Twenty years ago this month, four white youths in the town of The Pas, 250 km northwest of Winnipeg, forced an 18-year-old Cree woman into a car and drove to a nearby lake. There, Dwayne Johnston tried to rape Helen Betty Osborne, while his friends, Lee Colgan, James Houghton and Norman Manger, waited in the car. When Osborne resisted, Johnston stabbed her 50 times with a screwdriver, leaving her dead. Although Colgan and Houghton made a vow of silence about the crime, within days Colgan began to divulge details of the murder to several friends and relatives. But as quickly as the young man broke his vow, the people of The Pas made their own unstated compact to keep the boys’ ugly secret—a promise they kept for 16 years. Now, Osborne’s murder— and its effect on the town—is the subject of a
rivetting CBC movie, Conspiracy of Silence.
The two-part, four-hour film was produced by Bernard Zukerman and directed by Francis Mankiewicz, the team that created the acclaimed 1989 CBC movie Love and Hate, about the murder of JoAnn Thatcher by her husband, Saskatchewan cabinet minister Colin Thatcher. Like that earlier film, Conspiracy of Silence is about both murder and the paranoia that can follow a hideous crime.
The movie opens with a deceptively soothing image. The Colgans’ neighborhood is blanketed with snow. Dinner is on the table, hockey is on the TV. But the movie’s calm quickly evaporates when Lee Colgan (Michael Mahonen) heads downtown with three friends. They soon come upon a street fight between whites and natives, steal some wine and go on a joyride. When a drunken Lee laments his inability to find sex, Houghton tells him: “We’ll get you a squaw.” Soon after, the boys come upon Osborne (Michelle St. John) walking down the
street, and drag her, terrified and screaming, into their car.
Conspiracy of Silence devotes only a few minutes to Osborne’s violent ordeal. Instead, screenwriter Suzette Couture, basing her script on the 1990 book of the same title by journalist Lisa Priest, focuses on the disquieting ease with which many in The Pas learn about the circumstances surrounding the murder. The manager of the department store where Colgan works tells the boy, “I’ve had just about enough of your foolishness,” after Colgan confesses to his part in the crime. When the manager mentions the revelation to a group of friends, they appear unconcerned. “Maybe she tried to fight back,” says one woman. Another takes the opportunity to tell a derogatory joke about native people.
But Conspiracy of Silence shows that not everyone in The Pas was completely blinded by bigotry. Two troubled friends of the young men withhold evidence only under threat of violence. Colgan himself is riven with self-loathing. By the time a rookie RCMP officer uncovers enough evidence to take the case to court in 1987 (only Johnston was found guilty, and is eligible for parole in 1996), Lee Colgan is a broken man. And many of those who knew his secret are sickened by their own complicity. Indeed, Conspiracy of Silence offers dramatic evidence, disturbingly rendered, that racism and sexism in The Pas left their ugly marks on many more people than Helen Betty Osborne.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.