Stonechild report castigates Saskatoon police

Tuesday, Oct 26, 2004

Globe and Mail Update

Saskatoon Saskatoon police took a native teenager into custody and attempted a cover-up when the 17-year-old was later discovered frozen with handcuff marks on his face, an inquiry has found.

The final report of the inquiry into the death of Neil Stonechild also laments the bitter racial divide between natives and non-natives in Saskatchewan.

"As I reviewed the evidence of this inquiry, I was reminded, again and again, of the chasm that separates aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in this city and this province," commissioner Justice David Wright wrote. "Our two communities do not know each other and do not seem to want to."

Saskatchewan Justice Minister Frank Quennell made the document public Tuesday afternoon, calling the findings "most disturbing."

"We cannot accept a society in which the most vulnerable people in our community are not able to turn for help to those entrusted with protecting them," Mr. Quennell said.

"I do not accept that situation. The government of this province does not accept that situation. The death of a 17-year-old boy is a tragedy. It deserves our attention. It deserves our very best efforts."

Mr. Quennell said the findings will not lead to new criminal charges because prosecutors feel there is not enough evidence to win a conviction.

One of the most scathing sections of the commissioner's report describes how police reacted when they found the native teenager's body lying face-down in a snowy field near the outskirts of town in November, 1990, with his hands pulled into his sleeves in a futile attempt to stay warm.

The principal investigator, then Mortality Sergeant Keith Jarvis, conducted a brief and shoddy examination of the death in order to conceal his colleagues' possible wrongdoing, the commissioner wrote.

"The only reasonable inference that can be drawn is that Jarvis was not prepared to pursue the investigation because he was either aware of police involvement or suspected police involvement," Judge Wright said.

It is impossible to know what exactly happened to Mr. Stonechild on the night he disappeared, Mr. Wright concluded, but he dismissed nearly all the police arguments that officers were not involved.

His report finds that somebody called police to complain about the drunken teenager on the evening of Nov. 24, 1990, and that Constables Brad Senger and Larry Hartwig were dispatched to investigate.

The last person who admitted seeing Mr. Stonechild was his friend Jason Roy, who said he saw the young man with his face pressed against the window of a police cruiser.

"He was freaking out," Mr. Roy testified. "He was saying, 'Jay, help me. Help me. These guys are going to kill me.'"

Police lawyers pointed out errors and contradictions in Mr. Roy's statement, and suggested that the officers never encountered Mr. Stonechild that evening. But Judge Wright said he found Mr. Roy "sincere and thoughtful."

Lawyers for the officers also claimed that police couldn't have taken Mr. Stonechild to the northern edge of town where he was ultimately discovered, because they wouldn't have had time to make the drive between their dispatched calls in Snowberry Downs and O'Regan Crescent on the city's west side.

Again, the commissioner decided that the police version wasn't credible.

"I am satisfied that Cst. Hartwig and Cst. Senger had adequate time between the Snowberry Downs dispatch and O'Regan Crescent dispatch to transport Stonechild to the northwest industrial area of Saskatoon," Judge Wright wrote.

A police expert also testified that marks on Mr. Stonechild's face were not caused by handcuffs, contradicting other experts, but Judge Wright said: "I am not convinced by her opinion."

What is clear, Mr. Wright wrote, is that the young man was taken into custody by the two officers and he was later found dead of cold exposure with marks on his face "likely caused by handcuffs."

Saskatoon police have faced persistent allegations that they practised so-called "starlight tours," in which natives who caused trouble were picked up and taken to the edge of town on cold nights, forcing them to walk home.

Judge Wright praised the force for recent attempts to reform itself, but concluded that more work remains.

"The fundamental problem the service has to address is the public perception that it does not take seriously complaints about its members and that it defends its members against complaints," he wrote.

More broadly, the commissioner compared relations between natives and non-natives in Saskatchewan to the alienated anglophone and francophone communities in Hugh MacLennan's 1945 novel, Two Solitudes.

"The void is emphasized by the interaction of an essentially non-aboriginal police force and the aboriginal community," he said.

To bridge that gap, the report offers eight recommendations, including more cultural training, more native officers, and an improved complaints process.

The report does not recommend that Saskatchewan establish a third-party investigative agency similar to Ontario's Special Investigations Unit, whose detectives examine all deaths and serious injuries involving police. The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations has been hoping the province would establish a local equivalent of the SIU.

Mr. Stonechild's mother Stella Bignell said the report offered "some closure" but she is still hoping for an apology from the two Saskatoon police officers involved in the incident.

"They took my son out," Ms. Bignell told reporters. "They took my son away from me. They didn't investigate, even though I asked them to."

With a report from Darren Yourk