Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
In a territory of wide-open sky, the earth is dark. A police cruiser sits ominously still on the side of the road. For Indigenous people, this image, titled “Starlight Tours”, brings a wave of emotions over them, and a certain knowingness.
That’s the feeling Anishinaabe artist Mike Alexander hopes to capture by telling the full truth of Indigenous history with police.
A starlight tour is a practice of the Saskatoon Police Service in which Indigenous men were picked up in the city and driven to the outskirts to be dropped off. It had deadly consequences for Neil Stonechild (Saulteaux), who in 1990 died after being abandoned in a field by police on a winter’s night when he was 17 years old. He was left partially clothed, wearing only one shoe, when temperatures dipped to minus-28 degrees.
Stonechild was last seen by a friend handcuffed in the back of a police cruiser "gushing blood" from a cut on his face, and Stonechild’s last words to the friend were "Jay, help me. They're going to kill me."
Stonechild was one of many Indigenous men who fell victim to freezing deaths resulting from the starlight tour police practice.
Alexander is originally from Swan Lake First Nation in Treaty 1 territory. He grew up in Winnipeg.
“I grew up in the city away from the things that were ultimately the most important to me, which is that connection and bonding with family,” he said.
A few years ago, he learned he was part of the Sixties Scoop, a child welfare practice supported by Canadian policy that allowed authorities to remove Indigenous children from their families and place them in foster homes to be adopted by white families.
Alexander has been working to reconnect with family. His mother was Diane Weseen of Swan Lake First Nation, and his father was Norman Courchene of Sagkeeng First Nation.
“It's probably one of the more important things on my sort of healing journey that I've been able to accomplish.”
The “StarLight Tours” painting was just completed at the start of June, Indigenous History month, and Alexander said “I do think that there's plenty of Canadians that don't know what a starlight tour is, and that becomes a gift that I get to share with them,” he said.
Now living in Vancouver, Alexander has been a practicing artist for the past six years, working in acrylics. He’s an artist in residence at Skwachàys Lodge, where he enjoys living among a creative group of Indigenous artists.
“My real calling in life is to create,” Alexander said. As a boy, he was always the one doodling during class, writing and drawing. When he was older, music was his creative tool in death metal bands. In the mid-1990’s he was in his mid-twenties and hanging out at the Aboriginal Centre in Winnipeg.
“I was part of the Native Youth Movement. Wab Kinew was one of us, and it was a very educational time for me in the mid-nineties.” Kinew is currently serving as the NDP Opposition leader in the Manitoba legislature and is being touted in political circles of having a very good chance of becoming premier in the next provincial election.
Alexander had already been aware of and interested in social issues, “so to be able to kind of place myself with a group of people that were really concerned about Indigenous rights was really critical for me at the time.”
That was when he learned about the starlight tours.
“If you ever wanted to get away with something as a cop, that's a great idea. You know you're never going to get caught. You're never going to be held to account for that.”
Though never criminally charged in Stonechild’s death, Constables Brad Senger and Larry Hartwig did lose their jobs after an inquiry.
“The insidious part is that it happened—or happens, under the table I feel like in a lot of cases it's really hard to prove,” said Alexander.
He contrasts the starlight tours practice with a shooting. “With a shooting, there is a legal mechanism that comes into play.”
“And even if [a starlight tour] can be proven, it then becomes ‘well, does anyone believe that it happened?’ And then on top of that, ‘does anyone care’?”
Because of “the attitudes towards us Indigenous men, there's so many forces working against the person who's a victim of that type of police brutality,” Alexander said.
“I think it shapes a lot of people's view of the police, that they can't be trusted. They're not there for us. They're not there to protect us.”
A land of open skies
During a visit home to Winnipeg, after living in Vancouver, a place surrounded by mountains, he was struck by the contrast of vast horizons and open skies.
“I wanted to try to capture what life is like back home. If we're talking about land, then I want to talk about the land that I know, where Anishinaabe people have been for time immemorial.”
The sweeping sense of space became a main element of the “Starlight Tours” painting.
“I thought that if I could turn it into something that was really stormy and dark and foreboding of an atmosphere, that would really help tell the story of what is actually happening in the painting.”
Finishing the painting at the beginning of Indigenous History Month wasn’t intentional timing, but a good coincidence, said Alexander. “In a creative lens, every painting I've ever done has spoken to Indigenous history.”
It’s a dark theme and history, and it is a dark painting. Darkness is something Alexander is familiar with.
“I have lived in darkness. It’s a lonely, sad, angry and sometimes beautiful place to be, and I'm lucky that it didn't take me.”
Alexander said he feels fortunate to have come out of that darkness, “and able to articulate that darkness, but in a way that hopefully comes across as beautiful.”
He hopes to articulate “some of the nuances” of how “people come out of cultural genocide in a good way, and how is that possible?”
Alexander said many of the stories shared are the positive and uplifting ones, and “sometimes the stories are an awful lot darker, and I think those are overlooked sometimes, because people don't want to live in that darkness.”
If that makes Alexander the person to tell darker stories of what it is to be Indigenous in this country, he is ok with that. While his other, more traditional Ojibwe Woodland style paintings are at Science World, the Skwachàys Gallery, and upcoming this fall at the Bill Reid Gallery, he’s not certain where these paintings of darker truths would be shown.
“Honestly, I don't know what to do with them, other than to just make them and hopefully they will get to be seen by a lot of people.”
Art as medicine
Alexander feels his art making is “110 per cent spiritual,” he said.
“For me, it's a way of connecting with my ancestors. You know, when I paint, I believe that my parents are with me.”
Daphne Odjig is a strong influence for Alexander, and most of his paintings are in the Woodland style.
“Odjig left those paintings for me to discover. That means those paintings are medicine,” he said.
They were painted with the next generation in mind, and “those are gifts talked about in our stories and our ways. I think that they really touch on the psyche in such a positive and important way.”
“I have a sense of loss that gets dealt with and resolved through painting. To me that seems like a fundamentally spiritual activity, a way to connect with people who I will never see again in this life.”
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Local Journalism Initiative Reporters are supported by a financial contribution made by the Government of Canada.