Darrell Night, a Saulteaux First Nation bricklayer whose account of being abandoned by police early one freezing Saskatoon morning sparked a scandal that would engulf the city’s police force and shine a light on police mistreatment of Indigenous peoples, died on April 2 at age 56. His family gave the cause of death as heart failure.
Around 5 a.m. on Jan. 28, 2000, Mr. Night was leaving a rowdy party in Saskatoon when two police officers cuffed him and drove him to the southern outskirts of the city. It was a typically brutal winter morning in Saskatchewan, with temperatures bottoming out at -25 degrees. Mr. Night was wearing a denim jacket, blue jeans and running shoes.
He recalled what the officers did next in the 2004 documentary Two Worlds Colliding, directed by Tasha Hubbard.
“They told me, ‘Darrell, get the heck out,’” he recalled. “‘Out, you effing Indian.’”
As he stepped from the cruiser, Mr. Night complained that he would freeze to death. “That’s your effing problem,” he recalled one of the officers responding, before the car’s tail lights disappeared toward the Saskatoon skyline.
Mr. Night survived the experience. Afterward, he would bring alleged systemic racism within the city’s police force to the world’s attention.
What he had experienced that day was known colloquially in Saskatoon as a “starlight tour.” There had been rumours since the 1970s of the city’s police apprehending Indigenous people, mostly men, and leaving them to freeze, sometimes to death, on the edges of the city. But there was no proof of the practice until Mr. Night returned to tell a story that roiled the city’s local government and leant credibility to other accounts of police abuses.
“Darrell Night should be known and remembered as a hero for justice, not just for Indigenous people, but for all people in Canada,” said his former lawyer Donald Worme. “Because police misconduct impacts everybody. It impacts our entire system and brings a stain to the world we all want for our children.”
Mr. Night was born on July 8, 1966 in North Battleford, Sask. His family moved to Saskatoon when he was in Grade 1. He was a standout football and baseball player at Mount Royal Collegiate, before he quit high school to work for CP Rail.
“He was a popular kid,” said Merv Night, his elder brother by one year. “When someone called out ‘Night’ at school, we all knew they were talking to my brother.”
After leaving CP Rail, Mr. Night worked as a bricklayer until a bout of meningitis and a stroke impaired his eyesight and ability to do physical labour.
On the night of the party, which was at his uncle’s Saskatoon home, fights broke out and Mr. Night decided to walk to his sister’s house, a few blocks away. When two Saskatoon Police Service constables, Dan Hatchen and Ken Munson, arrived on the scene, they saw Mr. Night leaving the area. He gave them the middle finger and berated them for failing to keep the peace at the party.
The constables cuffed him for causing a disturbance and threw him inside their cruiser.
Mr. Night later testified that he thought he would end up in the drunk tank for the night. Instead, the cruiser veered south, past the Queen Elizabeth Power Station on the outskirts of town, where the officers let him out.
He managed to walk a kilometre and a half to the power plant in the bitter cold. He banged on a door until a night watchman let him inside to call a cab.
Mr. Night was by most accounts a shy man, and he was initially reluctant to come forward after the incident, thinking nobody would believe him. But within days of his near-death experience, the bodies of two other Indigenous men, Rodney Naistus and Lawrence Wegner, were found in the area around the power plant. Mr. Night decided to talk about what had happened with an officer who had pulled him over for a seatbelt violation.
“He didn’t want to come forward, but his uncle convinced him to say something so it didn’t happen to anyone else in the future,” his brother Merv said.
That officer, Bruce Ehalt, took the complaint directly to Saskatoon Police Chief Dave Scott, who promised an internal investigation, much to the dismay of Indigenous groups, who demanded a wider public inquiry. With community outcry growing, Saskatchewan’s justice minister asked the RCMP to probe the deaths instead.
The starlight tour allegations would result in the defeat of Saskatoon’s mayor, the firing of Mr. Scott and reforms throughout the force.
Constables Munson and Hatchen were convicted of unlawful confinement, sentenced to eight months in prison and fired from the force.
The RCMP probe eventually expanded to include the deaths of five Indigenous men who had died under suspicious circumstances, including Mr. Naistus and Mr. Wegner. The Mounties did not recommend criminal charges in any of the deaths, but did find that one victim, 17-year-old Neil Stonechild, had contact with Saskatoon Police the last day he was seen alive.
A later inquiry called the initial investigation into Mr. Stonechild’s death “superficial and totally inadequate” and concluded the teen had been in the custody of two officers before he died. Both were fired.
Mr. Night’s torment never ended. He suffered from nightmares related to the event, and he feared police throughout his final years, Mr. Worme said.
He fled the ghosts of Saskatoon for Burnaby, B.C., where he found religion and swore off drugs and alcohol.
“He wanted to put the ordeal behind him,” his brother Merv said. “He never wanted the spotlight. He was finally living the good life when he passed. It just shows you we don’t get to make our own life map.”
Mr. Night leaves his mother, son and five siblings.