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Starlight Tour

The Last, Lonely Night of Neil Stonechild

by Susanne Reber & Robert Renaud

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indigenous studies, indigenous peoples
list price: $22.00
also available: Paperback
category: Social Science
published: 2006
imprint: Vintage Canada
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  • , Governor General's Literary Award - Nonfiction
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A teen’s suspicious death, a shocking police cover-up and a mother’s search for the truth.

In 1990, on a November night that hit –28 degrees Celsius, seventeen-year-old Neil Stonechild disappeared only blocks from his mother’s home. His frozen body was found three days later, eight kilometres from where he was last seen in downtown Saskatoon. The police investigation was cursory — no one seemed to wonder about the abrasions on his wrists or the scrapes on his face, or the fact that he was missing a shoe. Neil was drunk and out walking, the police believed, and had died by misadventure. His mother, Stella Bignell, tried her best to push for answers, but no one in authority wanted to listen to a native woman whose sons had often been in trouble with the law.

But Stella did not give up, and neither did the only witness, sixteen-year-old Jason Roy, who had seen Neil, beaten and bleeding, in the back of a Saskatoon police cruiser the night he disappeared. Starlight Tour recounts their struggle for justice in the face of indifferent officials, destroyed police files and institutionalized racism. In the decade following Neil’s death, rumours persisted that police sometimes drove natives beyond the edge of town and abandoned them. But it was only in January 2000, when two more men were found frozen to death, that the truth about Neil Stonechild’ s fate began to emerge. A third man, Darrell Night, survived his “starlight tour,” and lived to tell the tale. And soon one of the country’s most prominent aboriginal lawyers, Donald Worme, was on the case.

With exclusive co-operation from the Stonechild family, Worme, and other key players, and information not yet revealed in the press coverage, Starlight Tour is an engrossing and damning portrait of rogue cops, racism, obstruction of justice and justice denied, not only to a boy and his mother but to the entire country’s native community.

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Early on the frigid morning of January 9, 1964, a curious four-year-old wandered about his new house, scouting his surroundings. The plain one-storey stucco bungalow at 922 Avenue J North, Saskatoon, consisted of just two bedrooms, a bathroom, front room, kitchen and basement, but after the cramped rental suite where the boy and his family used to stay, it seemed enormous.

Four people lived with the boy, whose name was Donald, although people usually called him Donny. His mother, Margaret Worme, was thirty-eight years old. Donny loved everything about her. He liked the way she dressed, neatly and carefully, even though her life had been tough. Born and raised on the Kawacatoose reserve, an hour’s drive southeast of the city, she’d had four children before Donny’s father had abandoned her. Donny didn’t remember him. Nor did he remember his brother Darren, born almost three years earlier and put up for adoption at nine months old. Margaret knew the people who had happily taken Darren in – a German couple named Winegarden – but the families soon lost touch, even though they lived only a few kilometres apart. Donny’s mother had made an excruciating choice: she’d decided that the best thing for the rest of her children, and for Darren too, was to give her son up, because the money she got from social assistance and the odd cleaning job would never stretch to feed, clothe and house them all.

Donny still had one older brother, Dale, a rambunctious seven-year-old who, as dawn approached, was busy getting ready for school. Also, their Uncle Hilliard was visiting from the Quinton reserve. And Donny’s seventeen-year-old sister, Pat, and her eighteen-month-old toddler, Kim, had moved in.

Donny, an observant little boy with cropped raven hair and intense dark eyes, knew that his sister was sad right now, though she was doing her best to hide it. She’d had a baby girl just four weeks earlier, but she had reluctantly decided to give her daughter up, thinking that surrendering her child might make it easier for her to flee from her husband, Francis Littlechief, who beat her in his frequent drunken rages. When Pat brought Kim to the new house, she left her husband behind, hoping it would be for good.

Dale, for one, was glad Francis hadn’t come; he didn’t like his sister’s husband. Donny had no opinion about Francis one way or the other – Francis had never paid that much attention to him – but he did know that his mother was happy Francis was gone. Even though he had trained as a welder and mechanic’s helper, Francis was often unemployed. But in mid-November he’d left his pregnant wife and their son behind to take on a short-term mill job in Thompson, Manitoba. Margaret had hoped her son-in-law wouldn’t come back. But he’d returned to Saskatoon on Christmas Eve, showing up at the old place and berating Pat about giving up their daughter in his absence.

Francis had made a strange appearance at the new bungalow just a couple of nights ago. As his wife and her family were sitting down to supper, he had barged through the back door and stood by the table for the rest of their meal.

“I want to talk to Pat about the children,” he had said more than once, staring fixedly at Margaret even though Pat was right there. Donny had sat quietly watching. His sister was having none of it. “I don’t want anything to do with you,” she said. Francis didn’t move. When she finally retreated to the bedroom, he followed her. They stayed in there talking for well over an hour, but there was no yelling, and Margaret decided to leave them be. When Francis had come out, he’d sat quietly with Hilliard in the front room watching television for a bit. Then, as abruptly as he’d arrived, he said, “I have to go,” and took off.

– – –

Margaret and Pat were bustling around now, getting ready to face the cold dawn and a day of cleaning houses. Even when she was dressing for menial work, Margaret wore something nice, and that morning she put on the dark brown blouse she liked to wear with her tan skirt and jacket.

In the past twenty-four hours the temperature had sunk to minus twenty-five degrees Celsius. A thick crust of ice had formed around the frame of the back door, sealing it shut. Not even Uncle Hilliard had been able to budge it. Forty years later, Donny would still vividly remember the way the cold forced its way into that little house like something alive.

At about seven-thirty there was a knock at the front door. Margaret’s niece, Marleen, who lived a few blocks away with her husband, John Goosenose, had arrived to babysit Don and Kim while Margaret and Pat went to work. Nineteen years old and nine months pregnant, Marleen headed straight for a chair at the kitchen table; the slightest exertion exhausted her. Once her aunt and cousin were out the door, Marleen packed Dale off to his grade one class at Westmount Community School. Hilliard woke up a little later and, after picking up a few groceries for the house, headed out for the day, leaving Marleen alone with the two little boys.

Much to her relief, the children were content to amuse themselves. Pat returned in the early afternoon. Having given birth so recently, she hadn’t been able to make it through a whole day of house-cleaning. Around four o’clock, Dale came tearing through the front door with the pent-up energy of a seven-year-old who had been cooped up all day in school. Despite the very cold weather, Dale and the little boys pleaded to work on the snowman they had been building in the front yard. Marleen bundled them up well. They lasted twenty minutes outside before they paraded back into the house, trailing snow, wet mitts and icy boots.

Marleen started supper early, frying up slices of bologna and heating some canned tomatoes to go with bread and butter. The vinegary, sweet scent of the tomatoes drifted through the house. Margaret was expected home around six.

– – –

About the same time as Marleen was laying bologna slices in the frying pan, Hilliard was heading to the Ritz Beer Parlour, near the railway station. The winter darkness had already descended. At first he sat by himself, with two glasses of beer in front of him for company, but then he saw Francis Littlechief at a nearby table. Littlechief waved him over to join him and a taxi driver named Fred Peigan. William Popowich, a bartender and a friend of Hilliard, sat down a little later. Each of the four took turns buying rounds for the next hour or so, except for Littlechief, who claimed he was broke.

Littlechief pulled a photo out of his shirt pocket and showed it around the table. “Look at her.” He pointed to Pat, who cradled the newborn baby and had one arm around Kim. “See how pretty she is,” he said, slurring his words and draining his glass. “You know, I just want her back. That’s all. I just want my family back.” Hilliard thought he sounded more concerned than angry. Littlechief had been drinking since eleven in the morning – quite a feat for a guy with no cash. Eventually, not wanting to stand him another round, Hilliard and Popowich made excuses to leave. Littlechief tried to follow his uncle-in-law out, but Hilliard had ducked into the café next door and ditched him. Peeking out into the street, he watched Littlechief look around, puzzled, until he gave up and staggered away.

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Contributor notes

Rob Renaud is the Regional Director of CBC Radio Ottawa and Susanne Reber is Executive Producer, Investigations, CBC News. They worked together for over seven years leading CBC National Radio News and have won a number of awards for investigative journalism. They have been researching the Neil Stonechild case for three years.

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Editorial Review

Starlight Tour documents in clear, direct prose the death of Neil Stonechild. With compassion and grace, it exposes what has become all too ordinary, in language that refuses to victimize the family.” —Governor General’s Literary Award Jury Citation

Starlight Tour is a vital chronicle of a tragedy that opened many eyes and yet still remains as painfully relevant as ever. A devastating portrait of the relationship between Indigenous peoples and a justice system that has offered us little real justice, it is as important for Canadians to read now as it was when first published and exposes just how long past due systemic reform is.” —Jesse Wente, CBC Radio

“Searing, unforgettable, important, haunting, thorough, infuriating, heartbreaking and sometimes inspiring, Starlight Tour is journalism at its best. This book will change you.” —Peter Edwards, author of The Bandido Massacre and One Dead Indian

“For justice junkies like myself, this is a deeply engrossing account. . . . Should be compulsory reading for Canadian police recruits from sea to shining sea.”
–William Deverell, The Globe and Mail

“The Stonechild story is ably captured by veteran CBC journalists Susanne Reber and Robert Renaud in a thoroughly researched, deftly written work. . . . A powerfully written, meticulously researched work with a cinematic feel, which should be on reading lists for students of Canadian history, journalism or law enforcement.”
Toronto Star

“The suspenseful and meticulous account of a very real and dark chapter in Canada’s modern history.”
TIME (Canada)

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