A man who hurled a metal trailer hitch at an Indigenous woman walking along a snowy street in Thunder Bay has been found guilty of manslaughter, in a case widely seen as a grim reminder of the Canadian city’s deadly legacy of racism.
In her ruling Monday afternoon, Justice Helen Pierce found that the actions of Brayden Bushby led to the death of Barbara Kentner, 34, on 29 January 2017.
Five months after she was hit by the hitch, Kentner, the mother of a teenage daughter, died of complications resulting from trauma to her small intestine.
“[Bushby] knew that the hitch was heavy enough to cause damage,” Pierce said in her judgment, adding that he would have been able to foresee that the hitch could cause serious harm.
“This was not a snowball,” she said.
Kentner and her sister Melissa, both from Wabigoon Lake Ojibway Nation, were walking along a residential street around 1am when a vehicle with four people inside sped past.
Bushby, who was in the front passenger seat, admits that he hurled the trailer hitch, striking Kentner in the abdomen, and causing her to drop to her knees in pain.
His friends told the court Bushby, then 18, was drunk – and that he laughed after the incident. Melissa Kentner told the court she heard one of the vehicle’s occupants shout “I got one” after the hitch struck Barbara.
The force of the blow ruptured Kentner’s small intestine, and doctors carried out emergency surgery to repair the tear.
Less than two weeks later, however, she was readmitted to hospital with stomach pains. Doctors diagnosed her with end-stage liver disease and discharged her at the end of March. Kentner died in palliative care on 4 July 2017
“Although she was a very sick woman and she would have died from her liver disease, she would not have died when she did had she not been injured,” pathologist Dr Toby Rose told the court by Zoom. Her post-mortem analysis concluded that Kentner died of bronchopneumonia and acute chronic peritonitis.
During the four-day trial, the defence said it was impossible to claim with certainty that the assault led to Kentner’s death, pointing to her pre-existing health conditions. The defence also denied that the assault was racially motivated – an argument that for many felt at odds with the grim legacy of the city’s history.
For years, Thunder Bay has been known as the hate crime capital of Canada, a designation it only recently gave away.
Two independent reports in 2019 found widespread evidence of systemic racism within Thunder Bay’s force.
One found that systemic racism exists within the city’s police service “at an institutional level” and that officers failed to properly investigate homicides or protect Indigenous peoples from hate crimes.
A separate report found that the city’s police had “failed to recognize and address systemic discrimination against the Indigenous community”.
Thunder Bay’s police chief announced last year that the force would reopen investigations into the deaths of at least nine Indigenous people after significant flaws were found in their original investigations.
Even the handling of high-profile prosecution of Bushby troubled many in the city.
He was first charged with second-degree murder, but jury trials in Ontario have been delayed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Crown agreed to try him on manslaughter charges, thereby avoiding the need for a jury.
“We see this time and time again where violence against Indigenous people is not given the same level of care and attention in the Canadian justice system,” said Francis Kavanaugh, who represents 24 First Nations in the region, adding that he found it “difficult” to believe there wasn’t a “racial component” to the decision .
Manslaughter convictions in Canada carry no minimum sentence, and a maximum of life in prison.
Bushby’s sentencing hearing begins 9 February. Family and community impact statements are expected to be submitted and read during the hearing.