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Call to Action # 41: Justice (25-42)

Northern Manitoba families who’ve lost women and girls hold each other up

June 25, 2024

Families of Christine Wood, Hillary Wilson, Claudette Osborne speak out

Some of the women and girls loved and missed from northern Manitoba. Photo: Austin Apetagon/NOMVD Media 

APTN News: They’re members of a group no one wants to join.

First Nations families from northern Manitoba who’ve lost women and girls to brutal crimes, usually in the provincial capital of Winnipeg about 800 kms to the south.

“There was quite a few that was murdered from Norway House,” says Mary Hudson, a grandmother from the Cree Nation located on the bank of the Nelson River. “One was found on the outskirts of Winnipeg. (Hillary) Wilson.”

Wilson was killed in 2009 and her body found in a wooded area outside Winnipeg. She was a cousin of Helen Betty Osborne, whose shocking 1971 abduction, rape and murder in The Pas., Man., was the first time Canadians heard about the ongoing crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG).

The cousins were from Norway House, the second-biggest reserve in Manitoba with about 7,500 people, and a family line that has experienced more than its fair share of trauma.

That’s why Darlene Osborne, a former classmate of Helen Betty’s and an aunt of Hillary’s, started a healing camp to honour the lives of Indigenous women, girls, and gender diverse people who have gone missing or been murdered, and their families.

She says 75 families attended the annual event in Sea Falls – a stunningly beautiful campground on Norway House territory – from May 28 to June 2.

Sea Falls is a park in Norway House Cree Nation territory and the site of a recent healing gathering for MMIWG families. Photo: Austin Apetagon/NOMVD Media

“The reason I’m supporting this gathering is (because) my granddaughter got murdered back in December 2018,” says Charlie Muchikekewanape. “She was found in The Pas. Somebody went and beat her up.”

Fifteen-year-old Darcie Muchikekewanape was viciously assaulted by a man from Pukatawagan Cree Nation.

“What he did was kicked her in the head with steel-toed boots,” says Muchikekewanape. “I kept asking myself, ‘Who in his right mind would kick somebody in the head with steel-toed boots?’ You’re attempting to kill the person by doing that.”

Muchikekewanape doesn’t talk much about the loss.

“This is the first time I share like this with you,” he says. “But this is what happened. Like, it’s not right. I don’t fight any woman. When we were growing up our parents used to say, ‘It’s not fair to fight a woman.’ And I never did lay a hand on my wife.”

Muchikekewanape says the perpetrator was sentenced to one year already served plus another six months and a stint in rehab.

“I got up and got mad and left,” he says about the court hearing. “Sheriff’s (officers) got up and thought I was going to do something. But I didn’t.”

Women gather in the cookhouse to discuss the ongoing violence against Indigenous peoples in Manitoba. Photo: Austin Apetagon/NOMVD Media

The healing camp began in Winnipeg about 10 years ago before moving to Norway House four year later. But Darlene wanted something more.

“We took it to the sweat (ceremony). We asked, ‘What is a better way to heal with the families?’ We were told … the healing takes place on the land, because this is where you’ve always been. So we thought about it and this is our fourth year (at Sea Falls).”

The families sleep in rustic cabins or tents. They wake when they want to homemade meals cooked over an open fire.

“The majority of our families lost their women in Winnipeg,” says Darlene, a former Norway House band councillor. “Some were back in the 1960s and ‘70s; there was never any investigation. These families are (slowly starting to come to the gatherings).

“We have one woman who lost her mother maybe 30, 40 years ago,” added Darlene. “There was never any justice for her. So the daughter is here. There was another one – Charlie’s auntie.”

Muchikekewanape was only a teenager when his aunt was left to die on a nearby island.

“Somebody beat her, some guy,” he says. “Everybody knows this in Norway House. But everybody’s quiet and nobody wants to say anything. There was lots of people saying they know who did it.”

It was like the “conspiracy of silence” that protected Helen Betty’s attackers. Her family had to wait 17 years for a killer to be caught.

Wilson’s family is living a similar nightmare, says her uncle Dwayne Balfour.

“The lead investigator a few years ago, he approached me. He says, ‘We’re getting close. We’re getting close to catching these people.’”

But despite police knowing who did it, the fatal beating of the 18-year-old remains unsolved.

Balfour, relaxing in a camping chair, can hear the rushing water from his seat near the fire. Bird feeders made by children during craft time sway in the breeze.

“I come here to unwind, be at peace, share my story and find other people to connect with,” he says. “The more I talk about it, the more I release it, the more I feel better.”

Seventy-five families may sound like a lot, but Darlene says it’s a fraction of those who are mourning in the north.

“Everyone you see here is affected because we’re related.”

Family members enjoy a boat ride during the healing camp in Norway House Cree Nation. Photo: Austin Apetagon/NOMVD Media

So they’ve forged a commnunity from their pain after finding it too difficult to travel to Winnipeg.

“We don’t want to go to expensive conferences,” added Darlene. “We don’t want fancy gifts. This is a safe place where we feel comfortable.”

The natural setting lends itself to long walks, boat rides and fishing trips.

“I’m not crazy about the drive (from Winnipeg),” admits Balfour, who grew up in Norway House. “But that water. It’s like the water is talking to you.”

The days are filled with traditional ceremonies, local entertainment and powerful speakers – families who share their stories of grief and loss – with grandmothers on standby to provide support and comfort.

“When it gets emotional we tell them, ‘Go for a walk, go to the water, go sit there,” says Darlene. “Then come back.

“It’s just a beautiful feeling that they’re able to do what they want with no pressure on scheduling, no pressure on anything. We take care of them.”

Charlie Muchikekewanape lost a niece and an aunt to crimes against women. Photo: Austin Apetagon/NOMVD Media

“It is very hard to lose our people,” says Florence Sanderson, one of the support grandmothers. “I’m a trained counsellor Level 1. I’m really glad to meet these ladies.”

Christie Osborne, Balfour’s wife, says “people who are in power, who have all these titles of MMIW” should visit the camp.

“It would be nice if they would come. Just to come and see what it’s like, how many families are here.”

Darlene says the costs of the camp are being covered by Norway House, which expects to be reimbursed by the federal government’s MMIWG2S+ healing funds. She hopes another community can host the camp next year.

Spring Abaunza, whose grandmother Beatrice Sinclair was murdered in Winnipeg, drove seven hours from Brokenhead First Nation for a return visit.

She says her first trip to camp in 2023 had an impact on her and her son.

“My son started seeing those missing persons signs as we drove further and further up north,” she says. “He has this little pocketknife and he says, ‘Here mom, you can keep it in your purse … I made the connection he was getting worried about how many Indigenous people were missing.”

Local stylists were on hand to provide haircuts and self-care treatments. Photo: Austin Apetagon/NOMVD Media

Christie is grieving not only for her niece, Wilson, but her cousin Brenda Osborne’s daughter, Claudette Osborne, who disappeared in Winnipeg in July 2008.

Christie is also a cousin of Helen Betty’s and the great-aunt of Felicia Solomon Osborne, who was murdered after she vanished in Winnipeg in March 2003 in another case that remains unsolved.

Felicia’s partial remains were found in the Red River near downtown Winnipeg two months later.

“Her family buried what they had here in the community,” says Darlene. “It was traumatic.”

The camp held a special ceremony this year to recognize Brenda for her unending search for her daughter and actions to raise awareness about MMIWG.

The violence that has claimed so many of their relatives in Winipeg stokes fear.

As does the confession of a serial killer on trial for murdering four Indigenous women who  admits he was “racially motivated”.

“I know how dangerous Winnipeg is,” says Tamara Osborne, a cousin of Felicia’s and mother of two who recently kicked her drug addiction and returned to Norway House from the city.

A family takes a break to walk along the water. Photo: Austin Apetagon/NOMVD Media

She says she turned to drugs after “the trauma” of losing her children to the foster care system.

“I drank and I (did) meth. That helped my heart break. It helped so much that I could not get off it. I was so scared to die from loneliness and heartbreak … Then I forgot what I was lonely for.”

Tamara knows she was vulnerable in the city and says she did what she could to stay safe.

“I did not sell myself,” she says. “I walked. I did not steal. I talked. And I went to the places that did offer meals (and counselling and shelter) … there were a lot of other Norway House women there.”

For the first three months she disappeared she thought nobody cared about her.

“Guess who searched for me for three months?” she says. “My welfare worker. She didn’t give up on me …

“I’m so sorry about your (missing and murdered) relatives. I would have been one myself. Many times. I’m not kidding.”

Darlene says the families have to help each other because the services and supports are based in Winnipeg.

“We are forgotten,” she says simply.

Darlene Osborne (centre) and others at the MMIWG healing camp. Photo: Austin Apetagon/NOMVD Media

The parents of Christine Wood, another Cree woman slain in Winnipeg, share their tragic story on the last day of camp.

Darlene sits and listens as Melinda and George Wood reveal heart-wrenching details of their daughter’s August 2016 disappearance, missing persons search, police investigation and criminal trial of her killer.

They speak in Cree and English throughout their 90-minute presentation.

Melinda says Christine was 17 when she moved to Winnipeg from Bunibonibee First Nation (also known as Oxford House) to take extra courses before enrolling in university. Christine was the baby of the family; the only girl after three boys.

“I trusted her,” says her mom. “She did it on her own. And, at that age, I was proud of her.”

At 21, when Melinda’s mother was diagnosed with cancer and scheduled for tests, Christine joined her parents at a Winnipeg hotel. She said she would see her friends later that night.

She met up with a man she met online and was never seen again. Her body was found 10 months later buried in a shallow grave in a farmer’s field. Brett Overby was convicted of second-degree murder in 2019.

George and Melinda Wood share the heartbreaking story of the disappearance and murder of their daughter, Christine, in Winnipeg. Photo: Austin Apetagon/NOMVD Media

Leading up to the trial, Melinda says George started doing something he’d never done before.

“He’s been praying every day, morning and night,” she says. “(He) never stopped praying to this day. It changed him.”

As they sit side by side on an outdoor stage, they are overcome with emotion. Even the birds are quiet as Melinda’s voice quakes.

“I don’t know where I would have been if I didn’t attend these healing gatherings,” she says. “… I try to comfort other families with my experience. I know their pain. I know what they went through. What they’re still going through.”

George, sniffling, is pleased Christine’s memory lives on.

“My niece had a daughter not long after (the trial) and she named her daughter after our daughter,” he says.

“…It’s part of your healing to celebrate her life,” he added. “During her birthdays (we) eat her favorite foods. At Christmas, we set a plate on the side for her (and) her spirit.”

The excruciating ordeal left the Woods physically, mentally and financially exhausted. They were in debt after paying out of pocket for gas, meals and hotel rooms in Winnipeg to search for their daughter.

Grandmother Sarah Muchikekewanape speaks about the power of forgiveness at a healing camp. Photo: Austin Apetagon/NOMVD Media

Even the grandmothers aren’t untouched by sorrow.

Florence Sanderson grew up with Myrna Letandre, a woman whose body was discovered buried in the foundation of a Winnipeg rooming house in 2013 years after she’d been reported missing. Her husband, who also murdered and dismembered his second wife, pleaded guilty to killing Letandre in 2015.

Grandmother Sarah Muchikekewanape lost her brother to violence in Norway House. After he was stabbed to death, she says she and her sisters were ordered to clean up the home.

“I was boiled up with anger. We were told ‘to keep our mouths shut’ because of (what was taught at) Indian residential school,” she says. “Our parents and grandparents told us not to talk about other people or what happened or something bad could happen.”

But now, thanks to the MMIWG movement, Muchikekwanape says that’s starting to change.

“It’s so hard to speak and talk about things as Native women or even men,” she says. “That’s the teaching that we had. So we’re starting to learn to open up and talk about things in the right way.”

She says her life was transformed by the power of forgiveness.

“I know I’ll never forget. But our life has to go on. We can be angry and fight amongst each other. (Or forgive) and have what’s left of our life. That’s how I do my healing.”

Support is available for anyone affected by these reports and the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous people. Immediate emotional assistance and crisis support are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week through a national hotline at 1-844-413-6649.

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