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The Report of the Stonechild Inquiry
CBC News Online | October 26, 2004

A damning indictment of the Saskatoon Police Force – almost 14 years after the death of 17-year-old Neil Stonechild. The frozen body of the aboriginal youth was found on the outskirts of Saskatoon five days after he was last seen alive. Stonechild died of hypothermia.

The police investigation was brief and the case was closed on December 5, 1990. The official finding – no signs of foul play.

There were two versions of how he died, one from Stonechild 's friend, Jason Roy. He maintained all along that he last saw Stonechild terrified in the back of a police cruiser.

Roy later testified before the inquiry: "A police car pulled in front of me and Neil was in the back, and the moment he saw me he was very irate, he was freaking out he was saying, 'J[ason] help me. Just help me. These guys are going to kill me.' "

Police maintained Stonechild's death was an accident. They say he died while walking to an adult jail to turn himself in after a night of drinking. He had been at large from a youth home when he died.

But 10 years after Stonechild's death, two more aboriginal men were found frozen to death on the outskirts of the city – a week apart. A third survived to tell his story: He said members of the Saskatoon Police Service put him in a cruiser, drove him to a field outside the city and abandoned him in the dead of winter.

On February 20, 2003, Saskatchewan justice minister Eric Cline called an inquiry into the death, two years after Stonechild's body was exhumed and the RCMP reopened their investigation.

The inquiry was headed by Mr. Justice David Henry Wright, a justice of the Court of Queen's Bench of Saskatchewan.

Wright's inquiry was asked to look into what, if any, role the police played in Stonechild's death and how the original investigation was conducted.

Under the inquiry's terms of reference, Wright was prevented from assigning blame but could make recommendations.

Among the long list of witnesses were Neil Stonechild's friends and family, social workers, medical professionals and police office involved in the investigation officers critical of the way it was handled.

A Saskatoon police constable told the inquiry that he was shocked at the "shoddy" investigation conducted by the Saskatoon Police Service. Ernie Louttit said police refused to check out stories that Stonechild may have been murdered. He arranged a meeting with one of the lead investigators, but got nowhere.

"I was told basically that the matter was in hand and I should leave it alone when I left the meeting. I was very frustrated," Loutitt said.

Stonechild's mother, Stella Stonechild-Bignell, told the inquiry she wasn't worried when her son did not come home on Nov. 24, 1990.

"I figured they had caught him, that he had been out and had another run-in with police or something," Bignell said.

When he didn't return home the next day, she called police to find out if he was being held. Police told her they hadn't dealt with a complaint involving Stonechild.

Saskatoon police officer Larry Hartwig told the inquiry Stonechild wasn't there when he and his partner responded to a report of a disturbance at a housing complex. It was at this disturbance others testified that Stonechild was picked up. Hartwig insisted he had no memory of the teenager until the RCMP reopened the case in 2000. That RCMP investigation concluded that Hartwig and his partner, Const. Brad Senger, had contact with Stonechild on the night he disappeared. No charges were ever laid.

Senger told the inquiry that he had no memory of the call involving Stonechild that he and Hartwig were dispatched to investigate. He denied taking Stonechild to the field where he was later found dead.

The inquiry heard from 43 people over 64 days, wrapping up final arguments on May 19, 2004. Wright spent the next five months reviewing the evidence and testimony, and writing his report.

Wright's findings and recommendations paint a disturbing picture of elements of a police force that ignored evidence, conducted shoddy investigations and continually denied that there could have been a problem.

In the end, Wright found the credibility of several police officers lacking. He dismissed Hartwig's and Senger's recollections of the night Stonechild died. Wright concluded that Hartwig and Senger did respond to a complaint about Stonechild, met him at the housing complex and took him into custody.

Wright also found:
  • There were injuries and marks on Stonechild's body that were likely caused by handcuffs.
  • The principal investigator assigned to the case, Sargeant Keith Jarvis, carried out a superficial and totally inadequate investigation into the death.
  • Stonechild's friend Jason Roy told Jarvis that Stonechild was in the custody of Saskatoon police when he last saw him alive. Jarvis did not record "this important information in his notebook or investigation report."
  • Jarvis dismissed important information from two members of the Saskatoon Police Service relating to Stonechild's disappearance and death.
  • In the years that followed, "chiefs and deputy chiefs of police…rejected or ignored reports from the Stonechild family members and investigative reporters, that cast serious doubts on the investigation. The self-protective and defensive attitudes exhibited by the senior levels of the police service continued. These same attitudes were manifested by certain members of the Saskatoon Police Service during the Inquiry."
Wright's report makes eight recommendations, including:
  • More aboriginal officers on municipal police forces in Saskatchewan. He suggests the province set up a program to attract aboriginal and minority candidates to the police college.
  • The minister of justice review and improve procedures to deal with complaints from the public about inappropriate police conduct.
  • Municipal police services in larger centres should designate an aboriginal peace officer with the rank of sergeant to act as a liason person for aboriginal people.
  • Municipal police forces report annually on complaints about police officers in its service. In-depth training in race relations for municipal peace officers.
  • A refresher course should be given every three years. Course leaders should include aboriginal peace officers.
  • Review the courses that police candidates take in anger management and dispute resolution.
Saskatchewan's Minister of Justice, Frank Quennell, said he's prepared to act on many of the recommendations. However, he added that charges are not likely to be laid against anyone. He said, there's still not enough evidence to secure a conviction.

After the report was released, Stonechild's mother told spoke with reporters. She said she always had confidence that Wright "would do the right thing" in his report. Stella Bignell said the report brings some closure for her.

"I still trust police," she said. "There's good and bad in everything."


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The Stonechild Inquiry

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