s almost better to expect that than to expect something.” So, when the verdict was announced, Nelson was relieved. “I felt a weight lifted off me. I felt like celebrating,” she says.
“This was a moment in history where we deserve that joy and that celebration, because it’s so rare that we get it,” Nelson explains. “There are so many hard things, and sad things, and tragedies that happen in our communities; we don’t get a lot of time to celebrate when we’re dealing with the onslaught of colonization most of the time.”
However, celebration turned to grief as Nelson says she realized that “no matter what, a life has been lost, and that can’t be brought back,” she says. “Nothing can undo that harm.”
Nelson says it’s not fair that Bushby is remanded on bail, as she says that “no Indigenous person would get that.” But, she adds, “I can’t really be too mad about that, because he is going to go to jail.”
Still, Nelson says, she feels compassion for Bushby because of his imminent jail sentence. “I just imagine what that experience is like, and I would want to have one last dinner with my family, if I put myself in his shoes,” says Nelson. “I hate to say that, because I know the family would feel differently, and I support them in their feelings,” she adds. “As hard as it is, we’re taught to pray for those who have harmed us.”
Jana-Rae Yerxa, an Anishnaabe woman from Treaty 3 territory, was a professor and coordinator at Confederation College when she first heard about what happened to Barbara Kentner. Many of Yerxa’s students were Indigenous women, and she says they were concerned there wouldn’t be consequences for Bushby. “They didn’t want it to be forgotten,” says Yerxa, who today is part of the faculty of Anishinaabe Gikendaasowin at Seven Generations Education Institute.
She decided to ask her students what they would like to do. “We scrapped my agenda and we started planning a walk to stand in support of Barbara Kentner,” says Yerxa, who estimates about 300 people showed up to the event to support the Kentner family. Later, on the first anniversary of Kentner’s death, Yerxa and her former students organized a vigil. It was one of many community-led events, including a sacred fire that burned during the trial. “I think that’s the strength of Indigenous community, despite the hostility of ongoing settler-colonial violence,” she says. “These are the ways that we continue to hold each other up and empower each other to continue to keep going. I see it as resistance, I see it as resurgence, I see it as liberation.”
When the guilty verdict was announced, Yerxa says she cried. She had been worried that Bushby wouldn’t be found guilty. “When you look at the cases of Gerald Stanley or Bradley Barton, white settler men who had been let off their charges in connection with Indigenous people’s premature deaths. In this case, you could see how the defense tried to blame Melissa and Barbara during that process,” says Yerxa. “So, I was relieved, and I was happy, because I know that this has been such a long, long process for the Kentner family.”
Yerxa also says she doesn’t think justice was served. “I liked what Melissa said the day of the verdict,” she says. “She made a good point when she said he still gets to walk around and spend Christmas at home with his family, when Serena [Barbara’s daughter, who is currently undergoing treatment for cancer] doesn’t get to have the comfort of her mom when she needs it the most.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northwestern Ontario. It's brought to you in partnership with Confederation College of Applied Arts and Technology. Views and opinions expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the college.
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