The Death of Helen Betty Osborne

The Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission


Chapter 1

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The Events
The Mandate of the Inquiry



Introduction TOP

The Events TOP

Helen Betty Osborne was abducted and brutally murdered near The Pas, Manitoba, early in the morning of November 13, 1971. The high school student, originally from the Norway House Indian Reserve, was 19 years old when she was killed.

Several months later Royal Canadian Mounted Police officers concluded that four young men, Dwayne Archie Johnston, James Robert Paul Houghton, Lee Scott Colgan and Norman Bernard Manger, were involved in the death. Yet it was not until December 1987, more than 16 years later, that one of them, Dwayne Johnston, was convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for the murder of Betty Osborne. James Houghton was acquitted. Lee Colgan, having received immunity from prosecution in return for testifying against Houghton and Johnston, went free. Norman Manger was never charged.

These are the facts, as suggested by the evidence:

While walking along Third Street in The Pas on that cold Saturday morning, Betty Osborne was accosted by four men in a car. Houghton, who was driving, stopped the car and Johnston got out, attempting to convince Osborne to go with them to "party." She told them that she did not wish to accompany them. She then was forced into their car and driven away. In the car Osborne was assaulted by Colgan and Johnston as Houghton drove. Johnston ripped at her blouse and Colgan grabbed at her breasts. In spite of her screams and attempts to escape, Osborne was taken to a cabin belonging to Houghton’s parents at Clearwater Lake.

At the cabin she was pulled from the car and beaten by Johnston while the others stood watching and drinking wine they had stolen earlier. Osborne continued to struggle and scream and, because her assailants were afraid they might be heard, she was forced back into the car and driven further from town to a pump house next to the lake. At least some of her clothing was removed by her assailants in the car. At the pump house she was once more taken from the car by one or more of her assailants and the beating continued. Her clothes, those which had not been removed earlier, were taken from her. Wearing only her winter boots, she was viciously beaten, and stabbed, apparently with a screwdriver, more than 50 times. Her face was smashed beyond recognition. The evidence suggests that two people then dragged her body into the bush. Her clothes were hidden. The four men then left, returned to The Pas and went their separate ways.

Her body was discovered the next morning and the RCMP commenced its investigation. Initial police efforts centred on the possibility that Osborne’s murderer was one of her friends or was known to them. RCMP officers rounded up her friends and questioned them. They were all Aboriginal. Police had no success in identifying the assailants until they received an anonymous letter in May 1972, implicating Colgan, Houghton and Manger.

The letter was written by Catherine Dick who, it was later discovered, had been told of the murder by Lee Colgan shortly after it took place. Police then seized the Colgan family car, which had been used in the abduction. Examination of the vehicle revealed traces of hair and blood as well as a piece of a brassiere strap.

Shortly after the seizure of the car, an informant told police the fourth man in the car that night was Dwayne Johnston. Attempts to question the suspects were frustrated when the men, on the advice of their lawyer, D’Arcy Bancroft, refused to speak with the police. Repeated attempts and a number of ruses were unsuccessful in breaking through their silence. The police found it impossible to gather sufficient evidence to support a charge of murder against any of the four men believed to have been involved in the murder. By the end of 1972, although rumours were circulating in The Pas as to the identity of those involved in the killing, the investigation had stalled.

Between 1973 and 1983 only intermittent checks were made on the case. In July 1983 an extensive review of the file was begun by Const. Robert Urbanoski, of the Thompson RCMP detachment. Many of the original informants were reinterviewed. The suspects were contacted again. In June 1985 the RCMP placed an article in the local newspaper, requesting the assistance of the public in solving the murder. The result was that several people came forward to recount comments about the murder made over the years by Colgan and Johnston. It was the disclosure of those remarks that finally led to charges of murder being laid against the two in October 1986.

Before the beginning of their preliminary hearing in March 1987, Lee Colgan was granted immunity from prosecution in return for his testimony. On the strength of Colgan’s evidence, Houghton was arrested and charged on July 5, 1987. At the preliminary hearing later that month, both Houghton and Johnston were committed to stand trial. The Attorney General’s department brought the case to trial in December 1987. Sixteen years after the murder, a jury found Johnston guilty of the murder of Betty Osborne. He was sentenced to life imprisonment without eligibility for parole for 10 years. Houghton was acquitted.

Johnston’s appeal of his conviction was dismissed by the Manitoba Court of Appeal on September 14, 1988 and his application for leave to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada was denied on March 13, 1989. He is now serving his sentence.

Many Manitobans asked why it took 16 years to bring people to trial for this brutal murder. It was suggested that many people in the town of The Pas learned the identity of those responsible, some within a very short time after the murder, but chose to do nothing about it. It was suggested that because Osborne was an Aboriginal person, the townspeople considered the murder unimportant. Allegations of racism, neglect and indifference, on the part of the citizens of the town, the police and of the Attorney General’s department, were made.

The trial and its outcome focussed public attention on the Osborne case and led to widespread calls for a public inquiry. On March 9, 1988, three months after the trial of Houghton and Johnston, J.J. Harper, executive director of the Island Lake Tribal Council, was killed in an encounter with a City of Winnipeg police officer. This precipitated increased demands by Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Manitobans for an inquiry into all aspects of the way Aboriginal people are dealt with by the justice system in Manitoba. On April 13, 1988, by Order-in-Council, the provincial government established the Public Inquiry into the Administration of Justice and Aboriginal People. The order was confirmed subsequently by an act of the Legislature, entitled An Act to Establish and Validate the Public Inquiry into the Administration of Justice and Aboriginal People. TOP





The Mandate of the Inquiry TOP

The Act which established the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry specifically requires us to look into the circumstances surrounding the investigation into the murder of Helen Betty Osborne. Section 7(b) of the Act provides that the Inquiry and the Commissioners:

[I]s and are declared to have the right to investigate into the death of Helen Betty Osborne and all aspects of the laying and prosecution of charges which followed, including whether the right persons were charged, whether the appropriate charges were laid, whether charges should have been laid earlier, whether immunity from prosecution should have been granted to Lee Colgan, whether there exists any evidence of racial prejudice with respect to the investigation of the death of Helen Betty Osborne, whether the acts or omissions of any persons outside the Police Department impaired the investigation and whether the prosecution was properly conducted.

We granted standing to: Justine Osborne, the mother of Betty Osborne; the Norway House Indian Band; the Indigenous Women’s Collective; and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The Swampy Cree Tribal Council also was granted standing on the condition that it, Justine Osborne and the Norway House Band would be treated as one party. Counsel acting for the parties were: John Wilson, for Justine Osborne and the Norway House Band; Monique Danaher, for the IWC; and Hymie Weinstein Q.C. and Craig Henderson, for the RCMP. Commission counsel were Perry Schulman Q.C. and Randy McNicol Q.C.

Limited standing was granted to the Manitoba Metis Federation to make a submission at the close of the proceedings. We rejected the application for standing made by Dwayne Archie Johnston, the only person convicted of the murder of Betty Osborne, because we believed he did not have a direct or substantial interest in the matters we were to examine.

Our counsel, in concert with the investigator they engaged, determined what witnesses we should hear. Some witnesses were suggested by other counsel and were then called by our counsel. We made a specific request to hear from all those who might be able to shed light on what happened on the night of Osborne’s abduction and murder. Commission counsel also called a number of expert witnesses to assist us in evaluating the conduct of the many persons involved in the investigation and prosecution of Osborne’s murder.

We heard the majority of the testimony in The Pas between June 19 and August 10, 1989. In addition, we heard two days of testimony in Winnipeg, August 31 and September 18. Through the testimony we were able to examine the murder, the investigation, the attitudes prevailing in the community, the situation of Aboriginal students in The Pas, and the relationship between the police and the Aboriginal community. We also examined the conduct of two lawyers, John Scurfield Q.C., who was Houghton’s trial lawyer, and the late D’Arcy Bancroft, who represented the four men in the early days of the police investigation. In addition, we examined the conduct of the Attorney General’s department.

We heard from many more witnesses than those who testified at the trial of Houghton and Johnston. All four men who were involved in the events leading up to Betty Osborne’s abduction and murder were called to testify.

As a Commission of Inquiry we are entitled to assess the evidence using the civil standard of proof, whereas in a criminal case all facts must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. For these reasons we are entitled to make findings of fact and to reach conclusions that might differ from those supported by the evidence at the murder trials. We wish to make clear, however, that we are not attempting to circumvent the jury’s decisions or to determine whether their decisions to convict Johnston and acquit Houghton were proper decisions. On the contrary, we wish at the outset to state that we do not quarrel in any way with the jury’s findings. Their decisions are not part of our mandate, and we accept that they were entitled to make the decisions they did and that they did so properly.

As a judicial inquiry we were asked, and we endeavoured, to determine facts and events not only from the evidence as presented at the preliminary hearing in July and the trial but also from additional evidence which we heard–evidence which criminal proceedings are precluded from hearing. TOP

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