For residents of the northern Manitoba community of The Pas, questions about the slaying of Cree teenager Helen Betty Osborne 18 years ago have reopened painful wounds. Last month, the provincial inquiry into how natives fare in the justice system began hearings into the circumstances surrounding the 1971 killing and the 1987 trial of two men charged with murder. Those circumstances include claims that many local residents knew who the killers were, but said nothing because the men were white. Last week, Lee Colgan, 35—one of the four men who were present at the 18-year-old woman’s murder—offered dramatic testimony. Over two days, Colgan admitted that he had lied during the 1987 trial to protect a friend, and he added that the murder would likely not have occurred if Osborne had been white. Colgan told the inquiry that on the fatal evening in 1971, the four men decided to pick up a native girl because they considered her to be “easier” and less likely to complain than a white girl.
Concern over why it took RCMP officers 16 years to lay charges in the Osborne murder helped to spark the provincial inquiry. For the past nine months, Judge Alvin Hamilton of the Court of Queen’s Bench and Chief Judge Murray Sinclair, Manitoba’s first native judge, have
travelled across the province and received more than 800 submissions, many of them describing incidents of alleged racism and discrimination. In June, the inquiry was abruptly halted after an Appeal Court judge in Winnipeg ruled that the commission had no legal standing because the order-in-council that established it was passed only in English. The Manitoba legislature quickly passed legislation in both languages to correct the oversight, and a week later, the commissioners returned to The Pas.
During the current round of testimony, former RCMP officers denied that Osborne’s race had anything to do with the delay in solving the case. But police testimony indicated that the investigation had been flawed. The inquiry was told that police technicians took poor-quality photographs at the murder scene, while officers failed to have the proper identification equipment at the site. In addition, police failed to follow up on the car that was used in the murder—even though they had four of the six figures from the licence plate and had checked the car once, early in the investigation.
Local Sheriff Gerald Wilson also testified last week that the RCMP may have known the suspects involved as early as a few days after Osborne’s death. Wilson—who does not have the authority to make a formal arrest—said
that RCMP officer Keith Duncan visited him within days of the murder and told him the names of the men. A report prepared in 1987 by Chief Provincial Sheriff A. J. Nielsen said that their identities were “widely known in The Pas within a few weeks.” RCMP lawyer Craig Henderson responded that if the men were known, it would have made no sense for the investigation to proceed the way it did. But until Wilson came forward in 1986 with the information, RCMP officers did not have enough evidence to lay charges against Colgan.
For his part, Colgan provided details of the events that led to the gruesome killing. On Nov. 12, 1971, said Colgan, then 17, he borrowed his father’s car, picked up three friends—James Houghton, Dwayne Johnston and Norman Manger—and drove around town, drinking and looking for a native girl. Colgan said that they spotted Osborne on the street, forced her into the car, then drove 35 km north to Clearwater Lake. The next day, a 14-yearold boy who was out fishing found the girl’s nude, mutilated body. Police reported that Osborne had been sexually assaulted and stabbed 56 times with a screwdriver. Her face had also been kicked.
Colgan, who testified during the 1987 trial in exchange for immunity from prosecution, admitted last week that he had lied during the trial to protect Houghton, who was acquitted of first-degree murder charges. “Did you in any way color or shade your evidence in favor of Mr. Houghton?” asked inquiry counsel Randy McNichol. Replied Colgan: “I wanted him to look good. Yes.” Manger, who claimed he was too drunk to remember anything on the night of the killing, was never charged. Only one of the four men, Dwayne Johnston, was found guilty—of second-degree murder—and sentenced to life imprisonment with no chance of parole for 10 years. He is serving his sentence at Saskatchewan’s Prince Albert Penitentiary.
The inquiry also heard testimony that police had harshly treated Indians involved in the case. Osborne’s native boyfriend, 35-year-old Cornelius Bighetty, told the judges that in 1971 officers interrogated him under bright lights and forced him to look at pictures of Osborne’s body. Osborne’s best friend, Analiese Dumas, told the inquiry that she was picked up after the murder by officers who did not identify themselves, driven to a remote area and questioned about the death. “They got very aggressive with me,” she testified. “They started pushing me around. At one point, I ended up on the hood of the car.”
Several residents of The Pas said that few townspeople approved of the way that their community has been portrayed during the inquiry. Still, Oscar Lathlin, chief of The Pas band, said that he hoped that the inquiry would have a positive effect. “There are a lot of people who are angry about what happened,” he said, “and they want to get to the bottom of it once and for all.” Perhaps only then will the wounds that have festered for 18 years finally begin to heal.
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