“You aren’t dead, until you’re warm and dead,” as the old adage about hypothermia goes.
In the city of Saskatoon, the largest city in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, dating back at least to 1976, there is a deeply racist police practice that amounts to murder, led to the horrific deaths of many Indigenous people, and highlights the corruption and the systemic racism in Canada’s police and justice system. This practice is called “Starlight Tours” or “Starlight Cruises.” Starlight Tours are when the police take an Indigenous person, usually men, for little to no reason, drive the person out of the city, and abandon them in the middle of the freezing winter night, sometimes taking the victim’s clothing.
At the very least, three people have been confirmed to have died from Starlight Tours, although due to the corrupt nature of these “tours,” we’ll never truly know how many took place. The three people’s names and the order their body was found was first Neil Stonechild, then Rodney Naistus, and lastly Lawrence Wegner. Collectively, their deaths are known as the Saskatoon Freezing Deaths. Due to Darrell Night surviving a Starlight Tour, the catalyst to confirm the rumors about Starlight Tours, we have some clarity on what happened to those people.
Neil Stonechild was known according to his older brother as a “fun-loving and caring” person, and to his friend Jason Roy, “Neil loved life. He was a giving person who enjoyed just being a young kid.” He had a history with criminal behavior and alcoholism, but he fought to get better with the support of his loving family, friends, and social workers.
On November 24, 1990, Neil was drinking with his friend, Jason Roy. They were both wanted by the police at that time. After drinking, they decided to visit a friend who was babysitting, but they could not remember the apartment number she was in and started ringing apartment buzzers in hopes of finding her. While ringing the buzzers, two annoyed neighbors called the police to report a disturbance. Though they found the apartment, their friend would not let them in because they were drunk. Neil and Jason went their separate ways, but just minutes later Jason saw a police car emerge with two police officers in the front and Neil in the back. Neil had blood on his face and was screaming for Jason’s help. One officer approached Jason and asked for his full name and if he knew the teen. Because he was wanted by the police at the time, he was afraid yet confident in the fact that he would end up in the police car if he confirmed he knew Neil. He denied knowing Neil and gave the police a false name. Jason’s guilt would continue to follow him throughout his life.
“They are going to kill me,” are the last words Jason heard from Neil. Five days later on November 29, 1990, he was found frozen solid in a field on the outskirts of Saskatoon. He was found only wearing jeans, his jacket his brother gave to him, and one shoe. He was only 17.
Neil Stonechild’s death would go on to become synonymous with Starlight Tours.
Rodney Naistus and Lawrence Wegner
Not much is known about Rodney Naistus since his family did not speak publicly about his death. But on January 29, 2000, Rodney Naistus’s body was found. He was 25 years old, and he was found only wearing running shoes, sweatpants, and his shirt and jacket were found nearby. There was no record of police interaction with Rodney Naistus.
Lawrence Wegner, a Saulteaux First Nation 29 years old, was a student studying to become a social worker. He was a bright person and wanted to help his people, though depression, anxiety, and studies caused him to use drugs to cope.
That day, his roommates were fighting again and got into another physical altercation. He had to call the police and rushed out of the apartment in improper attire for the weather. Three days before his death, he had gone missing. On the night he had gone missing, he showed up on his mother’s cousin's doorsteps and her daughter went to check through the window. She did not recognize her second cousin as she did not know him very well, and he was clearly under the influence. His mother’s cousin did not check the window. Her daughter did not want Lawrence to die in the cold, so she called the police and was informed that someone had already called the police on Lawrence Wegner. He was last seen going into the police car by his two acquaintances and a man driving down the road in the early morning of January 31, 2000. On February 3, 2000, his frozen body was found. He was only wearing a t-shirt with bloody smears on the back, pants, and socks in a strangely good condition.
When their families came to the police, they were brushed aside, and the deaths of their loved ones were pushed aside and hardly even “investigated”.
The “investigation” into Neil Stonechild’s death can hardly be called an investigation. An autopsy confirmed he died from hypothermia, and his body showed no signs of struggle except what the police described as scratches across his nose. The photos released by the police showed that the scratches were in actuality two deep gashes across his nose. Photos of his hands show indentation from tight handcuffs. The police never got their toxicology report back, never interviewed all the witnesses, and never received a Coroner's Report, which identifies the deceased person and states the cause of their death. Still, the police came to the conclusion that Neil was drunk and walked to the adult correctional center to turn himself in for the warrants out for his arrest and died on the way there. It made no sense to people who knew him. On December 5, 1990 the Saskatoon Police Service closed the case.
Lawrence Wegner’s “investigation” was also just a sham. The autopsy stated that he had died of hypothermia. His body showed a bruise under his left eye and hemorrhaging in his brain. The police did not think anything of it and came to the conclusion that Lawrence Wegner must have just walked to the place where his body was found and died. His family were denied from seeing his body, but they were allowed to receive his clothing. His father found it strange that his son’s socks were not worn and dirtied from walking.
Only after Darrell Night’s near death ordeal did this horrific police practice get exposed.
Darrell Night’s Story
Darrell Night, who was from the Saulteaux First Nation, was at a party in late January of 2000, where a fight broke out and got out of hand. When the police were called, he felt the need to leave. Even though he was not involved, he had a history of getting convicted for fighting, and he had been drinking. The weather outside was freezing, and he was wearing inadequate clothing. But he decided to walk a few minutes on due to his physique and his sister living close by.
Then, he saw a cop car coming. There are many differing claims on what happened next, but whatever happened, an officer put him in handcuffs. The two police officers went in the opposite direction, out of Saskatoon. The police officers had never asked for his name, had no idea who he was, and never even logged their activities.
After a while, the police car stopped, the officer opened the door and said, “Get out of the car, you [f-ing], Indian,” removed his handcuffs, and drove off. While being shoved against the car, Darrell saw the numbers on the car, and made sure to burn it into his mind. Darrell was now left for dead in the middle of nowhere in the freezing weather. After walking for 20 minutes to a power station with hypothermia slowly crawling in, he arrived at the station. He banged the doors around the station and was finally heard and let in by a security guard. He had a near encounter with death, and his body was warming up out in the freezing cold, a sign that his body was shutting down. “You aren’t dead, until you’re warm and dead,” as the saying goes. The guard called him a cab, and Darrell made it home safely. Darrell survived, but he was left forever traumatized.
On February 3rd, the same day Lawrence Wegner’s body was found, Darrell reported his experience to the police along with the numbers on the police car. Though it was the wrong numbers, on the 7th, the two officers responsible for his ordeal admitted that they drove Darrell Night to a remote area and left him before their colleagues got into more trouble. Though they claimed that Darrell Night had asked them to drop them off. It was technically true, but Darrell Night had asked to be let go since the start. The two officers were suspended with pay.
The Justice System
The two officers who caused Darrell Night’s horrifying near-death ordeal only got convicted of unlawful confinement. They received a sentence of only eight months (the maximum sentencing was ten years) in prison. In the trial, the two officers changed the story to make themselves seem “misguided”. The two officers did not admit any wrongdoing and even tried to appeal their conviction. The judge denied it.
The investigation into Rodney Naistus’s and Lawrence Wegner’s death did not produce any criminal charges. Instead, the police put the blame on the victims and insisted that there was no evidence that they were doing Starlight Tours, even though Chief Russell Sabo admitted that Starlight Tours might have been happening for decades. Rodney Naistus’s inquest concluded that after a party, he just wandered off.
It was only because Darrell Night’s case made international news and StarPhoenix journalists dug up archives of news reports about his death that in 2003, a reinvestigation into Neil Stonechild’s death was opened up again and handled by the RCMP (Royal Candian Mounted Police). It showed just how awful the Saskatoon Police’s investigation into Stonechild was. As the result of the public’s growing pressure, an inquiry into the death of Neil Stonechild was established. 13 years after Neil Stonechild’s death, the two officers responsible for his death were only fired two weeks after the report on the police investigation into Neil Stonechild’s death came out on October 26, 2004. Nothing else. The two former officers continued to proclaim their innocence and asked the Saskatoon Court of Appeals to set aside or drop the report. The appeal was dismissed on December 18, 2008.
As of August 2021, while there are convictions of related offenses, no Saskatoon police officers have been convicted specifically for causing the deaths of the victims of the Starlight Tours. This is the so-called “justice” that the Indigenous people in Canada receive.
Between 2012 and 2016, there were multiple attempts to erase and censor the police’s involvement in Starlight Tours. On the Saskatoon Police Commission’s Wikipedia page, Addison Herman, an 18-year old university student, found out on March 30, 2016 that a computer from the police service itself deleted information about the tours. The IP address of the computer that made an effort to cover up the history was registered with the Commission itself. The Saskatoon Police confirmed that someone did use the police computer to edit out references to Starlight Tours on the Wikipedia page, but they were unable to pinpoint the culprit and denied that the force itself tried to erase the history.
Is it over now?
So did Starlight Tours stop after the Saskatoon Police were exposed for committing these heinous acts? Allegedly not.
Ken Thomas, a marathon runner claimed that on April 21, 2018, he was approached by two police officers and detained for fitting into the description of a person that was digging into vehicles. He was then driven outside city limits, and was dropped off in the cold night. Laughter could be heard from the two police officers as they drove off. He said he had to run back home.
Ken Thomas has filed a complaint against the Saskatoon Police Service, but the allegation investigated by the Public Complaints Commission was deemed unfounded due to the lack of audio, video, and logs of their GPS indicating any sign of contact between Ken Thomas and the Saskatoon Police Service.
Several allegations akin to Ken Thomas’ had also been made against the police since 2012. They were all found unfounded using the same evidence of lack of audio, video, and GPS tracking as proof. In two cases, the complainants were fined for mischief.
This is just a small sliver of all the injustice and cruelty against Indigeous people, but it is representative of how they are treated in Canada. As a minority in their own home, they receive miniscule attention to their issues and problems because people have little knowledge of how Indigeous peoples are treated. They are not safe from the police, whose job is to protect the people from harm’s way. They are treated with no respect as if they are not human. Fighting for basic human rights is a massive challenge. How can these huge issues be fixed when the police and legal system itself refuses to dole out proper justice and acknowledge the pain and suffering Indigeous people face throughout history and even today? How can anything be reconciled at all when this is still the reality Indigeous people face everyday just because of their ethnicity?