A 'Starlight Tour' is a phrase that was coined by Indigenous people in the Canadian prairie city of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which refers to a well known police practice of picking up vulnerable individuals, mostly Native males, in their cruisers and driving them outside of town where they would be abandoned on the side of the road. Documented incidences happened mostly in the winter months where temperatures can dip down to -40. Many of these victims of Starlight Tours were found frozen to death, having never made it back to the city.
Darrell Night, the last known survivor of Starlight Tours, lived to tell the story of how he was picked up by police after leaving a party in Saskatoon. Instead of taking him back to the police station, the officers drove him outside city limits and told him he had to walk back. Although temperatures that night were in the -30s, Night managed to walk to a nearby power station to call a taxi.
Lawrence Wegner, Lloyd Dustyhorn and Rodney Naistus were not that fortunate.
Starlight Tours refers to police officers of the Saskatoon Police Department in Saskatchewan, Canada, driving males (often natives) out of town and dumping them off, forcing them to walk back to the city, often in the middle of winter. According to natives in the city, it has been going on for decades.
The first documented case of a Starlight Tour happened on May 22, 1976. Three First Nations people, two men and a pregnant woman were dropped by an officer of the Saskatoon police and forced to walk back to the city. The officer involved was charged with neglect of duty and discreditable conduct. In a statement issued by Saskatoon Police Chief, “Instead of charging the people with having liquor in a place other then a dwelling, the officer (forced) the said persons into a Police vehicle and (drove) them to a remote area outside the City Limits and (left) said individuals to walk back to the City, particularly a female who was then eight months pregnant.” The officer denied the charge but was later found guilty. He was fined $200.00.
It all happened back to back during the last two weeks of January in the year 2000. Three Native males were found frozen to death.
On January 19, the body of Lloyd Dustyhorn, 53, was found frozen to death just hours after he was released from police custody. On January 28, Darrell Night was picked up by Saskatoon police and dropped off on the outskirts of town. Fortunately, he survived and went straight to the media to tell his story. On January 29, Rodney Naistus, 25, was found frozen and dead outside city limits. And on January 31, Lawrence Wegner, 30, was last seen in police custody. His frozen body was found on February 3, in the same area where Night had been dropped off.
A decade before that, in November 1990, the body of Cree youth, Neil Stonechild, 17, was found in a field on the outskirts of Saskatoon. The brief investigation into his death concluded that he was a victim of misadventure and had frozen to death at his own volition. At the time of his death, Stonechild was wearing a pair of jeans, t-shirt, jacket and missing one shoe. Temperatures on the night he died were -28. After a thorough search of the area, his missing shoe was never found. The investigating officer ruled out foul play and closed the case.
A Saskatoon police officer, Ernie Louttit was working on the force at the time of Stonechild’s death. Louttit, who is Cree, was born in northern Ontario and eventually moved out west to join the Saskatoon Police Service (SPS) in 1987. Having a great love and loyalty to the Saskatoon community, no matter how rough it was at times, he spent his entire 27 year career as a frontline officer. He was known on the streets as ‘Indian Ernie’.
Stonechild’s death first came to the attention of Louttit one morning as he browsed through the local paper. He read the small article and wondered why he hadn’t heard about it sooner.
Louttit went to work his next shift and inquired. No one seemed to know and no one seemed to care. After much inquiry, Louttit decided to go to the home of Stonechild’s mother, Stella Bignell Talking with her, he realized there was much more to the story then what he read in Stonechild’s file. After inquiring with the Chief of Police, he was told to drop it.
Quietly, Louttit got a hold of the Stonechild file and was surprised how quickly the investigating officer closed the file before ruling his death a case of misadventure. He told Bignell there was nothing more he could do for her and the investigation haunted him for years to come. Louttit never suspected any police involvement in Stonechild’s death but he certainly did accuse them of not doing a proper investigation and closing the file way too soon.
After Darrell Night’s encounter with the Saskatoon Police Service on the cold January night in 2000, he decided to go to the media and tell his story. The story made front-page news. The Chief of Police called in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police to investigate. Around this time, the death of Neil Stonechild was revisited as well. The entire Saskatoon Police Force was now under investigation.
The two officers who dropped Darrell Night off on the outskirts of town were both charged with unlawful confinement and assault. They were also fired and both received 8 months jail time. In February 2003, an inquiry into the death of Neil Stonechild was announced.
According to Louttit, it was stressful and dangerous to be a police officer with the SPS from 2000-2005. Citizens were calling on the RCMP to take over policing in Saskatoon. He was particularly concerned with how the entire police force was being painted as racist because of the actions of a small handful of police officers.
In an interview with the Two Row Times, Louttit explained, “I was a frontline officer and saw many honorable men and women struggling to serve the community everyday amidst accusations of racism. So many people: leaders, activists, politicians, media and even criminals tried to hijack the process for their own agendas. But still the day to day relationship between the community and the police had to be maintained.”
Still, Louttit loved being a police officer and he respected and admired a lot of the people he worked with.
Asked if he knew about the practice of officers taking males (usually Native) outside of the city and leaving them to walk back, Louttit said, “No one I knew or worked with had ever done anything like that or even joked about wanting to do it with a troublesome person. I don’t know if it was because they knew I would never tolerate such behavior. I don’t think it was common practice or I would have heard about it either from co-workers or people in the community.”
In October 2004, fourteen years after Neil Stonechild froze to death under suspicious circumstances, the province released the final report of the Stonechild Inquiry. Louttit said he was ‘shocked’ at what he watched on the local news. Two Saskatoon police constables had Neil Stonechild in their custody the night he died. They were eventually fired but were never charged with any wrongdoing.
It took fourteen years for the family of Neil Stonechild to finally get some answers.
And it’s been fourteen years since the freezing deaths of Lawrence Wegner, Lloyd Dustyhorn and Rodney Naistus.
Has the relationship between the Saskatoon Police Service and the native community changed in the past 14 years?
Louttit, who recently retired from the force stated, “I truly believe the relationship is better now through the efforts of both communities (police and Natives) since 2005. It is a lot harder to be a racist now a days for anyone in Canada.”
He added “So much in life is about tolerance and respect. The relationship between our people and the police is long and complicated. If we take the time to think about each of the perspectives and continue to focus on positive changes over the years since 2005, we will move forward. At the same time we have to always be vigilant and not tolerate abuse of power or position from anyone including the police.”
Ernie Louttit recently published a book of memoirs on his experiences as a frontline officer with the Saskatoon Police Service called, Indian Ernie: Perspectives on Policing and Leadership.
- Renaud, Rob; Reber, Susanne (2005). Starlight tour: the last, lonely night of Neil Stonechild. Toronto: Random House Canada. 427 pages. ISBN 0-679-31307-9.
- McLean, Candis (2015). When Police Become Prey: The Cold Hard Facts of Neil Stonechild's Freezing Death. Audacious Books. 357 pages. ISBN 978-1-77141-146-2.
- The Stonechild Effect: 10 years after the explosive inquiry, a look at how one teen's death changed a city, The Saskatoon StarPhoenix
- "In Depth: Aboriginal Canadians: Starlight Tours", CBC News
- Report of the Stonechild Inquiry
- "Conference confronts police ‘culture of oppression’", Aboriginal Multi-Media Society
- "Police Oversight", Justice Education Society and Centre for Education, Law, & Society at SFU