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What Are Starlight Tours?

First documented in 1976, Starlight Tours are a Canadian police practice that continues until today. Starlight Tours happen in Western Canada, notably in the provinces of Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta. The practice involves law enforcement officers driving Indigenous people to remote locations and leaving them stranded in sub-zero temperatures. These tours begin with police typically profiling and arresting Indigenous people for alleged drunkenness or disorderly behavior. Such judgements, however, are often founded upon stereotypes and are inaccurate in many instances. Victims will often have their clothes and belongings taken by officers, further exposing them to the harsh elements. Despite intentionally leaving victims defenseless in freezing temperatures, the cause of death for someone who does not survive is simply “hypothermia.” No police officers have been charged with murder for carrying out a Starlight Tour.

Starlight tours notably happen in the provinces of Western Canada: Saskatchewan, Manitoba and Alberta (MapCreator).

For decades, the Canadian public has overlooked Starlight Tours. Within Indigenous communities, this practice is all too familiar. Darrell Night, a Saulteaux First Nation member and survivor of a Starlight Tour, best describes the horrifying nature of these tours. He said of the experience, “I thought I was dead. All those rumours I heard in the past, they were all coming true.”

On January 28, 2000, two officers took Night out of town and left him stranded. He was wearing only a light denim jacket in -25 Celsius weather. Night told the officers, “I’ll freeze to death out here,”  to which one officer replied, “That’s your f-ing problem.” Night survived after walking to a nearby power plant and pounding on the door for nearly 30 minutes until a worker heard him. Days after the incident, the frozen bodies of two other Indigenous men – 25-year-old Rodney Naistus and 30-year-old Lawrence Wegner – were found close to where Night was left. 

After the two deaths, Night came forward to report his experience to the authorities. The similarity of the three cases prompted an RCMP internal investigation, which led to a series of inquests. Judicial inquiries into the deaths of four men opened. Those men were Lloyd Dustyhorn, Rodney Naistus, Lawrence Wegner and Neil Stonechild. All four were victims of Starlight Tours, and in all four cases, the jury concluded their deaths were accidental, either caused by hypothermia or unknown circumstances. 

Night, however, did see some justice. The two police officers who took Night – Ken Munson and Dan Hatchen – were suspended without pay, found guilty of unlawful confinement, and ordered to serve an eight-month jail sentence. Unfortunately, they were free after serving only half of their sentences. 

The Province of Saskatchewan created a commission of inquiry into the death of Neil Stonechild, criticizing the Saskatoon Police Service and making eight recommendations for change. They recommended increasing the number of Indigenous police officers, designating an Aboriginal peace officer with the rank of Sergeant, improving race relations and anger management training for officers, and making it easier for the public to file complaints against the police. Nineteen years later, progress remains slow, and Starlight Tours continue happening. 

Starlight Tours Today

According to mainstream news networks, the most recent Starlight Tour incident is that of Jeremiah Skunk of Mishkeegogamang First Nation. In the summer of 2019, an Ontario Provincial Police officer took the young man, left him on the side of a highway and told him not to return. He walked, in intense heat, for 10 to 14 hours to Gull Bay, the closest community to him. In a CBC interview, Skunk recalled that he had to drink water out of puddles on the side of the road to stay hydrated, stating, “I could have died.” As shocking as his account is, Skunk is not the most recent Starlight Tour victim, not by a long shot. 

On April 4, 2023, a video on the social media platform TikTok described the practice of Starlight Tours. In the comments, hundreds of users united to share their stories. Some shared first-hand accounts, and others shared the stories of their loved ones. 

  • User A wrote: “Had a cousin and uncle die from this. On their record, it states [they] drank too much. Both never drank in their life.”
  • User B wrote: “Happened to my brother! Took his shoes and jacket, he walked back to the city and it took almost 3 hours until he got back.”
  • User C said: “Worst is when they take your belt shoelaces [and] warm coats, been stranded outskirts of town myself multiple times … “
  • User D wrote: “They did this to me while I was 8 months pregnant in the rain … I only had a tank top and leggings on, it was freezing, probably walked for 6 hours before I got picked up.” 

There is a reason why these stories are not brought to the forefront. Without media coverage, the public cannot develop an understanding of an issue, its prevalence, or its impact. Since Starlight Tours are underreported, the public can perceive them as isolated, rare incidents. People can underestimate the severity and scope of this practice and remain unaware that they are a systemic issue. 

Additionally, when Starlight Tours go unreported, those responsible escape scrutiny. Media is instrumental in holding individuals and institutions accountable. The Saskatoon Police Service was well aware of this when Addison Herman, a University Student, caught them removing the “Starlight Tours” section from their department’s Wikipedia page multiple times between 2012 and 2013. In 2022 the Saskatchewan Provincial Government chose not to include Starlight Tours in their school curriculum. These actions are not accidental; they are an intentional pattern of erasure and colonial violence. 

Police Brutality in Canada

Colonialism is not a past phenomenon. It is an ongoing process of discrimination, trauma, and unfair treatment. Within the criminal justice system, it manifests as systemic racism. Systemic racism is when an institution’s behaviours, policies, or practices create or perpetuate racial inequalities. It helps explain the persistence of Starlight Tours in Canada. 

Because Starlight Tours targets Indigenous people, they are a form of racial discrimination and police brutality. Police brutality is excessive force used by a police officer. By forcibly taking Indigenous peoples and abandoning them in extreme conditions, officers abuse their power and cause unnecessary harm. But Tours are not limited to the actions of a few “bad apples” like the media may suggest. The system and structures create and uphold those who perpetrate these acts. 

Systemic racism and biases baked into legal institutions are what enable Starlight Tours. Given this, an explicit focus on those systems and structures is pertinent. System-wide change is necessary. Across all levels of government, there needs to be a commitment to addressing structural racism. This commitment means reforming legislation and policy, implementing anti-racism training, funding Indigenous police programs, and re-establishing a genuine relationship with Indigenous communities. The federal government should develop a measure of structural racism to track progress. To ensure transparency, it should make the regularly collected data of the measure public.

What Can You Do?

To help prevent Starlight Tours, a series of steps can be taken. Listen to marginalized voices that too often get silenced. Learn from news networks that amplify Indigenous stories, like APTN News, IndigiNews and Indigenous Network. Sharing information and raising awareness is necessary to help generate public pressure for change. Help out associations that support Indigenous communities like Reconciliation Canada, The Urban Native Youth Association, and The Support Network for Indigenous Women and Women of Colour. If possible, donate to organizations that aid Indigenous people, like Indspire, The Native American Rights Fund, and The Indian Residential School Survivors’ Society.

Edited by Toko Peters

Madalynn Hausch

Madalynn is currently studying political science at the University of British Columbia. Her research interests include gender in politics, sexual and reproductive health rights, Big Tech, and data justice....