Nineteen-year old Cree woman Helen Betty Osborne was murdered by 4 white men November 13, 1971. Osborne’s death and case have been labelled a “conspiracy of silence”. We hounour Helen Betty Osborne this week on blackcoffeepoet.com via an Opinion Editorial, a Letter, and a Poem, all written by 3 Cree women: Robyn Bourgeois, Megan Bertasson, and Marilyn Dumont. CLICK on the LINKS within the Op Ed to learn more about the Epidemic of Violence Against Aboriginal Women.
By Robyn Bourgeois
“Lest We Forget.”
As I write, it is Remembrance Day here in Canada, and all around me – on social media, in the news, and on television – I am being asked to remember the men and women who have served in Canada’s military, who fought for our freedom, who stood brave against the forces of oppression.
Lest we forget.
But if I am being asked to remember men and women who fought for my “freedom” and stood brave against the forces of oppression, I need to remember Helen Betty Osborne.
In fact, we all need to remember Helen Betty Osborne.
Helen Betty Osborne, an nineteen-year old Cree woman from Norway House First Nation, was murdered in an ongoing colonial war against First Nations women and girls in Canada. Indeed, her life and death were deeply shaped by a very real “superstorm” of domination created by the intersections of colonialism, racism, and patriarchy (among other systems of oppression) in Canadian society.
Betty, as friends and family called her, had been forced to relocate to The Pas, Manitoba for secondary school, because the federal government – who via the Indian Act are responsible for the education of status Indians – wouldn’t provide such an institution on her home reserve. Alone and without the support of family, Betty and other First Nations students faced a hostile colonial community where violence against First Nations was par for the course. As the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry – a Manitoba-based provincial investigation launched in 1988 in response to the murder of Helen Betty Osborne – found, First Nations people in The Pas were subject to segregation in public facilities, received poorer service in stores and restaurants, and regularly faced harassment and assault by non-First Nations individuals.
While walking home on the evening of November 13th, 1971, Helen Betty was approached by four young white men who asked her to “party”. When she refused, they forced her into the car, drove her out of town (all the while subjecting her to various forms of abuse) and, in an isolated wilderness area, brutally beat and stabbed her over fifty times with a screwdriver before leaving her for dead. As the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry claimed,
Women in our society live under constant threat of violence. The death of Betty Osborne was a brutal expression of that violence. She fell victim to vicious stereotypes born of ignorance and aggression when she was picked up by four drunken men looking for sex. Her attackers seemed to be operating on the assumption that Aboriginal women were promiscuous and open to enticement through alcohol or violence. It is evident that the men who abducted Osborne believed that young Aboriginal women were objects with no human value beyond sexual gratification (Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba, 1991, p. “The Role of Sexism”).
“It is clear,” the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry notes, “that Betty Osborne would not have been killed if she had not been Aboriginal”.
In death, Helen Betty Osborne continued to face the superstorm of domination that plagues colonial Canada – because for sixteen years, her killers remained free because of a “conspiracy of silence” maintained by non-First Nations people in The Pas: residents who knew the identity of the killers and failed to say anything; the police who botched the investigation into her murder. And in the end, only one of her four killers ever faced justice for killing Betty. It seemed, still, people wanted to forget the brutality that had been inflicted on some “Indian”. The wife of one of the accused captured this sentiment with her comments about her husband’s arrest: “I don’t know why they (the police) just didn’t leave these guys alone” (cited in Priest, 1989, p. 140)
It’s been over forty years now since Helen Betty was murdered, yet this war wages on. Across Canada, hundreds, if not thousands, of First Nations women and girls have gone missing or been murdered over the last three decades. First Nations women and girls are subject to extreme rates of sexual violence – it is estimated, for example, that seventy-five percent of First Nations girls under age eighteen have been sexually abused (Lane, Bopp, and Bopp, cited in Downe, 2006, p. 8). This is in addition to the ongoing violence of colonial domination – including land and resource theft, prohibitions against sovereignty and self-determination, and the ongoing thefts of First Nations children by the State – and the extreme social deprivation these create for First Nations women and children in this country.
Helen Betty Osborne was killed because of colonialism, racism and patriarchy; and these forces continue to claim sister after sister to this day. As the Aboriginal Justice inquiry of Manitoba conclude, “those who stood by while the [violence] took place…showed their own racism, sexism, and indifference. Those who knew the story and remained silent must share their guilt”.
What will you do now that you have heard the story?
Lest we forget.
Because every day we “forget” stories like that of Helen Betty Osborne; like the hundreds of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls; like the Aboriginal women and girls facing extreme sexual violence; and like the women and children facing the everyday violences of colonialism, we show our own racism, sexism, and indifference.
Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba (1991). Report of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba. Winnipeg, MB: Province of Manitoba.
Downe, P. J. (2006). Aboriginal Girls in Canada: Living Histories of Dislocation, Exploitation and Strength. In Y. Jiwani, C. Steenbergen & C. Mitchell (Eds.), Girlhood: Redefining the Limits (pp. 1-14). Montreal: Black Rose Books.
Priest, L. (1989). Conspiracy of Silence. Toronto, ON: McLelland & Stewart.
Robyn Bourgeois is a mixed-race Lubicon Cree woman raised in Okanagan and Spalts’in territories in British Columbia nearing her completion of a Ph.D in the department of Humanities, Social Sciences and Social Justice Education at OISE/UT.
Bourgeois’ dissertation, “Warrior Women: The Politics of Naming and Responding to Violence Against First Nations Women and Girls in Canada,” examines the political implications for First Nations women in negotiating the dominant political terrain of Canadian State politics.
Currently at home on maternity leave, enjoying the birth of her first baby, Bourgeois will be returning to work at Wilfrid Laurier University’s Brantford campus in January 2013, where she teaches in Indigenous Studies, Criminology, and Contemporary Studies.
Tune into BlackCoffeePoet.com Wednesday November 14, 2012 for a Letter to Helen Betty Osborne from Megan Bertasson, a young Cree woman from Norway House First Nation (Osborne’s home community).