'It haunts me to this day': seeking justice for the unsolved killing of Ila Oman

In 1971, Ila Oman was raped and fatally beaten in Manitoba's Dene Village. At the time, it was one of the province's most brutal homicides — but the 43-year-old's killing remains unsolved. Bernice Thorassie wants to change that.
'In our culture when a person dies in an unsolved way, their spirits linger,' says Bernice Thorassie, one of Ila Oman's only living relatives. (Bernice Thorassie)

In 1971, Ila Oman was raped and fatally beaten in Manitoba's notoriously tragic Dene Village. At the time, it was one of the province's most brutal homicides — but the 43-year-old wife and stepmother's killing remains unsolved. 
Nearly half a century later, Oman's story is still widely unknown. You won't find her name on any unsolved crime websites; there is no gravestone for her. Nobody has ever been convicted of killing her.
Ila Oman's name appears on a memorial marker in Tadoule Lake, Man. (Donna Carreiro/CBC)

Bernice Thorassie, Oman's great-niece and one of her only living relatives, wants to change that. 

"It haunts me, it haunts me to this day. I get very tearful because as a child in Dene Village, when I saw violence we ran, as children, to hide for our safety. So I can imagine the fear of no one there to help her," said Thorassie. 

Oman's death was a symptom of a difficult time for the Sayisi Dene. Traditionally nomadic people, they followed and hunted caribou herds. In 1956, the federal government forced the community to relocate hundreds of kilometres from their home, after the province wrongly blamed the Dene for a caribou shortage. 

A monument at the Churchill cemetery shows some of the names of those who perished after the forced relocation of Sayisi Dene. (Donna Carreiro/CBC)

They were left to fend for themselves and their makeshift village outside of Churchill, Man., was a desolate, challenging place. The government promised housing and jobs, but neither materialized. Starving, culture shocked and without support, residents turned to alcohol.

At the time, almost no attention was paid to Oman's death: one short paragraph in a newspaper referred to the killing as "an incident." Although no one has been formally charged with the crime, RCMP consider the case closed. 

"Why. Why is it closed? It's an unsolved mystery," said Thorassie. "We were recognized as the slum of Manitoba — probably of Canada — so anybody who passed along in those years was just another number that was gone." 

In the decades after the relocation, Oman's father was also killed under mysterious circumstances, a case that also remains unsolved, Thorassie said.

This week, the federal government officially apologized for the forced relocation of the Sayisi Dene. But for Thorassie, peace will only come when her great-aunt's story is put to rest.

"In our culture, when a person dies ... in an unsolved way, their spirits linger. They never rest. They cry. They don't know where to go. That's how she's been for the last almost 50 years." 

The Sayisi Dene were moved hundreds of kilometres away from the caribou herds they relied on.

With files from CBC Manitoba / Donna Carreiro