A History of Silence

Examining aboriginal deaths in prison.

By now, most Canadians are acutely aware of the disadvantages, suffering and neglect experienced by our country’s indigenous communities. In Dying from Improvement: Inquests and Inquiries into Indigenous Deaths in Custody, Sherene Razack, a professor in the Department of Social Justice Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, has produced an uncomfortable but valuable account of the suffering and deaths of many indigenous people who were arrested, frequently beaten by the police and left in perilous circumstances after being dumped in freezing alleys or country roadsides. Others, desperately ill, died in police cells when they should have been in hospitals.

Razack defines the conflict between what she calls “the white settler society” and Canada’s “Indigenous society”—especially when it comes to the way indigenous people are treated in custody. It makes for painful reading, but she has chosen examples that should be known and understood across Canada.

Nor surprisingly, Razack begins with—and frequently references in later chapters—one of the worst examples of police neglect: the story of Frank Paul, an indigenous man—a Mi’kmaq well known in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. A homeless alcoholic, he had been taken by two Vancouver police officers to the city’s drunk tank on December 5, 1998, but was turned away because he had already been there earlier that evening and had left. The officers decided to leave Frank, whose clothes were soaking wet by this time, in the alley beside the drunk tank. Not long after being dumped in the alley, Paul died of hypothermia. Although there was an inquiry and several reviews of Paul’s treatment by the police, the officers were not charged.

But who was Frank Paul, really? As Razack explains, he had come to Vancouver “from his reserve in New Brunswick as a person already branded from the violence of residential school and the alcoholism and mental illness it has so often produced in its wake.”

Another egregious example cited by Razack is the death of Saskatoon’s Neil Stonechild, a bright and talented 17-year-old indigenous boy with many friends, as well as teachers and social workers who liked him, believed in him and encouraged his talent as an artist. However, he also had a police record for drug and alcohol use. At the time of his death, Stonechild was in Alcoholics Anonymous and living in a group home, but he kept in regular touch with his family and friends. Because of his record the police began searching for him when he did not turn up at the group home; a few days later, on November 25, 1990, two police officers found him, beat him, handcuffed him, took him to the outskirts of the city and dumped him in a field. A friend had seen him in the police car and yelled at the police to stop, but they drove on—with Stonechild screaming at his friend that they were going to kill him. It was well below freezing and his body was not found until November 29. This was not the first time Saskatoon police had taken indigenous men to the outskirts of the city; such events were noted as “skylight tours.” The officers were fired but not prosecuted.

When it comes to the disappearance of women in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Razack does not hold back in insisting that the causes are not just drugs and alcohol.

“Terrible silences remain,” she states. “They are only penetrated at inopportune moments, as jokes, anecdotes, and personal asides, but these moments enable us to trace what has been declared out of bounds: dispossession, sexual and physical abuse in residential schools, disappearing Indigenous people and disappearing Indigenous children, raping, pillaging, and a culture of exploitation.”

A major theme in Razack’s book is the distance between what she calls “the settlers” and “the Indigenous people.” With this, she ties in the way indigenous people in custody are treated by the police. In her seven years of research, she explains, people who were non-indigenous were startled to hear her statistics about indigenous deaths in custody—deaths such as those of Frank Paul and Neil Stonechild.

“Surely there can’t be that many Aboriginal people dying in police custody!” they told her. As one example, Razack notes that between 1971 and 2003, “at least nineteen people in British Columbia were shot by the police or died in custody or died as a result of police action or inaction … Sixty per cent of these deaths occurred in police custody, as opposed to prison, indicating that police/Aboriginal relations are extremely fraught.”

And how do they die? “Police Tasers and guns,” states Razack, as well as “deaths from asphyxiation, and deaths arising from being breached (police transport of individuals from one area to another), for example, Frank Paul.” Native Court Workers and Counselling Association of British Columbia has stated that “there was no systematic compilation of information about Aboriginal deaths in custody … [and that] this in itself is significant, betraying the state’s deep reluctance to examine too closely what happens to Indigenous people in the criminal justice system.”

Razack also cites statistics and comments from Howard Sapers, Canada’s correctional investigator, who said, in his 2009–10 annual report, “that while Aboriginal people comprise less that four per cent of the Canadian population, they account for twenty per cent of the total prison population. Aboriginal women offenders … grew by ninety-seven percent between 2002 and 2012 and constitute the fastest growing segment of the offender population.”

Sherene Razack’s Dying from Improvement is a valuable addition for those of us who write about crime and punishment. It is packed with statistics and useful references, and it is also a grim survey of practices that would shock most Canadians. I only wish it had been available when I was working in British Columbia on my books about the Robert Pickton/missing women case.