Welcome to Harlem on the Prairies
Story by John Stackhouse. Photos by John Morstad
The Globe and Mail, November 3, 2001
Part 2 of 9: A CITY DIVIDED
In recent years, Saskatchewan's biggest city has come close to a racial explosion after allegations of rampant police abuse and police complaints that they cannot cope alone with a crime-ridden native community.
In February, 2000, a native man named Darrell Night accused the police of dumping him, while he was intoxicated, on the outskirts of town on a freezing cold night. Two officers, Ken Munson and Dan Hatchen, were fired from the force in September after being found guilty of unlawful confinement. At a hearing this week, they asked to have a traditional community sentencing circle decide their punishment - a request so bizarre that it prompted laughter in the courtroom and anger on the part of natives, who felt they were being mocked. The judge said he will rule on the request on Nov. 30.
But there seems to be no end to the friction between a largely non-native judicial system and aboriginal people, who account for about one-fifth of the local population but more than half of those arrested on a typical night.
Coroner's inquests are looking into the deaths last year of two native men who may have been abandoned like Night. Then there is the Melvin Bigsky case.
On April 27, an RCMP officer shot and killed Bigsky, a long-time criminal, when he rammed his vehicle into a police car and allegedly attacked the driver. Three weeks later, local police shot and killed another native man, Keldon McMillan, after he gunned down a police dog during an attempt to arrest him on weapons charges.
So strong is the community's antipathy that the city fired police chief, David Scott, last June in part to soothe growing public anger.
With Canada's highest crime rate last year, many residents blame an aboriginal population that they say can't cope with the transition from isolated reserves to a multicultural city, where universal laws and independent police and courts are supposed to prevail.
Many natives, on the other hand, believe that they are victims of a white majority that refuses to address their chronic social problems, except with the blunt end of a police force.
Valid or not, the accusations have sent a chill through Saskatoon's native population - and through police ranks. In private, some members of the force say they are reluctant to respond to native calls.
"You have a segment of the population afraid of the police," says Mayor Jim Maddin, himself a former cop, "and a segment of the police afraid of the population."