Saskatoon·CBC Investigates

Most people who died in police encounters in Sask. were Indigenous

Christina Bigsky believes things would have been different if her son hadn't been Indigenous.

FSIN renews calls for inquiry into police shootings in Saskatchewan

Melvin Bigsky was shot in the head after the truck he was riding in was pulled over on a rural road in 2001.

This story is part of Deadly Force, a CBC News investigation into police-involved fatalities in Canada.

Christina Bigsky believes things would have been different if her son hadn't been Indigenous. 

He likely wouldn't have been pulled over, she said, meaning he wouldn't have ended up shot dead by a police officer. 

"I think it was a lot to do with racism," Bigsky said in an interview with CBC News. "They wouldn't have even got stopped if they were white people."

Her son Melvin Bigsky was shot and killed by an RCMP officer in 2001. 

The confrontation erupted on a rural road near Saskatoon that April after Bigsky and two others were pulled over and the driver was arrested for drunk driving. 

The officer told an inquest the following year that he feared for his life after Bigsky resisted arrest. Bigksy had been pepper sprayed, but after punching the officer, he got back in the truck and tried to drive away.

The officer said as he approached the vehicle, Bigsky was revving the engine. 

The constable shot Bigsky in the head, killing him. 

To this day, Bigsky's mother says she believes her son's death could have been easily prevented. 

"They should train those cops for warning shots, or shoot them in the arm or the leg. Why shoot to kill?" Bigsky said. 

Deadly force: most people killed by police in Sask. are Indigenous 

A team of CBC researchers spent six months assembling the first Canada-wide database of every person who died or was killed during a police intervention.

Of the 461 deaths in the database, which captures the years 2000 to 2017, 16 happened in Saskatchewan. 

Of those 16, 12 died from gunshot wounds. All but one were men.  

62.5 per cent of people who died in Saskatchewan during encounters with police since 2000 were indigenous according to a database compiled by CBC News. (CBC News )

At least 10 of the 16 people who died in Saskatchewan during encounters with police were Indigenous. That's 62.5 per cent of all victims, despite the fact that 11.7 per cent of Saskatchewan's population is Indigenous, according to Statistics Canada.

That disparity doesn't surprise Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations Vice-Chief Heather Bear. 

"We've seen it over and over, time and time again," Bear said. 

Woman speaking to reporters.
Heather Bear, fourth vice-chief, Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (Brandon Harder/CBC)

After a rash of police deaths in 2001—there were five deaths that year— the FSIN called for inquiry into the use of police force and police shootings. 

Those calls were renewed again in 2008 when two other Indigenous men were shot by RCMP. At that time, the FSIN Chief Lawrence Joseph said the RCMP and other police were too quick to use guns. 

Ten years later there's been significant drop in the number of police killings.

Bear says those calls stand. Since 2008, there have three police shooting deaths in Saskatchewan—two of them involving Indigenous people. 

"These inquiries need to happen. We know they work," Bear said. 

Police say Tasers, better training part of decrease 

Saskatoon Police Service Superintendent Brian Shalovelo said he welcomes constructive criticisms and opinions from the public—especially when it comes to the way police use force. 

He said a lot has changed since in the last decade and a half and now police, especially in Saskatoon, are better trained to deal with situations where force is needed. 

A breakdown of the race and ethnicity of people who died during encounters with police from 2000-2017 (CBC News )

"Our officers on the street have more tools in their toolbox to deal with those situations where back in 2001, 2002 maybe they didn't have that," Shalovelo said. 

He said the department in Saskatoon has learned a lot from national inquiries including the one into the death of Neil Stonechild— an Indigenous man who was found dead on the outskirts of Saskatoon in 1990. 

Shalovelo said officers are now trained in thing like deescalation techniques and verbal judo. He also said the introduction of Tasers means officers have a non-lethal options at their disposal.

Those weapons were introduced after inquests like Bigsky's recommended police have more non-lethal tools. Conductive energy weapons like Tasers were approved for use by police in Saskatchewan in 2013. 

Shalovelo says the reduction in the number of police death speaks to his officers' professionalism and the training they receive—especially given the ever increasing dangers officers face on the streets. He says in the last five years, weapons calls in Saskatoon have increased by 49 per cent.

"The circumstances that our police officers are facing when they go a call, when they are executing a search warrant, when they are even just pulling over a vehicle on the street has changed. We are finding more and more weapons on the street," he said. 

Lethal force needed in rare occasions: Police

Despite the sharp decline, Saskatoon Police were involved in at least one death in 2016.

It's still unclear if officers fired any weapons in the case of Josh Megeney, who barricaded himself inside a house in on Avevenue Q North that year. But Megeney ended up dead from bullet wounds.

The investigation into the incident is underway. 

Shalovelo says there are circumstances where an officer feels their life or someone else's life is in danger and lethal force is needed. 

"We've had situations where for the protection of their life or protection of others have used their firearm because they have to stop the threat immediate and there is no less tool available that can do that so that's why they use their firearm," he said. 

Melvin Bigsky died after a encounter with an RCMP officer in Saskatchewan in 2001.

At the inquest into Bigsky's death, jurors heard similar arguments from RCMP experts—that the constable had no choice but to shoot to kill. 

Christina Bigksy says she's still believes there was another option.  

"They just shoot and ask questions later," she said.


Charles Hamilton is a reporter with CBC Saskatoon.