Since 1976 at least, Saskatoon police have picked up Indigenous men, women, and boys, driven them miles outside the city, and left them in freezing temperatures on winter nights, leading to what is now referred to as the Saskatoon freezing deaths.
For decades, the police force in Saskatoon carried out a practice that became known as "starlight tours." This involved picking up Indigenous people on various charges ranging from vagrancy to drunkenness, police officers would then drive them outside of the city boundaries and abandon them there, often in freezing and deadly temperatures.
This became common practice within the Saskatoon police force, the "starlight tours" were well known within the Indigenous communities in Saskatchewan, but they gained national notoriety following the Saskatoon freezing deaths in 2000 when the frozen bodies of two men were discovered close to a powerplant in January and February of that year. A third man came forward and reported that he had been left by police by the same power plant and barely escaped with his life.
When these deaths were brought into the public domain it renewed interest in the case of Neil Stonechild, a 17-year-old boy who was found dead under similar circumstances in 1990.
As recently as 2018, men from the Indigenous community have claimed that Saskatoon police still carry out the "starlight tours."
The Harrowing Death Of Neil Stonechild And The Survival Of Darrell Night
On November 29, 1990, the temperature in the city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, dropped below minus 18 degrees Fahrenheit. It was this same day that construction workers discovered the frozen body of Neil Stonechild in a field on the outskirts of town. Stonechild was found wearing a light jacket and jeans and was missing one shoe.
Neil Stonechild was a member of the Saulteaux Nation, and the last time anyone saw him alive was in the back of a police car. One of Neil's friends recalled how he heard the teenager shouting, "Help me, they are going to kill me," according to The Conversation.
The 17-year-old was found face down in a field. The autopsy results showed that his cause of death had been hypothermia. One local police officer said, "the kid went out, got drunk, went for a walk, and froze to death."
It took only three days for the police to close the investigation into the death of Neil Stonechild. Even after this, the police force carrying out these starlight tours on Indigenous people continued. An investigation that followed found that the police were intentionally targeting those of Native American descent in what is now known as the Saskatoon freezing deaths.
It was on January 28, 2000, when police picked up Darrell Night, a Cree man, in Saskatoon. Night anticipated the police throwing him in a cell for the night for being drunk, they didn't, they drove him three miles outside of the city boundary on a "starlight tour."
The Washington Post claimed that one of the officers on duty screamed at Night, "Get the f*ck out of here, you f*cking Indian."
"I'll freeze out here," Night yelled back. "What's wrong with you guys?"
"That's your f*cking problem." replied the officer.
Then wearing only a jacket over a t-shirt, Saskatoon police left Darrell Night on a riverbank in sub-zero temperatures.
Miraculously Darrell Night managed to avoid freezing to death that night, he was almost certainly set to become another victim of the Saskatoon freezing deaths. Night managed to walk two miles through the freezing night and reached a power station where a security guard helped him before frostbite took over.
That same month local police arrested Lloyd Dustyhorn for public intoxication, the following day his frozen body was found on the edges of Saskatoon.
The day after Darrell Night almost died, another body was discovered close to where Night was abandoned by police, it was that of Rodney Naistus. Just a few days later, another Indigenous man was found dead, the body of Lawrence Kim Wegner was discovered in almost the same location.
Darrell Night would have become the fifth frozen body to be discovered in the same stretch of land outside Saskatoon. When he made it home and took the decision to speak out against the Saskatoon police force he received death threats.
The Investigation Into The Saskatoon Freezing Deaths
Although the Saskatoon freezing deaths in earth 2000 brought the harrowing problem into public view for the first time, locals had long known of the practice that police euphemistically referred to as taking someone on a "starlight tour."
Scholar Sherene Razack wrote, "That there is a popular term for this practice is testimony to the fact that it happened more than once, the practice of drop-offs is a lethal one when the temperature is minus twenty-eight degrees Celsius and if the long walk back to town is undertaken without proper clothing and shoes."
The Saskatoon freezing deaths revealed a hidden conflict between Indigenous people and law enforcement. In the Canadian region of Saskatchewan, only five percent of the total population is made up of Indigenous people, however, they make up over half of the prison population.
The province finally opened up an inquiry when Darrell Night survived his "starlight tour."
The police officers involved in the Darrell Night incident insisted that they never broke the law. The officers claimed that Night had requested that they drop him off on the outskirts of town. The officers testified that Night said, "Look boys, drop me off anywhere. Just don't take me in and charge me."
During the trial of the officers involved, they claimed that they decided to drop off Darrell Night in an area where he would be required to walk back into town.
Both officers - Ken Munson and Dan Hatchen were found guilty of unlawful confinement. They would serve just eight months in prison.
The End Of The Starlight Tours
Sakej Henderson, who directs the Native Law Centre, told the Washington Post, "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."
Russell Sabo, the Saskatoon Police Chief, admitted that the Saskatoon freezing deaths were caused by the department. He also confirmed in 2003 that as early as 1976, the department had disciplined an officer who abandoned a woman outside of the city.
He said, "the starlight tours 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."
Even after the admission from the police chief, investigations into the other deaths ruled that the police were not responsible. The jury reached an "inconclusive" ruling on the cause of death of Naistus and Wegner.
The mother of Lawrence Wegner said that the police took her son's best chance of survival from him before throwing him out in the cold. Mary Wegner said, "They took his jacket, only they know what they did to him."
Wegner added, "Maybe in their eyes that person is no good, I wouldn't tell anybody walk on a road when it is cold out, minus 28, biting wind. It's cold when it is cold here."
Even though Darrell Night survived his ordeal, his family has said they cannot get over what happened." Rosa Desjarlais, Night's mother, said, "I don't trust the cops, period. I would never go to them if I was desperately in need because they would never, never take my word for it."
None of the officers that were involved in the Saskatoon freezing deaths were charged with causing the deaths of the men.