45 years after murder conviction, Winnipeg man fights to prove he's innocent

For nearly half a century, Winnipeg's Brian Anderson has fought to clear his name and overturn his 1974 murder conviction.

Brian Anderson looks to Ottawa to help clear his name

Brian Anderson, 64, in his Winnipeg apartment suite on Feb. 9. Lawyers have asked the justice minister to either order a new trial in his 1974 murder conviction, or refer his case to the court of appeal. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Life for Brian Anderson, a man convicted of murder, is fairly ordinary on the surface. He has a job. He sees his grandkids on the weekends. He likes Fleetwood Mac and AC/DC.

"I struggle like everybody else. I gotta live," he says. 

The 64-year-old sits up straight on the black leather sofa in his Winnipeg home. Years of labour as a carpenter and jogging make him appear fitter than most his age. His long black hair is pulled behind his head in a low ponytail. There's no obvious sign — no visible tattoos or tough demeanour — that might hint at a decade spent in federal prison.

"I try not to think about it — try to forget it, but it's there. Somebody's done you wrong, it's hard to forget."

For nearly half a century, Anderson has battled to prove he's innocent of the crime for which he was convicted. He was denied an appeal. His last hope now is the federal minister of justice.

Tuesday marks 45 years to the day since a Winnipeg jury found Anderson guilty of murder in the death of Ting Fong Chan. Chan, a 40-year-old chef at The Beachcomber restaurant and father of two, was beaten and stabbed to death near a downtown construction site on July 17, 1973.

Anderson and three other Indigenous young men were blamed for his death.

A jury found Clarence Woodhouse, Allan Woodhouse and Anderson guilty of murder March 5, 1974. They were sentenced to life in prison. A fourth man, Russell Woodhouse, was found guilty of manslaughter and sentenced to 10 years behind bars.

Anderson was given a life sentence. He was granted day parole in 1982, and full parole in 1987.

Bad memories

Anderson welcomes media into his North Kildonan apartment with reluctance. His daughter is there to listen and nudge him to speak — reminding him public attention could help his case.

"I don't want to be doing this interview," Anderson says. "It brings back bad memories and I have to relive this whole thing again. I don't like doing that."

Still, Anderson holds on to some optimism. At least now he has help carrying on his fight. 

Brian Anderson makes coffee for his daughter, Whitney Anderson, in his kitchen in North Kildonan. (Walther Bernal/CBC)

Two years ago, a legal team sprang into action unlike any Anderson has seen before. Lawyers, students and volunteers for Innocence Canada — the non-profit legal organization formerly called the Association in Defence of the Wrongly Convicted — have since reviewed every detail of his case.

His two main advocates, lawyers Jerome Kennedy and Bhavan Sodhi, filed their 160-page brief with the federal justice minister on Jan. 14, 2019. Ultimately, they hope the minister will order a new trial or refer Anderson's case to the court of appeal. 

Most wrongful conviction cases are prompted by the discovery of new evidence — DNA evidence, for example — that unravels narratives presented at trial. Anderson's case is a little different.

Kennedy and Sodhi argue new material evidence should include modern understandings on the existence and consequences of systemic racism.

The gears of Canada's criminal justice system turned against Anderson from the beginning simply because of his Indigenous background, age and gender, they say. Prejudice crushed his right to a fair trial.

In an email to CBC, the Justice Department confirmed it has received the application. It's still unknown whether the department will order a full investigation.

Anderson is preparing to wait years to find out if the government agrees a miscarriage of justice took place.

'Boozhoo giinaawaa gaa anishinaabemoweg'

Before Anderson agreed to an interview with CBC, he asked to make a statement in Ojibway — his mother tongue, and the language he speaks most fluently.

"Boozhoo giinaawaa gaa anishinaabemoweg," began Anderson, as translated by Winnipeg language instructor Effie Chartrand. "Hello to those who can understand Ojibway."

Watch Anderson's full statement in Ojibway:

Brian Anderson grew up in Pinaymootang First Nation in Manitoba and spoke only Ojibway until he started elementary school. Translation by Effie Chartrand. 1:12

"Giinezh giigibowigoo​," he says — "I was locked up for a very long time."

"E giiwaanimoowaad gaa giidaabiiniiwaad," he said. "The people who took me away lied and locked me up."

The first time Anderson spoke English was in elementary school. He grew up in Pinaymootang First Nation, a reserve nestled between Lake Manitoba and Lake St. Martin, about 220 kilometres northwest of Winnipeg.

When Anderson moved down to Winnipeg for work in the early 1970s, his grasp of English was at about a Grade 6 level.

"I couldn't speak the language properly. I didn't know what the system was all about," he said. 

His lawyers say police tunnel vision led investigators to focus on Anderson, even though witness statements differed on his whereabouts around the time Chan was killed. Anderson, 18 years old at that point, was arrested by Winnipeg police about a week after Chan's death.

Anderson says he signed a confession, not knowing what the document said. 

According to his lawyers, the confession was instrumental in Anderson's conviction. Innocence Canada alleges it was written by police and Anderson was tricked into signing what he thought was an administrative form.

None of allegations made by Innocence Canada have been proven in court.

Prosecutor behind overturned, quashed convictions

Kennedy, who previously served as a cabinet minister in Progressive Conservative governments in Newfoundland and Labrador, took on Anderson's case two years ago, after returning to practising law following his career in politics.

He said the circumstances surrounding Anderson's 1974 trial encouraged him to take up the case.

"When I saw that George Dangerfield was the Crown prosecutor handling the trial, the Winnipeg Police Service were involved and we had four young Indigenous youths, alarm bells started to go off," said Kennedy over the phone.

Dangerfield was the prosecutor in four high-profile Manitoba murder cases in which men were later acquitted or had their charges quashed — those involving Frank Ostrowski, Thomas Sophonow, James Driskell and Kyle Unger.

Kennedy believes Anderson's name belongs on the list as well.

"There was no forensic evidence of any type which connected Brian Anderson to the scene or to the crime itself," he said.

"There were no lawyers or translators present during the interviews [with Winnipeg police.] Brian maintained from Day 1 — and testified to this effect at trial — that the police made the confession up."

Now-retired Crown attorney George Dangerfield was the prosecutor in Anderson's case. Dangerfield was behind four other high-profile convictions that have since been overturned or quashed. (CBC)

Kennedy draws on the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry as further evidence the criminal justice system treated Indigenous persons unfairly.

That review that found systemic racism existed in the Winnipeg Police Service in the 1980s, and recommended the force hire more Indigenous police officers and improve cross-cultural awareness.

"Underlying it all is the hint these four young men were easy targets for the police," said Kennedy.

"[The accused men] testified in court they didn't give the statements," he said.

"The criminal justice at that point, in 1974, accepted what the police said was true as opposed to these young Indigenous men."

'I just want this about me'

Anderson yearns for the day "murderer" is no longer attached to his name.

"I need to be free. I didn't hurt anybody or kill anybody. I shouldn't be labeled as this," he says. 

For Anderson, bearing that label is like living with a shadow that never really goes away. He can't just get in his car and leave Winnipeg without permission, for example. Despite years of good behaviour, he has to meet with a probation officer every three months. They ask him how he's doing and who he's friends with.

Anderson says he doesn't think about whether his case might help others if it's successful — although he says in prison, he met other men who said they had similar experiences in the lead-up to their convictions.

"I just want this about me," he says finally. "You know, if it goes any further then that by all means, that would be great."

He wants to be listened to, he says, in his own words. He's satisfied no one in Manitoba's justice system will be involved in deciding his fate.

"They got no say in this at all. They had their say. Now I want my say."

A Winnipeg man is fighting to clear his name 45 years after his murder conviction. 3:28

About the Author

Laura Glowacki is a reporter based in Ottawa. Previously, she worked as a reporter in Winnipeg and as an associate producer for CBC's Metro Morning in Toronto. Find her on Twitter @glowackiCBC and reach her by email at