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Indian Deaths Compound Troubles in a Canadian Prairie City

By Steven Pearlstein, Washington Post, Monday 28 February 2000; Page A09

SASKATOON, Saskatchewan, Feb. 27 –– Tragically, it had become almost commonplace: young Indian men, half-naked, found dead and frozen in fields or alongside the road on the outskirts of town. The general assumption was that such misfortune was what happened when poverty and substance abuse mixed with the frigid Canadian winter.

But after two more deaths last month and a shocking story told by an out-of-work Indian bricklayer, this prairie city of churches and pickup trucks has been forced to confront a more sinister possibility: that some of those drunk or drug-addled Indians may have been left out there by police.

Almost immediately, two of Saskatoon's veteran police officers were suspended and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police was brought in to conduct an independent criminal investigation. The Saskatoon police chief has called the developments "every chief's worst nightmare," and other city officials concede that, no matter how the investigation turns out, the case has set back race relations in a province where the Indian population is projected to soar from 15 percent today to 45 percent by 2050.

"It doesn't look good right now," said Joan Brownridge, the city's race relations coordinator.

The specter of racism and police brutality has touched off a wave of soul-searching in Saskatchewan, which has been struggling with Canada's lowest income and educational levels and some of its highest crime rates.

"As much as it pains me to say it, this remains a racist province," said Allan Blakeney, the provincial premier from 1971 to 1982.

In recent years, as more Indians have left reservations and flocked to urban areas, political power has shifted from Blakeney's liberal New Democratic Party to more conservative parties opposed to affirmative action and skeptical of funding social programs that city officials say are needed to break the cycle of Indian poverty, crime, alcoholism and welfare dependency.

In Saskatoon, the recent troubles began Jan. 29, when a member of the provincial legislature, out for her daily run, found the partially frozen body of Rodney Naistus, 25, in an industrial area on the city's west end. He had last been seen the night before by his brother and some friends at the Red Rock Grill, where they had gone to celebrate his release from the Saskatoon Correctional Center. The temperature that night dropped to 8 degrees below zero.

The next night, Lawrence Wegner, 30, a student at a local Indian college, left his apartment at about 8 o'clock after injecting himself with a mixture of morphine and synthetic cocaine, according to his roommate. Shortly before midnight, police said they got a report of a man dressed in only a T-shirt and socks pounding on doors in a neighborhood near the city's hospital, yelling "Pizza! Pizza!" A squad car was dispatched, and one passerby later reported seeing Wegner in the back seat. Four days later, railway workers found his frozen body in a field near the city's main power plant.

The story might have not have aroused much interest if Darrell Night, an unemployed bricklayer, had not walked into police headquarters Feb. 4 to file a complaint. Night told police that on the same night Naistus disappeared, he himself was picked up by police after a drunken brawl, handcuffed and driven out to a field 100 yards from the power plant. He said an officer kicked him out of the car. Dressed in only a jean jacket, with no hat or gloves, Night ran to the plant, where he banged on the door for 10 minutes before a night watchman finally let him in to call a cab. It was 17 below zero outside.

When Night's complaint was reported in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix, the mayor and the police chief were quick to condemn the two officers who picked up Night--but were just as quick to say that there was no evidence that the practice was widespread or had anything to do with the deaths of Naistus and Wegner. In the past week, however, the Mounties and the local Indian association have received dozens of calls from Indians with stories of similar incidents.

Some of the accounts date back years. In an interview with The Washington Post, one man--a 26-year-old with a long criminal record--recalled the night 10 years ago he saw his 17-year-old friend Neil Stonechild being driven away in the back seat of a cruiser. The man, who asked that his name not be used, said Stonechild's face was bloodied, his hands were handcuffed behind his back and he was screaming, "Help me, these guys are gonna kill me!" Five days later, Stonechild's frozen body was found in a field near the city prison. The man said he had reported the incident to police on two occasions but they never followed up.

Fuel was added to the fire late last week, when a local weekly newspaper unearthed a column it had run in 1997 by a veteran police officer describing a night on the beat for two supposedly fictional cops, "Hawk" and "Gumby," who picked up an abusive and threatening drunk.

"A few quick turns and the car came to an abrupt stop in front of the Queen Elizabeth power station," wrote the police officer, Brian Trainor. "Climbing out and opening the rear door, Hawk yelled for the man to get out, advising him this was the place he had asked to go to. Quickly gathering his wits, the drunk scrambled out of the car and into the thickets along the riverbank, disappearing from view. One less guest for breakfast."

Jim Waldram, chairman of the Native Studies Department at the University of Saskatchewan, said he is revolted but hardly surprised by the unfolding drama.

"This type of behavior is not uncommon," he said, "and it's time people woke up and realized that aboriginals are routinely victimized by the police."

In recent years, police have tried to ease tensions with Indians. There's a weekly basketball game between members of the police union and a native team, as well as canoe and hiking trips for Indian children organized by the force. About one in nine officers on the police force is Indian, and there is a special liaison officer and an Indian advisory committee.

Still, the overall statistics remain grim. Although Indians comprise about 15 percent of Saskatoon's 200,000 people, they are charged with 50 percent of the crimes here and make up 75 percent of the inmates in the local prison. And with no detox center in town, police complain they have no alternative but to lock up intoxicated Indians who spill out of the town's bars most nights. Last year, there were more than 2,000 such arrests.

In the wake of the allegations, Indian leaders are pushing for a judicial inquiry not only into police tactics but the fairness of the entire criminal justice system. Whites, meanwhile, are shocked that their police department might have left anyone to die.

"I'm saddened, disgusted, ashamed," said Jim Maddin, a city councilman who spent 25 years on the force before retiring. "I know there is real frustration among the officers that the system doesn't support them. But that's no excuse."

Over the weekend, 400 people--about half of them white, half of them Indian--participated in a candlelight march of protest and solidarity through town to police headquarters.

Pat Lorje, who discovered Naistus's body while she was jogging, said the case may have the salutary effect of shocking whites into taking seriously the needs of an Indian community that many would rather ignore.

This is not the image people here have of themselves," Lorje said. "Very quickly, they realized the seriousness of it and the truly awful implications."

copyright 2000 The Washington Post Company