Niece drives 18 hours on winter road to share her aunt's story at MMIWG national inquiry

Bernice Thorassie drove the nearly 400 kilometre winter road from her home community of Tadoule Lake to Thompson, Man., to share the details of her aunt's brutal death with the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Bernice Thorassie shared her story privately with a statement taker on Tuesday

Bernice Thorassie shared Ila Oman's story privately with a statement taker on Tuesday. 2:39

For 18 hours, Bernice Thorassie thought of little other than her auntie, Ila Oman.

Thorassie drove the nearly 400 kilometre winter road from her home community of Tadoule Lake to Thompson, Man., to share the details of her aunt's brutal death with the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The inquiry is hearing testimony in the city 650 km north of Winnipeg on Tuesday and Wednesday.

"I know my auntie wants me to share it. She wants everybody to know that what they did to her wasn't right," Thorassie told CBC News.

Thorassie was an orphan and spent a lot of time with her aunties Hazel and Ila while growing up in Dene Village.

"It was the happiest time of my life because somebody cared for me, somebody loved me, other than just my grandmother," she said. 

But then when she was nine years old, Oman stopped coming. Thorassie said she knew her auntie died, but she didn't know she suffered a brutal death.

Bernice Thorassie drove 18 hours on the winter road from Tadoule Lake to Thompson to testify at the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. (Lyzaville Sale/ CBC)
Thorassie shared Oman's story privately with a statement taker on Tuesday. The two-day Thompson hearing only had time for eight family members or survivors to testify publicly.

​"As I got older, I started thinking more about her," she said about Oman, whom she remembers wearing bright red lipstick. "Her spirit was coming to me and it just wouldn't stop — just come in my dreams, or I see a woman … with red lips and I think of Ila, right away."

Oman died after she was beaten and raped in Dene Village outside Churchill in 1971. Dene Village was a makeshift home to the Sayisi Dene after they were forcibly relocated from their traditional territory and lifestyle in 1956 and left outside Churchill, where they built shacks with items scrounged from the dump and struggled to survive.

Oman's death remains unsolved, although there are rumours about what happened and who was involved. 

Thorassie said some of the people rumoured to have been involved in her aunt's death still live in the community.

"How can you be so normal after what you did, is what I think to myself," she said about one of the people she believes was involved. "How could you portray yourself an innocent person all of these years?"

Those believed to be responsible are Dene people, she said.
In 1971, Ila Oman, a 43-year-old Sayisi Dene wife and stepmother, was raped and fatally beaten in Dene Village, in northern Manitoba. (Submitted)

'It's everywhere'

Violence is a sad reality in many Indigenous communities, Audette said.

"It's everywhere, regardless where we live."

But the stories from northern areas of Canada are different from those in the south, Audette said. Last week's hearing in Montreal included many different stories than those from a previous hearing in Northern Quebec, she said.

"I want to make sure that we also hear from families who live in the territories who face different realities than those in the south," she said.

Audette was also at the Winnipeg hearing in October and anticipates the north to south differences will be similar to the differences in Quebec.

One difference that stood out was a lack of response from institutions or services such as the police and the justice system.

When the relationship between the family and police is good, the family doesn't have to deal with extra stress associated with a lack of information about the standing of a case, she said.

"The stress of the family when they are expecting answer on where is my daughter or my mom … it's not in the testimony," she said. "It's something else, it's more how to support the family when they go through that trauma."

However, a good relationship between MMIWG families and police seems to be rare, she said.

The inquiry will hold an institutional hearing on policing following the final community hearing, which is scheduled to happen in Vancouver next month.

The national inquiry, launched in September 2016, is looking at underlying causes of violence against Indigenous women and girls, including systemic issues, and will make recommendations to end the problem.

Bernice Thorassie shares the details of her aunt, Ila Oman's brutal death with the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. Oman's death remains unsolved, although there are rumours about what happened and who was involved. 1:53

Corrections

  • Dene Village was outside Churchill, Man., not outside Thompson, as originally reported due to an editor's error.
    Mar 21, 2018 10:10 AM CT

About the Author

Jillian Taylor

CBC Reporter

Jillian Taylor has been with CBC Manitoba since 2012 and has been reporting for a decade. She was born and raised in Manitoba and is a member of the Fisher River Cree Nation. In 2014, she was awarded the Commonwealth Broadcasting Association's travel bursary, which took her to Australia to work with Indigenous journalists. Find her on Twitter: @JillianLTaylor