By Lloyd Dolha
Final arguments into the death of Saskatoon aboriginal teenager Neil Stonechild concluded at the public inquiry on May 19, after months of hearings, dozens of witnesses and 8,000 pages of testimony.
Stonechild was found frozen to death in a northern industrial area of the city with one shoe, a blackened sock on the other foot, with his hands curled up in his sports jacket in an attempt to keep warm on November 29, 1990 on a night of -28 C with a wind chill factor.
The public inquiry began on September 8, 2003, after an extensive RCMP investigation and a Saskatoon Police investigation mired in overtones of racism.
The case made international headlines based on the testimony of Stonechild’s friend Jason Roy, then 16, who had alleged he had seen Stonechild in the back of the Saskatoon Police cruiser screaming, “Help, these guys are going to kill me.”
The RCMP investigation suspected Constables Larry Hartwig, nicknamed “Redneck,” and Brad Senger, but the constables were never charged.
Gone on arrival?
The story told at the inquiry was that it was a Saturday night. Stonechild was on the run from a youth detention centre and wanted a drink. He traded a pair of leather gloves for a bottle of vodka.
Following a few hours of drinking and playing cards at a party, the teenagers went to look for Stonechild’s former girlfriend who was babysitting at a nearby apartment complex. Because they didn’t know the apartment number, they walked around trying buzzers at random. After a while, Roy got cold and left. Stonechild eventually found the right number, but his formergirlfriend wouldn’t let him in because she could tell that he was drunk. Her sister’s boyfriend called the police and Stonechild soon wandered off.
The constables responded to the call at 11:51 p.m. the cruiser’s computer terminal indicated, “Drunk to be removed/Neil Stonechild/17 years old.”
The constables testified that they had no memory of searching for Stonechild because that would have been routine. Dispatch logs showed they never found him. The logs indicated he was “GOA” or Gone on Arrival. Stonechild was found the next day.
The question of police involvement in the death of Neil Stonechild caused a storm of outrage in the province’s aboriginal community in light of the other “starlight tours” in which Saskatoon police regularly took troublemakers out of the city to make them walk home.
But according to Jason Roy, he was walking away from the apartment complex when the cruiser stopped him. The officers asked his name and he gave them a false identity. Roy testified he watched them type the name into their data terminal and saw the time. It was 11:56. But no record exists that can confirm Roy’s assertion that he saw Stonechild in the backseat of the cruiser.
The most important item in that evening’s chronology was the constables’ encounter with Bruce Genaille. Genaille testified that the two officers had also stopped him, demanded to see his identification, and asked if he had seen Stonechild. Lawyers for the constables argued that the time the police ran his name on the computer database, 12:04 a.m., was when they questioned him. In other words, the police were still looking for Stonechild and Roy’s assertion was untrue.
Lawyers for the Stonechild family suggested that the officers could have met Genaille earlier and checked his name as an afterthought.
The next time the constables whereabouts could be confirmed was just before 2:00 a.m., when they investigated an assault.
Constables Hartwig and Senger testified that they could not recall anything during those two hours over 13 years ago. They pointed to their computer records that they were too busy to have taken Stonechild to the north end of the city. Their records showed the pair had completed two calls, confirmed the two identities and checked six license plates.
But lawyers for the Stonechild family said the constables had plenty off time for a quick trip to the city’s north end.
After the inquiry
Now that the Stonechild inquiry has come to its conclusion, it’s up to Justice David Wright to weigh the evidence and reach some conclusion to serve the interests of justice for the Saskatchewan aboriginal community.
Whatever comes out of the inquiry, there are some things that have become clear and must be addressed by the presiding judge.
In March, former Saskatoon police chief Dan Wiks admitted that the police had misled the public about the investigation into Stonechild’s death and that the investigation was in itself at best, “shoddy.” Saskatoon police admitted that they had lost evidence, ignored tips and lied to the family.
The Saskatoon police set up a so-called “issues team,” to develop tactics to deal with questions raised at the inquiry – in essence – to lie to the inquiry.
It was further revealed that the Saskatoon police discussed placing the two constables on paid suspension and telling the public they had been reassigned.
But what is most telling about the entire affair is that the public inquiry into the death of Neil Stonechild was the role of his friend Jason Roy. As noted in the written submissions, Mr. Roy has consistently told his version of the events since that cold night in November 1990 to the police, other witnesses and the inquiry. It is indeed noteworthy that the lawyers for the Sakatoon police went to great lengths to discredit Jason Roy’s account of that night.
Why would Roy, whose involvement in the entire Stonechild affair was what forced the inquiry itself, go so far out of his way to the point of homelessness to tell his side of the story if he wasn’t telling the truth? This is what Justice Wright must determine.