Two white policemen picked up Darrell Night outside his uncle's apartment one January day before dawn. There had been a quarrel, and Night, who had been drinking, was shouting obscenities.
Night, a member of the Cree Nation, recalls thinking the cops were going to throw him in the drunk tank, but they drove straight out of town. They took him to an isolated spot three miles outside Saskatoon.
"Get the [expletive] out of here, you [expletive] Indian," he recalled one officer saying, and they slammed his face on the hood of the trunk, took off his handcuffs and left him standing alone on a riverbank.
"I'll freeze out here," he yelled. "What's wrong with you guys?"
A voice echoed in the cold: "That's your [expletive] problem."
Night watched the car drive off, its lights trailing out of sight. The wind was whipping on the night of Jan. 28, 2000, in Saskatchewan, where there can be sudden blizzards and temperatures may drop to 40 degrees below zero. He was wearing a T-shirt, jeans, a jeans jacket and running shoes.
"I thought I was dead, but something told me, don't give up," he recalled. So Night started walking.
Night said he would have been "one more dead Indian," a victim of what had become known as the "midnight blue tour," a body found on the outskirts of Saskatoon, with no witnesses and only a dead man's story to tell. But he managed to walk several miles to the Queen Elizabeth power station, where a watchman let him in from the cold.
Night's account of his survival transfixed Saskatoon and opened a window on what some have called the dark side of the city's police force, which may have imposed its own death penalty on the wind-whipped prairie. Over the years, at least five frozen bodies of aboriginal men have been found in the same area. There were always rumors the police had dropped them off, but there was nothing to prove it until Night made it back alive.
Many people were outraged, and Night began receiving death threats. Since then, hundreds of other aboriginal people from across Canada have called the Native Law Centre at the University of Saskatchewan to tell their own stories of abuse.
"It's a very old practice to get rid of the Indian who was inebriated or mad," said Sakej Henderson, the director of the Native Law Centre. "If it wasn't for Darrell Night, we would still be muddling around. We knew the people died suspiciously, but we could never get enough connecting evidence to say why they died. But with Darrell Night, all of a sudden the pattern was there. We could see it clear. Clear enough the province has said we need an inquiry."
In Night's case, constables Dan Hatchen and Ken Munson of the Saskatoon Police Service were convicted of unlawful confinement in September 2001 and sentenced to eight months in prison. The maximum sentence for an unlawful confinement conviction is 10 years. They are now free.
Over dozens of years, native Canadians had complained of mistreatment by some police officers. About 75 percent of the male prison population and 90 percent of the female prison population is aboriginal, according to government statistics. Government commissions were set up to address these concerns. Henderson said aboriginal advocacy groups began pressing for changes, calling for community relations programs aimed at reducing the number of arrests. The Native Law Centre also made an effort to educate aboriginals on the law and encourage them to become lawyers or to work to defend civil rights. Henderson said he believed that as a result of these changes, certain police officers decided to deal with "problem Indians" by their own methods.
"When we started correcting the problem by creating advocates for aboriginal people," Henderson said, "the police started taking things into their own hands, feeling they could just drop them off and not book them."
Perceptions of Abuse
In 2001, the international human rights organization Amnesty International issued a report criticizing Canadian police for "patterns of police abuse against First Nation [Aboriginal] men in Saskatoon." First Nation is the way Canadian aboriginal people identify themselves.
"There were reports that members of Saskatoon City Police had for a number of years had an unofficial policy of abandoning intoxicated or 'troublesome' members of the indigenous community away from the population centre of Saskatoon, thereby placing them at great risk of dying of hypothermia during the winter months," Amnesty International said.
During the trial of Hatchen and Munson, the officers testified that they didn't break any laws and that Night was never assaulted. But individually, they gave different accounts of what happened that night.
William Roe, Hatchen's attorney, said the officers' defense during the trial was that Night asked to be dropped off on the edge of town. "He was in the back of the police car," Roe said. "He was well-known to the police who had dealt with him before. His line was, 'Look boys, drop me off anywhere. Just don't take me in and charge me.' That was their defense in a nutshell."
Why near the power plant? "My client's explanation was they decided to drop him off but he would have to walk a ways. That particular area just happened to be where they were at the time."
Morris Bodnar, Munson's attorney, denied the drop-off was motivated by racism. "There have been other individuals around Saskatchewan who said they have been dropped off by different police forces," he said. "Some are aboriginal. Some are not aboriginal. I have my doubts that race was a factor."
Prosecutor Bill Burge argued: "They deviated from what the criminal code tells them what to do and did what they wanted to do. At that point, the confinement of Darrell Night became unlawful because they're not taking him to the police station."
The Saskatoon Police Service fired the officers after their convictions. Saskatchewan's justice minister, Chris Axworthy, ordered a review into the treatment of native Canadians in the justice system.
Police Chief Russell Sabo apologized to the aboriginal justice reform commission in June, saying the two officers "failed to live up to their oath of office." Sabo said the department was shocked and distressed by the facts in the case. "I can assure you our department and the community of Saskatoon have paid a heavy penalty," he said.
Sabo said in a recent televised interview that the abandonment of aboriginal men by Saskatoon police "happened more than once, and we fully admit that and, in fact, on behalf of the police department, I want to apologize. It's quite conceivable there were other times. I think it's important we take ownership when we do something wrong and correct the behavior."
The case has now triggered questions about others who had been found frozen to death on the edge of town.
One day after Night's ordeal, the body of Rodney Naistus was found shirtless in the same area on the edge of Saskatoon.
On Feb. 3, 2000, the body of Lawrence Kim Wegner was found near where Night had been dropped off. Wegner, who was found wearing a T-shirt, socks and jeans, was last seen alive early on the morning of Jan. 31. Both Wegner and Naistus appeared to have frozen to death. By some accounts, they died within hours of being released from police custody, according to police investigations and public inquests.
Saskatchewan's minister of justice ordered inquests into those and other deaths. Inquests do not determine guilt or innocence but are held to establish where and when a death occurred and the medical cause of death. They are open to the public, and evidence is heard by a six-member jury, which also makes recommendations on how similar deaths can be prevented.
The inquests into the deaths of Naistus and Wegner found that the circumstances were "inconclusive." The report on Wegner said that he was found in a field and the cause of death was hypothermia from prolonged exposure, "by what means: undetermined." The jury recommended the development "of a standing order requiring police officers to record in their notebooks the names of individuals they take into their police vehicles for whatever reason."
Lloyd Dustyhorn, 53, was found frozen to death in Saskatoon Jan. 19, 2000, the day after he had been taken into custody by police for public intoxication. A jury decided in May 2001 after an inquest that his death was caused by hypothermia.
D'Arcy Dean Ironchild, 33, died Feb. 19, 2000, after he was taken into custody for public intoxication on Feb. 18. The Saskatchewan Justice Department said Ironchild was released around midnight and sent home in a taxi. The inquest jury said Ironchild's death was accidental and the cause was an overdose of chloral hydrate, an old and rarely used sedative most famously combined with alcohol surreptitiously to make a Mickey Finn. In June, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police began investigating a 25-year-old case in which Saskatoon police allegedly abandoned a woman on the edge of town.
The recent cases have led to a new inquest that began Sept. 8 into the death of Neil Stonechild, 17, found frozen Nov. 29, 1990 in a field on the outskirts of Saskatoon. The inquest will examine how the police conducted their investigation into Stonechild's death.
Stonechild's body had been found with one shoe missing. After three months of investigation, the Saskatoon City police concluded that he had died while trying to walk to an adult correctional center when he was overcome by the cold. Police have denied that Stonechild was abandoned by officers.
No charges were ever filed, but Stonechild's mother, Stella Stonechild-Bignell, kept asking questions. She said she had never believed the police story about the correctional center, particularly after a friend of Stonechild's told the family he had last seen Stonechild in the back of a police cruiser, bleeding and cursing and yelling, "They're gonna kill me." In addition, she has asked how he could have walked anywhere in the cold wearing only one shoe.
At the new inquest, she testified that when Stonechild didn't return home that night she thought her son, who she said had been in confrontations with the police before, was in custody. She called the city police. "I remember, in fact, I'm positive, it was a lady that answered, and she told me a car had been sent out to look for Neil. So I asked her, 'Did they pick him up?' And she said, 'Well I can . . . patch you through to the cells.' " The call was sent to a guard who told her that her son was not there.
Later that week, she heard something on the 6 o'clock news about a frozen body being found. That evening, there was a knock on the door and a plainclothes policeman asked whether he could talk to her about her son. "That's when he told me that Neil had died," she said. Police soon closed the investigation.
But questions persisted, and were asked again at the new inquiry. Stonechild's aunt, Debra Mason, testified that at the funeral home, she and Neil's sister noticed that he had bruises on his face. "There was a cut across the bridge of his nose that extended to his cheek, and makeup didn't hide, couldn't hide, the bruises," she testified. It was obvious, she said, that he had been beaten up.
Gerry Mason, Neil's uncle, testified he noticed bumps on Neil's head, and skin missing on his wrists, thumbs and hands. Mason thought the scratches came from "pulling at handcuffs."
Police reported no signs of foul play, and the Saskatoon coroner said he had examined the body but did not notice any scratches on the face.
'How Can Anybody Survive?'
On a Cree Nation reserve about 90 minutes west of Saskatoon, Mary Wegner, the mother of Lawrence Wegner, still weeps. She remembers Stonechild, Naistus and Night. She has a theory about Darryl Night and his ability to survive. "The reason I think Darryl Night got out of there is he grew up in Saskatoon. He knew the area. Lawrence didn't know where to go. . . . Darrell Night got dropped off Jan. 28. Lawrence went missing Jan. 29."
Not long ago, during the government inquiry into Wegner's death, Mary Wegner retraced her son's steps on just as cold a night. "When we were out there dressed in a T-shirt and jeans and no boots, you start to wonder whether your legs would carry you," she said. "How can anybody survive with a T-shirt and socks?"
No criminal charges have been filed in Wegner's case. "When they found his body, they never treated it like a homicide," she said. Investigators left their own footprints in the snow, she said. Saskatoon Police Sgt. Bob Peters later admitted the crime scene had been contaminated because of investigators' "curiosity" and lack of training. Mary Wegner said she remembered hearing on the radio that they had found a body at the power station. "Then my husband phoned me and said, 'This is not good. I think Lawrence is dead.' I didn't believe it," she said.
She folded into tears. She said Lawrence was wearing boots and an expensive jacket the night he disappeared. "They took his jacket. Only they know what they did to him," she said.
"This is a human being," she went on, speaking of Night. "I don't know if they can sleep today. I read that one police officer who dropped off Darrell said his family was suffering. What are we? Stones? Do we not suffer?"
"I just want to find out why they don't know this is people they are hurting. That person, somebody loves them, cares for them. Maybe in their eyes that person is no good. I wouldn't let anybody walk on a road when it is cold out, minus 28, biting wind. It's cold when it is cold here."
Police said they did not believe Lawrence Wegner's death was suspicious.
Darrell Night has moved back to the Saulteaux First Nation reserve. He says he is afraid to go into Saskatoon now. He says he thinks someone is trying to kill him. "I don't feel safe in the city. It's the cops I'm worried about, not the people. It shouldn't be like that." The last time he went into the city, a car hit him. He is on crutches.
He tells the story of his ordeal again, as if he has told the story many times before -- the words just spill out of his mouth. He recalls how the police threw him out of their car. They didn't give him a chance to lower his head, he says, and he hit the edge of the car, hard.
Night said he hoped the policemen would have pity. But they slammed his face on the frozen hood of the car, took off the handcuffs and drove away.
He walked about two miles, hoping to find a pay phone, before reaching the power plant. He doesn't know how he made it. "It felt like 50 miles," he says. When he finally reached the power plant, he kept banging on the door. Then he saw a face. A man inside wanted to know what he wanted. Night motioned that he wanted to call a taxi.
"He opens the door and said, 'What the hell you doing here? It's 5 o'clock in the morning.' " Night told him the story.
The man said, "Get out of here, the cops would not do that."
"I said, 'Honest.' " The night watchman let him in, then called a taxi. "I said, 'Thanks for opening the door. You probably saved my life.' "
At the trial, the night watchman and the taxi driver were witnesses. Night said he asked the taxi driver to drop him at his sister's house. When he got there, he told the driver he didn't have any money, but he would run upstairs. The driver didn't trust him, so Night gave him his jean jacket and health card as security. When he returned with the money, he paid the driver and snatched his jean jacket. But he forgot the health card.
The taxi driver kept the health card, which later helped prove Night was telling the truth, placing him in the taxi the night he was left out in the cold. It was a crucial piece of evidence in the trial.
Eventually, Night met a police officer who convinced him to tell other police his story.
Night recalled asking the policeman, "How do I know you don't want to take me out of town and shut me up permanently?" The officer persuaded him to go to the police station and report what had happened. Night agreed to go, but only if his uncle went with him. "I tell the whole story," Night said. "And bang, next thing: headlines all over the city and all over Canada."