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Murder after murder

Can the tragic cycle for aboriginal women be broken?

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Every time Roxanne Morrisseau looks out the window of her 18th floor office in Gatineau, Que., she feels like someone has punched her in the stomach.

From her corner cubicle, Morrisseau can clearly see the green- topped hills of Gatineau Park where her cousin, Kelly Morrisseau, 26, was left to die in a parking lot almost three years ago.

Kelly, seven months pregnant, had been stabbed more than 12 times and was nearly frozen but still alive when a man walking his dog stumbled across her around 5 a.m. Dec. 10, 2006.

She died about an hour later in hospital.

Her killer has never been caught.

 

"It's like putting your heart on hold," Roxanne said. "You wait for answers but nobody talks. The investigation seems to be going nowhere."

For Roxanne, the added torment is that this is not the first time she has faced this heartache.

Fifteen years before Kelly's death, Roxanne's and Kelly's aunt was murdered in Winnipeg. Glenda Morrisseau was 19 when she disappeared on July 17, 1991. Her body was found Aug. 7, 1991, in a St. Boniface industrial area. She was nude from the waist down, had been severely beaten, and had broken cheekbones, a broken jaw and broken eye sockets. It's believed she was struck in the head repeatedly with a blunt object.

Police investigated but got nowhere. Nobody has ever been arrested and the case is still open.

Kelly and Glenda. Two generations of women from the same family whose lives ended in the same tragic way, 15 years apart. Both murders unsolved.

Roxanne Morrisseau said after their aunt's death, she and Kelly were very aware of the danger facing aboriginal women like themselves. They spoke often of what could have been, had only Glenda not been murdered, how it wasn't fair.

"The worst part is me and Kelly grew up with this," said Roxanne. "Now I'm saying the same things about her now."

"ö "ö "ö

Kelly and Glenda Morrisseau are among the estimated 520 aboriginal women who have gone missing or been murdered in Canada in the last four decades.

The Native Women's Association of Canada, through its Sisters in Spirit project, is gradually documenting the names and stories of each one.

So far they've listed 75 women from Manitoba.

Tonight, Canadians will gather to remember these women at 72 ceremonies in 69 cities in every province and territory. It is the fourth annual Sisters in Spirit Vigil.

Sisters in Spirit researchers feel their list isn't complete yet but the common threads running through the narratives are many.

Police who wouldn't listen when a family reported a relative missing. Investigations that were slow out of the gate, and quick to go cold. Media inattention. Public indifference. Families left to fend for themselves.

The underlying currents leading to the deaths are also similar: poverty, domestic abuse, drug addiction and alcoholism, broken families.

Lindsay Mossman, spokeswoman for Amnesty International's campaign on women's human rights, said it is not surprising families are being victimized more than once.

She said aboriginal women are targeted for violence because they are women and because they are aboriginal, a double whammy that has marked them as less worthy, even disposable.

"There is a pattern of racism and sexual violence towards aboriginal women," said Mossman.

A 1996 report found aboriginal women in Canada between 25 and 44 years old are five times more likely than non-aboriginal women to die of violence.

Mossman said the fact Kelly and Glenda Morrisseau died in similar ways in two different cities, 15 years apart, shows the epidemic is not confined to one city.

Roxanne Morrisseau says only one word when asked why she thinks her family has suffered not once, but twice.

Poverty.

Aboriginal women are more than twice as likely as non-aboriginal women to be poor.

The prevalence of poverty -- tied to the lasting impacts of colonialization and residential schools -- is perpetuated by a society which regards aboriginal women as less worthy.

In turn, poverty breeds a host of social problems which perpetuate the cycle of poverty, violence and addictions.

An education, particularly hard to access for poor single mothers, is critical to breaking the mould. But aboriginal women are the least likely in Canada to have finished high school and gone on to college and university.

 

In Manitoba, of the 61,645 aboriginal women over age 15, nearly one in two have not finished high school, while one in 14 has a university degree.

Roxanne Morrisseau believes had their been more support for women like Kelly -- young, poor, and alone with young children -- she'd have been able to make better choices.

"She used to tell me she found it hard to adjust," she said. "There should be more help for single mothers."

Amnesty International last week released a new report demanding a comprehensive national approach to address the systemic problems facing aboriginal women in Canada.

AI wants an end to the piecemeal approach to end discrimination and violence.

Mossman said some initiatives are thoughtful, including Manitoba's task force to look at 30 unsolved cases of missing and murdered women.

But she said one-off task forces are not going to stop the cases from coming.

"By and large, there has been no national response," said Mossman. "While some communities are doing great work, we have no national strategy."

She said the overarching aim is to start digging at the root causes of the racism that underlies many of the statistics, start getting Canadians to understand why aboriginal women are more likely to be poor, more likely to be in vulnerable situations, and stop blaming the victims.

"We need to start changing attitudes," said Mossman.

Of the 520 cases documented by NWAC thus far, more than half occurred in the last nine years. More than 340 are murder cases, and 45 per cent of those are unsolved.

An NWAC spokesperson earlier this year pointed out that could mean there are 150 murderers walking around free.

The more that go unsolved, the more aboriginal women will remain targets, says Mossman.

"Because of underlying racism and sexism, these men feel they will get away with it," said Mossman.

**********************

Racism and sexism towards aboriginal women led to the rape and murder of Helen Betty Osborne in The Pas, Manitoba on Nov. 13, 1971. They also were factors in the inability of police to solve the crime for more than 15 years.

Police knew who did it but they didn't collect the evidence that was available and the witnesses wouldn't talk.

Her murder and the slow investigation resulted in a major public inquiry looking at justice for aboriginal people in Manitoba.

The lessons learned from it were supposed to be the ones that started to change things.

Her family knows intimately that hasn't happened.

In the last six years, two of Helen Betty Osborne's cousins have joined her as statistics.

Felicia Solomon was just 16 when she didn't come home from school on March 25, 2003. In a gruesome turn, a leg and an arm found in the Red River three months later, were ultimately identified in October 2003 to be Felicia's. Her killer has never been found.

On July 24, 2008, Claudette Osborne left the Lincoln Motor Hotel on McPhillips Street after leaving a phone message for her sister, Tina, that she was afraid and wanted to be picked up.

She has not been seen or heard from since.

Mossman said Helen Betty Osborne's case is one of the most well-documented and clearest examples of racist and sexualized violence towards aboriginal women.

"It's a case we learn about to understand and discuss the lack of justice for aboriginal people," she said. "To find out years later aboriginal women she is related to (had the same fate) shows this is a real human rights crisis and Canada is not making it a priority."

Claudette Osborne's mother Brenda was nine years old when her cousin and babysitter, Helen Betty Osborne, was murdered. She remembers a beautiful young woman who loved to look after her family, had dreams of being a teacher and used to make toys for her cousins.

Nearly 40 years later, Brenda Osborne said her family struggles under the weight of the tragedies.

"It's hurts every day getting up," she said. "Every day you want news and you don't get it."

When Felicia died the memories flooded back.

"I thought, 'it's hurting all over again'," said Brenda.

Claudette, Brenda said, was "traumatized" by her cousin's murder and Brenda hoped maybe it would be the jolt that would bring her daughter out of danger.

"I always thought I didn't wish it to happen to anyone else," she said. "Now it's happening to my daughter."

Claudette's sister, Bernadette Smith, said she doesn't want to accept it but the family does not believe Claudette is still alive.

"She'd never leave her kids," said Smith.

She says it hurts to think that, had there just been a little compassion and a little more outreach, Claudette would probably still be at home with her children.

Claudette Osborne was 21 years old when she disappeared. Just two weeks earlier, she had given birth to her fourth child, a daughter she named Patience. Claudette had spent six months before Patience was born in rehab in St. Norbert, trying to kick a drug addiction that had plagued her since her early teens.

Smith says her sister was sober when Patience was born. But social workers didn't believe it and said they would take the baby away unless Claudette moved out of the home she shared with her fiancé, Matthew Bushby.

Bushby was a good father, but only if Claudette was not around, they said.

Bernadette says the workers offered no help to Claudette. It was just get out or lose the baby completely.

"Matthew is a good father, he has a job and he was supporting them all," said Smith. "But that wasn't enough. They should have worked with her to figure out how to help her. They didn't give her any options."

Claudette was stunned and felt guilty. She didn't want her baby going to foster care so she left and went to stay with friends.

"By the third day, she was back on the street," said Bernadette. "She had been sober for a really long time."

***********

Like Glenda Morrisseau in 1991, Felicia Solomon was a student at R.B. Russell and lived in the West End. Also like Glenda Morrisseau initial reports suggested Solomon was a sex trade worker. It was true of neither of them but the stigma remains and the sting their families felt at the assumption runs deep.

"Just because our daughter was on welfare and she lived on the west side doesn't mean that Felicia was a prostitute, or a gang member or that she was a druggie," said Solomon's grandmother, Darlene Osborne, in an Amnesty report on murdered and missing aboriginal women.

The family feels the label made police careless when Felicia was reported missing. Her mother first called to report her daughter as missing the same day she didn't come home from school. But they turned Matilda Solomon away, saying it was too early to do anything. Officially, the police report wasn't filed until early April, almost two weeks later.

Mossman said aboriginal women are not seen as equals in Canadian society. Whether they are exploited in the sex trade or addicted to drugs or not, the assumption is often that they are and when they disappear the reaction is not the same as if the missing woman were not aboriginal.

"The cases are not taken as seriously," said Mossman.

She said one of the critical issues is to get police to start investigating immediately, to make the connection that when an aboriginal woman goes missing the likelihood she is in serious trouble is quite high.

Mossman added if there is a connection to the sex trade or drug addiction, it shouldn't be used to dismiss the missing persons claims. Rather, police should see those factors as making it even more critical to act quickly.

But in every case in the Morrisseau and Osborne families, the families feel police gave them the lowest priority for the investigation.

It took two weeks for police to begin looking for Claudette Osborne.

"They said she lived a transient lifestyle," said Smith.

By the time the investigation began, the security video at the hotel where Claudette was last seen had been erased. Critical evidence might have been lost.

Smith said police told the family they'd be in touch at least twice a month.

"That never happened," said Smith. "They never called us once. Any communication we've had we've had to initiate."

A spokesperson for the Winnipeg Police Service said there would be no reaction to the accusation.

"Unfortunately, for reasons not provided to me, we will not be accommodating your request," said the spokesman in an e-mail. "However, if any family members involved in any of these cases require clarification or any additional information, we request that they contact the investigators involved in that specific case."

It is a sad repetition of the experience, Helen Betty's mother, Justine, faced. The inquiry found Justine was informed of her daughter's death and periodically updated on the investigation over the first six months or so following the murder. But from 1972 until the first two suspects were arrested in the fall of 1986, Justine Osborne didn't get any information from police about the investigation. Smith also says it felt as if Amber McFarland's disappearance was also considered more important. McFarland, 24 and white, disappeared from Portage la Prairie in October 2008, three months after Claudette Osborne.

Not long after a Crime Stoppers video was released of McFarland's case and Smith said she saw red. No video had been offered for Claudette.

"I called and asked why and was told her family probably knew someone at the RCMP," said Bernadette. "I was like 'am I hearing you right? Why should that matter?"

Roxanne Morrisseau can easily relate.

Just over a year before Kelly's murder, 18-year-old Jennifer Teague was murdered on her way home from her job at a Wendy's restaurant in a southern suburb of Ottawa.

Two years before that, 27-year-old Ardeth Wood disappeared while riding her bike along one of Ottawa's wooded bike paths. A search involving hundreds of volunteers, police and the military followed and her body was found four days after she disappeared, in August 2003.

In both cases there were daily press conferences, constant updates to the public and $50,000 rewards from the Ottawa police budget for information leading to an arrest. Teague's employer, Wendy's, also offered $50,000.

The killers in both cases were eventually caught -- nine months later in Teague's case, two years later in Wood's. Both confessed and are now in jail. Both victims were white.

Gatineau police, which were the chief investigators in Kelly's case because that is where she died, do not usually offer rewards.

A reward of $20,000 was cobbled together for Kelly, partly as people saw the discrepancy in what was offered in her case compared to the other two.

Crime stoppers offered $2,000, as did the Assembly of First Nations. The Society of Obstetricians and Gynecologists of Canada offered $10,000. Public donations make up the rest.

Roxanne says she doesn't want to be pushy but her patience with the police is wearing thin.

She says the family is virtually cut off from any information. Almost three years later they have yet to even get a copy of the coroner's report, despite repeatedly asking for it.

Roxanne called the detective in charge in June to get an update. Three months and several more voice-mail messages later she still hasn't received a return call. She says recently she feared perhaps her calls were being ignored so she asked her coworker if she could call the detective from her co-worker's phone, to display an unfamiliar caller ID.

He answered right away. They made a meeting for Sept. 23. The day before, he cancelled it and said he didn't know when he could reschedule.

******************

Roxanne says her greatest hope, beyond Kelly's killer being caught, is that her cousin not be remembered as a woman with problems but as a mother who loved her kids and wanted more than anything for them to grow up and be happy.

Born Jan. 24, 1979 in Sagkeeng, Kelly grew up in Winnipeg, surrounded by an extended family of brothers, sisters, aunts and cousins, including Roxanne, with whom she was inseparable.

But it was a difficult life, dictated by poverty on the often mean streets of Winnipeg's north and west end neighbourhoods.

By their mid teens, Kelly and Roxanne wanted out. They were both already teenage mothers and the gangs and the drugs that surrounded them were becoming difficult to resist.

So in 1995 they packed up and headed east to Ottawa where they hoped to start over.

Roxanne made it. Kelly never quite did.

It's a burden Roxanne clearly will carry with her the rest of her life.

"If it wasn't for Kelly I wouldn't be where I am today," says Roxanne, her voice choking with emotion. "She sacrificed herself to stay home with the kids so I could go to school."

Roxanne finished high school and then went on to college where she studied aboriginal law and government.

Kelly said when Roxanne was finished, it would be her turn.

But it never happened.

"She wanted to go to college," says Roxanne. "She used to really love my books and she read them and we had some great discussions."

Kelly lived in an Ottawa neighbourhood not much different from the West End Winnipeg community she fled. Drugs and violence were everywhere. She pled guilty to assaulting her boyfriend the summer before she died. She had used drugs. Some reports suggested she had worked in the sex trade.

But the reports of her as a prostitute and drug addict belie the reality of her life and dismiss her death as inevitable.

She was a mother of three with a dazzling smile. A loving sister and cousin who liked nothing more than to cook for her entire family.

When it was somebody's birthday, it was Kelly who made sure there was a cake. She was also the family picture taker.

Like Kelly, Claudette Osborne led a troubled life. Born in Norway House, May 15, 1987, her parents divorced when she was little. She was sexually abused by her mother's boyfriend when she was 12. After that Claudette ran away from home repeated and couldn't for years tell anyone why she didn't go home. By the time she was in her mid-teens, she was pregnant, addicted to drugs and turning to the streets to feed her habit.

She had her first baby at 15.

Repeated stints in rehab and attempts by her family to support her failed.

Her family doesn't want her described as a sex trade worker with kids. They see her as a loving mother who was sexually exploited.

It's maybe a subtle distinction, but an important one.

Kelly and Glenda's, and Felicia and Claudette's families miss them no less than any other family would. Yet they have been made to feel as if their pain and grief are unwarranted.

"That's the biggest frustration," said Smith. "People think just because they (have drug problems or work the streets and live in a certain area) they aren't as worthy," she said.

*******************

It took 15 years for anyone to be arrested for the murder of Helen Betty Osborne.

It has already been six years of more waiting for the Osborne family since Felicia Solomon's murder. Nearly 15 months have passed since Claudette disappeared.

The 18th anniversary of Glenda Morrisseau's death slipped by in July. The third anniversary of Kelly's murder will come this December.

Roxanne Morrisseau said when Kelly was murdered, she tried to comfort herself believing it would not turn out like Glenda's case.

"I hoped this would be different," she said. "I had hope somebody would be caught."

There are some signs for optimism said Mossman. The public pressure which emerged from the deaths of two teenage girls last summer -- Cherisse Houle and Hillary Wilson -- led to the government of Manitoba launching a task force to look at 30 unsolved cases in the province.

"The public is starting to recognize there is a disparity," she said. "There is an increasing understanding of the issue. Public pressure is starting to grow."

She hopes that pressure will continue to work on the federal government. A national database, coordinated efforts across provincial boundaries, and national action on poverty, housing and education are needed, said Mossman.

Right now it's a struggle just to get Ottawa to come to the table with the funding to extend the Sisters in Spirit project. In 2005, the former Liberal government gave the Native Women's Association of Canada $5 million for five years. It was half of what was requested then. The current Conservative government hasn't yet committed to funding it further, though the government says it is willing to talk.

Smith said there are some outreach programs for at-risk girls in Winnipeg now but she said they are just beginning and they aren't widespread enough.

She said she's noticed police are reacting faster now when the girls go missing.

"They are releasing their pictures right away," she said. "That's good."

But she said there needs to be more help to keep the girls from becoming vulnerable in the first place. Priorities are education resources for adults and safe places to go for women who need to get away from a bad situation.

"The resources in our city are far below," she said.

Smith notes Cherisse Houle was in the street outreach program but she still became a victim.

For now, Roxanne Morrisseau gets through each day surrounded by memories. Her cubicle at work is almost a shrine to her cousin. Photos of Kelly's three children, now 15, 7 and 5, are framed and pinned to the walls, alongside photos of Roxanne's own daughters. In a filing cabinet, she has a folder filled with newspaper clippings about the case, and a copy of the sketch of the suspect released by police shortly after Kelly's death.

It unfortunately did not result in an arrest.

She says her biggest fear is that the cycle will not stop.

"It makes me very fearful for my niece, my daughters," said Roxanne. "I get scared for them."

Bernadette Smith says Claudette's kids ask about their mother all the time. Iziah pushes around a toy dump truck with his mother's photo taped into the back. Brenda Osborne says whenever they go out Layla is looking around for her mother.

"We want closure," says Smith. "It's frustrating. You wake up every day thinking is today going to be the day?"

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Portrait of an aboriginal woman in Canada

 

She is twice as likely to be poor (42.7 per cent of aboriginal women live in poverty vs. 20.3 per cent of non-aboriginal women).

She will live an average of five fewer years (average life expectancy of 76.8 vs. 82 for a non-aboriginal woman).

She is twice as likely to smoke. (39 per cent report smoking daily vs 20 per cent of non-aboriginal women)

She is five times as likely to have diabetes (12.5 per cent of aboriginal women aged 35-44, and 7 per cent of aboriginal women 25-34, vs 2.5 per cent of non-aboriginal women in those age groups).

She is 7.5 times more likely to attempt suicide in her teens and 3.5 times as likely to attempt suicide in her 20s.

One in two aboriginal women has a chronic health condition.

One in six reports heavy drinking.

Aboriginal women account for two per cent of the Canadian female population but 29 per cent of women in federal jails and 46 per cent of the women in maximum-security jails.

Half of aboriginal women report being victims of emotional abuse and 57 per cent report being victims of domestic abuse.

Thirty-five per cent of aboriginal women have suffered any form of physical violence, and slightly fewer than one in three report being victims of severe violence including sexual violence.

Aboriginal women are eight times as likely as non-aboriginal women to be victims of spousal homicide.

Between the ages of 25 and 44, aboriginal women are five times more likely to die of violence than non-aboriginal women.

In Vancouver, where serial killer Robert Pickton stalked and abducted his victims, aboriginal women make up one per cent of the total population, but 35 per cent of the homeless population.

 

- Government of Canada, Statistics Canada.

 

 

Sisters in Spirit Vigil 2009

There will be three vigils in Manitoba

 

Winnipeg

Sunday Oct. 4

6-10 p.m.

Odena Circle, The Forks

 

Brandon

Monday, Oct. 5

Brandon Friendship Centre

12 p.m.

 

Portage la Prairie

Sunday Oct. 4

Portage Friendship Centre

7 p.m.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 4, 2009 B1

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