INQUIRY INTO MATTERS RELATING TO THE DEATH OF NEIL STONECHILD UPDATES
"Jason saw Neil, his friend, in the backseat of the car, and Neil was bloodied up. His face was full of blood. "
September 20, 2003
Cree teenager Neil Stonechild's death, under questionable circumstances ten years ago on the outskirts of Saskatoon, is being put under a microscope at a public inquiry. So is Neil's character, the behaviour of Aboriginal youths, and the Saskatoon police.
" . . . that evening we were having tea in the kitchen, my sister and I, and he came and he said Mom, he said, I'm leaving out for a while, to the -- go see my friends. And it had been snowing, I know that night was stormy. And I told him, Harry, I said, which was his nickname, Harry, I said, you have to be careful, I said, it's stormy. Please stay inside, I told him, don't go nowhere. And he turned and he come and hugged me and said I'm going to be fine, Mom, I'll see you later. And he said I can't phone you because there's no phone there. So he come and kissed me and he left."
That was November 24th, 1990, the last time Neil Stonechild's mother saw him alive.
At the inquiry, she was asked by Commission Counsel, about the next time she saw him, at the funeral home," . . . was there anything unusual you noted about the body? A - Yes, as soon as I saw him, there was a gash across his face, from his nose to his cheek, across his face, like across the nose to the cheek. And it wasn't just a scratch either, because it was, it was open, more open than just a scratch."
THE PARTY THE NIGHT BEFORE NEIL DISAPPEARED
On Friday, September 18th, 2003, Flora Binning who was 18 in 1990 when Neil Stonechild died, testified that people, including Neil, had gathered at the house and were drinking, on the night before he went missing.
She knew Neil, and her boyfriend Eddie Rushton knew him well, "Neil hung out with my boyfriend, Eddie, also with my sister, Jason and Cheryl, and a bunch of other people. I couldn't tell you how long I knew him. I'm guessing probably maybe about four years."
UNDER THE INFLUENCE OF ALCOHOL BUT COHERENT
Flora recalled the last time she saw Neil Stonechild, he was heading out her front door to go to the store because, "People wanted munchies". He never returned. She heard the next day that his mother was looking for him and that he was missing.
When asked about the drinking and the shape Neil was in that night, she told the inquiry, " . . . he wasn't falling down drunk. He wasn't like -- like I've worked in a bar and there is like tipsy, there's drunk and there's just out of your head. Basically he was in between tipsy and being completely -- well, not completely intoxicated but he was, you know, you can carry a conversation with him, he knew what he was doing."
Pressed by police lawyers about the nature of the get togethers by Neil, Jason Roy and others - "What you're telling us, though, is the drinking style of Jason, Neil and the rest of the gang was drink until you get drunk. Pretty much, yeah. "
This line of questioning is very familiar to me, having reported on the inquest into the death of Anthany Dawson, in Victoria, British Columbia after he died in police custody under questionable circumstances. I remember that his mother and aunt and members of the Aboriginal community were outraged by the way police lawyers tried to taint the proceedings with character assasination of Anthany as a drunken or drug-crazed Indian. It's a curious charatceristic of the justice system that allows the latitude to lay blame at the feet of the victim . . . you know what I mean, the strategy of the he-deserved-it mentality.
During their questioning of witnesses at the Saskatoon inquiry, lawyers for the police have raised various issues to draw attention to Neil Stonechild's character. The history of he and his friends doing B and E's (Break and Enters) to get money to buy booze.
RUMOURS vs. REALITY
For example, Drew Plaxton, representing the police union, asking about " something about Neil being involved in trying to sell some stolen guns". There were many words about the violence involving Aboriginal teens in Saskatoon.
Is this to suggest Neil's death has more to do with lifestyle, community and peer conflicts, or illegal activities, than the authorities?
We should expect to see a lot more of this line of questioning, not only to discredit the witnesses, but also the life of Neil Stonechild.
CREDIBLE KEY WITNESS - AFRAID OF SASKATOON POLICE SINCE 1990
The inquiry will hear from more than 60 witnesses. His friend Jason Roy, already raised concerns about Neil Stonechild being apprehended by police before his death . . . the look on his face - fear and protestations.
"He had fresh blood on his face across his nose. I couldn't see all that well, but he had his face to the window and he was yelling at me, asking me to help him."
The friend, seen as a key witness in their investigation, was placed in the witness protection program by the RCMP, only to be tracked down by Saskatoon police.
Here's some of the Q. and A. from the inquiry. "The officer stopped me and asked me who I was. At the time I was unlawfully at large from a community home and I gave a fake name. I gave a false name. Q Do you recall what name you gave them? A Tracy Lee Horse. Q And why did you give them that name? A He was somebody that I grew up with and I knew his birthday. Q And what was your concern in giving them your real name? A For one I didn't want to be in that car, and for two, I didn't want to go back to jail. Q Okay. Now what happened, you've given the name, do you recall anything else? A Asked me who I was and he punched it into his computer, the name that I had given him, he punched it into the computer and it took a little while for it to happen. So I kind of took maybe half a step back to just wait for this process to go through. And Neil was freaking out in the back car, back seat of the car. And the officer driving asked me, "Do you know this guy in the back?" I said, no, I didn't know him because I didn't want to -- I didn't want to be there in that car with him. The name that I gave came back as not having any warrants or anything like that in order for them to pick me up. I asked, "Can I go now?" And they let me go. Q And what happened? Where did you go from there? A The car pulled out in front of me and started heading down Confederation Drive. Q Which direction did the car go? A It was heading south. Q On Confederation Drive?A And Neil was looking out the back of the window, just staring at me. He looked -- he just looked scared. He -- he just looked really really scared, and my thoughts at the time were, "Well, he's just going to go back to Kilburn Hall, that will be it. I'll see him when he gets out."
Father Andre Poilievre knew Jason Roy when he was in high school, knew his family, and then encountered him when he was a chaplain and Jason an inmate at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre. He has known Jason Roy for about 15 years. Jason has participated in dozens of presentations with him at schools and treatment centres, part of the Pikohewin healing program, in which Jason shared his stories about addictions.
On Thursday, September 17, 2003 Father Poilievre was a witness at the Stonechild Inquiry and testified about Jason coming to speak to him at the corectional centre in 1996 or 1997, " And he shares with me this incredible story, unbelievable story in a sense, about the fact that one night, and he didn't give me the dates of whatever, that he had been out partying with a young friend, Neil Stonechild, and they'd been drinking. And Neil wanted to go look up an old girlfriend, and he had told me where. I know the apartment buildings. And they tried a few buildings and it wasn't working out, and so Jason said, "Well, I'm going back," wherever the party was, I guess. "I'm just going back." And so they split, and Neil kept on doing what Neil was doing; trying to get into the building somehow.
And on his way back, he, Jason was stopped by a police cruiser, and Jason saw Neil, his friend, in the backseat of the car, and Neil was bloodied up. His face was full of blood. And Jason told me that Neil was in handcuffs. And Jason told me that the police officers asked him who he was and that he had given him a false name. And then the police let him go. Then Neil was found dead a couple days later.
That's pretty well all he told me. We didn't go into details and I didn't pursue the -- I didn't go into details. That wasn't what this was all about. I was just -- he was sharing me a story, and -- but I do remember that he shared with me the fact that, he says, "You know, Andre, I can't -- I can't sleep. I'm having a hard time sleeping. I've -- this is eating me up. This is chewing me up. This is -- I just have lots of regrets."
And that's the issue that he wanted to talk to me about. He wanted to talk to me about what was going on. He's an inmate; he's in jail. He's locked up. He's got all this time to think. And this thing is just chewing at him. So he had that guilt. It was a question of guilt, it was a question of shame, it was a question of regret. It was a question of the fact that he abandoned his little friend. Those were the struggles that he was -- wanted to share with me and was crying out for some help, some assistance.
We talked about the fact that he was afraid of the police. I remember that also very clearly, but that was secondary to that other stuff that he wanted to deal with."
DOUBTS AND EXPECTATIONS
While lawyers representing police interests predictably cross examine witnesses aggressively, attempting to challenge, perhaps discredit their words and contentions, Neil's mother, relatives, a former girlfriend, and a close friend have bravely testified, and their horror and suspicions about foul play were quite evident . . . not only were they horrified by Neil's freezing death, but about bruises or wounds on his face and body.
Jason Roy testified about the last time he saw his friend Neil, " I started walking back down Confederation Drive and I got maybe about two blocks from 7-11 on Confederation Drive and there's an alley approach going on to Confederation Drive right there. And as I approached that alley, a police car pulled in front of me and Neil was in the back. Neil went to -- he saw me, he was -- he was very irate. He was freaking out. He was saying, "Jay, help me. Help me. These guys are going to kill me."
Walking with the witnesses into the inquiry are the many experiences, and perhaps the spirits, of other Aboriginals who have encountered "the system" . . . to them a foreign system, of so-called justice.
As the Commission of Inquiry moves ahead, I believe that more balance will be seen, as lawyers for the family and First Nations look into the behaviour of the police, and the manner in which the 1990 police investigation was conducted.
Neil's body was found in the north industrial area of Saskatoon in November 1990. The RCMP investigation was the longest of the investigations involving Aboriginal men and allegations of police wrongdoing in Saskatoon.
As part of the Mounties probe, Mr. Stonechild's body was exhumed in late April 2001.
The head office of Saskatchewan's Public Prosecutions Division reviewed the RCMP investigation and determined there was insufficient evidence to lay charges.
WHAT'S IT GOT TO DO WITH JUSTICE?
Although the government's purpose of this public inquiry, ordered in February by the Justice Minister of Saskatchewan, is not to determine criminal or civil responsibility, it does include, " the nature and extent of contact between Mr. Stonechild and members of the Saskatoon Police Service".
So after all is said at the public inquiry, will there be justice for Neil Stonechild, his family, friends and Aboriginal Peoples generally? Considering past experiences, it's very difficult to remain optimistic.
However, there remains some hope in the fact, this is a formal Commission of Inquiry that must make public its findings, conclusions and recommendations, with respect to the administration of criminal justice in the province of Saskatchewan.
As well, there is hope things will change in Saskatchewan, because of the real efforts being made by First Nations and the province through the Commission on First Nations and Metis Peoples and Justice Reform
ABORIGINAL HOPE FOR JUSTICE, SPRINGS ETERNAL
In its Interim Report released earlier this year, the Justice Reform Commission called on the Saskatchewan government to adopt a recommendation made 11 years ago by another aboriginal justice committee asking for a citizen's complaint review mechanism.
It also recommended the government provide funding for the special investigation unit of the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, formed two years ago, in response to reports of abusive treatment of Aboriginals by the police, including the dumping of Aboriginal men into the freezing cold on the outskirts of Saskatoon.
WHAT THE SYSTEM PROMISES
As for Neil Stonechild's public inquiry, it promises much, as you can see in the following, from Commission Counsel Joel Hesje. As for justice? We will have to wait together, to see what it delivers.
"We will begin with the events of November 24th. 1990. We will hear testimony from persons having contact with Neil Stonechild on that date. We will also present police records indicating possible contact between Saskatoon Police Service and Neil Stonechild in the late hours of November 24th, 1990. We will also hear from various witnesses that received information as to the events of November 24th, 1990. We will then present evidence as to the circumstances surrounding the discovery of Neil Stonechild's frozen body on November 29th, 1990. This will include testimony from the attending officers, the coroner, and the pathologist.
The focus of the evidence will then shift to the Saskatoon Police Service investigation of the death. We will hear from the investigating officers and the chain of command within the Saskatoon Police Service at the time -- many of whom are now retired. We intend to present all available evidence as to the conduct of the Saskatoon Police Service investigation, including the extent of such investigation. We will also call the two Saskatoon Police Service officers who were dispatched in response to a complaint involving Neil Stonechild on November 24th, 1990.
We intend to present evidence as to how the death of Neil Stonechild became the subject of an RCMP investigation in 2000. Evidence that came to light as a result of that investigation will be presented in as much detail as possible.
In an attempt to cover all matters of potential public concern relating to the circumstances surrounding the death of Neil Stonechild we shall call evidence as to the information received or uncovered by the Saskatoon Police Service since 1990. This will include evidence as to the Saskatoon Police Service's response to such information and to public concerns raised with respect to this matter.
Throughout the hearing there will be evidence as to the policies, procedures, and practices of the Saskatoon Police Service that may have impacted on the Stonechild investigation.
There will also be evidence of changes in such policies, procedures and practices over the years."
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