‘I thought, “Well, I have nothing to hide, so why be rude about it?”’ – Const. Bradley Senger
Two officers arrested a 33-year-old man, Darrell Night, for causing a disturbance
For nearly two decades, thought has been that the freezing deaths were of a racist police department.
‘Throughout the entire ordeal, Jason Roy had his knife aimed at my
ribs!’ – Saskatonian Blair Pischak
At that meeting, nineteen chiefs sat together and in turn pointed their fingers at these senior RCMP officers
The entire nation was looking at us as a rogue bunch of killers. The RCMP looked at 12 or 13 deaths.
The media had been all over this for weeks. Operation Ferric was the largest RCMP investigation ever undertaken in the history of the province, and the largest investigation into alleged police misconduct in Canadian history. It was examining possible police involvement in freezing deaths of several Aboriginal males including Neil Stonechild.
Ten years after Stonechild died, someone had come forward in February of this year, 2000, claiming he’d seen Stonechild in a police car the last night he was seen alive. If that were true – that Brad and his partner had had Stonechild in their vehicle – it meant that Brad hadn’t noted that fact in his notebook. That, in turn, would mean that he had failed to disclose important information about someone who later died under unknown circumstances. This could be serious.
“Three men suddenly materialized out of the dark!” says Saskatoon businessman, Blair Pischak. “One guy growled, ‘Let’s get going!’ while Jason Roy pulled out a knife.” An inauspicious start to the New Year, it was 10 p.m. in the freezing fog of January 2, 1996 when Pischak met Jason Roy, then 22, the only person who would claim to have seen Neil Stonechild in a police car the night he went missing. Pischak, 33, was at a phone box on Avenue P and 20th Street. “‘Get in your car!’ one of them barked.
“I was terrified, and just did as they said!” Pischak recounts. All four got into his car. Pischak drove; Jason Roy sat in the passenger seat, his knifepoint quivering a foot from Pischak’s ribcage. A man, later identified as Elton Dustyhorn, sat behind Pischak; the third man beside Dustyhorn. “They just told me to drive, as if they hadn’t figured out where they wanted to go,” Pischak says.
Neil Stonechild’s body might never have been disinterred and his death reinvestigated had it not been for two officers who raised the frightening spectre of police involvement in Aboriginal freezing deaths. The mere possibility created uproar in the normally sedate “City of Bridges.”
The controversy which became a full-blown international incident began about 5:30 in the morning of Friday, January 28, 2000. Two officers arrested a 33-year-old man, Darrell Night, for causing a disturbance. Because rank and file officers could not speak to the media, the public was told only that, instead of taking the Cree man to jail, police dropped him off near the southern outskirts of town on a frigid winter morning. Night walked to the Queen Elizabeth II power plant where he knocked on the door until someone answered and phoned him a taxi. The cab driver who drove him to his sister’s apartment several miles away later testified Night arrived home ready to “party” with the people who hired the taxi after him.
Wednesday, Feb. 16, 2000 was the day everything changed for the Saskatoon Police Service. After Chief Dave Scott had launched an investigation into police involvement in freezing deaths “regardless of how many resources it takes,” Sask. Justice decided to move the investigation from the police to RCMP, even though there was no indication of bias, and no support in law to bypass normal procedure without clear evidence of such bias. It was an extraordinary action, apparently taken only on the spur of extraordinary press and possibly, behind-the-scenes pressure by the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN). Yet to be discovered: on what basis was it assumed SPS could not investigate its own?
That same day, Minister of Justice Axworthy wrote the Assistant Commissioner of Saskatchewan RCMP, Harper Boucher, requesting an investigation into the deaths of Randy Naistus and Lawrence Wegner, “and to review the related allegations that members of the Saskatoon Police Service had engaged in the practice of transporting and abandoning individuals at the outskirts of the city as reported in a complaint from Darryl Night.” The requested task force, Operation Ferric, was struck that same afternoon.
Asked, under cross-examination, how he could see these were police if it was dark, Chatsis said that he could see them when their cruiser’s door opened, automatically turning on the interior light. Advised that police cars’ interior lights had long been factory-altered specifically so they did not automatically turn on when doors opened, Chatsis sat silently in the stand, apparently at a loss for words. He then admitted that he had asked the RCMP if he’d be able to collect a financial reward under Crime Stoppers for his story. Finally, asked why, in the intervening three years, he had never before told anyone about that sighting from the train bridge, Chatsis revealed he “wanted to make a surprise.”
Finding Chatsis’ claim far-fetched, the six-member jury took two walks in Diefenbaker Park at night, even venturing onto the train bridge to discover what they could see across the river and through the trees, subsequently throwing out the claim as not credible. But it was 2003 when the inquest discredited the story. During those years, some media such as CBC’s The National repeated his story. It is impossible to calculate what effect the repeated disinformation had on jury members in the Munson and Hatchen trial, since it concluded before reports about Wegner’s “starlight tour” were revealed as a snow-job. (Some media members, such as two CBC employees writing the book, Starlight Tour, even retold the story two years after Chatsis had been rejected as a witness!)
Like all perfect storms, it seemed too much for coincidence. The shocking timing of three events – Night’s allegation about police dropping him off against his will and the nearly simultaneous discovery of two frozen Aboriginal bodies within a few kilometres of that drop-off point – led to “moral panic.” Moral panic is to human nature what a tornado is to nature: a convergence of events which escalate off one another, spiraling into a deadly tempest. Where such squalls randomly touch down, lives lie ruined.
Moral panic is an explosion of outrage. Intense emotions fuel a fiery controversy which can lead to a witch-hunt. The emotion stems from the issue “at stake” being so frightening that it seems to threaten the social order and everything people believe in. Moral panics can, but seldom do, result in positive social changes. Resolution of the social tension is extremely difficult because, importantly, the central issue around which the whirlwind cycles is banned from discussion! The subject is taboo. Sacrosanct. Unmentionable.