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.
By Megan Bertasson
Dear Helen Betty Osborne,
I can’t recall the exact moment you came into my life. Perhaps this is owing to the fact that the legacy of your life and death are so well ingrained within our community that you have always been able to assert your presence in Norway House.
At different times in my life as I was growing into a woman, your memory has taken on new dimensions as I learnt more about your story –like a living being also growing. Sometimes people in town would talk about the different injustices you were forced to confront as you pursued your dreams. We would ask aloud and to no one in particular, “why is it that most First Nations communities did not have secondary schools in 1969 when education was outlined in nearly all treaties?” Other times, people would comment on your strong and kind character and deplore your untimely death.
At home, we all seemed to agree on the true perpetrators of your crime. The justice system was convinced that only one man had murdered you, but most of us know that in the same way it takes a community to lift a person up, it was a community that attempted to take you down (unsuccessfully).
The impression that ultimately bears upon me is that of your daring will to dream and the conviction you had demonstrated as you endeavored to transform aspiration into reality. That is my memory of you that remains most vibrant and steadfast.
I have to ask if you knew your decision to leave Norway House to continue your education would not only profoundly impact your life, but also the lives of generations of Aboriginal women to follow. In many respects, you’re a trailblazer –tapwe. Today, Aboriginal girls and women are leaving Norway House and other First Nation communities in droves. Oftentimes, they are looking for work or the education that will help them find work to create better lives for themselves and, also, loved ones.
I don’t know how I feel about this; my attitude towards the rez is quite conflicted. School taught me that reserves are both colonial constructions and, at the same time, the result of painstaking petitions for treaty negotiations of our ancestors. Experience has shown me that Norway House is my only home –yet, it is the only place that could intensely hurt me. Setting aside the complex nature of reserves, city life isn’t necessarily a promise of relief (a sentiment I would imagine you understand well). I must acknowledge the violence and oppression Aboriginal women confront in pre-dominantly non-Aboriginal urban settings on a daily basis. Like you, many Aboriginal women are mistaken for stereotypical characters for others to enact sordid violent fantasies and frustrations upon. While these everyday transgressions have a seemingly fleeting nature that does not resemble your experience, they have the same enduring impact upon those affected women.
In my own experience, after having lived on the rez and in many cities, I am painfully aware of how it feels to believe there is nowhere you can safely exist, survive or succeed as an Aboriginal woman (something I like to imagine we could talk about together).
Recently, I completed writing a draft of a story that is focused on the crime committed against you. This story will allow me to gain a Master’s degree, but more importantly, writing this story has been an important form of catharsis. I think I kept you closest and needed you the most when I began my graduate studies. There are people who would argue that Aboriginal women are finally being welcomed within post-secondary institutions and in broader urban settings, but personal experience tells me that there is still a long way to go. Too many times throughout my studies I have been silenced because my knowledge is considered too subjective, too colloquial and too quaint. I cannot express how frustrating and painful it is to be told my pain and experiences aren’t valid or are nonexistent because I have not personally experienced my mother’s pain or the oppression that my kookom has.
In telling your story, I have been able to both tell my own story and legitimate the experiences of everyday violence that Aboriginal women in Canada must continue to confront. I hope that this story can eventually go on to help other women who are hurt and frustrated like myself. I hope that this story is a splash of paint upon these interlocking systems of colonialism, capitalism and patriarchy (which desperately try to remain invisible). I hope this story will allow other Aboriginal women to heal.
I want to thank you Helen for the life you dared to live and for all of your courage. I didn’t ask to tell your story, but I hope that I am forgiven for this and that my sincerity shines through. I want you to know how important you have been to me.
I want to thank you for staying by my side as I pursued a difficult path.
At first, it seemed sorrowful to write to you on the eve of the anniversary of your death, but, in the end, it only affirms your legacy’s strength and vivacity.
I AM GRATEFUL FOR YOU
She is the currently completing her Master’s Degree in Socio-Legal Studies at York University.
Through her research, she seeks to reveal the the impact of ongoing colonialism and its genocidal impulses upon Aboriginal communities in Canada.
Megan likes to read, tell stories, and spend time with family and friends.
See Megan Bertasson’s excellent TEDx Talk: Acimowin
Tune into BlackCoffeePoet.com Friday November 15, 2012 for a video of Cree poet Marilyn Dumont reading her poem “Helen Betty Osborne”.