Manitoba·Special Report

A quiet crime wave against Manitoba's Sayisi Dene women

This week, CBC News has launched a nationwide special series that reveals the most intensive and updated look at Canada's missing and murdered indigenous girls and women. But members of Manitoba's Sayisi Dene First Nation say they're still haunted by a crime wave from their not-so-distant past.

Northern community's murdered, missing women and girls remain unnoticed

A photo of Annie Yassie from Manitoba’s Project Disappear database. The 13-year-old girl had just returned home to Churchill, Man., from residential school when she disappeared on June 22, 1974. (RCMP)

This week, CBC News has launched a nationwide special series that reveals the most intensive and updated look at Canada's missing and murdered indigenous girls and women.

Among the communities that have been affected is Manitoba's Sayisi Dene First Nation. Members are still haunted by events from their not-so-distant past — events that saw their own women and girls murdered or go missing.

But to this day, the tragedies in the community have gone almost unnoticed and ignored, except by the loved ones those women left behind. Here now, is their story.

It's been 45 years since Ila Oman was murdered in the Dene Village outside Churchill, Man. But to this day, no one knows who sexually assaulted her. No one knows who physically attacked her. And no one knows which came first.

In fact, few people know Ila Oman even existed, let alone died a brutal death.

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"It was like no one really cared. It was like this was almost normal," recalled Nancy Powderhorn, who was a child at the time of the incident.

"The reason why I remember it so vivid and clear is because we had to give up our bed when they hauled her in our house, like when she got beaten up. I don't know where that took place but … our parents told us we had to move from our beds so this lady could sleep there. That's how I remember so clearly."

My sister and I would ask ourselves 'what happened to our people?'- Nancy Powderhorn

But Ila Oman's life and death weren't the only ones to go unnoticed outside the Dene Village.

Lisa Clipping still doesn't know how her mother, Marjorie Clipping, died. And then there was Annie Duck. Murdered, it's been said, in a domestic dispute.

And there is Annie Yassie, just 13 years old when she was last seen getting into a taxi with an older man, ostensibly, to continue drinking with him. More than 40 years later, the little girl's disappearance remains a mystery.

In fact, when CBC News contacted her sister, Eva Yassie, last month, she was stunned that anyone even knew about it. Almost no one, she said, had ever asked about her death before.​

Borne out of despair

Such was the dirty little secret of Manitoba's north that forever impacted the girls and women of the Sayisi Dene Nation. It was one that was borne out of a despair that killed almost an entire generation.

The Dene were once a traditional, nomadic tribe of just under 300 people who lived off the land near Little Duck Lake, Man., following and hunting caribou.

That all changed, however, in 1956.

At the time, the feds and the province decided that there was a national shortage of caribou, and that Manitoba's Sayisi Dene people were the cause of it. So they airlifted them out. All of them. They created what was called Camp 10 and later, the Dene Village.

Along the freezing cold shores of Hudson's Bay, outside of Churchill, they were promised new housing materials. But because they were dumped on the beach, those materials all washed away.

They were promised hunting and trapping supplies, but those never materialized. They were promised a chance to make a living. But far removed from their traditional hunting ground, that too, never happened.

Dene Village. Churchill. Nobody ever cared about anybody. Nobody.- Lisa Clipping

So there they were, living in an unforgiving terrain in makeshift homes that were so badly built, house fires were common.

Robbed of their livelihood, robbed of their culture, they were introduced to alcohol, introduced to racism. The end results were fatal.

In fewer than two decades, close to half of the community had died, and almost two-thirds of those deaths were classified as "violent."

Few of them, specifically involving the women, were investigated or solved.

"My mom died over there," Lisa Clipping said, adding that her death was not investigated.

"Of course not," she said. "Dene Village. Churchill. Nobody ever cared about anybody. Nobody. Well, I need justice for my mom, too."

Eventually, what was left of the community relocated themselves to Tadoule Lake, Man.

In 2010, the province formally apologized for its role in the original displacement, which is now called one of Canada's worst crimes against our indigenous population.

The federal government, however, has neither apologized nor offered compensation; Niki Ashton, the NDP MP for Churchill, says officials are "in negotiations."

As for the missing and murdered women from the Dene Village, just one of them is finally getting attention today. The 1974 disappearance of Annie Yassie will be on CBC's new, national list of missing and murdered indigenous girls and women when it goes live later this week. Her case will be the oldest unsolved case on the list.