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Saskatoon marks 30 years since Neil Stonechild’s death: ‘We’re not going to forget’

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WATCH: It's been 30 years since the death of Neil Stonechild, who died of hypothermia just outside Saskatoon in what's become known as the starlight tours – Nov 26, 2020

Neil Stonechild died 30 years ago.

To mark the occasion, the Indigenous Joint Action Coalition (IJAC) is holding a vigil to highlight what has changed for Indigenous people in Canada since then, but especially what hasn’t.

“I know the [(Saskatoon Police Service) have talked about making strides in reconciliation towards something different but the reality is Indigenous people still face a lot of these same issues today,” Erica Violet Lee, a spokesperson, said.

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“We will remember Neil Stonechild and even though it’s been 30 years, we’re not going to forget.”

On Nov. 29, 1990, two construction workers found Neil Stonechild’s body in a field on what was then the northern edge of Saskatoon.

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The discovery eventually led to a provincial commission examining how a 17-year-old Indigenous boy got to a field outside the city — especially after witness Jason Roy said he last saw Stonechild in the back of a Saskatoon Police Service (SPS) car on the night of Nov. 24.

An autopsy later determined Stonechild died early on the morning of Nov. 25.

The commission concluded the investigation by police into Stonechild’s death was not adequate. The SPS fired the two officers who picked up Stonechild on the night he died.

It also recommended, among other things, police receive race relations training and be more responsive to public complaints.

Lawyer Donald Worme represented the Stonechild family at the inquiry.

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“What’s significant about the findings is that the concerns my client, [Stonechild’s mother] Stella Bignell, had were answered. The questions that she had about how her son met his horrific end were answered,” he said, speaking over the phone.
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Worme told Global News the inquiry report led to “somewhat of a reconciliation” between Indigenous people and the SPS, helping to improve what have been a relationship with little trust “given the bad treatment Indigenous people had suffered at the hands of police services.”

He said an attempt to rehabilitate the relationship between the two groups, and to understand what a police service would act in such a manner, was at stake.

“Indigenous people are part of the public and are very deserving of the same kind of respect that every citizen is entitled to.”

He said pointed to the deaths of Chantel Moore and Rodney Levi — the family whom his law firm is representing — as evidence that the relationship still needed to improve.

Lee said Stonechild’s death, and the subsequent inquiry, is still relevant 30 years later, saying people of colour still experience what Stonechild faced.

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“They still face police violence, they still face poverty and marginalization,” she said.

In a statement, Saskatoon police Chief Troy Cooper, a Metis man, said the SPS continues to work to build and strengthen relationships and trust with the Indigenous community. He also said the police implemented all of the commission’s recommendations.

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“(W)e took additional steps to improve our policies, our technology and our training practices. These steps were all done as further ways to build trust with our community. Some of these steps include the hiring of an Indigenous Recruiting Officer, the installation of GPS tracking and audio/visual capabilities in all of patrol vehicles, and mandatory training to reflect inclusion, equity and diversity. But we recognize that our work doesn’t stop there.”

He said the SPS continues to look for other ways to provide the best service to Saskatoon citizens.

Worme said Bignell knew about the vigil marking the death of Stonechild.

“She is entirely grateful, she knows it’s important that her son’s memory not be lost.”

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