Neil Stonechild mural in Saskatoon aims to change narrative, inspire youth

While much of the public attention on Neil Stonechild over the last 30 years has focused on his death as a victim of a so-called "starlight tour," mural artist Kevin Wesaquate says he wants to instead highlight who the teen was. 

Focus has been on Stonechild's death as victim of 'starlight tour,' but artist wants to highlight who teen was

Before setting out on the project, artist Kevin Wesaquate said he contacted Neil Stonechild's family to ensure they were OK with his image being used. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

A new mural in Saskatoon will depict Neil Stonechild in a way the artist hopes sparks discussions about who he was, rather than how he died.

The mural, which will grace the Core Neighborhood Youth Co-op building, is coming to life this summer.

Stonechild was a teen in 1990 when his body was found on the outskirts of Saskatoon, a victim of a so-called "starlight tour" — instances where members of the Saskatoon Police Service would drive Indigenous people to the city's outskirts in the dead of winter and abandon them. 

Stonechild's death and the circumstances around it have received much public attention over the last 30 years. 

But Kevin Wesaquate, the mural's artist, said he doesn't want to focus on how Stonechild died — he wants to remember the teen for who he was. 

"We're not going to get past this discussion [about his death] and I think that we have to maintain his legacy in some way," he said.

"By doing this, we show you a different side of Neil."

Wesaquate, who is painting a mural of Neil Stonechild alongside youth in Saskatoon, says art is a way he can express himself and explore topics like Indigenous identity. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

Wesaquate pointed out Stonechild was an accomplished athlete, having won a provincial title as a bantamweight wrestler — a fact often overshadowed by discussions about his death. 

He said he spoke with Stonechild's mother about the mural before going ahead. He didn't want to put her son's image out in the public eye, or benefit in any way from the teen's image, without having that conversation, he said.

"I do my best to do this painting of Neil in the best possible way that I can."

Inspiring youth to reclaim their voice

As an artist, Wesaquate said he focuses on topics like Indigenous identity through his work.

He said he uses his art as a tool to achieve reconciliation and to give a voice to people, particularly the Indigenous youth in Saskatoon.

Wesaquate said his goal of shifting the focus to Stonechild's life rather than his death led to discussions about taking control of narratives with Artistic Minds — a youth group whose members are working alongside him.

While quiet at first, he said they've loosened up while working alongside each other. The teenagers get what the mural is trying to accomplish, he believes.

But he said he takes a hands-off approach to getting his message across, because he doesn't want to influence their creativity in any way.

Involving youth in the project was an important goal Wesaquate gave himself when he set out.

While they were shy at first, Wesaquate said members of the Artistic Minds youth group are now laughing, joking and sharing as they work on the mural together. (Chanss Lagaden/CBC)

He says when he moved to Saskatoon as a teen from Piapot First Nation, north of Regina, he met positive role models who kept him out of trouble, kept him focused and kept him on track through his high school years. 

"I never really realized how much those role models represented and what they did for me, and I didn't really think about it until later in life," he said. 

"I'm just doing my best to pay it forward, you know? I want to provide the best outcome or the best possibilities I can for youth here in the city, or all youth in general."

LISTEN | Kevin Wesaquate talks with Saskatoon Morning about the mural's goal:

With files from Saskatoon Morning