'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 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.
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.
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."
With files from CBC Manitoba / Donna Carreiro