Apr. 06, 2005 - Issue #494: Queens of the Stone Age
Justice of the police
Three Native men froze to death at the hands of the Saskatoon police; Two
Worlds Colliding explores why
On January 28, 2000, Darrel Night left a party that was getting out of hand. As soon as he stepped out of the building, two Saskatoon police officers grabbed him, cuffed him and drove out of town, dumping the terrified man on the side of the road in minus-20∞ weather. He called out for them to stop, afraid for his life. “That’s your fucking problem,” was the only reply from the patrol car as it drove away.
Night trudged across a snowy field towards a distant power plant. Catching the attention of a security guard was the key to his survival. Rodney Naistus wasn’t as lucky: he was found frozen to death the next morning near where Night was dropped. Nor was Lawrence Wegner, who was found frozen to death in the same area a few weeks later. All three men were Native.
The Saskatoon freezing deaths gained notoriety worldwide—but beneath the simmering cocktail of racism and allegations of police abuse lies a community profoundly divided along cultural lines. Cree filmmaker Tasha Hubbard tells the story of how these deaths impacted both the aboriginal population and police officers of Saskatoon in her solo directorial debut, Two Worlds Colliding. Accompanied by the retired Native RCMP officer hired to shadow the police investigation into the freezing deaths, the 31-year-old filmmaker is currently touring Canada with her documentary. The tour stops in Edmonton’s Stanley Milner Library tonight (April 7) at 7 p.m.
“At first, I just looked at the impact these deaths had on my community,” says Hubbard, a Masters student at the University of Saskatchewan. “The story was all over the news, but I wanted to see how people were reacting to and dealing with the events.” Over the course of shooting the more than 100 hours of film, however, the project evolved. A deeply personal interview with Darrel Night explored the depth of his terror and his frustrated knowledge that nobody would believe his story. In addition to raw grief over the loss of their son, Hubbard found in Lawrence Wegner’s parents a nearly abandoned hope to find the truth and bring some closure. In the film’s most intense segment, the drumming and keening cries of a round dance are superimposed on a march to the police station and candlelight vigil for Wegner. In the end, Hubbard decided to provide a voice to the aboriginal people disempowered within their own story.
“I was on my way to another job when I heard about the press conference with [Saskatoon] police chief Dave Scott,” Hubbard recalls. In February 2000, the chief announced that the Saskatoon police would conduct an internal investigation of the Darrel Night incident. Hubbard remembers turning to her mentor and saying that someone should do something on this story. “Why don’t you?” was his reply, triggering a four-year project that began with begged favours from fellow filmmakers and ended with a grant from the National Film Board’s Aboriginal Filmmaking Program. Born to Cree parents, Hubbard was adopted as an infant into a white family with a tradition of policing. Does the story of Saskatoon’s inner conflict reflect a schism within herself?
“I was always concerned that my own story would come out in the film,” Hubbard admits. “I felt such a commitment to the families and everyone affected by the events that I didn’t want my own circumstances to overshadow their story.” To ensure that the focus remained on the tragedy, she consciously wrote herself out of the project and remained only as the narrator and observer.
This focus never wavers, but does expand in scope. From the raw emotions of Night and the Wegner family, Two Worlds Colliding moves on to explore the story behind the Blue Wall of police secrecy. The first officer to hear and believe Night’s story was shocked to his core, shaken by how these events tarnished the badge he wears with pride. On the brink of tears, the department’s aboriginal liaison, Constable Craig Nyirfa, couldn’t help but wonder if these deaths could undermine the nine years of progress he had made in bringing Native youth together with Saskatoon police officers. Even the newly appointed community liaison officer (who would later be implicated in the freezing death of another Native man 10 years earlier) expressed his concern on how this would affect the department. Having claimed the lives of three men and the careers of five others, including police chief Dave Scott, the implications sent the force reeling.
The official police line is that the incident with Darrel Night was an isolated case. The two officers responsible were fired, convicted of unlawful confinement and served four-month sentences. The cases of Naistus and Wegner remain unsolved. However, in a move that sent further shockwaves around the world, Saskatoon’s new police chief, Russ Sabo, announced evidence of similar drop-offs dating as far back as the 1970s. Sabo was hired on the strength of his community-building experience, and it was amidst ominous talk of a vote of non-confidence in the police union that he apologized and took responsibility for a never-admitted-to history and began trying to heal the rift between the two cultures.
The 49-minute film is truly about two cultures—these two worlds—colliding. The film explores the fearful and grief-stricken aboriginal culture that demands answers, while spending time with the mostly well-intentioned Saskatoon police officers performing a difficult and largely thankless job. Where these two groups butt heads, the film exposes an ugly core of racism that threatens to overtake any positive steps. Which, Hubbard says, is why this tour is so important.
“I’m hoping people will come,” she explains. “Not only will they see the film, but they’ll have a chance to talk about it. The issues of the film are not exclusive to Saskatoon; it’s about prejudice based on a lack of knowledge, combined with apathy. And my goal is to combat that apathy.”
With Two Worlds Colliding, Hubbard feels she has accomplished some of her goals: she has given Darrel Night and the Wegner family the chance to speak, and she hopes to have helped make some changes. But, she declares, it’s not over yet. “There are other stories there. The fact is, racism is not just a random act, and treating it that way is dangerous.”
Lawrence Wegner’s mother knows that danger. “I never forget my son when it’s cold out,” she murmurs through her tears. Hopefully, none of us will. V
Two Worlds Colliding
Directed by Tasha Hubbard • Stanley Milner Library • Thu, Apr 7 (7pm)
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