Winnipeg police claim they’re committed to protecting women and girls, but ‘very little action or urgency’: Fontaine
March 29, 2023 By Dave Baxter, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
Mar. 29, 2023, Winnipeg, Man. – More than 50 years ago, a murder in a small northern Manitoba community made headlines across the province because of how gruesome and how senseless the killing was.
But the murder of Helen Betty Osborne would also gain notoriety for another reason, as many saw and continue to see the killing as an example of the justice system failing Indigenous people, and failing Indigenous women.
Osborne, a Cree woman, was just 19 years old in the early morning hours of Nov. 13, 1971, walking down Third Street in The Pas after spending a night out with friends.
Despite doing nothing more than walking down the street, Osborne’s life would be taken from her at the hands of four white men who, in an act of depravity, kidnapped and murdered her in a brutal fashion.
Dwayne Archie Johnson, James Robert Paul Houghton, Lee Scott Colgan and Norman Bernard Manger, four Caucasian men from The Pas, were all eventually implicated in Osborne’s murder. During the assault, the young woman was brutally beaten and stabbed more than 50 times with a screwdriver. Osborne was also found to have a broken skull and cheekbones from the attack, and both her lungs and one kidney were damaged.
But justice for what happened that morning came agonizingly slow, and many believe it didn’t come at all, as it was not until December 1987 – 16 years after her death – that any of the four men were convicted of a crime.
Only Johnson was ever convicted, as Houghton was acquitted, Colgan received immunity for testifying against Johnson, and Manger was never charged.
Johnson received a life sentence but was released on parole after serving 10 years.
Now more than five decades later, the case is held up by many as one of the biggest examples of how the police and the justice system can discriminate against Indigenous people and women in Manitoba.
The final report from the Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission said racism and sexism had played a “significant” role in both the murder and in the response by police and the criminal justice system in the aftermath of Osborne’s killing.
It was also one of the pillars – along with the 1988 killing of John Joseph (J.J.) Harper – to the Manitoba government launching the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry (AJI), which would “examine the relationship between the Aboriginal peoples of Manitoba and the justice system.”
The AJI’s final report listed a number of recommendations to improve the relationship and the level of trust between Indigenous women and police, and ways that police could work to help keep Indigenous women safe.
Despite that, cases of violence against Indigenous women continue to make headlines, especially in Winnipeg, where last year three Indigenous women, 31-year-old Tessa Perry, 24-year-old Rebecca Contois, and 25-year-old Doris Trout were all murdered in a span of just three weeks during the month of May.
One woman who knows what it’s like to lose someone they love says when her niece first went missing, she had to take matters into her own hands to get the word out because she did not feel the police were taking what she was saying seriously at first.
Sue Caribou is the aunt of Tanya Nepinak, who disappeared off the streets of west Winnipeg on Sept. 13, 2011, and has not been seen or heard from by any of her family or friends since that day, when she said she was going to walk and get pizza from a local restaurant and never returned home.
Nepinak, according to WPS, is now believed to have been killed, but her remains have never been recovered.
Caribou said she and Nepinak’s mom both knew something was wrong the next morning when Nepinak still had not returned to the home where she lived with her mom, but both did not feel the police put much urgency into her disappearance when it was first reported.
“We said ‘that’s not like Tanya,’ we just knew something was wrong, but they told us they had protocols, and that we had to wait a certain amount of time before they opened an investigation,” Caribou said.
Caribou said she called members of local media just hours after Nepinak’s disappearance, because she did not want to wait for the police to start an investigation, and did not want to wait for the case to be made public.
“I called the media myself, and we had the story out in 12 hours,” Caribou said. “They said to wait, but I know that the first 24 hours is the most important hours to investigate when a person goes missing. It was all very, very frustrating.”
But according to the Winnipeg Police Service (WPS) Insp. Marc Philippot, who answered a series of written questions from the Winnipeg Sun, police always puts the same effort and shows the same urgency with every missing persons case that is reported.
“The WPS process around the assessment of reports involving missing women is the same regardless of their ethnicity,” Philippot said.
“Every missing person report is assessed and triaged at a number of stages from the time of reporting to the time they are located, by specially trained members. Each report is evaluated based on a series of factors from risk assessment, to patterns of behaviour, to circumstances surrounding the disappearance.”
Philippot also said that the WPS has been actively working for years to keep women and girls safe in the city, and to prevent them from being exploited, or subject to sex crimes, abuse and violence, and one of the ways they do that is through their Counter Exploitation Unit (CEU).
“The WPS is committed to protecting those most vulnerable within our community from exploitation and violence,” he said. “The Counter Exploitation Unit’s mandate is the enforcement of exploitation-related offences and human trafficking, whether at a street level or online.”
WPS looks to not only protect vulnerable women but also to reach out and build relationships with those who are in high-risk situations on the streets of Winnipeg, according to Philippot.
“The CEU regularly proactively patrols looking to connect with sex-trade workers. This connection may be a check-in to see if they require anything in that moment, and can be as simple as supplying them with a care package,” he said.
“These connections help build relationships between the worker and the members of CEU.”
Philippot added they have had success in getting some off of the streets, and into programs to better their lives, and get out of dangerous and high-risk situations.
“Our investigators have helped facilitate numerous individuals get into treatment facilities and domestic violence shelters, and then make regular follow-up visits within those facilities,” Philippot said.
He said police also understand and work with the knowledge that Indigenous girls make up a large and disproportionate number of those involved in the Child and Family Services (CFS) system in this city, and many who are in care are often left vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
“The CEU and the Missing Persons Unit recognize the risk factors impacting not only Indigenous girls but also females in care,” Philippot said. “This recognition means we work closely with CFS and many other partner agencies with the common goal of protection.”
NDP MLA Nahanni Fontaine, who for years has advocated for the rights and the safety of Indigenous women and girls, says although she has seen changes and improvements at different levels to better protect Indigenous women, she still does not see a justice system and a society that values Indigenous women and girls, and until that changes Indigenous women will continue to fall victim to abuse, violence and murder.
“Most women and girls are not safe in a world that values and upholds systems of patriarchy, and none more so than Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited,” Fontaine said.
“The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) unequivocally stated there is an ongoing genocide against Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited, so one would think there would be more urgency by government to respond. But since its release we’ve seen very little action or urgency.”
And now more than 50 years after the brutal killing of Helen Betty Osborne, Fontaine said not enough has been done to keep Indigenous women and girls safe in this city and province, and not enough has been done to learn lessons from Osborne’s tragic death, and its aftermath.
“The AJI was predicated upon the murder of Helen Betty Osborne, and is one of the blueprints on protecting Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited,” Fontaine said.
“And yet, 50 years after her murder, I would submit the issues of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited are exponentially worse than they have ever been.”
– Winnipeg Sun
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