IN DEPTH: ABORIGINAL CANADIANS
CBC News Online | July 02, 2004
Reporter: Mervin Brass | Producer: Heather Abbott
The National Magazine
There are disturbing allegations that are poisoning relations between Saskatchewan's native communities and the Saskatoon police. They are quite astonishing. And if ever proven, they'd show natives are singled out for brutal treatment. The RCMP has been brought in to investigate the deaths of two native men found frozen, and the allegation of another that he was taken by police to the same out-of-the-way spot and simply left to find his way home.
February nights in Saskatoon can mean bone-chilling temperatures. Last month, the body of an Indian man was found near this power plant at the edge of town. Four days later, another discovery: another body found in the same area, frozen solid in this forest of powerlines. Lawrence Wegner was a half-blooded Cree Indian. He was found wearing jeans and a T-shirt.
"What would he be doing so far out of town with no jacket and no shoes? And what would anybody be doing that far out of town, period, in the middle of winter, you know?" one native man says.
Lawrence Wegner was last seen downtown on the streets. He was pounding on doors. Friends say he was high on cocaine. Around midnight, a passerby says he saw a man who looked like Wegner arguing with a police officer before being pushed into a cruiser.
"We used to call it a 'ride in the country' or a 'scenic tour.' A lot of friends I've had have been taken on scenic tours, you know," the man says.
They're also called "Starlight Tours": police driving drunk Indians out of town to walk home and sober up. The stories go back years. Some say it's an urban myth. And it might have stayed that way, except for one Indian man who came forward with a shocking charge, accusing police of dropping him in the same spot where the dead men were found. It was -22 C that night.
It all sounds familiar to Greg. He didn't want his face shown because he's afraid of police. He has a long criminal record, including theft, second degree murder -- a charge that was later dropped. Greg says he's been on four starlight tours. Once he was driven 50 kilometres outside of Saskatoon.
"I asked them again,' Where am I going? Where are you guys taking me?' They said 'Well if you're such a bad ass and you got a lot of steam, if you want to be a trouble maker,' he goes, 'you want to blow off steam.' He goes 'Well, you can blow steam out of town.' So we were driven -- I was driven to the Borden bridge.
When I got to the Borden bridge, I was taken out of the car at the back; I'd been handcuffed all the way through the ride. I stood at the back and they took me out of the car. And they told me 'Well,' he says, 'This is how it is.' He says 'You can walk home.' And he said 'When you walk home,' he says, 'if we ever catch you again being a foul-mouthed little asshole, next time we'll drive you further or something else will happen,' he says. So the cuffs were taken off and they had driven away. And I ended up walking home. And it took me about seven hours to get home," Greg says.
"Why didn't you, you know, make a complaint?' Brass asks.
"If I'd launched a complaint, in my mind, it would never have went anywhere. It was just. It's the same thing: it's police investigating police; they're a brotherhood," Greg says.
There are stories like these all over town, but there are no records; no paper trial. Still, at a vigil to remember the dead men, suspicions are now openly traded that police may have deliberately left the Indians to fend for themselves in freezing temperatures. Those fears have only worsened the deep mistrust between police and the native community.
Saskatoon police chief Dave Scott suspended the two cops involved with the alleged drop-off. But he says nothing ties the officers to the deaths of the two men.
"Is this widespread? Are there reasons for me, as chief, to be concerned about the activities of our police officers. At this time, I have no indication of that," Scott says. "I would ask first that you have confidence in me as the chief of police and the leader of this police service, to ensure that a complete investigation will be done properly and I can assure you it will be."
But it was not enough to ease public fears. Five hours later, the whole thing was turned over to the RCMP. They've set up shop in a motel in what's become the largest investigation in the province's history. But restoring the reputation of the Saskatoon force will be a tough sell, especially to aboriginal youth.
Lyle also has had numerous run-ins with cops.
"It gets kind of frustrating you know," he says. "These people are supposed to be watching out for us and protecting us, to serve and protect. And they are out there just hiding behind their badges."
At 15, Lyle got caught stealing bikes. At 17, he says he was taken on a starlight tour: He was drunk, causing a ruckus; police picked him up. Lyle thought he was heading for the drunk tank. Instead, they headed out of town.
"One cop just turned around and he was talking to me, telling me like 'you're a tough guy; you think you're fucking tough.' And I was like 'No, I don't think I am tough. I am just going home. I am going home to go sleep.' And I thought I was going to get beat up by them. Like I started getting scared by that time. They pulled over to this driveway, and it was like driveway into a field. And the passenger cop got out and opened the door.
"And the other cop comes walking around and they got me out of the car. And the younger cop kind of shook me by my jacket. And then they told me like they were like 'You have 20 seconds.' And I was like '20 seconds for what?' And he says you see that field? And he is like run. Run into that field. I got really scared at that time. I didn't ask no questions -- I just started running. I would rather have taken a beating then get dropped out there, like, you know. But you know I made it home. At least when you get a beating -- I've had lots in my life and like I can take a beating and keep on ticking you know. And get up and walk away from it. Better to be swollen and alive than stiff and dead," Lyle says.
Sakej Henderson is a human rights lawyer who teaches at the Native Law Centre in Saskatoon. Henderson believes starlight tours grew out of police frustration at dealing with repeat offenders -- and they weren't always sinister. Indians avoided jail. Police avoided a paper headache.
"It's been common knowledge in the profession, especially the defence bar, that this is what happens. These starlight tours are not new and they've been going on for a very long time. But there's very few times we have to bring it into court because of course when they drop them off, there's no charges laid usually," Henderson says.
"They know it's a solution to going to court -- booking paperwork everything else they have to do. So they'll do the shortcut of dropping you off at the end of town or at a distance where you can walk back home and you know, cool off and collect yourself and let the alcohol wear off. Rather than just booking them and filling up the jail and taking all their time doing this stupid administrative paperwork. Well that becomes their normal thinking. But then they start crossing the line by getting a little more daring, or saying I'm going to make him take a longer walk or not paying enough attention to the weather and its changes on the prairies."
Jim Maddin was on the Saskatoon police force for 25 years. Now he sits on city council.
"If somebody asked me does this happen -- I couldn't look them in the eye and say absolutely no, it's never happened; never will happen. I couldn't say that," Maddin says.
"General talk, discussion, locker room, coffee talk, what have you. Reference made to that. I've heard stories of people where this has happened to in other cities. Who's to say it didn't happen here? I can't say it didn't happen, but I can also say that I never observed it personally at all. And at no time when I was in charge of officers on the street, at no time was it ever brought to my attention."
Relations are tested nightly between police and Indians. Maddin says officers are tired of being blamed for the high number of native arrests.
"Officers, I think, can tend to get frustrated with it, sure because they don't tend to see the system actually contributing to the solution of the problem," Maddin says. "It's just a simple temporary fix to pick up the intoxicated person, get them out of the public view or off the public street until such time they're sobered up to better care for themselves and then release them back, only to repeat it again. Sometimes in a very short time -- a matter of hours."
There were 2,000 arrests for drunkenness in Saskatoon last year -- many on an infamous strip around the Barry and Albany Hotels. The action is testimony to more grim statistics. Natives are charged with half the crimes in the city, and over 70 per cent of inmates in the local prison are Indian. Aboriginals make up about 15 per cent of the population of Saskatoon. That's grist to the mill for the province's native leaders, who say the justice system discriminates against them. Now they've got something else, another case for the RCMP; a death that's resurfaced after 10 years. Another Indian found frozen on the outskirts of town.
Neil Stonechild's body was found in an empty lot at the north side of the city. It was -28 C the night before -- one of the coldest of the year. Neil was 17 years old and on the run from a young offender's home with a warrant out for his arrest.
Neil's death was a frightening shock for his friend Jay. He says he immediately suspected foul play and he doesn't want his identity revealed. Jay says the two had been out partying when Jay called it quits and headed home alone. Then a police cruiser rolled up.
"The police stopped me and the first question was, is they asked me if I knew this guy," Jay says. "Neil was in the back of the police car with his face cut open, bleeding. And they asked me if I knew this guy and I said no. Why I said no is because I was on the run from the law and I didn't wanna be back in the police car with him, you know.
"And Neil was screaming and swearing at me and telling -- he was saying 'Okay, help me man, these guys are gonna kill me.' He was swearing about a lot of different thing, but that's what struck out most in my mind is that he said that. And you know right at that moment it really scared me, because his face was cut open pretty good.
That was the last time he saw Neil alive. The frozen body was found five days later. The memory still bothers him. Jay says he made two reports to police, but nothing came of it. Police won't comment on the case now. At the time, police concluded Neil died of exposure -- that he was heading to a nearby prison to turn himself in.
"That is so far-fetched, I just don't believe it. Neil was wanted by the police. He had more than a few drinks. And he was wanted by the police. And I didn't understand why they had let him go," Jay says.
Fred Gopher is chief of the Saulteaux Reserve near Saskatoon. He doesn't think the RCMP investigation will resolve much. Starlight tours are only part of the problem.
"Our own people have suffered enough. And I think the justice system has not done what it was supposed to do for our people," Gopher says. "I'd like to see some kind of solution with our people to be involved and look at the whole thing, look at the bigger picture. Why is our people overpopulating the incarceration institutions? Look at the employment factor on our reserve here -- just 90 per cent on welfare. There is very little hope for our people. It's the whole system."
The scandal has hit the reserve hard. One of the dead men is buried there. And the man who alleges he was forced out by police at the power plant also has family here. Chief Gopher says its was difficult to persuade him to go public.
"'Well,' he says, 'nobody is going to believe him.' And I don't blame him for thinking that way. It will be just an allegation; he's just making it up. He's another drunken Indian. There's some good cops out there and I believe there's some cops that probably took advantage of the situation. Nobody's talking about it. Nobody's doing nothing about it."
"I think that the Saskatoon police service has, in fact, made some significant progress in dealing with aboriginal youth, especially through the efforts of the aboriginal relations officer that we have here," Maddin says. "Police have, in fact, been essentially reaching out to aboriginal youth to build better -- better relationships, better bonds and a greater degree of trust."
That's something many Indians scoff at. Since the deaths of the two men, native leaders say they've received over 250 phone calls reporting similar stories across the province. Now they want a public inquiry to examine the entire justice system.
The two deaths have pushed race relations in the province to a critical point -- and it could get worse. Resentment towards police is highest among aboriginal youth, the largest and fastest growing part of the population. Many get caught in a life on the street, on a collision course with police and prison says Sakej Henderson.
"It's not gonna stop. That's what the over- incarceration figures tell us. If you're running about 60, 70 per cent of aboriginal inmates, they are gonna organize themselves into gangs. That's what they learn in jail, is that they have to unite. There maybe two or three factions, but there are Indian gangs that are coming up and taking the place of family and protectors and political organizations for them," Henderson says.
"With a majority of our people as teenagers, we have all the problems of a teenage nation. But they're not real receptive to listening to us that are over 50 or so. That we didn't solve the problems; now they have to solve them."
"A dead Indian is just a good Indian to them, I guess. It's all I can figure," Lyle says.
For Lyle and others, all this talk about starlight tours has only led to more bitterness. And the worst part: so many saw it coming.
"I think with the two deaths, I think everyone saw themselves there," Henderson says. "I think we all saw ourselves complacent with this. We've all known about it, but now it's a crisis that's unfolded; that somehow the routine system has become a deadly system and there's now dead people in the field, and we have to find out why. And we have a whole backlog of cases that's never been solved, and now looks suspiciously similar to an alleged police drop off and we have to get to the bottom of it."
The RCMP won't say when its investigation will be completed, but there are many who aren't waiting.