***In this post, I’m relating a couple of real life events from my time in the army. I’m deliberately keeping some details vague in order to protect identities. If you happen to recognize any of the people involved, please do not mention their names in any comments.***
It was a multi-unit exercise, and I had landed a pretty straightforward job in Enemy Force (these days it’s called OPFOR – Opposing Force). Enemy Force is a pretty sweet gig: Move to location X, set up a defensive position, get attacked and overrun. Repeat. Clean weapons at the end of the day. The only down side was that we were austere for the duration. We’d be living out of a Mod tent and we were limited to our ruck sack and one duffelbag per person. Basically, if you’re not in uniform, you’ll be sitting around in PT gear being bored.
No big deal though, especially when you’re young.
This was the day before we rolled out. We were arriving in ones and twos at the L101 shack in Petawawa and just hanging out, waiting for instructions and room allocations for the night.
Then this one guy shows up and right away we’re staring. He’s got his ruck and duffel, same as us. But all he’s wearing is a tattered undershirt and grey track pants. As he draws closer, we see that he’s wearing old, cheap sneakers without socks, and we realized that he’d walked here from the Greyhound bus stop dressed like that.
He asks if this is the Enemy Force tasking. We tell him yes. He drops his kit next to ours. Then he asks us if he can borrow money to get clothes.
So right away we’re all like ‘WTF?’ followed by some very pointed questions as to whether this guy had travelled by bus across Ontario looking like a bum. The guy was completely unfazed, and seemed to appreciate just how messed up the situation looked. With a huge grin on his face, he explained that while he had all of his issued kit, the only civilian clothes he had were the ones he was wearing, and since pay day was still a week off, he was flat broke.
“Any reason you didn’t bother to pack clothes before you left?” One of the older guys asked.
The smile faltered a bit. “Dad was drinking again. I had to leave the house in a hurry.”
Suddenly things weren’t so funny. Someone asked how he’d managed to pack all his kit if he’d been in such a hurry, and the guy responded that he kept all his issued kit at his unit’s armoury so his siblings wouldn’t sell it for drugs.
At that point the older guy who’s been leading the questioning him changes his tone completely. Making it clear this was not a request, he directed us to pass the hat and dig deep. “Anyone throws in $2 or less is an asshole.”
I recently started reading ‘Starlight Tour: The last, lonely night of Neil Stonechild,’ (Susanne Reber & Robert Renaud) which is a haunting and bleak account of a series killings of young Indigenous men in Saskatoon Saskatchewan. (I’ve briefly mentioned these events before in this blog here.)
For those who don’t know, a starlight tour is a particular form of police brutality where the cops pick up an individual (usually for drunkenness or public nuisance calls), but instead of arresting them, they would drive that person several kilometres out of town and leave them there to walk back. This would usually be done at night, hence the ‘starlight‘ in the name. When something like this happens in the summer it’s bad enough. Since the victims are often intoxicated, walking a long distance is a daunting proposition even on a warm night. But in the winter time it’s potentially murder.
On a brutally cold November night in 1990 Neil Stonechild, a seventeen year old Cree boy was the victim of just such an act. Now Neil was a troubled kid. He’d had a history of drinking and drug use, which had led to a string of petty thefts and B&Es (Breaking & Entry) that had landed him in juvenile detention and later a group home. In fact, that November he was wanted for being absent from said group home. On the night of his death, he and a friend got drunk at a party, and he was later picked up by the police for causing a disturbance while looking for an ex-girlfriend’s apartment. Instead of turning up in the drunk tank or the Saskatoon youth detention centre, his body was found frozen to death near an industrial park on the outskirts of town.
Flash forward to January of 2000 and two other young Indigenous men (Lawrence Wegner & Rodney Naistus) turned up in the same remote area outside of town. Both were last seen by witnesses getting picked up by the police. A third man (Darrell Night) dumped in the same area by the police, just barely survived when he managed to hike over to a power station and convince the night staff to let him in.
Needless to say, this is a fucking horror show of a situation. But what’s especially poignant about the book is that, as much as the authors get deep into the evidence surrounding the actions of the police, a huge part of the book focuses on the lives of the victims prior to their deaths. Who they were, the problems they had, and how they were (or weren’t) coping.
And a lot of these stories sound really familiar.
There’s this stereotype of the type of person who joins the army, that we’re simple but noble idealists and patriots, common clay of the nation moulded into the shape of heroes. Conservatives really seem to love this image. I’m not saying you won’t find people like this in the army, but they’re definitely in a minority. They’re also kind of boring to hang out with.
I mean, to a certain extent we’re all fairly patriotic, but we got a pretty broad cross section of backgrounds otherwise. Some guys follow family traditions, some guys want to do wild and crazy shit, some guys just drift into the army because they had no better ideas. In the Reserve world you also get a lot of students looking for summer jobs with some really hilarious notions of how the army’s supposed to work. On a personal level, I joined up looking for a summer job and my greatest goal was to shoot some cool guns before they kicked me out. Some guys got dark and messed up histories. Hell some guys join specifically to escape their screwed up home life.
Guys with histories of drug abuse? Yup. I know some. Guys wrestling with ongoing drug abuse? Hate to say it, but I’ve seen that too. Guys with histories of petty crime and other misdemeanours? Hell, I’ve had to physically restrain a guy who wanted to commit petty crimes while in uniform.
The incident where Neil Stonechild got busted? Wandering around an apartment building drunkenly looking for an ex? Man, you live in the shacks on any Reg Force and you’re going to be woken up by a drunk wandering the hallways at least once a month. Finding a drunk passed out in the bathroom or on the lawn isn’t unheard of either. There’s a guy I know who actually got shot long before he ever joined the army. I’ve seen his scar.
The four guys described in Starlight Tour? They had their problems. Maybe they were going to irretrievably slide into worse things, maybe they were going to pull themselves together. In Neil’s case, he’d had a brush a much nastier class of criminal in the months before his death, and his mother said he’d started to show signs of wanting to stop drinking. Teachers and counsellors all agreed that the boy had potential if he could just get clean. The night he died, he’d contacted the social worker at his group home to make arrangements to turn himself in. The same was largely true for the rest of the men who’d fallen victim to the police.
I’m not trying to minimize the behaviours some of these guys showed. Like, if you get caught stealing in the army, you’ll be lucky if the worst you get is a beating. But the notion that the natives in Saskatoon were some particularly wretched class of people, that could not be dealt with in any other way but this?
Well…I hate to break it to you…
 Those days, Greyhound stopped in the town of Petawawa, at the parking lot next to the Great Canadian Warehouse, which was down the hill from the front gates of the base. We were assembling at the L101 shacks (Pet’s transient quarters across from Normandy Court) so he would have had a good four to five kilometre hike to get there.
 In Canada, we got $1 and $2 coins, which are really distinct and easy to recognize. So unless you were dropping a whole stack of these things, people would know right away if you were being cheap.
 It’ll be twenty years in May. Best laid plans, etc…
 One time, I even orchestrated it. This guy was hassling a woman at the Mess, and when she ducked out while he was in the washroom, he came to me asking which room she was in. I gave him the correct room number, but pointed him to the shacks where the senior NCOs were staying instead. That night, the jerk got to learn just how angry a Sgt can be when you hammer on his door at two in the morning, calling him a frigid bitch.
 One of the more useful lessons I learned as a young Master-Jack was how to approach a drunk guy who looks passed out. The trick is to lean in from a couple of paces away, so that if he wakes up and starts swinging it’s easier to pull back out of his reach.
 He and a friend had discovered stolen a bunch of guns that had belonged to a couple of the more hardened local criminals. These men then responded by tracking the two boys down and beating them up. These two men (who were brothers and also native) were briefly considered as suspects in Neil’s death by his family.