ActiveHistory.ca is on a hiatus for the winter break, and will return to daily posts in early January. During the hiatus, we’re featuring some of our favourite holiday and winter themed posts. Thank you to all our contributors, guest editors, and readers for making 2018 a very successful year. Happy holidays to all and we look forward to continuing our work in 2019!
The following post by Josh MacFadyen was originally featured on October 30, 2014.
The 2013 ice storm left hundreds of thousands of Canadians out in the cold and made some people pause to consider the fragility of urban energy systems in a changing climate. The idea of so many people spending Christmas in the cold made me reflect on some of the better-known cases of Canadians freezing to death in the past. Frankly – and aside from Sir Franklin – most of us likely couldn’t name a single person who died in this way. But one name we should all know is Neil Stonechild. His story, and the stories of other victims of hypothermia, should shape how we think about systemic racism and other social injustice.
This month marked the 10th anniversary of the inquiry that brought a police force, an entire city, and many parts of Canada to consider some of these problems. The body of 17-year-old Neil Stonechild was found in an industrial area at the northern edge of Saskatoon in November 1990. He had frozen to death in that position five days earlier, wearing light clothing and only one shoe. His face was bruised his blood alcohol content had been high, and some of his friends and family suspected foul play. They were told that a full investigation had been conducted and that the teen had wandered to this remote location under his own volition. A cold case if ever there was one.
Still, some wondered if Neil had been the victim of a “starlight tour,” or the un-authorized police practice of leaving drunk or rowdy people on the outskirts of the city to dry out. Some could survive the walk, but in the case of Stonechild and several other Cree men, drying out in a Saskatchewan winter meant freezing to death. Prairie winters are unforgiving, to put it mildly. Saskatoon’s average January temperature (from 1977 to 2012) consists of daily lows “around -20°C, falling below -33°C or exceeding -8°C only one day in ten.” On the night Stonechild went missing, the temperature fell to -28°C.
Ten years later Darryl Night told a police officer that he had been left in a field one January evening, and he only survived the -20°C temperatures because he found his way to a power station and called a taxi. Night did not expect anyone to believe him. But days later the frozen bodies of two other Aboriginal men were found in a similar location and the police officer consulted Night and asked him for a full report. This began a long process of investigation and reconciliation that reopened the Stonechild case and culminated in a Commission of Inquiry and a report revealing what really happened to Neil Stonechild. The police officers were charged with a minor offence and relieved from their duties. The police chief was replaced, and a series of recommendations were advanced to build better accountability and begin repairing the trust between First Nations communities and the police.