Bridging the bitter divide in Saskatoon

There's much rancour between natives and police. A theatre company is trying to make a difference.

JOSEPH BOYDEN. November 21 2005

Bridging the bitter divide in Saskatoon

There's much rancour between natives and police. A theatre company is trying to make a difference.

JOSEPH BOYDEN. November 21 2005

Bridging the bitter divide in Saskatoon


There's much rancour between natives and police. A theatre company is trying to make a difference.


Curtis Ahenakew has every reason to be wary of police in the tough, heavily Aboriginal west end of Saskatoon. Some would say he has every reason to hate them. Ahenakew’s experiences growing up as a teen in the 1980s were typical of those of many Cree, Saulteaux, Blood, Blackfoot or Metis youth. Constant police harassment. Friends drinking or doing drugs. Lots of native teens rotating in and out of youth detention facilities for mostly petty crimes. Too many broken families. Too much unemployment and depression. For Ahenakew, like many native youths

in Saskatoon, the cops weren’t protectors or

defenders. They were too often the enemy. Don’t get me wrong. Ahenakew was no angel. He drank his fair share of booze and smoked plenty of weed. He even did a few break and enters. But never anything too serious, in the scheme of things. Yet the police pulled him over, demanded to know where he was going, sometimes even taunting him to be a man and do something about it. He was thrown in the drunk tank, beat up by the cops, insulted. Plenty of reason to not like the authorities.

Or himself, for that matter. “It’s like if you’re treated enough like a criminal,” Ahenakew says, “you begin to think you’re one, even wanting to go there.”

But the real reason Ahenakew might have every reason to mistrust the police doesn’t have to do with him, but with his best friend, Lawrence Wegner, another Saskatoon Aboriginal. On Sun., Jan. 30,2000, a brutally cold night, Wegner was last seen by three witnesses on 20th Street, in front of St. Paul’s Hospital, being put into the back of a cruiser by two unknown policemen. He wore only a T-shirt, a pair of jeans, and socks. No shoes.

On Thurs., Feb. 3, Wegner was discovered, rock-frozen in the same clothes he’d been seen wearing days earlier. He was five kilometres from downtown. His socks had no holes. Clearly, he hadn’t walked there without shoes. The coroner’s office struggled for hours to remove him from the ice in which he lay. It took over three days for his body to thaw for post-mortem examination. Just over two years later, on Feb.

'If you're treated enough like a criminal, you begin to think you're one'

14,2002, an inquest into his death decided that it was too suspicious to be ruled as accidental, but the jury, half white and half Aboriginal, was unwilling to declare it a homicide. That was the end of that.

What seems to have happened to Wegner, as well as to many other natives in the Saskatoon area, is called a “starlight tour.” Despite the weather and the condition of the Aboriginals, police reportedly drove the “offenders” outside of the city and left them there. This practice, which many native people claim to have been the victims of or witnessed, is at the root of a very troubled relationship between cops and natives, so explosive at times that it’s threatened to destroy Saskatoon. As recently as last week, Toronto Aboriginal actor Gregory Odjig, in Saskatoon to perform in a Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company

(SNTC) production, said he was a victim of racial profiling. While running back to his apartment from a convenience store where he’d bought some toilet paper, he was hit by a police car driven by officers looking for an assault suspect. They handcuffed him and detained him in his T-shirt in the cold night. Finally, he was released without an apology.

But despite such incidents, interviews on both sides of the divide have left me with the impression that a desire exists to build abridge.

The Saskatchewan Native Theatre Company can be found in the heart of the inner city of Saskatoon, at the base of Riversdale. It’s a sprawling two-storey place with a theatre, classrooms and a large basement for teaching set and costume design. The SNTC has become a hub for many in Saskatoon’s large Aboriginal community, and it is becoming a place of interest for certain policemen as well.

Donna Heimbecker, SNTC’S general manager, makes it clear that SNTC is more than your average theatre company. The place is a business, a training and drop-in centre, a home and family for kids who need one. “The ones who come through our door aren’t youth at risk, but youth with potential,” she declares. And clearly something’s working, as everyone seems to agree, from the youth involved to Police Chief Russell Sabo to Aboriginal street gangs who feel threatened by what SNTC is teaching their possible initiates.

The heart of the SNTC is its youth program, Circle ofVoices. It’s no walk in the park. Young people are culled from the streets, group homes, reformatories and dysfunctional families. They must commit to an eight-month fulltime program, and to “positive change.” In regular terms, no booze or drugs. Students work their way through four components: basic performing arts training (set design, as well as writing and acting basics), life skills, career development, and culture. All of these are set against the backdrop of theatre. A recent production, Love Songs from a War Drum, featured 24 Circle of Voices actors. Sabo was so taken by the Romeo-and-Juliet-meets-Indian-street-gangs tale that he urged his officers to see it. Many did. “These productions open up dialogues between us,” says Heimbecker.

SNTC was founded in 1999 by artistic director Kennetch Charlette along with prominent actors Tantoo Cardinal and Gordon Tootoosis. All Aboriginal. The list doesn’t stop there: Andrea Menard, Maria Campbell, Drew Hayden Taylor and Tomson Highway, among others, have all been involved. Since 1999,68 participants have completed the program. Many have gone on to complete Grade 12, some entering university. “Circle of Voices has an 85-per-cent retention rate among youth who join it,” Heimbecker states—an extremely high number for any educational institution.

Look at Waylon Machiskinic, a 24-yearold Saulteaux. He’s bright enough to have glided through school before stopping after after Grade 10. Machiskinic describes his relationships growing up as “isolated,” spending some time with his mum, some time in foster homes, never knowing his dad. He was

constantly harassed by police, who stopped him on the streets, demanding to know what he was up to. “Profiling,” he says.

Yes, he drank and smoked pot. He even committed some B and Es with buddies. Machiskinic slowed down his drinking and

smoking when a few blackouts scared him. A life half-remembered was not the life he wanted. In 2003, Machiskinic came to SNTC. He’s pursued his drawing and painting, as well as acting and music. He’s also making a name for himself as a DJ and MC, writing his own rap lyrics. “Circle of Voices has opened a door,” he says. “I’ve met other artists. With respon-

'We're not all rednecks/ said a cop, 'just as all of you aren't criminals'

sibility, I’m learning self-esteem.” And then, almost shyly, Machiskinic shares with me that he has no police record that he knows of.

Sabo, who’s been chief for the past four years, has seen Saskatoon police fortunes at their bleakest. He took charge just after the firing of two officers for dropping off a native man on the outskirts of town in 2001. The release of the controversial Neil Stonechild inquiry findings in October 2004 resulted in the dismissal of two more officers. But Sabo has fought hard to improve relations. “He’s a patron of our company and recognizes its focus on our community,” says Heimbecker.

Sabo urges officers to join SNTC’S youth talking circles. Many do. Kennetch Charlette describes one session involving two officers. The Stonechild case came up. Harsh words were exchanged. “But tension isn’t always a bad thing,” says Kennetch. One policemen became a bit incensed at being painted with a broad brush. “We’re not all rednecks,” he said. “Just as all of you aren’t criminals.” The circle calmed when that insight sunk in.

On the Aboriginal side, John Lagimodiere, editor of Eagle Feather News, a leading voice in native-police relations, is helping educate cops. He’s a key member of the Cultural Di-

versity Training Course, which Sabo requires all police and police staff to participate in. Two of the three days are focused on such native issues as the ongoing effects of residential schools and the lot of today’s Aboriginal youth. All officers have now completed the seminar, and by December, all civilian staff will have as well.

“Slowly, I’m seeing change,” Lagimodiere says. “It wasn’t so long ago that natives were being pulled over constantly for ‘dW—Driving While Indian. I’m sure it still happens, but the first step is trying to build trust in the community.” And that begins with education. “An officer with 28 years’ experience came up to me at a public event and told me that his mindset had changed once he got to understand the other side.” And what is the police service doing to help build the bridge? If Aboriginal recruiting officer Craig Nyirfa and Alyson Edwards are any reflection, a lot. Nyirfa believes new Aboriginal officers will serve as role models. But finding recruits takes time, he notes, and the community must be patient. Nyirfa speaks of recent changes. It used to cost $300 to $400 for someone interested in becoming a police

There are those who argue that the police are the real victims

officer just to see if he or she was mentally and physically fit enough to try out. “We’ve implemented a program where potential recruits don’t have those economic barriers anymore,” he says. As well, the police now have two Aboriginal liaison officers. Edwards, the police service’s communications manager, tells me of youth circles initiated by the Saskatoon Tribal Council and involving the police service, young offenders and their victims. She also talks of nineand 13-week programs at the University of Saskatchewan and first Nations University of Canada introducing Abo-

riginal students to the world of policing.

This doesn’t sound like the Saskatoon of a few years ago. But is a bridge truly being built? Many police deny that starlight tours ever existed. Many are outspoken in their unhappiness with Sabo. And many deny they are the bogeymen the media have made them out to be. In fact, you will find those who argue that the police are the victims

According to Sgt. Stan Goertzen, president of the Saskatoon City Police Association and a 25-year veteran, the bridge already exists and goes back two previous police chiefs, maybe even further. Goertzen makes it clear that the two officers fired in 2000 were charged and given access to due process. But the two officers fired in 2004 were dismissed without being charged with anything. The union supports their right to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise. And many officers question certain versions of events disclosed in the Stonechild inquiry.

Goertzen admits police morale is not good. He stresses that anyone who’s arrested is probably going to be unhappy. “But that person,” Goertzen says, “will be treated with respect and with professionalism, and that’s always been the case. If you are an Aboriginal in Saskatoon, you should base your opinion about the police by how you’ve actually been treated by them. We’re not at loggerheads with the Aboriginal community.”

The sad irony of the recent Odjig incident is that he was in Saskatoon to perform at the SNTC, which is trying so hard to improve police-native relations. Odjig recalls saying to police after they freed him, “Can I at least have my toilet paper back—you scared the shit

out of me.” (He did get it.) Last week the SNTC held a press conference to express its support for Odjig, who has made a formal complaint to police. During the conference, SNTC board member and native criminal lawyer Michelle LeClair-Harding said “it’s about due processhow a subject is approached, questioned and treated, Aboriginal or not. It’s about respect and feeling safe in this community.”

Remember Curtis Ahenakew? He’s had his fair share of self-imposed trouble. He’s had his fair share of unjustified abuse at the hands of the law. And don’t forget how his best friend froze to death in 2000. “No, I don’t hate cops,” Ahenakew says emphatically. “Back in 1989 I was asked to become a cop. I was sober for three years at that point [it has now been 18 years], was running track at university. I was asked by a recruiter to join. Couldn’t do it. I was still too angry. I imagined that if I was a cop all I’d want to do is beat up white guys.”

Ahenakew tells me he’s found a new path. He’s learning to forgive. And he’s moved to Vancouver, where he is an actor. Ironically, he’s played a corrections guard on DaVinci’s Inquest and, more recently, a plainclothes detective on DaVinci’s City Hall. Asked how problems in Saskatoon might be solved, he replies: “I encourage young native men and women to get involved with police, and even to join the police force.”

It’s difficult for most of us to truly imagine the life of an Indian or a cop in west Saskatoon. It’s also too easy to believe all has been healed. Racial profiling remains a regular and, some argue, necessary occurrence. Native gangs are a potentially devastating problem. Many Aboriginals continue to distrust police, and vice versa. On colder nights, some natives drive to the outskirts of town, looking for stranded friends and strangers. More Aboriginals now carry cameras with them.

Still, in the recent years, an Aboriginals and an embattled police force are trying to communicate and understand each other. What gives hope, and what amazes, is this: the native community of Saskatoon, over and over, is willing to forgive and to move forward. And the Saskatoon Police Service truly seems to be trying to move forward with it. M


Bill Wallace, bassist for the Guess Who, is suing his fellow band members for $97,000 he says he’s owed for the band’s revival tour in 2000. He claims the band’s manager, Lome Saifer, told him a form he was signing for an appearance in a TV special was “just a formality.” Now he says it was really a buyout for all his rights connected with the special. Says Wallace’s lawyer, “When you trust friends you don’t always look at the fine print.”