Welcome to Harlem on the Prairies
Story by John Stackhouse. Photos by John Morstad
The Globe and Mail, November 3, 2001
Part 3 of 9: TO SERVE AND PROTECT
Caught between cultures, and responsible to both, Ernie Louttit and Dean Hoover lead Hair Spray Jerry to their cruiser and then help Diane to a waiting ambulance.
They are divided like their city, and perhaps their country, on how to deal with native crime and justice. Natives, who make up less than 3 per cent of the general poulation, account for 15 per cent of prison inmates. In Saskatchewan, where 13 per cent of the population is aboriginal, they account for more than 50 per cent of all people in penitentiaries.
For Hoover, it is a question of law and order. If natives take up so many prison spots, it is because they commit so many crimes. Men like Hair Spray Jerry deserve to be in jail, he says.
Crime in Saskatchewan
Despite a national decline, the crime rate increased in Saskatchewan in 2000.
For a third consecutive year, the highest crime rate was recorded in Saskatchewan (12,730 incidents for every 100,000 persons).
The largest increases in overall crime in 2000 occurred in Saskatoon, which rose by 11 per cent to 1,485 incidents for every 100,000 people.
Despite a 7% general crime rate decline, Regina reported the highest violent crime rate for a second consecutive year, followed by Saskatoon and Thunder Bay.
Regina (3.5 homicides per 100,000) and Saskatoon (3.0) also reported the highest homicide rates, followed by Trois-Rivières (2.8) and Chicoutimi-Jonquière (2.8).
For Louttit, however, the west side's epidemic of domestic assaults and harsh police responses is more complex. Each time he sees a native woman nursing her wounds on payday Friday, it brings back painful memories from his own childhood in a hard-drinking Northern Ontario town. Native groups that accuse the police of racial bias ignore the fact that "crime, at least where I work, is brown on brown," he says. The real victims are native women and children.
As the partners drive back to the police headquarters, they pass through a city that is divided by a river as well as by race.
On the east side of the South Saskatchewan, tree-lined streets rise through patrician neighbourhoods of brick homes and portable basketball nets, and beyond them wide boulevards, shopping malls and a university campus. The Indian quarter - a Canadian Harlem on the Prairies - sits on the west side, beyond the riverside trails, a few historical buildings and a modest downtown.
Louttit, at the wheel, takes 20th Street, a spacious boulevard of pawn shops, bingo halls and soup kitchens that bisects the west side. And down each side street, there are rows of tiny houses that might serve as double garages if they were located across the river. Here, they are home to five, 10, on some nights 15 people, many of them pumping their bodies full of intoxicants that would kill most people.
The Indian beat - a square mile of reckless inebriation - is the one staff sergeants like to give to Louttit and Hoover. As well as being tough, they are experienced enough to know when to pull the trigger and strong enough to wrestle just about anyone to the ground. They are also on a first-name basis with just about every gang leader, drug dealer, pimp and prostitute on the west side.
From their cruiser, they can point to dozens of native men they have busted and others they are watching for their next misstep, such as breaking curfew or violating parole, or a minor drinking or drug-related charge. These are what native groups refer to as "system-generated" crimes, the revolving door of justice that keeps thousands of native men perpetually in the penal system - people like Hair Spray Jerry who land in jail almost every time they are in a fight.
Native groups believe that Canada's justice system treats them and alcohol the way the United States treats blacks and drugs. Just as a black man in Harlem goes to jail if caught with cocaine, they say, a native caught drunk in Saskatoon is punished when most non-natives in the same situation have their wrists slapped.
Craig Nyirfa, the police force's aboriginal liaison officer, says he understands the problem even though, like many of his colleagues, he admits to having known little about natives before joining the force.
But native cases - usually based on complaints from other natives - take up much of a crime fighter's time. Of the 45 young people arrested in the past week, Nyirfa can pick out 34 native names, most of them from the west-side native ghetto, where young men can safely assume that they will wind up in police custody one day. "An aboriginal kid in Saskatoon today stands a better chance of ending up in the criminal justice system than finishing high school," Nyirfa says.
A native antagonism toward "white" society is drilled into the mind of kids on the west side at the youngest age when a derelict uncle takes a swing at a cop or the police come crashing through the door to remove an intoxicated mother.
And it explodes during another call for Louttit and Hoover.
Summoned to a rundown house off 20th where an entire family has been drinking hair spray, the two cops find a shirtless man lying on the pavement, splattered in blood. He says a teenaged nephew hit him. Louttit is not surprised. The address is a regular call for them on Friday nights.
He also knows what is coming when he and his partner put on latex gloves to handle the bleeding man, who struggles to his feet and then takes a feeble swing at Louttit. The cop feigns a duck and laughs. The man's punch is as slow as his speech.
Once the man is in an ambulance, the cops move more cautiously to the back yard, warning that flying objects - bottles usually - could come from an open second-storey window. Instead, they find the injured man's sister and her 16-year-old son on the back steps, high on Pink Panther hair spray. People used to drink Listerine - "Canadian rye," west-siders call it - but ever since welfare payments were cut, they have switched to Pink Panther, which is cheaper and has a higher alcohol content. For a couple of dollars, hardened hair-spray drinkers are intoxicated for the night. Most other people would be dead.
Louttit tries to ask the woman and her son what happened, when a younger boy emerges on the balcony above them, challenging the cops to a fight. He also appears drunk. Louttit says he is 14.
The boy shouts that he wants to see a cop hit a native.
"You racist pig," he says, spitting at the police below.
"What ya doin', fuckin' pigs?" his brother, just feet away from Louttit and Hoover, shouts at the two cops as they step back, trying to avoid a confrontation.
"White shit," the 16-year-old continues. "Get out of here, you white motherfuckers."
The cops decide to leave the boys and their mother alone. Soon enough, they will all pass out and be a danger to no one but themselves. The only option would be to take them to the drunk tank, which is already filling with more dangerous types.
The nightly ritual of packing intoxicated natives into the drunk tank has become a sore point in the city's racial divide. But during the winter, the police are also accused of abusing natives by leaving them to their own consequences, often in unheated houses or yards.
The police have lobbied for a detox centre - Saskatoon is the only city on the Prairies without one - but so far the province and native groups have failed to agree on how to fund and manage it. They both want to manage it and Ottawa to pay for it. (The Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations also wants a healing centre that could care for entire families.)
For now, the police send the most intoxicated people to the hospital, where it costs far more to keep in an emergency ward them for a night than it would in a detox centre.