Saskatchewan's commanding RCMP officer is "deeply disturbed and upset" by statements made last week by a Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations vice-chief who condemned the police investigation into Lawrence Wegner's death.
In a strongly worded letter obtained Thursday by The StarPhoenix, F Division commanding officer J.G. Harper Boucher says he felt compelled to respond to Lawrence Joseph's "most inappropriate comments."
Joseph told reporters last week that the RCMP and city police "bungled" the Wegner investigation.
"The RCMP cannot and should not be trusted by First Nations people and marginalized people," Joseph said.
He also said there are "gaping and open wounds" in the aboriginal community, which feels it is not treated the same as the rest of society. He said many aboriginal people don't report crimes because they don't feel anything will be done.
Joseph criticized specifics of the RCMP's Wegner investigation, such as why no police officers were asked to take a polygraph, although other witnesses were.
Wegner's frozen body was found on the southern outskirts of the city in early 2000 in the same area and around the same time as another aboriginal man who was found frozen to death. Two city police officers were jailed after another Native man complained they dropped him off on a cold winter night in that area of the city.
In Boucher's letter, written to FSIN Chief Perry Bellegarde Feb. 15, he says Joseph's comments will strain relationships between RCMP and the aboriginal community.
"Vice-chief Joseph is openly promoting mistrust of the RCMP by First Nations and marginalized people. I take some comfort in knowing there are many aboriginal people who do not share his thoughts," writes Boucher.
Boucher wonders how Joseph can judge the quality of the RCMP investigation, considering Joseph never attended this month's inquest into Wegner's death.
"I am very interested in knowing how he reached his conclusion . . . and ask that you provide me with that information as soon as possible," Boucher writes to Bellegarde.
Boucher notes all of the joint projects between the FSIN and the RCMP, and says the RCMP is committed to working with them and all First Nations communities.
"I am asking you to take whatever action you must to correct this situation," Boucher writes. "I look forward to a response from you and hope we can meet to resolve these differences."
The letter is carbon-copied to two other RCMP officers and to Joseph.
RCMP spokesperson Heather Russell said Boucher doesn't want to comment on the letter. He told Russell it is a private letter and speaks for itself.
Bellegarde has passed the matter on to Joseph, as Joseph handles the justice portfolio for the federation, said FSIN communications director Darcy McKenzie.
Joseph's only comment, according to McKenzie, is, "My comments with respect to the whole issue stand as is."
Joseph doesn't want to say any more until he speaks with the other chiefs around the province, McKenzie said.
The month-long inquest into the death of Lawrence Wegner (left) was a failure that only served to illustrate the two solitudes that exist in Saskatoon and across this province.
Wegner was a student at the Saskatchewan Indian Federated College who fought mental illness and drug addiction. His frozen body was found outside Saskatoon two years ago. No cause of death was determined and an inquest was called.
Three of the six member jury were aboriginal and the aboriginal community packed the courtroom as it came out to support the family. For a while it appeared that they might find out what happened to Wegner, but it became clear that police were more interested in protecting themselves than digging for the truth.
It almost became a crime in itself to come forward with evidence linking the police to the questionable death. As far as the Saskatoon Police Service was concerned, Wegner was the author of his own misfortune and the police lawyer attacked every witness who presented evidence that placed his clients in a questionable light.
Two aboriginal women came forward during the inquest and stated that they had seen two police officers place Wegner in a patrol car. They were from his reserve and recognized him. One of the witnesses even stated that she could identify one of the police officers.
The lawyer for the police attacked them over the fact that they had taken so long to come forward. They both replied that they feared what police might do to them.
This statement is a telling and damning indictment of Native-police relations in Saskatoon. Police violence is known among our people. Allegations that they were dumping our people at the edge of town came as no surprise. It's been going on for years. The police refer to it as a starlight tour.
Another witness, Dwaine Sutherland, went to the police and told them he saw Wegner being placed in a patrol car. The investigating RCMP told him to take a polygraph and that, if he failed, he could receive a five-year jail sentence. Sutherland naturally refused, because he feared his nervousness or some error in the machine that was beyond his control might cause a negative reading.
Yet, none of the police who were interviewed or gave evidence were subject to a polygraph. This double-standard brings into question the appropriateness of police investigating the police.
Earlier this year, the inquest into the death of Rodney Naistus was inconclusive. Naistus was found frozen at the edge of the city under similar circumstances.
The previous case of Darrell Night reinforces this issue. Night charged that police had taken him outside the city and left him to walk home. Fortunately, he was able to get help and call a cab. The temperature that night was below minus 20. Two police officers were charged and found guilty. They are appealing both their conviction and sentence. One of the women witnesses stated that she didn't want to end up like Night.
The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations accused the Saskatoon Police Service of botching the investigation from the beginning. The location where the body was discovered wasn't treated as a crime scene, with police walking and driving all over it and erasing any tracks or evidence of other persons being in the area. As far as they were concerned, it was the victim's own fault and that was it.
They also lost Wegner's clothing and were unable to provide the socks which would have indicated heavy wear as a result of him supposedly walking six kilometers. No one reported the condition of the socks and a civilian witness reported seeing a boot mark on Wegner's back.
This whole string of events has left the aboriginal community cynical and isolated. Race relations between Saskatoon police and the aboriginal community are at an all time low, with no end in sight.
The process to determine Wegner's cause of death has ended in failure and it's up to the police to reopen the case and get to the bottom of it. FSIN Senator Dave Ahenakew stated that this has been a destructive process because the truth didn't come out.
One thing has improved though. Since the issue became public, no more bodies have been discovered at the edge of town.