Death of teen still a mystery


Inquiry: Probe into how an aboriginal Canadian froze to death in 1990 brings up natives' deep-seated feelings of distrust of the police.

March 10, 2004|By Scott Calvert | Scott Calvert,SUN STAFF

SASKATOON, Saskatchewan -In 1990, an aboriginal teen-ager named Neil Stonechild froze to death on the edge of this prairie city. Nearly 14 years later, the question remains: Why?

Did he wander there in a drunken stupor, lose a shoe and stumble to the ground? Did Saskatoon police officers drop him off in the frigid cold? Was it something else entirely?

At Avenue P and 20th Street, in the Native Canadian enclave on the city's west side, the answer is obvious: It's the police.

Although a provincial inquiry is exploring whether police had a role in the 1990 death, natives like 16-year-old Josh Desnomie and his uncle, Ivan Kitchemonia, don't expect it to change what they see as the truth of life here: that the police single them out.

For Josh and his uncle, merely seeing the police is enough to raise alarm, as when an unmarked cruiser rolls by one recent afternoon.

"I feel threatened by the cops," Josh says while walking through a gritty area with bungalows, bingo halls and porn shops. "They're the ones supposed to be making the town safe."

But to others in this riverfront city of 212,000, the issues around Stonechild's death are murkier. With varying degrees of interest, many residents are awaiting the findings of the high-profile inquiry, which started in September and resumed this week.

There has been tantalizing testimony. A witness has testified he saw Stonechild screaming in a police car the night he vanished.

A photo expert testified that abrasions found on the 17- year-old's body were consistent with handcuffs.

But police have denied the eyewitness account, and another expert - a pathologist-has said the abrasions could have had other causes.

In the end, the inquiry's commissioner, Justice David Wright, will draw his own conclusions from the reams of testimony that have pushed the inquiry's budget to $1.3 million, double initial projections.

Even if the inquiry fails to solve the mystery, it already has had an effect.

The probe has put a new focus on the native community's deep-seated distrust of the police and on government statistics that show aboriginals make up around a tenth of the urban population here but half of those accused of crimes - a phenomenon with myriad possible causes.

It has also brought fresh reminders of the complicated relationship between whites and aboriginals, as natives are often called in Canada.

The groups have a painful shared history that began with oppression and has evolved into an awareness of the need to ease the woes afflicting natives, from alcoholism to joblessness.

"When it's in the paper every day, you can't bury your head and think you're immune or not affected," says Joan Krohn, a retired educator.

"It drives home how little these people have," she says. "They have no jobs. There is no hope. Their children are growing up in poverty. The whole cycle starts up again."

Krohn is compassionate, but others take a different attitude toward native Canadians.

"We joke that they don't work because we pay them" in the form of subsidies, tax breaks and treaty money, says Luc Denis, a 21-year-old factory worker. He says he supports the inquiry and wishes it had happened sooner. He added that he does not know many natives.

Saskatoon, like many cities in the United States, is largely divided along color lines. Neighborhoods are not very integrated.

It's easy to spend an evening out and see few natives. Stonechild was a member of the Saulteaux tribe, but the population here includes members of different tribes as well, often collectively referred to as First Nations.

Recently, a hundred people packed the Bassment club downtown for the Winter Meltdown Blues Festival. At McNally Robinson books, the native presence is limited to two shelves of books on "Aboriginal Issues and Culture."

Jackie Dufresne, a native Canadian woman who lives on the west side, recalls walking several blocks to the lively downtown with her infant son, Nicholas and hearing a white man say, "Oh, checks must be out." The remark stung, says the 23-year-old.

Like many of her neighbors, she suspects the police in Stonechild's death and sees the inquiry as a path to "justice," though she may be disappointed.

The investigation is not aimed at determining criminal or civil responsibility. While a key goal is to answer the riddle of Stone- child's death, only the provincial attorney general could bring charges, and he could not use testimony before the inquiry.

The inquiry's second main goal is to scrutinize the police investigation. Deputy Chief Dan Wiks has admitted in testimony that errors were made, such as the failure to pursue a promising early tip or to search for Stonechild's missing shoe.

Since 1990, Saskatoon police have made changes the department says should help avoid the sort of questions at the core of the inquiry. Among the steps is a plan to put global positioning systems in police cars to better monitor officers.

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