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Starlight Tour: The Last, Lonely Night of Neil Stonechild

It’s easy for Canadians to feel smug these days. As our bureaucrats like to remind us, we’re one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, and simultaneously one of the most peaceful and prosperous. We sign treaties on everything from global warming and land mines to AIDS research and support for developing nations. We have excellent public education and (knock wood) health care.

Amidst the self-congratulation (generally served up with a side order of scorn for those benighted rascals to our immediate south) it’s easy to forget that Canada has its dark side. There’s that whole history of genocide against the first peoples, for starters, though some may say this has little to do with our contemporary reality. We’ve left all of it behind, and are in the process of making amends. Susanne Reber and Robert Renaud’s painful and powerful Starlight Tour paints a rather less sunny picture, however.

For regular readers of Canada’s daily newspapers, the story should be familiar. On a bitterly cold night in November 1990, a 17-year-old native kid named Neil Stonechild disappeared a few blocks from his mother’s home in Saskatoon after a night out drinking and carousing. Five days later, his body was discovered, far from the teen’s normal hangouts, in a snowy field. It was frozen solid and missing a shoe.

At the time of Stonechild’s death, there was plenty of evidence – and much local talk – suggesting that he’d been on a “starlight tour” that night. This pleasant-sounding term is in fact a euphemism for the Saskatoon police department’s practice of driving troublesome native youths to the edge of town and leaving them there. Most eventually found their way home. Roughed up, drunk, and disoriented, Stonechild apparently wasn’t so lucky.

For years, though, the case went nowhere. Local police made a cursory investigation, concluding that Stonechild had simply wandered out to the field and collapsed. The national media, focused on covering the first Iraq war, mostly ignored the story. It wasn’t until 2003 that Stonechild’s family, with the help of a talented native lawyer named Donald Worme, was successful in their fight for a public inquiry into the death.

The book, which is laden with photographs and reproductions of documents, has a meticulously researched feel, as one would expect from the work of old pros. (Reber and Renaud are both veteran CBC journalists.) The mass of detail they’ve put together is enlightening, though at times the authors seem reluctant to leave anything out (a description of the font used by one detective to type up his reports is a case in point).

Like most contemporary crime books, Starlight Tour has a novelistic structure, with complete scenes and recreated dialogue. The authors occasionally go as far as to “report” on characters’ internal mental states – a controversial practice, even in our post-Capote era, though it’s clear that all speculation is firmly based on known facts. The weakest aspect of the book is probably the prose itself – the fact that the authors aren’t primarily print journalists does show in the occasional awkward sentence and clumsy transition.

The material itself is compelling enough that stylistic quibbles seem beside the point. The case makes for a gripping story, from the initial crime to the Stonechild family’s struggle for answers to the ultimate, if unsatisfying, resolution. The inquiry found strong suggestions of police involvement, though evidence was deemed insufficient to bring charges (although two Saskatoon constables on duty that night were suspended from the force).

The American media have recently been fretting over a story that’s been called a tragic microcosm of the U.S. occupation of Iraq. An elite army unit begins driving Iraqi men out to the Tigris and dumping them into the water, in order to punish them for minor offences such as rudeness or missing curfew. Then one day, a man drowns. The unit’s leader attempts a cover-up, but the truth about what happened ultimately comes out. Several soldiers are lightly punished.

Canadians should not be too quick to shake their heads.

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