The Death of Helen Betty Osborne

The Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission


Chapter 9

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The Nature of Racism
Racism in The Pas in 1971
Aboriginal People and the RCMP
The Legacy of Historical Racism
Other Instances of Racism
Did Racism Cause Delay?
Racism and the Silence



The mandate of the Inquiry directs that we investigate "whether there exists any evidence of racial prejudice with respect to the investigation of the death of Helen Betty Osborne." It has been suggested that the delay in bringing the case to court indicated racism and that the police would have exerted more effort if the deceased had been non-Aboriginal. It also has been suggested that residents of The Pas were in possession of valuable information and kept that information from the police because the victim was Aboriginal. After hearing all the testimony and reviewing the evidence, we have concluded that racism played a significant role in this case, but it did not cause any delay in the investigation of the killing or in the prosecution of those responsible.

The Nature of Racism TOP

Racism is a particularly insidious and vicious form of discrimination because it stems from a mistaken belief in the superiority of one race of people over another. It is discrimination which occurs when people or institutions conduct themselves in a way harmful to others because of their race, or perceived race. Much debate has occurred for many years over the question of whether separate races actually exist. Many geneticists have concluded that there are no races as such, and that much of what passes for race is actually religious, colour or ethnic differences.

That debate really matters very little to the victims of racism. It is often their perceived race which leads to the act of racism. Whether or not there are races, there is racism, and racism is wrong.

Racism exists because of misconceptions and incorrect or unfounded stereotypes. The thrust of anti-discrimination laws is to prevent parties from acting upon those misconceptions and stereotypes, and to require that persons be evaluated and treated on the basis of their characteristics and abilities as human beings.

In our hearings it became apparent that Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people had different perceptions of the prevalence and significance of racism in The Pas generally, and in this case in particular. We have heard different versions of what was going on in The Pas in 1971 both before and after Betty Osborne’s murder. Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people each have their own perspectives about that era and this case. One thing is clear, and that is that neither side is totally correct in its particular view. Somewhere in between the perceptions of both sides of the community lies the truth. TOP


Racism in The Pas in 1971 TOP

It is not surprising that the Aboriginal community blamed the townspeople, the police and the justice system for the 16-year delay in bringing the case to trial and the eventual conviction of only one person. The town has long operated as a white enclave surrounded by Aboriginal people who were tolerated as customers but not welcomed as part of the community. There has been a disturbing lack of employment opportunities in The Pas for Aboriginal people, a lack of their involvement in civic affairs and a general lack of interaction between the two cultures. We believe that stems from and reveals the very real racism (intentional and unintentional) which underlies the attitude of our society generally toward the original people of this country.

There was, generally, an atmosphere of prejudice and bigotry against Aboriginal people prevailing in The Pas at the time of the murder, one which formed a backdrop to all social relations and interaction between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. We were told of several kinds of mistreatment and insensitivity that seem to have been symptomatic of the social malaise:

• Aboriginal people were segregated from non-Aboriginal people in public facilities such as local beverage rooms, restaurants, the local movie theatre and the high school cafeteria.

• Aboriginal people received poorer service in stores and restaurants in The Pas.

• Non-Aboriginal men sexually harassed Aboriginal women, seemingly with impunity. They cruised the streets of The Pas regularly, trying to pick up Aboriginal women and girls for the purpose of having sex with them, a practice apparently well known to and ignored by the RCMP.

• Aboriginal men were chased and assaulted by non-Aboriginal males.

• Gang fights between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal men occurred because of racial hatred.

• Although we heard of instances where sports were played together by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal youth, we are satisfied that Aboriginal youth felt left out of activities involving non-Aboriginal youth in school and in local recreational programs.

• Few close friendships existed between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people in the community, with little if any family visiting occurring between them.

• Many non-Aboriginal residents of The Pas perceived public intoxication in the town as an "Indian problem" when it was really a problem which crossed racial lines.

These discriminatory practices seem to have been accepted by the majority of residents as a matter of course. They were not recognized as discrimination by most. The separation was a well-ingrained and accepted part of life in The Pas. We recognize that perhaps some Aboriginal people did not wish to associate with the general population either, but that, we believe, is not a major contributing factor to the racial problems. TOP


Aboriginal People and the RCMP TOP

There were also poor relations between Aboriginal people and the RCMP in the early 1970s. Many of the problems that arose have their roots in discrimination. Examples include:

• Police visits to the reserve were perceived by members of the band as occurring primarily for the purpose of pursuing an investigation into criminal allegations or to arrest Aboriginal suspects. Little effort apparently was made by the RCMP to establish a positive image or relationship with the leaders or members of The Pas Band.

• Police harassed Aboriginal people, particularly young males, walking the streets of the town.

• Police refused to take seriously the stories of Aboriginal women being sexually harassed by non-Aboriginal men.

• Police failed to investigate rumours of Aboriginal men being thrown into the river from the railroad bridge.

• Police were accused of over-arresting Aboriginal people for intoxication in the town of The Pas.



The Legacy of Historical Racism TOP

The very reason that Betty Osborne was compelled to leave her home and move to The Pas also was rooted in racism. Like so many other Aboriginal young people, she was forced by long-standing government policy to move to a strange and hostile environment to continue her schooling.

The federal government has for over 100 years exercised responsibility for the education of Indian children. Beginning with amendments to the Indian Act in the 1880s, the education of Indian children was a central part of several related government policies: to assimilate Indians into mainstream society, to remove them from their lands, to facilitate their extinction as a distinct people in Canada, to obliterate their cultures and to eradicate their languages. These policies were motivated by the belief that Aboriginal cultures were inferior and should be supplanted by European values. From the 1880s, the federal government actively engaged in a policy of forcing Indian children to move away from their homes to attend school.

By 1971, even the smallest Manitoba communities had long had their own schools. Yet, the federal government still maintained its policy of moving Indian children to larger communities to be educated.

The government made a conscious decision to transport Aboriginal children away from their communities rather than build suitable educational facilities there. This decision was a remnant of the traditional view of the Department of Indian Affairs that Aboriginal communities were neither viable nor desirable, and that any effort that appeared to encourage them to grow and become self-sustaining was to be avoided.

Early on, the government concluded that Aboriginal people would become extinct because the pressure on them to assimilate and give up their "Indianness" was viewed as being overpowering and irresistible. Their demise as a people was considered inevitable. The federal policy was not simply to let it happen, but to make it happen.

Removing Aboriginal children from the influence of their parents and their cultures to "educate" them to the "whiteman’s ways" was an important part of "making it happen." The actions of the government in doing so were clearly racist and discriminatory.

It was bad enough that Indian children were (and still are) required to move away from home simply to get an education. But what made the situation worse was that the services provided to these children were inferior. Social, recreational and professional supports were inadequate, and the government failed to ensure that the children’s living environments were safe and culturally appropriate. As a result of Indian Affairs policies, many lives were scarred by sexual and physical abuse as well as less overt forms of mistreatment and neglect.

The racist attitudes and actions inherent in a century of departmental policy were reflected in Indian Affairs’ treatment of young Aboriginal people in its care in The Pas, both before and after the death of Betty Osborne:

• The Department of Indian Affairs failed to protect their wards from the practices of cruising, assault and abuse. It failed to seek the cooperation of the schools to protect the Aboriginal students.

• The department also failed to address adequately the problems of segregation and harassment facing students attending school in The Pas. Nor did it inform their parents of those problems.

• The department failed to inform the students’ parents of what was for many a traumatic experience: the vicious murder of one of their friends.

• The department failed to protect the legal interests of Indian students under their care from police mistreatment during the course of the investigation. Several young Aboriginal people were subject to intense police questioning without adequate protection of their legal and civil rights. Their parents were not informed.

• The department failed to provide suitable professional counselling for Indian students who were affected by Osborne’s murder and by the manner in which they were questioned by the police.

In our view the failure of Indian Affairs department officials to act borders on negligence. Although such treatment was consistent with a century of government indifference and insensitivity, it was nonetheless racist. TOP


Other Instances of Racism TOP

We have concluded that there were several other instances of conscious racism in various aspects of the Osborne case:

• The murder of Betty Osborne clearly was motivated by racism.

• The manner in which the police pursued their initial investigation by rounding up and questioning only Aboriginal students was motivated, at least in part, by race.

• The RCMP failed to obtain consent from the parents of Aboriginal students they intended to question. Nor did the police inform parents after the students had been questioned. This was discriminatory in light of the courtesies shown to the families of Colgan and Houghton.

• The manner in which people were brought to the morgue to view the victim’s body, and the use of photographs of her, showed lack of respect for the deceased. It would appear that because the victim was Aboriginal, the police believed that no one would object to such treatment. This amounted to racism.

• The RCMP failure to check the Colgan car properly and the police’s deferential treatment of the Colgan family appear to have been based on the Colgans’ race and community status. This was discriminatory.

• The mistreatment of Annaliese Dumas and Cornelius Bighetty was discriminatory. Both were treated as potential suspects, and were subjected to indignities to which none of the non-Aboriginal witnesses or suspects was subjected.

• The refusal to come forward of some of the people who had actual information and evidence about what occurred on the night of November 12, 1971 undoubtedly was motivated in part by the fact that the victim was an Indian woman.

• The systematic removal of potential Aboriginal jurors from the jury panel was motivated by their being Aboriginal persons. The jury selection process permitted racism to be applied.



Did Racism Cause Delay? TOP

It is not difficult to identify individual acts of racism associated with the Osborne case. However, it is more problematic to determine whether other aspects of the RCMP investigation were affected by racism; in particular, whether the delay in bringing the assailants to trial was caused even partially by the Aboriginal status of the victim.

As we have already concluded, certain specific acts that occurred during the course of the investigation happened because of the discriminatory attitudes or prejudices of some of the police officers involved.

However, questions remain about the long delay in bringing charges against the assailants. From the fall of 1972 until 1983, when Constable Urbanoski took over the case, little if any progress was made in building the case against the culprits, whose identity had long been known. Was that delay attributable to the failure of anyone to pursue the case because of the Aboriginal status of Betty Osborne?

It is virtually impossible for us to answer that question with absolute certainty, because we would have to know the motivation and attitudes of every officer who handled the file during that time, and we do not. But from what we know about that period and about prevailing RCMP practices, we are satisfied that the delay itself and the RCMP role in contributing to the delay were not attributable to racism on the part of the force or any individual within the force.

At the time of our hearings into the Osborne matter in 1989, Manitoba had a number of murders which had not been solved officially. These murders involved both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal victims. What is startling is that in many of those cases the police believed that they knew who committed the crime, but were unable to gather the necessary evidence against the suspect to proceed with charges. Officially, therefore, the crime was considered unsolved since no charge could be laid due to lack of sufficient evidence, but, unofficially, the case was solved in one major respect: the police knew who did it. They just couldn’t prove it.

In the period between 1970—72, in addition to the killing of Betty Osborne, six other murders occurred in The Pas area. All were cleared up to the extent that charges were laid. The Osborne murder was the only one which went unsolved. That fact alone, however, does not convince us that the case was treated differently on account of the race of the victim.

By the late summer of 1972, the RCMP were aware that Colgan, Manger, Houghton and Johnston were with Betty Osborne at the time of her death, that all or some of them were directly responsible for the killing, that all of them knew what had happened and that each potentially had evidence that could solve the case. It was obvious from what was known then or shortly thereafter that the four had established a pact of silence among themselves.

It also became obvious during the course of the evidence before us that, at least among three of the suspects, the pact of silence remained strong for many years. Colgan broke ranks when faced with a murder charge but the others have held steadfast to their pact.

There are several aspects of the case which the RCMP should have handled better, and there is no excuse for the discriminatory and insensitive treatment which some Aboriginal people received at the hands of the police. Nevertheless, we are satisfied that any delay caused by the RCMP in bringing the matter to trial was not caused by racism on the part of the RCMP or any member of the RCMP. TOP





Racism and the Silence TOP

Many residents of The Pas in 1971 and thereafter did not like police officers. Former RCMP constable Robert Flake, who is now a lawyer practising in Ontario, testified that there was little cooperation extended to police by the townspeople in any of the cases under police investigation. This resulted in a difficulty in developing informants and led to other impediments to crime-solving. Generally, he stated, residents of The Pas simply did not want to get involved in any police matter and, in his opinion, the Osborne matter was no different. Sadly, this attitude is not unique.

Only a handful of people in The Pas had any direct knowledge that could be used as evidence against any of the suspects. From the evidence before us, we are convinced that only those close to the four abductors–friends and family–had any knowledge that could be considered admissible against them in a court of law.

A number of people undoubtedly would have heard second-hand stories about what the suspects said to others, but such evidence would have been hearsay and as such inadmissible as evidence in court. Other than those people, however, the vast majority of the general population would have heard no more than gossip and rumour–nothing even remotely approaching what could be called evidence usable in a court of law.

We are satisfied, however, that many people knew that the police had reached the conclusion that Manger, Houghton, Colgan and Johnston were the culprits. To any inquisitive person, at least if he or she were non-Aboriginal, the identities of those whom the police believed did the murder was so widely known after the fall of 1972 that it was simply a matter of asking a few people around town if one wanted to find out. Many people in town knew that the police "knew" who did it, and townspeople knew the names of the suspects–but beyond that they knew little else.

The people who had actual and real knowledge admissible against the accused failed to come forward with that evidence to the RCMP for a variety of reasons, not all of which were racist. Some, for example, clearly feared for their lives or safety. Some also simply did not want to get involved.

The attitude prevailing in the community of The Pas at the time, concerning Aboriginal people, causes us to conclude that racism was the motive for many to remain silent, particularly those who regularly associated with the suspects.

For example, of all the people at the party where Dwayne Johnston referred to the killing, only one person came forward. The others remained silent or refused to give information to the police.

We believe that for some people who have direct and admissible evidence, the Aboriginal status of Betty Osborne was and still is a factor in their silence. Such people are unwilling or unprepared to come forward to assist in solving the murder of any Indian woman. It is with great regret that we report that we are unable to state, with certainty, exactly who they are.

We are left with one last curious issue: Why was there no outcry from the general population to bring the four to justice? Was that failure racially motivated? Again, with few exceptions, we are unable to answer with absolute certainty. But we are able to reach some conclusions about that. The fact that people in The Pas did not cooperate actively with police generally, helps to explain why people were not clamouring for the arrest of the suspects. It is also quite possible that the lack of a public outcry stemmed from a general unwillingness to "get involved."

It may be that Betty Osborne’s status as an outsider contributed to that silence. Chief Oscar Lathlin felt as much. In this regard, we note that the Aboriginal community of The Pas was just as silent as the non-Aboriginal community in demanding a resolution to the case.

It is possible that, as Rebecca Ross suggested, Betty Osborne’s gender played a role in that silence. Because of the northern, brawling, almost frontier-like atmosphere which prevailed in The Pas at the time, we have no difficulty in concluding that it probably did. Silence that was motivated by the fact that Betty Osborne was a woman is as insidious as any silence motivated by racism.

It is our opinion that the separation of the two communities in The Pas had a negative effect on the investigation. We think that the separation fed a lack of concern for the Aboriginal peoples on the part of the non-Aboriginal community. In this uncaring atmosphere, some of those who heard the rumours, and perhaps the confessions, simply were able to ignore Osborne’s suffering and forget what they had heard.

A most telling and honest comment was that of Sheriff Gerald Wilson’s, when asked if he would have gone to the police earlier with the information Colgan gave him, if the victim had been the daughter of a neighbour. He said he probably would.

To the people of The Pas, Osborne was not the girl next door; she was Aboriginal in a white town. Even though she had lived in The Pas for two years by the time she was murdered, she was a stranger to the community, a person almost without identity. She was unknown to those who heard the rumours. Because of the racial separation of The Pas, those who cared about Betty Osborne, her Aboriginal friends, were not privy to the rumours about those who took her life. TOP

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