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1991: No justice for aboriginal people, say judges

The Story


After three years and a thousand witnesses, two judges have filed their report on Manitoba's Aboriginal Justice Inquiry (AJI). The provincial inquiry has staggering implications for the legal system across Canada, suggesting that aboriginal Canadians must have their own police forces and courts if they're to have any chance of fair treatment. As this CBC News story explains, the inquiry was inspired by the deaths of two aboriginal Manitobans. Helen Betty Osborne, a Cree teenager, was raped and stabbed to death by four white men in 1971. But a conspiracy of silence in the town where it happened meant it took 16 years to bring anyone to justice. Native leader J.J. Harper was mistaken for a car thief on a Winnipeg street and shot dead by a police officer's revolver. In both cases, says the AJI report, race played a role in the way they died and how their deaths were investigated.

Medium: Television
Program: The National
Broadcast Date: Aug. 29, 1991
Guests: Kim Campbell, Phil Fontaine, Jim McCrae, Harry Wood
Host: Peter Mansbridge
Reporter: Saša Petricic
Duration: 4:49

Did You know?


• The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry was led by two judges, Chief Justice Alvin Hamilton and Judge Murray Sinclair. Beginning in the fall of 1988, the pair travelled the province to hear from aboriginal witnesses about their treatment by the justice system.

• Sinclair was Manitoba's first aboriginal judge. Hamilton was associate chief justice of the province's family court.

• The impetus for the inquiry came in the wake of the March 1988 death of John Joseph (J.J.) Harper. Harper, director of the Island Lake Tribal Council, died in a struggle with Const. Robert Cross of the Winnipeg police. Cross was looking for a slim 19-year-old suspected car thief but stopped Harper, 36, who did not match the description aside from his race.

• Less than 48 hours later, chief of police Herb Stephen cleared Cross of any wrongdoing.

• In the days following the shooting, native leaders questioned Stephen's conclusion. Georges Erasmus, head of the Assembly of First Nations, demanded a full and public investigation.

• On March 17, 1988, Manitoba Attorney General Vic Schroeder said he would recommend an inquiry on justice for native people.

• When the inquiry was officially announced and its two judges were named, Schroeder said it would probe the deaths of Harper and Helen Betty Osborne.

• Osborne, from the Norway House reserve in northern Manitoba, was attending high school in the town of The Pas when she was abducted off the street by a group of four white men. They drove her to a remote lake, then raped her and stabbed her to death with a screwdriver. Though the murder took place in 1971, no one came to trial until 1987. Many people in the town knew who was responsible, but no one reported it to the police.

• Two men were eventually charged with Osborne's murder. One was found guilty; the other was acquitted.

• "If it was a white girl who was killed, would [the townspeople] have done something?" asked Osborne's mother, Justine, at the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry in June 1989.

• In their report to the Manitoba government, Judges Hamilton and Sinclair concluded: "In almost every aspect of our legal system, the treatment of aboriginal people is tragic...Canada's treatment of its first citizens has been an international disgrace."

• According to the report, aboriginal people represented 12 per cent of Manitobans in 1989, but 40 per cent of its prison population.

The report recommended that:
• Native self-government should be entrenched in the Constitution Act and Indian Act.
• Governments should set up tribal courts.
• Within a separate system, native people should "enact their own criminal, civil and family laws".
• Police forces, courts, prisons and the National Parole Board should recruit more aboriginal people.
• In May 2005, the Manitoba government launched a process to set up aboriginal probation agencies.
• "We are pursuing the same thing, but we do it in different ways," aboriginal elder Carl Flett said. In the aboriginal culture "we face the people we have wronged and try to make reconciliation with the people we have offended."
• In June 2006 Manitoba Justice Minister Gord Mackintosh said the province had also taken steps to increase aboriginal police services.
• The Canadian Centre for Justice Studies reported that the proportion of aboriginal people in Manitoba jails had climbed to 68 per cent.
• In Canada, native people made up 3 per cent of the population but 21 per cent of male prisoners and 30 per cent of female prisoners.


Also on August 29:
1907: The Quebec Bridge on the St. Lawrence River collapses, killing 75 workers. The bridge is rebuilt, but in 1916, the center span falls into the river, killing another 13 workers. When it is completed in 1919, the Quebec Bridge becomes the largest cantilever bridge span in the world. Today, Canadian engineers wear a memorial ring on their working hands to remind them of their social responsibilities and the story of the Quebec Bridge.


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