45-year anniversary of Helen Betty Osborne's murder shows 'work is never done'

Helen Betty Osborne had been hanging out with her friends at a café before the young Cree woman’s life was taken and a conversation around violence towards Indigenous women was heightened across the country.

Eric Robinson says it's a time to reflect on people that are still suffering without answers

Helen Betty Osborne was abducted and murdered in The Pas in 1971. It took 16 years for the justice system to convict one of the suspects in her death. The Manitoba government later apologized for the failure of the justice system. (helenbetty.ca)

Helen Betty Osborne had been hanging out with her friends at a café and she was excited for her future.

No one will ever know what Osborne could have achieved because the young Cree woman was murdered, sparking a conversation around violence towards Indigenous women across the country.

On the 45th anniversary of her death Eric Robinson, a former NDP member of the Manitoba Legislative Assembly for Keewatinook, reflected on the years searching for justice for Osborne and the work that still needs to be done.

"As many people know today was the day in 1971 that the body of Helen Betty Osborne was found at Clear Water Lake just north of The Pas, Man," he said.

"It took many years before somebody was brought to justice – 16 years it took."

Osborne dreamed of becoming a teacher when she left her home in Norway House, Man., to go to Margaret Barbour Collegiate in The Pas in 1971. She was only there for two months when, on Nov. 13, she was brutally murdered. She was stabbed more than 50 times with a screwdriver before being left in the bush outside of the northern Manitoba city.

In 1987, four men were finally charged, but in the end only Dwayne Johnston was convicted.

The Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission found that the main factors in the case were racism, sexism and indifference.  

"In the findings of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, Helen Betty Osborne wouldn't have been killed had it not been for the colour of her skin," Robinson said.

Helen Betty Osborne had only lived in The Pas for two months. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)
The road to any justice was long for Osborne's family and community; however Robinson said it's not over yet.

"[The anniversary of her death] serves to remind us that the work is never done. The work is ongoing and the federal government has a tremendous task in the inquiry they are embarking upon," he said.

Since Osborne, hundreds of Indigenous women have gone missing or were murdered across the country.

"I believe that today should be a day that we observe as perhaps a good time for us to reflect and remember those ones that are still suffering in some way thinking about their loved ones that they have lost," Robinson said.

"These stories are too common for Indigenous peoples across Canada."

In a post on Facebook, Robinson recalled meeting Johnston, Osborne's convicted killer, along with her family. The meetings were based on traditional practices and although it would not be an end to suffering, it would help the healing journey. 

Helen Betty Osborne was 19 when she was murdered in The Pas in 1971. Sixteen years later, four men were charged in the crime. ((Amnesty.ca))
However, Robinson said Osborne's family continued to struggle for the decades following her death and in 2008 her brother, Kelvin Osborne, was murdered in Winnipeg.

"I think it's much more than the names [of missing and murdered Indigenous women], it's also the families behind these names, and the loved ones — in  some cases the children, in some cases the families, the brothers and sisters and so on [who are impacted]," he said.

"[Osborne's death] became the point where that family fell apart, I will say, and how it became dysfunctional," he added.

While the anniversary served as a reminder of how far there is still to go to truly get justice for Osborne, and the other missing and murdered Indigenous women, Robinson said he has hope that there will have been change.

"Forty-five years from now I hope that Indigenous people have a sense of belonging in Canada, a country that we are supposed to be a part of," he said.

"Our children and grandchildren … I hope they have a sense that this racism that does exist will no longer be allowed to continue festering. I think that the climate has to change in the years ahead and I'm hopeful that we have a better future for our young ones, our grandchildren."