Welcome to Harlem on the Prairies
Story by John Stackhouse. Photos by John Morstad
The Globe and Mail, November 3, 2001
Part 6 of 9: THE STEREOTYPES OF 20th STREET
Of course, native stereotypes are to 20th Street what neon signs are to Las Vegas. There is the provincially owned liquor store, with its windows barricaded like an inner-city bank. And the provincial welfare office, the west side's main economic force and, in a horrible irony, the source of most of the liquor store's cash flow. Nearly one-third of Saskatoon - 66,000 people in all - relies on social assistance at some point during the year.
The stereotypes have not changed in years, but the economics behind them have. Saskatoon has precious few jobs for the west siders, so many able-bodied people have moved to Alberta and Ontario. For those left behind, welfare pay-ments have been frozen for so long that a typical parent like Judy receives about $300 a month - the same as what she would have received 20 years ago.
"Do we hate Indians? No. Do we hate certain individuals who happen to be Indian? Yes."
A former Saskatoon
One consequence is that families have doubled up in the shoebox houses off 20th, while single people - men mostly - have been forced to trade apartments for rooming houses and, in Bobby Johnson's case, worse.
In a room above a Chinese restaurant on 20th, Bobby's existence seems to test a new wretched depth every time Louttit visits him. A loner, he drinks and watches television all day while he lies on a mattress in a puddle of his own urine and feces. The stench carries a whiff of death.
Whenever things turn quiet, Louttit parks his cruiser and climbs a staircase to the squalid room that looks abandoned by the society around him. "Hey, Bobby, how's it going?" he asks the withered, curled-up figure whose protruding bones are illuminated only by the flickering light of a late-night TV show.
Bobby mumbles a few words. Louttit engages him in some small talk, and then checks the room for fire hazards and food. Finding neither, he chats some more, providing the only human contact Johnson will have until his next expedition to the liquor store.
Every visit to this cesspool makes Louttit angry at his society, and his people. "You hear native groups say, `We need this or we need that,' " he says bitterly. "Yeah, we need them to come down here and do something. We as natives need strong leadership, we need elected leadership, we need to take care of our own problems - stop our own people from drinking and stop our own people from hurting each other."
Saskatoon's signs of social distress
Nearly one-third of the city's residents - 66,000 people in all - relies on social assistance at some point during the year.
Of the 148,315 people over the age of 15 in Saskatoon, 46,960 donít have a high school diploma.
9.5 per cent of city residents over age 25 donít have a Grade Nine education
Unemployment rate in October was 6.5 per cent.
That compares to 5.1 in Saskatchewan, 6.7 in Canada, and 3.6 in Regina.
No end of social agencies have tried to break the west side's vicious and unyielding cycle of welfare, drinking and jail. The Saskatoon Tribal Council has built a big community centre next to the bingo hall. Out on 20th Street, a posse of missionary groups runs soup kitchens, prayer clubs and clothing depots, as they have for years.
Every evening, the Hands On Ministry provides a haven for about 150 children, with games and a free loaf of bread to take home. When the ministry closes at 10 or 11, the kids, many of them preschoolers, can be seen walking home in small groups, their loaves tucked under their arms.
It's the sort of scene that infuriates many people impatient with the lack of progress. "Police can get frustrated with an individual when they deal with him repeatedly, whether he's aboriginal or not - the revolving door," Mayor Maddin says.
Would they go so far as to dump drunk people on the edge of town in sub-zero temperatures?
The mayor, remembering his policing days, admits that the infamous "starlight tours" aren't "an unknown phenomenon."
"It's happened. Should it happen? I don't think so. Will it happen again? I would hope not."
Another former cop offers a more hardened version of how this came to be. Early one evening, he sits down at a coffee shop and, on condition that his name not appear in print, describes how the force has allowed itself to be pushed around by native politicians - the very ones, he feels, who defend male criminals and ignore their female victims.
Barely able to control his anger, he contends that most of the cops are fed up. "Do we hate Indians?" he asks bluntly. "No. Do we hate certain individuals who happen to be Indian? Yes."
He tells the story of a cold winter night when he entered a native household to find two parents passed out on the kitchen floor, with their year-old baby, clothed only in a diaper, sitting beside them crying. The door had been left wide open. It was about 20 below outside.
The cop called the province's child-protection agency for help. They refused to come. It was the middle of the night. He shouted down the phone line. Finally, someone arrived and took the child to safety - for the night. The next day, the parents got their baby back.
"You get so mad you could kill someone," he says. "You could throttle someone - because of the kids."
The former cop says he knows the men charged in the "starlight tours" case, and how frustrated they were with Darrell Night, a regular at the drunk tank. Same goes, he says, for Melvyn Bigsky, the 33-year-old shot dead after allegedly ramming the police cruiser. "He hated cops."
Bigsky had a long criminal record, and once escaped from prison in Drumheller, Alta., while serving a term for manslaughter (he had killed a cousin during a drinking party in Saskatoon by stomping on his chest). Cops across northern Saskatchewan knew about him, including Hoover, who picked him up so often that the two were on a first-name basis. On one occasion, he says, Bigsky suddenly began to bash his head into the grate that separates front seat from back in a cruiser.
Apparently, his plan was to inflict injuries he could blame on police abuse. Hoover remembers Bigsky bellowing, "I'm going to fuckin' kill you," through the grate. At which point, he says, he turned around, stared back at Bigsky and replied, "You know, one day, someone's gonna kill you."