The Death of Helen Betty Osborne
The Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission
Betty Osborne TOP
Helen Betty Osborne was the eldest of the 12 children born to Justine and Joe Osborne at Norway House, a remote Cree community at the northern end of Lake Winnipeg. When she was growing up, Norway House had limited educational opportunities. The local Roman Catholic school did not teach beyond grade eight.
Because Betty Osborne wanted to become a teacher, she had to continue her education elsewhere. So in 1969, at the age of 17, she left her community and went to a residential school for Aboriginal youth. This institution, the Guy Hill Residential School, was situated at Clearwater Lake, 29 kilometres from the town of The Pas. Guy Hill was run by the Roman Catholic Church and, although all its students were Aboriginal, none of its teachers was. It was one of the objectives of this school to assimilate Aboriginal students into white society. We were told, for example, that students were punished for speaking their Aboriginal languages in the school. In this difficult environment new bonds of friendship were formed among the students, who had one thing in common: they were all away from their home communities.
After two years of living at Guy Hill, Osborne moved into The Pas to attend high school at Margaret Barbour Collegiate. In September 1971 the Department of Indian Affairs arranged room and board for her with William and Patricia Benson in their home on Lathlin Avenue. Benson, a Metis, worked at the Churchill Forest Industries complex as a production foreman and was responsible for training sawmill employees. The couple apparently showed real concern about Osbornes welfare.
Betty Osborne was a shy young woman, who had several very close friends, including a boyfriend, Cornelius Bighetty. We got the impression she was quiet and serious. One of her friends, Eva Simpson, told us she was "a very kind person" and "a good friend." She was also lonely for home. Simpson said:
(S)he was hard working in school and she liked to have a good laugh I guess, and we tried to cover up our feelings because we were lonesome to go home and yet we knew we had no way to survive if we were in Norway House so we kind of hung around together....
(W)e were very lonesome. (p. 2927)
Like other students from Guy Hill, Osborne did not appear to have had any close white friends, but may have gained some white acquaintances through activities at school. Her relationship with the white community of The Pas was distant and typical of that of most Aboriginal people, even those who had spent all their lives there. TOP
The Pas TOP
Long before the coming of Europeans, the area around The Pas was a gathering place for Aboriginal people. There has been continuous habitation in the area for at least 5,000 years. Its name reflects its Aboriginal history as well as its geography. The origin of The Pas is thought to be from the Cree word Wpasskwayaw, which translates as "like a wooded narrows."
Being at the confluence of the Saskatchewan, Pasquia and Carrot rivers made The Pas a natural centre for trade. The first European to visit the area was Henry Kelsey, an employee of the Hudsons Bay Company who camped there in 1690. In 1749, La Verendrye and his sons visited the area and built a fort which they named Fort Paskoyac. The Pas became a major trading post, and remained so throughout the heyday of the fur trade.
The Indian bands around The Pas signed an adhesion to Treaty 5 in 1876. In 1882 their reserve was surveyed and set aside. The Pas Band claims to this day that it has not received its full entitlement of reserve land owed by the government under the treaty. In 1906, when the railway was being extended to The Pas, the band surrendered 500 acres which now make up a major part of the town site. The land was to be divided into lots for sale to those who would settle in the area. Controversy still surrounds the sale of those lots. Not all have been sold. The band maintains that the department improperly handled the sales and the proceeds.
Today The Pas Indian Reserve consists of 17 parcels of land in and around the town site. The band has nearly 2,000 members, most of whom live on the reserve close to town. Other parts of the reserve land are completely isolated. The abundance of fish and game in the area surrounding the reserve allows some band members to continue to pursue their traditional activities of hunting, fishing and trapping. The band also owns a shopping mall and a trailer park.
The population of the town of The Pas is now slightly more than 6,000. It is a thriving industrial and tourist centre. There is a substantial mixed-farming economy in the area, the first grain having been sowed in 1754. Logging began in 1910 and in the early 1970s, a major government-sponsored pulp and sawmill complex, now owned by Repap Inc., was built. The railway arrived at the community in 1908 and the line to Churchill was completed in 1928. In the 1950s a line was built to the mines at Lynn Lake.
The Saskatchewan River separates the town of The Pas from the main part of The Pas Indian Reserve. But the division of the community was more than geographical in 1971. The Pas was divided into two parts: one white, and one Aboriginal. Few Aboriginal persons were employed in town. It remained largely non-Aboriginal. It is easy to conclude that the town of The Pas deliberately had excluded Aboriginal people from its midst, yet it depended on them as customers and consumers. While there was some superficial communication, the communities might as well have been worlds apart. Neither community encroached far into the life of the other or felt welcome in it. There appear to have been few who visited in the homes of the other community. Apparently, part of this estrangement was due to the general difference in economic status. It was also due to the fact that the lifestyles and interests of each were basically different. Members of each community were clearly identifiable to the other and skin colour immediately seemed to raise stereotypical feelings of fear, suspicion and dislike. These attitudes existed in both communities in 1971 and to a large extent still exist today.
The testimony we heard suggests that this town to which Betty Osborne moved to pursue her education was a troubled one. 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.
Even in the homes where Aboriginal students boarded there was separation. Annaliese Dumas, a friend of Osbornes who testified at the Inquiry, told us of her experiences. The students had no input into where they would stay. Although the intent in placing these children in community homes was to give them a home environment, we believe that Dumas and others were treated like boarders and not like family members. Dumas usually was restricted to the use of the kitchen and her bedroom. "It was a rule for us, I guess, not to be anywhere other than our bedroom and the kitchen," she said. She was not allowed to watch television and, when the people with whom she boarded had children, she always was treated differently from those children.
If one defines racism as behaviour which is determined by considerations based upon race, then this separateness should be considered an expression of racism. Sometimes this racism is not overt but is, rather, ingrained in the subconscious or in the patterns of behaviour of the community, beyond the awareness of those who practise it.
It appears the men who policed The Pas in those days were subject to this form of unconscious racism. During the earlier part of our hearings in The Pas, the majority of the witnesses who were or had been members of the RCMP in 1971 denied any knowledge of racial tension or problems between the Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal communities. It was former Sgt. Larry Grosenick, the officer in charge of the investigation from the time of the murder until he left The Pas in August 1973, who gave us the first glimpse of another picture of life in The Pas. He told us that while interracial violence wasnt common, when it did occur it was usually a case of an assault by a white man on an Aboriginal man. This suggests that race was a factor in the violence that appears to have been so much a part of The Pas.
Grosenick also made it clear that while relations between members of the two communities generally were civil, this civility was only superficial. People might chat or exchange pleasantries, but when it came to a closer social interaction it was apparent that the two communities were far apart.
Furthermore, racial harmony in The Pas in 1971 obviously was not aided by the RCMP. Although 98% of the people in the rural detachment area were Aboriginal, and although the non-Aboriginal members of the rural detachment regularly visited the reserve communities, they were too busy to socialize or to get to know and understand those living in the Aboriginal communities.
There can be no question that the RCMP discriminated when dealing with Aboriginal people in The Pas in 1971. We heard of Aboriginal young peoples being stopped by the police for no apparent reason. At times Aboriginal students were stopped when walking on the street and required to account for their actions. The same inquiries were not made of white students. This discriminatory conduct was probably so inbred that the officers did not notice that their conduct displayed prejudice and discrimination.
Citizens have the right to walk the streets without being stopped by the police because of their race or colour. It is discriminatory to stop and question an Aboriginal youth who is walking down the street, but not stop a white youth in the same situation. This differential treatment demonstrates that the RCMP allowed their behaviour to be influenced by racial stereotyping.
Grosenick testified that he and other officers had heard stories about white men throwing Aboriginal men off the bridge into the Saskatchewan River. Since no one ever complained to the RCMP, he said the stories were never investigated.
A number of officers told us they were aware of white youths cruising the town, attempting to pick up Aboriginal girls for drinking parties and for sex. It was not the RCMPs practice to stop the cars to see if the girls were of age or if they were going willingly. Grosenick did not speak to anyone in the white community about the "cruising," nor did he attempt to issue any warnings to Aboriginal students, parents or others. He told us he felt there was nothing he could do because he assumed that the girls involved were of age and were willing participants. We know from the testimony of a number of witnesses that this was a mistaken assumption. One witness told us she drank in bars in The Pas when she was only 14. Several others also spoke of drinking in hotels while underage. Even if Grosenick were right, the RCMP should have discussed the matter with the families of the girls or with the people with whom they were staying. They should also have discussed these matters with the band chiefs and councils, and the Department of Indian Affairs.
We believe that the failure to investigate these allegations cannot be justified. Police should not simply investigate crime, they should prevent it. That the allegations were not investigated lends credence to suggestions that the RCMP were less than diligent when Aboriginal interests were involved.
The evidence indicates that, in the early 1970s at least, the RCMP failed to act to protect the Aboriginal community when it should have. The racism these examples illustrate is not the active or violent racism which has led to race riots in some communities. It is, rather, a passive racism or lack of concern based on ignorance and a lack of understanding of the other community. It results not in active expressions of racist invective but in a failure to act when all indications suggest that action is required.
It was into this town that Betty Osborne was forced to move in order to pursue her dream of becoming a teacher and of helping her people. Those dreams were shattered on a cold morning in November 1971. TOP
The Suspects TOP
The four men who were with Betty Osborne when she was killed came from diverse backgrounds. Lee Colgan was an 18-year-old student at Margaret Barbour Collegiate who worked part time at a local clothing store. He lived at home with his parents. His father managed the government liquor store and his mother was a music teacher. They were respected members of the community. An RCMP officer who knew Lee Colgan said of him:
On the surface Colgan appears to be a quiet, polite young adult. However, I found him always to be calculating as if he was concerned just what he could get away with....
When he is drinking Lees bad side begins to show. He will do almost anything that comes to his head as a good idea at the time after which he always appears to be sorry for his actions. (Exhibit 17)
Across the street from the Colgans was the home of salesman Frank Houghton and his family. In November 1971 James Houghton was 23 years old and lived at home while attending technical school. The Houghtons and the Colgans both had cottages at Clearwater Lake and Houghton had baby-sat Colgan as a child. Despite the difference in their ages they were friends.
Another friend of Houghtons was Norman Manger who, at 25, was the oldest of the four. Mangers mother was an Aboriginal woman who died when he was two years old. The boy didnt see much of his father when he was growing up. After completing grade 12, Manger worked at a succession of jobs in northern Manitoba and in Winnipeg. But by 1971 he had not been working for a year or so and had been drinking heavily. He didnt have a permanent home and by his own admission had "turned into a bum."
Like Lee Colgan, Dwayne Johnston was 18 in 1971. He had dropped out of high school to work for the CNR. He was also a member of a motorcycle gang which had frequent scrapes with the police. His parents had separated and he boarded with a local family. Johnston apparently had virulent views on Aboriginal people. We heard testimony, for example, that he frequently made racist comments to ridicule Aboriginal students in his school classes. Colgan said of Johnston, "Ive never seen anybody hate native people so much in my life."
These were the four men whom Betty Osborne was to encounter early in the morning of November 13, 1971. TOP
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