injusticebusters logo

Neil Stonechild: Wright report released

Six-figure settlement, apology would avoid suit

Neil Stonechild

Neil Stonechild's family has asked the Saskatoon police commission to pay a six-figure settlement to compensate for the teen's 1990 death and police handling of it.

The family is also seeking a written apology as part of a settlement that would avoid a civil suit.

"We're not really looking for a pound of flesh here, we're just looking for some vindication for Mrs. (Stella) Bignell and her family and everybody (can) get on with their lives," said lawyer Greg Curtis, who along with Donald Worme represents Stonechild's family.

Bignell, Stonechild's mother, referred comment to her lawyers.

Stonechild froze to death in November 1990. His body was found in a north Saskatoon field, with marks across his nose and wrists. Justice David Wright, commissioner of a public inquiry into Stonechild's death, found that constables Larry Hartwig and Brad Senger had Stonechild in custody the last night he was seen alive.

The commissioner described the police service's investigation of Stonechild's death as "superficial at best" in his October report.

The lack of action by police after StarPhoenix articles in 1991 and 2000 highlighted the suspicious circumstances of Stonechild's death was also upsetting to the family.

"Leaving them in that state of suspended apprehension for that long and treating them in the fashion they did bordered on, if it didn't cross over, into outright deceit," Curtis said.

The police service offered false assurances that it thoroughly investigated Stonechild's death and destroyed the teen's clothing and belongings despite his mother's request that police turn them over to her.

Any settlement or court award would likely take both loss of life and police treatment of the family into account, Curtis said.

Although the cases aren't entirely comparable, the family's lawyers have considered the awards worth tens of millions to wrongfully convicted David Milgaard and Donald Marshall, as well as the confidential payout by the provincial Justice Department to Richard Klassen and 11 other targets of malicious prosecution.

"We certainly researched these types of cases where compensation is ordered, but frankly, our proposal is not in that range," Curtis said. "All we're looking for is some satisfaction for the family."

He declined to specify how much the family has requested, but confirmed the amount is six figures.

The written apology would give the family "something more permanent" than the verbal apologies Chief Russ Sabo and Justice Minister Frank Quennell have already offered, Curtis said.

The lawyers formally requested the settlement in a faxed letter to the city solicitor's office last month.

"At the moment, the ball's in their court," Curtis said.

City solicitor Theresa Dust, acting for the board of police commissioners, said it's waiting for clarification of whether the family's claim is covered by liability insurance policies the commission held during the past 14 years. If insurance covers the settlement, city taxpayers would only be on the hook for paying an insurance policy deductible of $25,000 or $50,000. The police commission would have no say in whether the claim is settled or goes to trial, Dust said.

If insurance doesn't cover it, taxpayers would end up footing the bill for any settlement. The commission would have input into whether to proceed to court, Dust said.

The city has a reserve fund to pay policy deductibles, but not one for uninsured claims, which are "quite rare," she said.

Mayor Don Atchison, the police commission chair, said he hopes the claim can be settled without going to court.

"No one wants any of those things. We assume the insurer is looking after it."

Hartwig and Senger are appealing their dismissals from the force, but Curtis said that process won't affect settlement talks.

Best to restructure policing

What a difference a couple of weeks makes.

Three weeks ago, the report from the inquiry into the death of Neil Stonechild was released and we thought we saw some light at the end of the tunnel. In his findings, Justice David Wright vindicated Jason Roy and Stella Bignell, while the Saskatoon Police Service faced the damning indictment that two of its members most likely had Neil Stonechild in their custody the night he died.

Wright had accepted the aboriginal testimony over that of police officers. It appeared as if the truth was about to come out and we could begin to see some healing for Stonechild's friends and family.

The police commission including the mayor have endorsed Wright's findings but police officers have closed ranks and refused to accept any blame in Stonechild's death. This is a serious turn of events because it indicates police service members are rejecting the findings of a judicial inquiry in favour of their own interpretation of events. It's serious because they are placing themselves above a commission of inquiry headed by a respected judge.

The Saskatoon Police Service has serious problems. Residents of the city and aboriginal community were prepared to move on, but police officers are standing in the way of progress.

Wright is a respected jurist who didn't reach his conclusions lightly. He listened to weeks of testimony, along with submissions from some of the best lawyers in the province. Police officers were given the chance to present their case, which they did at every opportunity. Now they consider themselves above the process and the law, and that is wrong.

When the hearing was under way, people thought the police service had improved and these issues were behind it. No more bodies had been found since the "starlight tours" had become public knowledge, and it looked as if police had learned a lesson. But their actions during the inquiry and now indicate otherwise.

When Stonechild's body was found, one of his shoes was missing and little work apparently was done to look for it. But a shoe was found in a public place at the inquiry with an attached note claiming it was Stonechild's missing shoe. This disgusting act reflected badly on the police service and Bignell's lawyer Don Worme pointed to it as a sign of a dysfunctional police force.

Jason Roy testified that he saw Stonechild in a police car pleading for his life. It was the last time he would see his friend alive. Roy feared that he was being watched by city police and sought refuge in a safe house outside Saskatoon. The RCMP had to protect Roy from the Saskatoon police -- something you might see in a Third World country. This speaks volumes about the fear that Roy had about the police and the danger he faced.

To illustrate how insensitive the police service has become, it has the gall to ask for new headquarters building instead of addressing serious problems that exist inside the current facility.

Saskatoon has reached a serious point in its history. This could be the start of a new relationship with the aboriginal community, or it could be the point future generations will note that everything was lost.

One-third of Saskatoon soon will be aboriginal. Either we work together to develop a special place or the "two solitudes" Wright describes will exist within two hardened shells.

The police service has no choice but to accept the findings of the Wright report. Police Chief Russ Sabo did the right thing Friday when he fired the two police officers named in the report, Larry Hartwig and Brad Senger.

The public deserves a police force it can trust, not a force that continues to bully residents. The police are a part of this community.

There have been calls to disband the police service and start over. This would be costly and disruptive, but this police force needs to be restructured. In the short term, the RCMP should be contracted to run the force. Each current municipal police officer should have to re-apply for his or her job. This way you separate out the bad blood and retain the good.

And make no mistake about it -- there are a lot of good officers in the police service. They just need the opportunity to rise to the top.

Also, a serious attempt should be taken to implement recommendations of Wright's report. This includes recruiting more aboriginal police officers. When pressed in the past, the reaction from the service always was that it had no First Nations applicants.

With a culture of racism in the service, that's no wonder. Who would want to work in a climate of us-against-them when you're one of them?

But it can be done. About a fifth of the RCMP's Saskatchewan contingent is aboriginal, reflecting the demography of the province.

The Saskatoon Police Service and the city administration are facing a serious crisis. If there is no concrete action taken, then Saskatoon will have lost and our people will be at the mercy of an undisciplined police service.

Memory lapses no defence for police officers

It was their improbable memory lapses, among other things, that implicated two Saskatoon police officers in the death of Neil Stonechild.

The aboriginal teenager died of exposure on a bitterly cold night in November 1990. A judicial inquiry into the case found that he was in the custody of constables Larry Hartwig and Brad Senger shortly before his death. Both officers are now suspended and are awaiting a disciplinary hearing. Both have consistently denied that they even saw Stonechild on the night in question.

Justice David Wright, who headed the inquiry, simply did not believe them. Rather, he found that the two officers lied to cover up their involvement with Stonechild. What helped convince Wright of the officers' dishonesty was their feigned forgetfulness.

That the two were looking for Stonechild that night is established by police dispatch records. Stonechild was drunk and creating a disturbance in a west-side apartment building. Then-partners Senger and Hartwig were dispatched to the scene in a squad car. They insist Stonechild was gone by the time they arrived and that they never found him. They further claimed to have no recollection of looking for Stonechild that night.

Wright found this manifestly unbelievable. A routine call, they might have forgotten, he conceded, but this was not routine. The youth's frozen body was discovered just four days after the call. That Hartwig and Senger were looking for him the night he died would have been critically important evidence in a suspicious death. The two officers could have helped reconstruct Stonechild's final hours. But both men insist they did not make the connection.

Wright didn't buy it. How could they have forgotten they were looking for someone who soon thereafter turned up dead?

It's not as if Neil Stonechild was just another name to the officers. Hartwig knew him from previous dealings. Hartwig conceded, too, that he'd have known about Stonechild's body being discovered. It would have been common knowledge among police. He later learned that at least one other officer was concerned about the shoddy investigation into Stonechild's death. Even so, he did not disclose that he'd been searching for Stonechild around the very time of his disappearance.

Hartwig's forgetfulness does not square with evidence of an otherwise excellent memory. He testified to taking pride in his memory. He was able to recall the specific words he'd used in an interview with RCMP three years earlier. It was only when he came to the Stonechild case that his memory seemed to fail him.

Another officer who'd dealt with Stonechild months earlier on an unrelated matter remembered all about it, Wright observed.

"If Cst. Hartwig had nothing to hide I would have expected no less of him."

Senger's simultaneous memory lapses were no less suspect. Like Hartwig, he made no apparent effort to assist officers investigating the Stonechild death. When almost anyone else would have announced, "Hey, that kid who died is the same one we were looking for the other night," Senger said nothing.

Why would he keep quiet? Why would he not share this vital information with investigating officers? Wright could only conclude that Senger was concealing his involvement with Stonechild.

Senger's credibility was further undermined by his admitted falsification of evidence in another, unrelated case. At the time, he was operating the breathalyser in a drunk driving case. He admitted to recording a false reading on one of two tests administered to a suspect who was later charged. Senger told the inquiry that he didn't know if the suspect was convicted. Had he been called to testify in court, he said he would have asked that the false record be withdrawn. Even so, Wright characterized this as a serious breach of duty that "casts a large shadow" on Senger's integrity.

Wright found that Hartwig and Senger had enough time to dump Stonechild on the edge of town. The officers had 27 minutes between the Stonechild dispatch and their next call. That's more than enough to drive from the west side to the city's northern outskirts and back.

Then there was the eyewitness, Jason Roy, who saw his friend Neil taken away, handcuffed and bleeding, in the back of a police car. Roy's evidence was flawed, but not fatally so. Wright found him to be not only credible, but commendable. For 14 years, in fear of his safety, he tried to find justice for his friend.

Finally, there is the question of motive. Lawyers for Hartwig and Senger insisted their clients had no reason to dump Stonechild at the edge of town. Rather, they'd have taken him to jail. This defence was scuttled by evidence that other city police officers have dumped prisoners at a remote location. From all indications, it was done as a convenient way of dealing with troublemakers.

Now it's police officers who find themselves in trouble.

Inquiry confirms worst about police

Justice David Wright's findings in the death of Neil Stonechild represent the absolute worst-case scenario for the Saskatoon Police Service.

If you were to believe the worst of the police in every circumstance of this sorry incident, you would not be cynical in your assessment -- you would be correct.

If you were to believe that the police conducted the shoddiest possible investigation into the needless death of an aboriginal teenager -- just a 17-year-old kid, really -- you would be right.

If you were to conclude that in the aftermath of Stonechild's death the police came dangerously close to conducting a coverup, you would be right about that, too.

Finally, if you predicted that to the very end, the police would put protection of their own ahead of the rights of the Stonechild family and the public interest, you are not a malcontent out to get the police. You are merely prescient.

For not only did Wright conclude that two city police officers had Stonechild in their cruiser on the deadly cold night of Nov. 24, 1990, but his analysis of their duty schedule shows that they had adequate time to drive him to an empty field in the north end of Saskatoon.

Because public inquiries are not allowed to lay criminal blame, Wright stops just short of saying constables Larry Hartwig and Brad Senger dumped Stonechild in that gravel parking lot. However, there can be no doubt about his inferences.

The key to understanding what happened to Stonechild comes down to what happened in the hour between 11:51 p.m. and 1 a.m.

Hartwig and Senger were sent to the Snowberry Downs apartment building in west Saskatoon to answer a complaint from Trent Ewart that a drunken Stonechild was pounding on his door and creating a disturbance.

Despite the officers' claims that they never saw Stonechild that night and barely remember the call some 14 years later, Wright believes otherwise.

He concludes that the officers picked Stonechild up on the street after 11:51 p.m. that night.

"He was drunk and probably belligerent and unco-operative. The constables took him into custody. The cruiser proceeded a short distance down a lane to Confederation Drive. As the car exited the lane, the police intercepted Jason Roy. Roy observed Stonechild in the rear of the cruiser. When asked if he knew the prisoner, he denied that he did. Roy testified his friend was cursing him and calling for help and telling Roy to tell the police who he was."

Despite the fact he was excoriated as an unreliable witness and admits to a rough life riddled with drug and alcohol abuse, Wright accepted Roy's unshakable conviction that Stonechild was in that car, and indeed, commended him for his tenacity.

Wright was particularly critical of the investigation conducted primarily by former police Sgt. Keith Jarvis.

It was Jarvis who postulated that Stonechild may have been walking to the Saskatoon Correctional Centre, even though he had no evidence of that.

Roy told him he had seen Stonechild in the car, but the information did not make it into Jarvis' notes, an action that Wright said "cast a totally different light on Sgt. Jarvis' actions as investigator. What might have seemed inexcusable incompetence or neglect now took on a more serious focus."

Jarvis wrapped up a superficial investigation without so much as looking at the crime scene or the autopsy report, prompting Wright to conclude that "Jarvis was not prepared to pursue the investigation because he was either aware of police involvement or suspected police involvement."

Eventually, Jarvis admitted to RCMP investigators that Roy had indeed told him his story, but then he went on to recant all this at the inquiry, claiming he had false memory syndrome.

As for the denials of Hartwig and Senger, Wright found them to be totally without credibility and that they had deliberately attempted to conceal their involvement.

All in all, a very sorry day for the police.

Wright's inquiry establishes a number of things but a few stand out. One is that aboriginal people have every reason to mistrust the police in this city. The wonder is that they are as forgiving as they are.

Stonechild's mother, Stella Bignell, said Tuesday she would still tell her children to try to regain their faith in the police, "because I have. You know, I still trust police. I've always said there's good and bad in everyone and there is good and bad in the police force, too."

Even Roy says he has faith that real changes are coming "and that Native people as a whole cannot be ignored any more."

What the inquiry also shows is that in spite of the actions taken by new police Chief Russell Sabo, there is still plenty of reason to be skeptical of how the force is run. You'll recall Sabo came in as the new broom with a mandate to change the culture within the police service.

Yet it was on his watch that the so-called "issues team" formed within the police service to deal with the inquiry quickly evolved into what Wright describes as "a partisan forum for planning ways to rebut the evidence compiled by the RCMP against its members."

Nor does the police union's response to the report elicit any confidence. In spite of the inquiry's conclusions, police association president Const. Stan Goertzen insists that Hartwig and Senger never had Stonechild in their car and had nothing to do with his death.

Finally, Wright's report shows that public inquiries actually do work. Justice Minister Frank Quennell said as much Tuesday, which is probably worth remembering the next time the government rejects an inquiry into something it doesn't care to talk about.

This inquiry is probably as close as we are ever going to get to finding out what really happened to Neil Stonechild on that night almost 14 years ago.

That it took so long remains an indictment of a police service that allowed Stonechild's death to be so easily swept under the carpet.

That those responsible for it are still at large means that true justice in this case remains elusive.

Cops Suspended: No doubt Stonechild in custody of officers, Wright says

Two Saskatoon police constables were suspended from duty on Tuesday after the commissioner of the Neil Stonechild inquiry found they had the youth in their custody on the night in 1990 when he was last seen alive.

Stonechild was discovered frozen to death in the north industrial area with cuts on his nose that were probably made by handcuffs, Justice David Wright found in his report, which was released Tuesday.

Neil Stonechild

Wright stopped short of saying constables Larry Hartwig and Brad Senger ejected the 17-year-old Stonechild from their car in the area where he died, but Wright did say the pair had enough time between calls to drive to the snowy field where Stonechild's frozen body was found four days later, on Nov. 29, 1990.

The officers' claims they could not remember looking for Stonechild in the Confederation Park area after being called to a disturbance that night "are a deliberate deception designed to conceal (their) involvement," Wright wrote.

Wright lambasted now-retired Sgt. Keith Jarvis, saying he conducted a "superficial and totally inadequate investigation."

Wright inferred that Jarvis closed the investigation prematurely because he knew of or suspected police involvement.

"The deficiencies in the investigation go beyond incompetence or neglect. They were inexcusable," Wright said.

In the years following Stonechild's death, the Saskatoon Police Service rejected or ignored information from the Stonechild family and the media that cast doubt on the conduct of the investigation, Wright found.

Justice Minister Frank Quennell said he accepts Wright's finding and recommendations.

"The death of a 17-year-old boy is a tragedy. It deserves our attention. It deserves our very best efforts," he said.

"We may not always be able to determine with certainty what happened in the case of a tragic and premature death, but we must try our best."

Quennell said he has initiated discussions with Saskatoon police Chief Russell Sabo and the Saskatoon board of police commissioners to establish a plan to respond constructively to the report.

There is not enough evidence to charge the officers, Quennell said.

"The burden of proof that has to be established in a criminal case is quite different than what was before this commission. It did not meet that standard," Quennell said. The file remains open, he added.

The pair does face disciplinary action, which could result in their dismissal from the force. They are suspended with pay.

Sabo also accepted the commissioner's findings.

"I believe the findings and recommendation of Justice Wright are a reminder to the police service of the significance of our responsibility to the people we serve," Sabo said.

"This community has waited a long time for a resolution on this. I want to expedite this."

The president of the police union, however, rejected the findings that Stonechild was in police custody and that marks on his body were likely caused by handcuffs.

"I don't believe any member of the Saskatoon Police Service specifically picked Neil Stonechild up and caused his death," Goertzen said.

Stonechild's mother, Stella Bignell, said the report brings "some closure" to the matter, but there are still many questions that need to be answered.

She said she knows in her heart that Stonechild didn't walk to the north industrial area where his body was found.

"Why did he land out there? Why didn't (police) take him to the holding cells?" Bignell told reporters Tuesday morning.

She said she appreciates Quennell's apology to her, but also wants Hartwig and Senger to say they're sorry.

"He was a good kid, and I loved my son with all my heart," she said.

Donald Worme, lawyer for Bignell and the Stonechild family, said he hopes those who played a role in Stonechild's death will come forward.

"I wish that those that bear some responsibility . . . can display the same kind of courage as Mr. Justice Wright, come to us in an honest and forthright way and talk to us about making reparations and about bringing some final closure to Mrs. Bignell," Worme said.

Jason Roy, who testified he witnessed Stonechild in police custody, agreed.

"I hope the people responsible for my friend's demise have the strength to make things right," Roy said. "Come forward, tell the truth, and own up to your responsibility."

It's the second time Saskatoon police have been implicated in such a case.

Three years ago, two other Saskatoon constables were found guilty of dropping another Native man on the outskirts of the city in freezing weather in January 2000. Dan Hatchen and Ken Munson served jail terms for unlawful confinement.

Their prisoner, Darrell Night, survived. His complaint led the RCMP to reopen the Stonechild case and resulted in the inquiry, which heard evidence of further instances of police dropoffs.

Wright says a clear picture of the events of that night emerged after he sifted through thousands of pages of evidence.

"No one can ever know with precision, other than Neil Stonechild and Cst. Hartwig and Cst. Senger, what happened on the night of November 24-25," he wrote.

"Whatever other conclusion one may draw, there is no question that Stonechild was last observed in the custody of those two officers, and that he was later found in a vacant field near the Hitachi plant on 57th Street with injuries and marks that were likely caused by handcuffs," Wright said.

Wright found the core of Roy's testimony "to be credible and corroborated by other evidence.

"He struck me as sincere and thoughtful and is still deeply affected by the death of his friend and what happened," Wright wrote.

Wright found that Stonechild was the subject of two disturbance complaints that night.

The officers had received a non-recorded complaint about Stonechild causing a disturbance at the 7-Eleven on Confederation Drive and stopped witness Bruce Genaille in their search for Stonechild before police dispatch sent them to a complaint about Stonechild causing a disturbance at the Snowberry Downs apartments at 33rd Street and Wedge Road. Genaille said no one was in the car when he was stopped.

The officers later checked Genaille's name in the police computer. Police lawyers have said that check proves the police never had Stonechild in custody.

"The timing of the Genaille CPIC (Canadian Police Information Centre) query was not proof of anything other than the fact that the query was made," Wright found.

The commissioner accepted Roy's account of being stopped by police while Stonechild was in their car, handcuffed, with blood on his face and screaming, "They're gonna kill me."

Wright dismissed inconsistencies in Roy's testimony as understandable, given his life experience.

Roy said he knew he had told Jarvis of seeing Stonechild in the police car but probably forgot that he had written a statement clearing the police until it was shown to him.

"After considering the matter at some length, I concluded that there was a germ of truth to his repeated avowals that he had given different information to the police about Neil Stonechild and the two constables.

"When called upon to provide a written statement of the events, he stopped short of implicating the Saskatoon Police Service. His statement that he 'blacked out' was a convenient excuse not to reduce to writing the most important events of that night."

Jarvis left Roy's information out of his reports and notes, then closed the file after less than three days' work, Wright found.

"The fact that ultimately this was not reduced to writing and that there was no other statement provided, does not, in my respectful view, diminish his account of what happened," Wright wrote.

He commended Roy for his tenacity in pursuing the matter over many years.

Roy said Wright's report "met and exceeded" all of his expectations.

"I've never been so happy, . . . finally somebody in a place of power actually believed what happened to my friend," he said.

"Native people as a whole can't be ignored anymore," he said.

Wright said the police department leadership acted inappropriately when senior officers involved in a committee to respond to issues arising from the inquiry took on the role of trying to refute RCMP evidence against Hartwig and Senger.

Wright also took issue with deputy police chief Dan Wiks, who knowingly made untrue statements in an interview with a StarPhoenix reporter in May 2003.

By that time most members of the force would have known Hartwig and Senger were suspects in the RCMP investigation, contrary to Wiks' remarks.

"What message is sent to the members about the importance of integrity and transparency in dealing with allegations of police misconduct when such misleading statements are made to the public by the senior ranking officer?

"The answer is clear and it is significant that such message was sent on the eve of the commencement of the inquiry," Wright wrote.

Excerpts From the Wright Report B6-B7

Stonechild report lashes Saskatoon police

SASKATOON - Saskatoon police took a native teenager into custody and attempted a cover-up when the 17-year-old was later discovered frozen with handcuff marks on his face, an inquiry has found.

The final report of the inquiry into the death of Neil Stonechild also laments the bitter racial divide between natives and non-natives in Saskatchewan.

"As I reviewed the evidence of this inquiry, I was reminded, again and again, of the chasm that separates aboriginal and non-aboriginal people in this city and this province," commissioner Justice David Wright wrote. "Our two communities do not know each other and do not seem to want to."

One of the most scathing sections of the commissioner's report describes how police reacted when they found the native teenager's body lying face-down in a snowy field near the outskirts of town in November, 1990, with his hands pulled into his sleeves in a futile attempt to stay warm.

The principal investigator, then Mortality Sergeant Keith Jarvis, conducted a brief and shoddy examination of the death in order to conceal his colleagues' possible wrongdoing, the commissioner wrote.

"The only reasonable inference that can be drawn is that Jarvis was not prepared to pursue the investigation because he was either aware of police involvement or suspected police involvement," Judge Wright said.

It is impossible to know what exactly happened to Mr. Stonechild on the night he disappeared, Mr. Wright concluded, but he dismissed nearly all the police arguments that officers were not involved.

His report finds that somebody called police to complain about the drunken teenager on the evening of Nov. 24, 1990, and that Constables Brad Senger and Larry Hartwig were dispatched to investigate.

The last person who admitted seeing Mr. Stonechild was his friend Jason Roy, who said he saw the young man with his face pressed against the window of a police cruiser.

"He was freaking out," Mr. Roy testified. "He was saying, 'Jay, help me. Help me. These guys are going to kill me.'"

Police lawyers pointed out errors and contradictions in Mr. Roy's statement, and suggested that the officers never encountered Mr. Stonechild that evening. But Judge Wright said he found Mr. Roy "sincere and thoughtful."

Lawyers for the officers also claimed that police couldn't have taken Mr. Stonechild to the northern edge of town where he was ultimately discovered, because they wouldn't have had time to make the drive between their dispatched calls in Snowberry Downs and O'Regan Crescent on the city's west side.

Again, the commissioner decided that the police version wasn't credible.

"I am satisfied that Cst. Hartwig and Cst. Senger had adequate time between the Snowberry Downs dispatch and O'Regan Crescent dispatch to transport Stonechild to the northwest industrial area of Saskatoon," Judge Wright wrote.

A police expert also testified that marks on Mr. Stonechild's face were not caused by handcuffs, contradicting other experts, but Judge Wright said: "I am not convinced by her opinion."

What is clear, Mr. Wright wrote, is that the young man was taken into custody by the two officers and he was later found dead of cold exposure with marks on his face "likely caused by handcuffs."

Saskatoon police have faced persistent allegations that they practised so-called "starlight tours," in which natives who caused trouble were picked up and taken to the edge of town on cold nights, forcing them to walk home.

Judge Wright praised the force for recent attempts to reform itself, but concluded that more work remains.

"The fundamental problem the service has to address is the public perception that it does not take seriously complaints about its members and that it defends its members against complaints," he wrote.

More broadly, the commissioner compared relations between natives and non-natives in Saskatchewan to the alienated anglophone and francophone communities in Hugh MacLennan's 1945 novel, Two Solitudes.

"The void is emphasized by the interaction of an essentially non-aboriginal police force and the aboriginal community," he said.

To bridge that gap, the report offers eight recommendations, including more cultural training, more native officers, and an improved complaints process.

The report does not recommend that Saskatchewan establish a third-party investigative agency similar to Ontario's Special Investigations Unit, whose detectives examine all deaths and serious injuries involving police. The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations has been hoping the province would establish a local equivalent of the SIU.

Assembly of First Nations National Chief Responds to Final Report of Inquiry into the Death of Neil Stonechild

OTTAWA, Oct. 26 /CNW Telbec/ - Assembly of First Nations National Chief Phil Fontaine responded today to the report of the Inquiry into the Death of Neil Stonechild, released today by Saskatchewan's Justice Minister. The report was prepared by the Honourable Mr. Justice D.H. Wright, Commissioner.

"The recommendations put forward by Justice Wright should be acted on immediately to ensure these kinds of incidents never occur again," said the National Chief. "I applaud the courage and conviction of Neil Stonechild's mother, Stella Bignell, for her faith in the Creator and faith in justice that gave her the strength to pursue this case for 14 years. I am urging the Saskatoon City Police, the City of Saskatoon and the Province of Saskatchewan to demonstrate the same courage by working immediately to implement the recommendations in the report."

The report examines events surrounding the death of Neil Stonechild 14 years ago. His frozen body was found in an industrial area on the outskirts of Saskatoon on November 29, 1990. There have been persistent allegations that the 17 year old was abandoned by police. The inquiry examined the role, if any, of police officers in the death and the conduct of the police investigation. The Inquiry was not set-up to assign blame, but the Commissioner did find that Stonechild was in custody of the Saskatoon City Police the night he died and that the police investigation into his death was superficial, inadequate and was closed "...without answering the many questions that surrounded the Stonechild death and disappearance."

Many of the recommendations in the report call for greater participation by Aboriginal people in the administration and enforcement of justice and for better awareness and understanding of Aboriginal peoples and issues by all law enforcement officials. The National Chief stated that action must be taken immediately to ensure all First Nations citizens are treaty fairly by the justice system.

"Today's report is the latest in a long line of studies and inquiries that conclude First Nations peoples are treated unfairly and that justice, such as it is, is often denied to our people," stated National Chief Fontaine. "First Nations must be involved in working with the police, justice officials and the government to build bridges between our communities to foster better understanding and ensure these kinds of incidents never happen again. In this specific incident, Stella Bignell is entitled to closure after all these years and we are urging the City and the Province to work with her towards some kind of resolution."

The Assembly of First Nations is the national organization representing First Nations citizens in Canada.

Canada police 'cover-up' on death

Canadian police were involved in the death of an aboriginal teenager in 1990 but tried to cover up the evidence, an independent inquiry has found.

The family of Neil Stonechild claim he froze to death on the outskirts of Saskatoon after he was abandoned there in freezing conditions by two officers.

The police denied any involvement but the inquiry concluded the 17-year-old had been in their custody that night.

Investigators highlighted a "chasm" between native people and the police.

Saskatoon's police chief has apologised in the hours since the report was released, admitting his force let Mr Stonechild's family down.

When the teenager's frozen body was found near the Saskatchewan town in 1990, a police investigation concluded his death was a self-inflicted accident.

Racial divisions

It dismissed persistent rumours that police sometimes drove natives to the edge of the town and abandoned them there.

The public inquiry said the original police investigation was both superficial and totally inadequate.

It concluded there was no doubt Mr Stonechild had been in police custody on the night he died - and that members of the Saskatoon force had deliberately tried to hide evidence of that.

The report also describes a "chasm" between aboriginal people and the police.

Bitter racial divisions are fuelled by troubling levels of distrust and misunderstanding between the two groups, it said.

One of the officers at the centre of the case has continued to claim his innocence.

The provincial minister has also admitted it is unlikely the police officers involved in the case will ever be charged.

He said prosecutors did not have enough evidence to take action.