The story of a prairie town and the First Nations homeless bearing the brunt of its racial divides and traumatic past.
Despite making up just five percent of Canada’s population, 30 percent of the country’s prisoners are Indigenous. Across the prairie provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan and Alberta – regions that have higher populations of Indigenous people – that number rises to 54 percent.
According to a 2017 CTV News analysis, an Indigenous person in Canada is more than 10 times more likely to be shot and killed by a police officer than a white person. Between 2017 and 2020, 25 Indigenous people were shot and killed by the RCMP, Canada’s federal and national police service.
The latest case came on February 27, when Julian Jones, a 28-year-old Tla-o-qui-aht man, was shot and killed in British Columbia after Tofino police responded to a call for help from the Opitsaht reserve, which is accessible only by boat.
It was the second police killing of a Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation member in less than a year, following the death of Chantel Moore in June 2020.
Here are the stories of some of the Indigenous men and women who have been killed in encounters with Canadian police.
‘I want to get angel wings’
Chantel Moore, 26 – killed June 4, 2020
In the early hours of the morning on June 4, 2020, police in the New Brunswick city of Edmundston reportedly responded to a call from Chantel Moore’s boyfriend requesting a wellness check. Her boyfriend, who lived more than 1,000km (600 miles) away in Toronto, reportedly believed that Chantel was being harassed. The 26-year-old Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation member from British Columbia had recently moved to New Brunswick to be closer to her six-year-old daughter, who lived with Chantel’s mother.
A few minutes later, Chantel – who her family described as “a good mom”, someone who “made friends wherever she went” and “loved to make people laugh” – was dead.
According to the police, Chantel had walked out of her apartment onto a balcony with a knife and had threatened the officer, who then shot her.
“I don’t understand how someone dies during a wellness check,” Indigenous Services Minister Marc Miller said at a news conference following Chantel’s death.
After Chantel’s body was returned to British Columbia, her maternal grandmother, Grace Frank, and her mother, Martha Martin, went to view it.
“Her face was bruised, her right eye sunk in. She had seven gunshot wounds on her body and her left leg wasn’t attached below the kneecap,” Grace recalled tearfully, adding that the police had not offered any explanation for the condition of her body.
The family wanted to protect Chantel’s daughter, Gracie – named after her great-grandmother – from learning how her mother died, but the six-year-old accidentally saw a news report about it on TV. Her great-grandmother says it left her devastated: “Gracie is so sad. She says, ‘I want to get angel wings. I want to go see my mom.’ And then she’s scared and cries, ‘I don’t wanna be shot like that, I don’t wanna die like that.'”
Grace remembered how Chantel would go out of her way to give her daughter the best Christmases and birthdays she could, adding: “Chantel was such a good mommy.”
“[She] was the kindest, [most] caring, loving, supportive, bubbly person. She never had hate for anyone. People loved her.”
When asked about the condition of Chantel’s body, Mychèle Poitras, communications director for the City of Edmundston, said: “No comments can be made since the file is with the Provincial Prosecutor’s Office.”
The name of the officer who shot Chantel has not been released, but eight investigators with Quebec’s independent police watchdog group (New Brunswick does not have its own) have completed an investigation into her death. The Bureau des enquetes independantes forwarded its report to New Brunswick’s Public Prosecution Service and to the case coroner in December. The prosecutions office has said it will review the report and determine whether to charge the officer.
The Tla-o-qui-aht First Nation is demanding that the officer be charged with murder and that body cameras be mandatory for all police officers working with the public. It has also requested a full national inquiry into the root causes of police brutality against Indigenous people.
“This killing was completely senseless,” the Nation said in a press release. “At the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls Inquiry, RCMP Commissioner Brenda Lucki committed to do better by First Nations. She said, ‘I’m sorry that for too many of you, the RCMP was not the police service that it needed to be during this terrible time in your life. It is very clear to me that the RCMP could have done better and I promise to you we will do better.’ We are still waiting for ‘better’ and Chantel certainly deserved ‘better.’”
In mid-November, less than six months after Chantel’s death, her 23-year-old brother Mike Martin took his own life while being held in a correctional centre in British Columbia. “I’m trying to be OK but I’m sad,” wrote Grace in a social media post in December. “I’m hurting. I’m angry. I’m full of rage. I’m full of disgust. I think about my granddaughter and my grandson – they should both be alive. It’s so unfair they’re gone … I will not give up until justice is served. My heart is aching.”
The ‘starlight tours’
Neil Stonechild, 17 – killed November 1990
On the golden, wheat-covered prairies of Saskatchewan, a deadly phenomenon known as the “starlight tours” has been threatening Indigenous people for decades.
No one here is certain where or when the term originated, but Indigenous residents know exactly what it stands for: police taking Indigenous people – often said to have been picked up while intoxicated – and dropping them off at the edge of the city of Saskatoon at night, where temperatures regularly drop to as low as -28C (-20F) during winter.
In November 1990, a 17-year-old Saulteaux First Nations boy was found frozen to death in a field on the outskirts of Saskatoon. Neil Stonechild was face down in the snow, wearing one shoe, and had cut marks on his face and arms. He was found by construction workers on November 29 – five days after he was last seen.
An autopsy indicated that he had died of hypothermia. But his devastated family suspected foul play.
A police investigation into his death was closed after just three days. Former Saskatoon police Sergeant Keith Jarvis, who conducted the investigation, explained in his report: “It is felt that unless something concrete by way of evidence to the contrary is obtained, the deceased died from exposure and froze to death.”
At the time of his death, Neil was living between a group home – accommodation that houses multiple children and young people in the foster care system – in the west end of Saskatoon and his mother’s house.
According to his older brother, Dean Lindgren, who is now 54, Neil was a “good kid” who dabbled in “petty crime” but was not involved in violent crime or gangs.
The night Neil died he was wearing his brother’s high school letterman jacket. It was, Dean remembered, one of his most prized possessions. “For a long time he kept asking me, ‘Bro, can I have your jacket?’” said Dean, who finally relented and gave it to his brother, who wore it “proudly” around Saskatoon.
Neil was an athlete, who excelled at wrestling, Dean recalled.
The two brothers had a strong bond, even though they had only known each other for two-and-a-half years when Neil died. Dean had been taken from his family as part of the “60s scoop”, a practice enacted by provincial and federal Canadian governments from the 1960s to the 1980s in which Indigenous children were taken from their families and adopted by white families across Canada and the US.
After finishing high school, Dean travelled from his adoptive home in Minnesota in the US to find his biological family in Saskatoon. He immediately bonded with his younger brother and said that the week before he died, the two brothers had planned to travel to the province of Ontario to pick up a car Dean had bought and drive it back to Saskatoon together.
“He wanted to come so bad,” Dean said of his brother. But in the end, Dean went alone. “I kick myself every time I talk about this,” he said.
Driving back to Saskatoon, Dean hit black ice and destroyed his new car. He borrowed a stranger’s phone to call home. The US Army veteran breaks down in tears as he describes what happened next.
“I called my cousin Andrea. I was frantic about my car. But she asked me, ‘Are you sitting down?… Dean, your brother was killed.’”
His world momentarily stopped. Then the words hit him – hard. He took a bus back to Saskatoon.
Dean remembers hearing that Neil was with his 16-year-old friend Jason Roy the night he went missing. But, for 10 years, Jason did not talk about what happened that night. He later explained in a phone call from his home in Saskatoon that he had been traumatised and scared of potential repercussions for speaking out.
Then, on January 19, 2000, Lloyd Dustyhorn, a 53-year-old First Nations man was found frozen to death in Saskatoon. The day before he had been taken into custody by police for public intoxication – in May 2001, following an inquest, a jury decided that his death had been caused by hypothermia.
Later that month, Darryl Night, a Cree man from Saskatoon, told police that two officers had dropped him off several miles outside of Saskatoon in freezing temperatures. Darryl had been having a drunken argument with his uncle and said the officers picked him up outside his uncle’s apartment before dawn on January 28. He was wearing only a T-shirt and running shoes when they left him in a remote rural area outside the city. He managed to walk several miles to a power station where a watchman let him call a taxi.
The next day, the shirtless body of Rodney Naistus, a 25-year-old Indigenous man, was found near where Darryl said the police officers had dropped him off. A few days later, on February 3, 2000, the body of another Indigenous man, 30-year-old Lawrence Kim Wegner, who had last been seen three days earlier, was found wearing only a T-shirt, socks and jeans. Both men appeared to have frozen to death, possibly dying within hours of being released from police custody, according to police investigations and public inquests.
These cases prompted the Province of Saskatchewan to hold an inquiry into the alleged “starlight tours” and to re-examine Neil’s death.
Jason testified at the inquiry, telling it about the last time he had seen his friend alive on that bitterly cold November night in 1990. He and Neil had been walking in the city’s west end after drinking at an apartment building in the area, he said. The two briefly separated, Jason recalled, and the next time he saw Neil he was in the backseat of a police cruiser, with a bloodied face, screaming for help and telling Jason: “They’re going to kill me.”
The inquiry found that Neil was in the custody of police Constables Larry Hartwig and Bradley Senger and that the injuries and marks to his body “were likely caused by handcuffs.” The officers denied having been in contact with Neil the night he died, but the evidence contradicted their claim and the two were dismissed from duty in November 2004. A court upheld the findings of the inquiry when the two officers appealed against it.
Despite this, no Saskatoon police officer has been tried for Neil’s death or those of any of the other Indigenous people who froze to death.
Today, Dean says he harbours hatred for the officers he believes took the life of his brother. “I will never forgive Hartwig and Senger, never,” he said, angrily.
When George Floyd was killed by US police in Minneapolis, Dean said it stirred up memories. “I understand exactly what the family (George Floyd’s) is going through,” he said. “When I saw the cops killing George Floyd on the video, I had instant rage. Down here it’s not safe for the Blacks and up in Canada it’s bad for the Natives.”
Back in Saskatoon, Jason is working to overcome the trauma of the last time he saw his friend. He wants the police to implement the recommendations of the inquiry into his friend’s death, which included cultural and sensitivity training to equip police to deal with high-stress situations involving Indigenous people who are often dealing with trauma as a result of generations of abuse, neglect and discrimination.
“The police have only found different ways to abuse our people. My people are still being abused,” he said. “But I’m not scared of them – there is no way I was going to let them win.”
‘His life was only worth 20 minutes of their time’
Rodney Levi, 48 – killed June 12, 2020
Eight days after the death of Chantel Moore, 48-year-old Rodney Levi, a Metepenagiag Mi’kmaq man, was killed in the same province.
Late in the afternoon of June 12, the Sunny Corner RCMP Detachment reportedly received a call about a man acting strangely at a home near the Metepenagiag First Nation.
According to a report by the Bureau des enquêtes indépendantes du Québec when police arrived at the scene, Rodney was armed with knives and charged at one of the two officers. A taser was deployed three times but failed to subdue him. One of the officers shot Rodney twice in the chest. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.
Investigators from the Bureau interviewed witnesses, one of whom described Rodney as “being severely depressed” in the days before his death and as having talked about “suicide by RCMP”.
Rodney’s brother-in-law, Norman Ward, told Al Jazeera the father-of three had battled “demons” in the form of drug addiction but added that he did not believe he posed a threat to anyone.
“With Rodney gone, a big piece is missing as he always brought everyone together,” he said. “Things will never be the same with him gone. He didn’t die of natural causes. His life was stolen, not just from him but from everyone who loved him.”
Norman described him as having a way with people, especially children. “All his nieces and nephews looked up to him. He went out of his way to play with them. He was like a big kid.”
According to Lisa Levi, Rodney’s sister, he had been attending a BBQ at the home of his pastor from the Boom Road Pentecostal Church – a church he had been attending on and off for approximately three years – when he was shot by police on the back deck.
“From what I understand, Rodney was invited by Pastor Brodie [MacLeod] to have supper with the family. They all knew Rodney and loved him. Some time during the time he was there Rodney became paranoid and had put a knife in his hoodie pocket for protection. Someone (we’re not sure who) called the police,” Lisa explained.
Pastor Brodie MacLeod released a statement after Rodney’s death to dispel the rumours that he had been an “unwanted guest”. “Rodney Levi was a welcomed guest at our home and he attended our residence when he shared a meal with my family and I on Friday evening,” he wrote.
Lisa said Rodney had been trying for several months to get psychiatric help but had been denied admission for treatment at the local hospital.
The police spoke to Rodney for 20 minutes before he was shot. “That officer showed up, knew Rodney was Indigenous and decided that Rodney was not worth the effort to talk to. Because the very next week, a white guy at the Miramichi hospital held a nurse at knifepoint. They gave that man a hostage negotiator and hours to talk him down. Our Rodney was given 20 minutes! That’s the hardest part – knowing Rodney’s life was only worth 20 minutes of their time,” said Lisa.
“I wonder, did he suffer and was he scared?” she said, crying.
Lisa says she now experiences anxiety when driving outside of her community. “A week after Rodney was killed, I was driving down the highway and a cop pulled out behind me. I was sweating, started to get anxious. Even though my vehicle was insured and registered, I didn’t feel safe because I’m Indigenous.”
Her children, aged 7, 13 and 14, are also afraid, she adds. “They know how their uncle was. He was so nice, so gentle. Never violent. It makes me cry. I want to protect my kids to not have to go through this, but racism is still here.”
Norman is convinced Rodney would still be alive if he were white. “The whole justice system is against us,” he said. “There’s so much racism in this area. They (police) beat up our people. All they want to do is arrest us and be aggressive to us. There is still so much tension here since Rodney died.”
The RCMP is not currently commenting on Rodney’s death as the case is being reviewed by the New Brunswick Prosecution Service.
‘She was a kid’
Eishia Hudson, 16 – killed April 8, 2020
On April 8, 2020, police in Winnipeg, Manitoba, shot and killed Eishia Hudson, a 16-year-old First Nations girl. Police say they received a report that a group of teenagers had robbed a liquor store in the Sage Creek area. Within minutes, several police vehicles were chasing the stolen SUV the teenagers were in.
The pursuit came to an end when the police cars blocked in the SUV and an officer shot Eishia, who had been driving the stolen SUV. She was transported to hospital but succumbed to her injuries.
The night Eishia was killed, her father, William Hudson, got a call from one of his other daughters expressing concern about Eishia. He went out looking for her.
“I went around to every hospital and called all the police stations,” he said. “No one told me anything.”
A little later, he heard the news from one of his other daughters.
“It’s tough. It’s unbelievable. It’s still hard for me to believe,” he said.
Just 12 hours later, one of his closest friends, 36-year-old Indigenous father-of-three Jason Collins, had been shot and killed by Winnipeg police officers responding to a domestic violence call.
Of his daughter, William said, “[she had a smile] so bright it didn’t matter how you were feeling or what you were going through, she brought brightness to anyone she was around. She had a positive attitude towards everything”.
He says Eishia was not a troublemaker and describes her as a happy person who loved to play sports and make people laugh.
“I enjoyed laughing with her, listening to her sing, watching her play sports. Every moment I had with Eishia is my favourite memory of her.”
He believes racism played a role in her death.
“It’s hard to be Indigenous in Canada. Where I grew up here in the north end, it’s lower-income, there’s gangs. We grew up with racist cops and a racist child welfare system,” William explained.
The family held a funeral for Eishia in April amid COVID-19 lockdowns. William says hundreds of people turned up at the funeral home to pay their respects before she was cremated but only 10 could be ushered through at a time.
The family says it is waiting to get answers from the police about why other tactics were not used to apprehend her before burying her remains.
William says Winnipeg’s Indigenous community has been a great source of support for him. He has organised multiple rallies and vigils for Eishia, which he says helps to make him feel as though he is not carrying the load of her loss alone. But, he says, neither the police nor the city or provincial authorities have reached out to him.
His younger children are afraid to leave the house since Eishia died, he explained, adding that whenever he takes his five-year-old daughter to the local grocery store, she grabs his leg if she sees a police officer on patrol.
“For us, when we leave the house, we know we’re leaving as an Indigenous person. To be on guard. I hope one day it will change.”
Following an investigation into Eisha’s death, Manitoba’s Independent Investigation Unit (IIU) concluded that there was no evidence the officer had been unjustified in using lethal force. William dismissed the report as “biased”.
“My daughter, her life mattered. She was a kid and what the cops did, that was wrong,” William said, adding: “It has to come to an end.”
‘My sunshine girl’
Josephine Pelletier, 33 – killed May 17, 2018
Josephine Pelletier was shot dead by police in Calgary, Alberta, on May 17, 2018. The 33-year-old Cree woman was with her 18 year-old-son Elijah, and according to police, was barricaded in the basement of a residence that was not her home.
“I had a strange feeling about Josephine and her boy [around the time she was killed],” Josephine’s mother, Donna Pelletier, explained during a phone call from her home in Saskatchewan.
Family friends called to tell her the news after learning of Josephine’s death on social media.
“I said, ‘If this is about Josephine, I don’t want to hear it.’ Everything went blank after that,” she recalled.
Josephine had attended one of Canada’s last residential schools – which closed in 1996. In an interview before her death, she had described to this writer the relentless verbal, physical and sexual abuse she had endured there.
Canada’s federal residential school system, which started in 1883, forcibly removed Indigenous children from their families, communities and cultures.
After leaving school, Josephine spent much of her life in jail. But, in 2015, she had reached out to the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network (APTN) from a half-way house in Calgary to share her story and plead for help. “I need help,” she told the channel. “How to learn to unlock my mind from being an angry person. From being locked up all the time and fighting. I want to be in control of my mind, feelings, my heart and my body. I want to be a mom. I want to give my son something to look at and be proud of.”
Josephine had been on the run from a Calgary half-way house for a couple of days when the upstairs occupants of the residence where she was killed called the police to report a home invasion. Police arrived with a K9 unit and a tactical team. According to news reports, police officers heard sounds of distress from inside and two officers fired live rounds at Josephine, who was unarmed. She died on the scene.
Police also shot Elijah with rubber bullets, rendering him unconscious. To this day, Donna says, he has no recollection of his mother’s death.
About a week and a half after Josephine was killed, Donna had raised enough money through an online appeal to be able to bring her daughter’s body home to Saskatchewan.
“They didn’t wipe her up. There was still blood on her body. There was a bullet by her ear, one on the back of her head, one on her arm – she must have put her arms up. I saw three bullets, but then I couldn’t look any more,” she explained.
Josephine was buried in the Muskowekwan First Nation that June. Elijah could not attend the funeral because he was in jail facing various charges related to the incident on the day of his mother’s death. A court subsequently ordered that he be admitted to a psychiatric hospital, where he remains today.
“They found him hanging at the Edmonton Remand Center,” said Donna of her now 20-year-old grandson. “It was the third time he tried to commit suicide.”
She described Elijah as smart, quiet, but quick-tempered, like his mother. “But now, they keep him drugged up, he doesn’t sound like himself.”
Donna says she has been left with unanswered questions. “They (police) won’t give me answers. They keep giving me the run-around.”
When she visits Josephine’s grave, the pain is still fresh. Although her daughter lived a troubled life, Donna says she now likes to imagine that her “sunshine girl” is at peace with the angels.
Josephine’s death is currently under investigation by the Alberta Serious Incident Response Team (ASIRT). The ASIRT told Al Jazeera by email that it is unsure when a decision will be made regarding the actions of police in Josephine’s death.