Conspiracy of Silence: The Riveting, Real-Life Account of The [Helen Betty Osborne] Pas Murder and Cover-up that Rocked the Nation

By Guest Contributor Jorge Antonio Vallejos, cross-posted from Black Coffee Poet

Four white boys. One Cree girl.

Four cowards. One warrior.

Two white boys given immunity, one acquitted, one handed a life (?) sentence. A stolen and erased Aboriginal sister joins her ancestors. An Aboriginal community saddened and silenced:

This is the Helen Betty Osborne murder, court case, and disgrace.

Journalist Lisa Priest starts her sympathetic and problematic book Conspiracy of Silence by saying, “November 13, 1971 was cold and miserable.”

The cold and misery continued for sixteen-years until the four white boys were finally taken to trial; and November 13, 2011 makes it 40 years since Osborne was killed. Really, the cold and misery started hundreds of years ago when white settlers from Britain and France invaded Turtle Island (now known as Canada).

Cold was the act of murder by four boys in Manitoba’s community known as The Pas. Cold was the conspiracy of silence by the white townspeople, police, and politicians of The Pas for sixteen years! Cold was the attitude and beliefs of white people before, during, and after Osborne’s murder. Cold is the reality of violence against Aboriginal women in Canada, USA, and the entire Western Hemisphere that goes uninvestigated and unpunished by police and governments.

Priest starts her account with the finding of Helen Betty Osborne’s body by a father and son on a fishing trip. Osborne’s naked body and black boots are all this writer wants to retell. Priest describes in detail the horrific scene of what was once a vibrant 19 year-old girl turned into a lifeless, unrecognizable body.

Pages fourteen to sixteen are hard to get through: descriptions of the body alongside police reports and views are shared. Pages fifty-six to sixty are even harder to read: the description of the events that happened before, during, and after the murder told alongside the coroner’s diagrams and analysis of the murder.

The sensationalist cover of the book is a warning in itself: a bloody screwdriver.

Priest started her reporting career at the Windsor Star, moved to the Ottawa Citizen, and later covered the Helen Betty Osborne murder case for the Winnipeg Free Press. Conspiracy of Silence, her first book, is the outgrowth of her coverage of Osborne’s brutal killing and the trial of her killers.

Doing what conventional journalists do, Priest, a white woman, gives you the dirt that most people want to read — it’s her training, her job, and her cultural background. There is a sympathetic tone throughout; there is good investigative work on every page; there is the sense of exposing a wrong that needs to be justified; but there is also Priest’s own unchecked assumptions and racism.

The “cold” in the first line of Priest’s book is transferred to her zombification of Aboriginal women:

Native women hung out on the streets…they had been waifs who had been turned out on the street either because their parents didn’t want them or because they cost too much to feed. They were neither beautiful nor attractive. They craved affection in any form…They were malnourished, with dried eyes, prematurely wrinkled faces, and round bellies due to starchy diets of bannock…They stood leaning sloppily to one side. Some of them sniffed glue to get over the beating from the night before, but all were helpless because they had nowhere to sleep except under the railroad bridge

At times like these you wonder what Priest is trying to do. Does justice come through villainous jabs? Is empathy practiced through disempowerment? Is truth to be exposed through sweeping, racist statements?

None of the Aboriginal women this writer knows fit Priest’s description. Published in 1989, the description of Aboriginal women in Conspiracy of Silence is a part of the larger conspiracy to keep the epidemic of the 800+ MISSING and MURDERED Aboriginal women of Turtle Island from the world. Canada, a safe haven for millions who come from other lands, is unsafe for the life-givers of the original peoples. If and when news gets out that Aboriginal women are under attack with the support of government and police inaction, the response given is a description like the one Priest gives, along with blame laid on the women.

One of the biggest things activists both Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal are fighting is the stigma of Aboriginal women that Priest promotes in her book. In a book that is supposed to fight the problem, Priest willfully adds to it.

And big media wonders why there is such distrust by Aboriginal peoples.

Such distrust is hundreds of years old, resulting from a reality that many peoples globally know all to well: colonization. Throughout her book Priest recounts the distrust of white people, men in particular, by Osborne. And she lays the setting well for such distrust. The Pas was white and brown with the two sides not getting along. Priest describes situations that many Canadians do not know of, and which are thought to be practiced by Americans down south, not here in Canada:

They [Aboriginals] sat on the left side of the theatre — the only seats Indians were allowed to take. Otherwise they ran the risk of being kicked out or the usher would make a point of embarrassing them by loudly directing them to the other side, to the sneers of most whites

Priest follows her movie theatre description with the many names that Osborne and The Pas’ Aboriginal community were called regularly:

  • “f-cking squaw”
  • “dirty Indian whore”
  • “potato”
  • “the only good Indian is a dead Indian”

It’s no wonder Osborne did not trust white people: As Priest describes that relationship, “To her, The Pas resembled every cowboy and Indian movie she had seen,” writes Priest. “Natives were merely the Bulls-eye in a town dartboard.” In Osborne’s case, darts were not used; two screwdrivers were the instruments of choice by four white boys looking for some fun.

There are no mug-shots of Osborne’s killers in Priest’s book. The four boys — Jim Houghton, Lee Colgan, Dwayne Johnston, Norm Manger — are shown with smiles, wearing shirts and ties, looking more like avid church goers as opposed to the drunk rapists and murderers that they are. Is the effect to show that anyone can do such a thing? Or that the boys were the complete opposite of how Priest describes Aboriginal women: dirty, desperate, drugged up and lost?

The one photo in the book of Helen Betty Osborne is that of a reserved girl sitting with her hands on her lap. Priest paints a good picture of her. Osborne is described as “strong willed, bright, and humorous, someone who knew how to have fun.”

Osborne was also studious and a success story on her reserve, Norway House, a Swampy Cree community.

To Priest, Osborne is the one Aboriginal who was worth something and describes her as the complete opposite of the zombies she portrays Aboriginal women to be. “She was pretty, domestic, traditional, very pleasant are rarely traveled without her black-beaded rosary,” she writes. Osborne did drink and was in the drunk tank a few times but she was not down in the dumps the way Priest describes Aboriginal women to be.

For a book that is about the murder of an Aboriginal woman, much of the book is focused on the four killers and their lives before and after the murder. Priest gives in depth information on their childhoods, education, relations with townspeople, and their marriages and jobs during the sixteen years after Osborne was killed.

What is greatly missing from Priests book are the lives of Osborne’s family and her community in the sixteen years after she was gone. What did they do? How did they go on after Osborne was killed? How did Osborne’s murder affect future generations? Why focus on the white people and leave out the Aboriginal side?

There are things Priest points out that reflect issues still present today:

  1. Native and Metis women felt unsafe around white men after Osborne’s murder
  2. The Native community felt cops and government did not pursue the case the same way they would if it was a white woman who was murdered
  3. 40 percent of peoples incarcerated in the prairies at the time were Aboriginal. That figure has now risen to 70 percent.
  4. White people of The Pas lived on like nothing happened
  5. The case, Priest says, “reeked of racism” with its “police laziness”

A major point made in the book is that Osborne was not a victim. She was a warrior who fought four men the best she could. The killers are quoted at various points telling how Osborne never gave in to their requests for sex and never gave up trying to escape through throwing punches at her kidnappers and yelling for help until her end.

“No white man will ever have sex with me,” she yelled to her killers. She is described as having “resisted fiercely”, saying “No!” from the start, pushing away the bottle the killers were trying to force her to drink from, and exchanging punches with Dwayne Johnston: “Betty and Johnston swung at each other while she continuously screamed for help.”

Priest also takes the town to task throughout the book. She tells of how the entire town knew who the killers were and stayed quiet for ridiculous reasons. Steve Maskymetz, a friend of killer Lee Colgan, said to Lee after he confessed about the murder, “I know about it — everybody in town knows about it … Maskymetz said he didn’t go to the police because he thought they already knew about it and, if they didn’t, it wasn’t his responsibility to tell them.”

Would it have been Maskymetz’s responsibility if four Aboriginal men killed a white woman?

A desk clerk at a hotel in The Pas is quoted as telling a reporter during the trial, “It’s nothing we aint heard before,” referring to the town knowing about the murder all along.

According to Priest, Lee Colgan bragged to the town about killing an Aboriginal woman, glorifying the murder through detailed accounts at parties, bars, and one on one conversations with people. Priest aptly describes the conspiracy of silence she named her book: “The townspeople, now familiar with gossip that Lee Colgan, Jim Houghton, Dwayne Johnston, and Norm Manger had been involved, were tight lipped with the Mounties.” As Priest writes, that knowledge didn’t stop the townspeople from carrying on as if nothing had happened: “The rumors however, didn’t stop townspeople from talking to the boys and their parents or inviting them out to parties, dinners, and Sunday barbecues: they just never mentioned that very unfortunate evening.”

Unfortunate? That is a large understatement. And how could the white townspeople live with themselves? Priest makes it obvious how Aboriginal women were not valued by the white people of The Pas. Again, her descriptions of Aboriginal women did not, and do not help matters.

Priest does point out a reality that held then and holds now: If the killers murdered Osborne for fear of police and townspeople finding out they had kidnapped an Aboriginal woman and tried getting her drunk so as to rape her, there was no need. During the trial, George Dangerfield, the Crown Attorney for the case, said “…do you think that anyone would have taken any real note of her complaint.”

The tone Priest’s writing conveys is one of a town that saw Osborne as the victim of her own demise, the implied reasoning being that if she had allowed the four men to assault her, she would have survived. Under this worldview, Aboriginal women have no rights, should comply to what white people want them to do, and are expendable sex objects for white men.

An all-white jury was chosen for the trial of Dwayne Johnston and Jim Houghton. Lee Colgan and Norm Manger were given immunity in exchange for their testimonies. Houghton was found innocent due to a lack of of evidence. Dwayne Johnston was given a life sentence with eligibility of parole after serving ten years.

Conspiracy of Silence is titled appropriately. Priest tells the story of the most well known case of an Aboriginal woman murdered in Canada and how a town helped cover it up. Sadly, there are over 800 more, and counting, who have experienced, and will experience, similar brutalities like the one Helen Betty Osborne did. A new book linking all this would be great.

Questions do remain: How does Priest view Aboriginal women today? Has she checked her own racism and sweeping generalizations? What does Priest think of the 800+ Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Women in Canada? How many more Aboriginal women in The Pas or nearby towns have been murdered or gone missing since Helen Betty Osborne? What is life like now in The Pas? Have Aboriginal and white relations improved in The Pas? Where are the Helen Betty Osborne’s killers now? Do people know they killed a woman and got away with murder? Have the police in The Pas changed the way they investigate violence against Aboriginal women? How are Osborne’s family and community doing today?

Priest’s summation of the case is as apt of the title: “Justice failed Betty Osborne; four white boys and a silent town conspired against her,” she writes. “A foreign world stole her dignity little by little, until finally, it killed her. Then it tried to ignore her murder.”