Helen Betty Osborne

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Helen Betty Osborne, or Betty Osborne (July 16, 1952 – November 13, 1971), was a Cree Aboriginal woman from Norway House reserve who was kidnapped and murdered while walking down Third Street in The Pas, Manitoba.


Osborne was born in Norway House, Manitoba, the eldest of many children born to Joe and Justine (née McKay) Osborne. Her ambition was to go to college and become a teacher. However, the only way to succeed in doing so was to continue her education away from the reserve as secondary education was not available. She spent two years at Guy Hill Residential School, just outside The Pas, Manitoba, a culturally-mixed town of European Canadians, Métis and Cree people. In the fall of 1971 she went to live with a European Canadian family in a government programme where the families were reimbursed for hosting Native students, and Helen Betty attended Margaret Barbour Collegiate there in The Pas.

On the evening of her death, she had spent the evening with friends at The Northern Lite Cafe and then at the Bensons' place (where she was staying) before heading back downtown. Around midnight, Osborne's friends returned home; very little is known of Osborne's whereabouts or actions after this time. She was walking home at approximately 2:30am when she was abducted, brutally beaten, sexually assaulted, stabbed over 50 times, and killed.[1] The following day Kenny Gurba, a fourteen-year-old in the town, grew tired of fishing and went off looking for rabbit tracks when he discovered her unclothed body. He and his father reported the discovery to the police.

Murder investigation[edit]

Police at first suspected her ex-boyfriend, Cornelius Bighetty, but his name was cleared after successfully passing a lie detector test. She and Cornelius had an argument earlier in the evening at the Cambrian Hotel. During the initial days of the investigation, attention was placed on Betty's friends. Unfortunately, unacceptable recording and preserving of evidence at the Pump House (the crime scene) seriously crippled the investigation.[2]

Dwayne Archie Johnston, James Robert Paul Houghton, Lee Scott Colgan and Norman Bernard Manger, four young, Caucasian men from The Pas, were eventually implicated in her death; however, it was not until December 1987, sixteen years after her death, that any of them were convicted of the crime. It was at this time that Constable Rob Urbanoski took over the investigation and placed an ad in the local newspaper asking for witnesses to come forward. Even then, only Johnston was convicted, as Houghton had been acquitted, Colgan had received immunity for testifying against Houghton and Johnston, and Manger was never charged.

The Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission conducted an investigation into concerns surrounding the length of time involved in resolving the case. The Commission concluded that the most significant factors prolonging the case were racism, sexism and indifference of white people. She was more than a victim of a murder, but a victim of discrimination by her town.[3]

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police officially closed the Osborne case on February 12, 1999.


A formal apology from the Manitoba government was issued by Gordon Mackintosh, Manitoba's Minister of Justice, on July 14, 2000. The apology addressed the failure of the province's justice system in Osborne's case. The province created a scholarship in Osborne's name for Aboriginal women.

The small town of The Pas, Manitoba is still affected by this event. Recently, there has been a movement by the Aboriginal community to make strides in building healthier communities and this is having a positive impact on the town and surrounding community.

As a way to remember Helen Betty Osborne, the town of Norway House named the school after her.

On March 26, 2008, the Osborne family again grieved as her brother was found slain in his apartment in downtown Winnipeg. It was Winnipeg’s sixth homicide of 2008.

Cultural references[edit]

On December 2, 2008, a graphic novel entitled 'The Life of Helen Betty Osborne' was launched by The Helen Betty Osborne Memorial Foundation. The purpose of the graphic novel was to educate youth about racism, sexism and indifference.

Canadian Indie-Folk Rock band The Wooden Sky has produced a four-song EP entitled "The Lonesome Death of Helen Betty Osborne" and has also released a song with the same title on their full-length album "When Lost At Sea" in recognition of Osborne. Lyrics to the song depict the night of Osborne's murder.

Robert Munsch, a renowned Canadian author of children's books, discussed his experience of being walked to the grave of Helen Betty Osborne one year before her perpetrators were captured. He discussed how this single incident lead to a complete evolution not only in his writing as a children's author, but in his investment into culture, the direction of his philanthropy, and especially in his philosophy of life.[4]

The Osborne case is a considered an influence on Tomson Highway's The Rez Sisters (1986). The character Zhaboonigan Peterson, a mentally challenged young woman, performs a monologue in which she describes being raped by two white men with a screwdriver (Osborne was stabbed 56 times with a screwdriver). Highway attended junior high school in La Pas and graduated a year before Osborne's rape and murder.

In 1991 a TV miniseries about the Osborne kidnapping and murder was made entitled Conspiracy of Silence.


  1. ^ [1]
  2. ^ [2]
  3. ^ cf. What Detectives Hide from You: The Story of Helen Betty Osborne. A Case that has been Unsolved for Nearly Twenty Years, but Why?, by Allison Moua. She refers to Intersectionality.
  4. ^ [3]


  • Priest, Lisa. Conspiracy of Silence.
  • Culhane, Dara. Their Spirits Live within Us: Aboriginal Women in Downtown Eastside Vancouver Emerging into Visibility, in American Indian Quarterly 27 (2003): pp. 593-606.
  • Gibson, Lisa. "Innocence and purity vs. deviance and immorality: the spaces of prostitution in Nepal and Canada" Institute of Development Studies, University of Sussex, Brighton. MA Thesis. September 2003.
  • "Conspiracy of Silence". Telefilm. 1991.
  • Robertson, David. The Life of Helen Betty Osborne.

External links[edit]