Helen Betty Osborne – The Daughter and Her Memory

Helen Betty Osborne was born in Norway House, a Cree community at the northern end of Lake Winnipeg in the province of Manitoba. In 1969, at the age of 17, she left her community to pursue her education, with the dream of becoming a teacher and helping her people.

At the time, Indigenous children who wanted to graduate from high school had no choice but to leave their communities. The federal government, pursuing a policy of cultural assimilation — and having decided that Indigenous communities offered no future for young people — wanted Indigenous children to get their education in predominantly non-Indigenous towns and cities. In Norway House, the local school only provided the first eight of the twelve grades of public school.

For two years, Helen Betty Osborne attended the Guy Hill Residential School outside The Pas. Then in 1971 she moved into The Pas to attend high school.

A provincial justice commission, which would later examine the circumstances surrounding the murder of Helen Betty Osborne, described The Pas, a town of about 6000 people in 1971, as being sharply divided between Indigenous and non-Indigenous residents. “At the movie theatre, each group sat on its own side; in at least one of the bars, Indians were not allowed to sit in certain areas; and in the school lunch-room, the two groups, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, ate apart.”

According to the Manitoba Justice Inquiry, tensions between the two communities often turned violent, with police failing to intervene. There was also a pattern of sexual harassment of Indigenous women and girls. Police officers who testified before the Inquiry described “white youths cruising the town, attempting to pick up Aboriginal girls for drinking parties and for sex.” The Inquiry found that the RCMP failed to check on the girls’ safety. The Department of Indian Affairs also ignored the practice, failing to work with the schools to warn Indigenous students of the dangers.

On Friday, November 12, 1971, Helen Betty Osborne went out with a number of friends to a dance. At around 2 am, as she was walking back to house where she was billeted, she was accosted by four non-Indigenous men.

According to the testimony of one of the men, the four had decided to pick up an Indigenous woman for sex. When Osborne refused, they forced her into their car. In the car, she was beaten and sexually assaulted. She was then taken to a cabin owned by one of the men where she was beaten and stabbed to death. According to the autopsy report, she was severely beaten around the head and stabbed at least 50 times, possibly with a screwdriver.

Twenty years later, the Manitoba Justice Inquiry concluded that the murder of Helen Betty Osborne had been fuelled by racism and sexism:

Women in our society live under a constant threat of violence. The death of Helen Betty Osborne was a brutal expression of that violence. She fell victim to vicious stereotypes born of ignorance and aggression when she was picked up by four drunken men looking for sex.

The Inquiry also pointed out that the life of Helen Betty Osborne might have been saved if police had taken action on a pattern of threats to Indigenous women’s safety that was already evident in 1971:

We know that cruising for sex was a common practice in The Pas in 1971. We know too that young Aboriginal women, often underage, were the usual objects of the practice. And we know that the RCMP did not feel that the practice necessitated any particular vigilance on its part.

According to the Justice Inquiry, racism also marred the initial RCMP investigation. Helen Betty Osborne’s Indigenous friends were initially treated as suspects. Teenagers were interviewed without the consent or knowledge of their parents. One of Helen Betty Osborne’s friends was taken out into the bush to be interrogated. When she hesitated in answering a question, police threw her over the hood of their car. They later took her to the morgue to see her friend’s mutilated body. In contrast, police initially failed to act on a tip naming the four non-Indigenous men responsible who took part in the abduction. The men’s car was not searched until at least a year later and the Justice Inquiry noted that the car’s owner was treated with extreme deference. Although police were eventually convinced that these four non-Indigenous men were responsible for the murder, unlike the Indigenous youths, they were not brought in for questioning.

By the end of 1972, the police concluded that they did not have enough evidence to go to trial. The case then lapsed for more than ten years until an officer placed an ad in the local paper asking for information on the case. This ad resulted in the discovery of new evidence on the basis of which the first charges were laid in October 1986. After these charges were laid, media coverage resulted in new information coming forward. Finally the first of the men charged agreed to testify in return for immunity from prosecution.

In December 1987, one of the four men, Dwayne Johnston, was sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Helen Betty Osborne. A second man was acquitted, while the other two men who were present during the abduction and murder were never charged.

The Justice Inquiry determined that the most important factor obstructing justice in this case was failure of members of the non-Indigenous community to bring forward evidence that would have assisted the investigation. The Inquiry concluded that the community’s silence was at least partly motivated by racism. The question remains, however, why the police waited more than 10 years to publicly seek the assistance of the community.

Dwayne Johnston has been released from prison on parole. The family of Helen Betty Osborne has brought him into a traditional healing circle so that he can better understand the crime he committed. The family has since become convinced that Johnston, although responsible for a terrible crime, was not the principle instigator of the attack on Helen Betty Osborne.

The Manitoba Justice Inquiry put forward an extensive list of reforms to be undertaken to ensure that the justice system would provide Indigenous people the protection they needed and not contribute to further victimization. The recommendations were wide-ranging and required action from all levels of government. Recommendations included recognizing Indigenous peoples’ right to self-government, establishing Indigenous legal systems, addressing outstanding land and resource disputes, recruiting more Indigenous police officers, ensuring independent procedures for investigation and resolution of complaints against police, establishing a special investigations unit to take control of the investigation of possible incidents of serious police misconduct, and increasing services to women escaping situations of violence. Amnesty International is of the view that adopting these recommendations in a manner consistent with international human rights standards would provide Indigenous women with greater protection from violence.

In a book published ten years after the Inquiry made its final report, one of the former Commissioners complained that the federal government had not undertaken any of the recommended reforms within its jurisdiction while the provincial government was still at the stage of studying which recommendations to implement.

The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry made over 150 recommendations. Almost none of them have been acted upon. There is either the inability to understand the need for improvements or the same century-long governmental inertia. The result is clear; Aboriginal people continue to suffer at the hands of an inappropriate justice system.

In 1999, the provincial government convened the Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission to examine the status of the Inquiry’s recommendations. That Commission made a further set of recommendations to the provincial government.

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