When Colten Boushie’s family met with a Crown prosecutor before the bail hearing for his accused killer, Gerald Stanley, a special investigator from the Federation of Sovereign Indigenous Nations (FSIN) was present and ensured that witnesses from both sides of the altercation — not just those from the victim’s car — were barred from the courtroom.
When Mary Natomagan’s son was shot and killed by Prince Albert police in 2013, the investigator guided the family through months of meetings and a Coroner’s inquest.
“It made a lot of difference … They were there whenever we needed them. I can’t count the number of times we picked up the phone and they came,” Natomagan said.
When Sonya Solonas was struggling to get answers from school officials about her six-year-old son being locked in a windowless room for two hours, the special investigator “made a huge difference,” Solonas said.
“It made the school division sit up a little straighter … I felt like someone had my back and I wasn’t alone,” she said.
“They were vital in our lives at one point when we were struggling.”
The FSIN, previously known as the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations, is hopeful that provincial funding for its Special Investigations Unit (SIU) will remain intact as the Saskatchewan Party government copes with its budget deficit.
The unit’s funding was cut by more than 38 per cent in the current budget year, to $108,000 from $175,000, noted Vice Chief Kimberly Jonathan.
“We’re seeing a significant drop in ability to attend and support. Not only would we want funding not cut, we would want previous funding reinstated,” she said.
Jonathan said she was pleased to hear — during his last week in office — from former Deputy Minister of Justice Kevin Fenwick that he did not recommended cuts to the service for the next fiscal year. She has since met with new Deputy Minister Glen Gardner and “he seems to see the value,” she said.
“We want to remind them (the unit) is doing such important work. They demand accountability in places where people may not know they have rights,” Jonathan said.
The SIU was established in 2000, after a spate of allegations of police misconduct that were highlighted by Darrell Night’s complaint about Saskatoon police leaving him on the western edge of the city on a freezing January night. Two other indigenous men, Rodney Naistus and Lawrence Wegner, were found frozen to death within the same week in the same field near the Queen Elizabeth Power plant where Night had been abandoned.
News about those deaths — along with the freezing death outside an apartment building of Lloyd Joseph Dustyhorn, who had been in police custody earlier that night, and the solitary confinement suicide of Erla Stephanie Brass in a temporary women’s unit at Saskatchewan Penitentiary — prompted the FSIN to hire an investigator to receive allegations about police, primarily from indigenous people who didn’t trust them.
We want to remind them (the unit) is doing such important work. They demand accountability in places where people may not know they have rights. – FSIN Vice Chief Kimberly Jonathan
The unit received 282 complaints in its first year, some of which resulted in formal complaints to public bodies responsible for investigating them.
In the 17 years since then, the unit has expanded the breadth of its cases to include complaints about lawyers, health care workers, social workers, conservation officers and in at least one case, school officials.
The Saskatchewan Police Act was amended to include the SIU as one of the agencies that can receive complaints about policing.
The current investigator, Lyle Desnomie, is a former RCMP officer.
The unit has opened more than 3,000 files and travelled throughout most of the province. In 2015-2016 it received 156 complaints, including 49 allegations of misconduct by the RCMP and 26 complaints about municipal police agencies. It has logged 94 complaints so far in the current fiscal year, including 33 complaints against the RCMP and 28 against municipal police services.
“The 74 First Nations, the federal and provincial governments saw that there was a problem. The (Saskatoon Police Service) saw their value with the starlight tours and all that. They don’t want to return to that era. Who wants to return to that? We’ve found something that works, so why would we cut it and create more havoc and chaos and harm? It doesn’t make sense,” Jonathan said.
The existence of the SIU has helped people feel safer in their relations with police and provided a place to turn when they feel their concerns aren’t being taken seriously enough, she said.
“What is safety and trust and a good, sound relationship with First Nations people worth?”
Two Saskatoon police constables, Dan Hatchen and Ken Munson, were convicted of unlawfully confining Night. They were fired and served jail terms.
Inquests into Wegner’s and Naistus’s deaths were inconclusive; the jury at the Dustyhorn inquest called for an emergency detox centre in Saskatoon.