A decade ago the Saskatoon Police Services (SPS) was seen by many as a racist organization that regularly dropped off aboriginal men outside the city limits in 30 degree below weather. In 2000 an aboriginal man, Darrell Night, stepped forward to claim that police had dropped him off outside the city in sub-zero weather. Two officers were convicted of unlawful confinement in that case.
The frozen bodies of five aboriginal men found on the outskirts of the city between 1990 and 2000 lead to the formation of the Stonechild Inquiry which looked into the deaths of three of those men: Neil Stonechild, Darcy Dean and Lloyd Dustyhorn. The inquiry concluded that Stonechild was seen inside a police cruiser earlier on the day he went missing and marks on his arms were indicative of him being handcuffed. Two officers were suspended but not charged due to insufficient evidence.
In the early 2000s the relationship between Saskatoon’s aboriginal community, which comprises over 10 percent of Saskatoon’s population, was at an all-time low. With the regular rousting of men cruising in Kinsmen Park, police also had a poor relationship with the queer community.
In 2003 Chief Russell Sabo, who was brought in from Calgary to change the culture and image of the SPS, formed two committees, the Chief’s Advisory Committee on First Nations and Metis and the Saskatoon Police Advisory Committee on Diversity. He also created a diversity unit within the department that was given the task of building relationships with Saskatoon’s various communities.
Representatives from the aboriginal, immigrant and queer communities were asked to sit on the diversity committee that has met monthly since its inception. That committee produced a diversity training course, which all members of the SPS are required to take. Currently the committee has three representatives from the queer community including its chair Nicole White.
From its beginning the queer representatives on the diversity committee have been concerned that the police weren’t taking hate crimes seriously. But this spring, Saskatoon police have finally said that they want to address hate crimes. Officers from the diversity unit travelled to Vancouver and Calgary to learn how they deal with hate crimes and have now trained all members of the SPS on hate crimes and how to address them. A new computer report system will now allow officers to accurately record and track hate crimes.
“I’m incredibly encouraged by the steps the SPS is taking on hate and bias crimes,” says Nicole White, the diversity committee’s chair and director of AIDS Saskatoon. “It’s been an enormous step forward educating all members of the police services and sends a message that the police care about the community.”
Still, gaybashings continue to occur on a regular basis in Saskatoon. Spring always sees an increase in bashings especially in Kinsmen Park, where gay men cruise, and around Saskatoon’s lone queer club, Divas. However, it’s difficult to know exactly how many occur because many gaybashings go unreported.
Tony Nadon, head of the Saskatoon police diversity unit, says that not all incidents of hate such as slurs and intimidation are criminal in nature, but he encourages people to report such incidents as it can “establish a history for prosecution in hate crime cases.”
Bob Challis, co-director of the Avenue Community Centre for Gender and Sexual Diversity (ACC), says the centre regularly receives calls from people who have been gaybashed, but he doubts that most of those ever get reported to the police. “As a community we need to know exactly what a hate crime is and people need to feel comfortable enough to report such crimes to the police,” he adds.
Julie Richards, also co-director of the ACC, says she has handled a few gaybashing cases in recent months including a couple of gay men who were bashed for holding hands in public. She says that someone from the ACC would be willing to accompanying people to the police to report a gaybashing if they feel uncomfortable going on their own.
Saskatoon police have made other overtures to the queer community in recent years. Last year they staffed a recruiting booth at the Pride Fair and are planning to be present again during this year’s Pride celebrations. Chief Clive Weighill hosted a come-and-go tea at the ACC in late May so members of the queer community could meet him and discuss their concerns. Plans are underway to place recruitment ads in the local queer publication.
The diversity committee is also pursuing a meeting with the Crown prosecutor’s office. Ultimately it’s up to the prosecutor to lay charges under hate crime provisions. As has been seen in other communities, prosecutors are often unwilling to go that extra step of prosecuting crimes under hate crime provisions of the Criminal Code. If prosecutors are unwilling to charge people under hate crime provisions, this could further discourage people from reporting gaybashings.