The little-known life and mysterious death of Ila Oman, 45 years ago

It was one of Manitoba's most brutal homicides of its time. It haunts the living and, some say, the dead. Yet 45 years later, the death of Sayisi Dene woman Ila Oman remains unsolved.

Amid rumours, homicide still haunts Sayisi Dene survivors of government-created Dene Village

Eva Yassie points out Ila Oman's name on a memorial at the entrance of Dene Village near Churchill, Man. (Donna Carreiro/CBC)

It was one of Manitoba's most brutal homicides of its time. It haunts the living and, some say, the dead. Yet 45 years later, the case of Ila Oman remains unsolved.

In 1971, the 43-year-old wife and stepmother was raped and fatally beaten in the notoriously tragic Dene Village.

Her death is a symbol of the darkest of times for the Sayisi Dene that began in 1956, when the federal government forced them out of their homeland and into the makeshift, desolate village outside Churchill, Man.

Poverty, racism and despair left them destitute and desperate. Alcohol-fuelled crimes against them — and between them — often went unnoticed, unreported, unsolved.

Ila Oman's was one of them. Even today, those who knew her are loath to talk about it.

Be careful not to rouse "tortured spirits," one survivor of Dene Village warned. Don't get in the way of "wounded souls," another said. Neither wanted to be identified — too haunted by the horror of this crime.

Some who knew her will talk about her life. Edith Learjaw was, for a time, Oman's stepdaughter.

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)
"She was a good woman," Learjaw said in her native Dene, through a translator. "She offered me clothes and food and things like that."

But ask about Oman's death and Learjaw quickly shuts down the conversation.

It's too painful to think about, her niece explains. Bernice Thorassie wants to change that.

Oman was her great-aunt. She helped raise Thorassie as a child. Thorassie recalls her laugh. Her light brown skin. Her dark brown eyes. Her lipstick. She vividly recalls the lipstick.

"She was so beautiful, she laughed a lot," Thorassie said. "But whenever I think of her, I always remember the bright red lipstick she wore."

But Thorassie also wants to talk about her death.

Here is what is known.

It was May 29, 1971. She was raped, some say by locals in nearby Churchill — where Oman lived — who then drove her and dumped her in Dene Village. Others say she was dragged into a home in Dene Village and raped there.

She was also viciously beaten. Some say beforehand. Others say afterwards. 

The rest of the country was indifferent to the crime. A short newspaper clipping at the time referred to Oman's rape/killing simply as an "incident."

Plenty of whispers

Fast-forward to the present day. Oman's death is still widely unknown; you won't find her story on any unsolved crimes websites or cold case profiles. No obituary was filed, there is no gravestone with her name on it.

There are, however, plenty of whispers about who did it and how.

Eva Yassie knows one thing for certain. It wasn't her, she said, despite the fact that at the time, she and two other youths were arrested in connection with it.

"They said we were there when that woman was killed," said Yassie, who was about 15 at the time.

"The cops didn't tell us where they got the information, but we were accused of being there when we weren't there."

Yassie said she and the others were sent to a detention centre in Winnipeg. A month later, they were released. Yassie was then sent to residential school.

RCMP tell the CBC manslaughter charges were stayed in the case of two youths. The Crown chose not to appeal. In their minds, however, the case is closed. 

Today, both Yassie and Thorassie wish someone would finally come forward. To them, "tortured spirits" will only be soothed with the truth, to see justice served and, most importantly, to honour the dead.

"I, for one, have not forgotten about her," Thorassie said. "I want to honour her memory."