Why Native Women Go Missing (Part 2)

Women lucky enough to have survived the Sixties Scoop rarely returned to the reservations from which they had been taken. Most of them eventually ended up in large cities that already had a substantial Native presence. There may have been many casualties among Native women during this period, but stories about dead Indians didn’t usually make the daily newspapers. It wasn’t until 1967 that Rose Roper was murdered in Williams Lake. She had been raped and beaten and was left bleeding with a broken neck in a snow bank. Rose Roper was born into a poverty-stricken family with an alcoholic father who beat his wife and raped his own children. After 13 painful years in a residential school, when she returned home Rose was destined to a brutal confrontation with racism. She was picked up by four young men from Williams Lake. They drove her to a deserted area outside of town where they brutally raped and killed her. The men left her to die in the darkness, then went to a party where they displayed Roses’ underpants on the aerial radio antenna of their car.

A reflection of the racist white male attitude towards Aboriginal women was displayed by the local media and the residents of Williams Lake. They were not outraged that four men had raped and killed a Native woman. To the contrary, the media portrayed Rose as an Indian prostitute—which she was not—who got what she deserved, and the good citizens were incensed that three upstanding young men were being dragged through the gutter because of some Indian trash. The trial was a farce that ridiculed justice and showed clearly that even the police and the judiciary system looked down on Native women with contempt. Two of the men were released without any punishment (not even a warning from the judge), and the third accused was fined two hundred dollars. Not surprisingly, neither the CBC nor any major newspaper such as the Globe and Mail ever mentioned Rose Roper or her unjust trial.

History repeated itself on November 13th, 1971. Four years after Rose’s murder, a nineteen year old Helen “Betty” Osborne from The Pas, Manitoba, was forced into a car by four men and driven to an isolated area outside of town. The three men subsequently raped her and beat her to death. The autopsy report stated the victim was stabbed fifty three times with a screwdriver, and her face was beaten so badly that she was barely recognizable to anyone who knew her. The investigation took years, but finally in 1987, sixteen years after the crime, charges were brought against three of the four men. Two were acquitted; one was convicted and sentenced to life in jail but only served ten years.

What took justice so long? The Aboriginal Justice Implementation Commission (AJIC) conducted an inquiry and came to the conclusion that the most important factor obstructing justice in this case was the “failure of members of the non-indigenous community to bring forward evidence that would have assisted the investigation. The question remains however, why the police waited more than ten years to publicly seek the assistance of the community.”

Dwayne Johnson was the only one of the four men to go to jail for his crime. He showed no remorse at all for the viciousness of his actions; in fact, before his arrest he had actually bragged at a party that he had “stabbed and kept stabbing that squaw.” Beyond the senseless brutality of the crime, the admission reveals how deeply ingrained his hatred for Native women truly was and how long it had been festering, just waiting for the right moment to surface. A fundamental question remains: how could an eighteen-year-old boy unleash such a homicidal fury against someone who had never harmed him?

Helen was a woman whose only crime was being Indian. Emma LaRocque, professor or Native Studies at the University of Manitoba, believes that Helen Betty Osborne was murdered because the young men involved “grew up with twisted notions of ‘Indian Girls’ as ‘squaws’.”  Helen’s attempt to fight off the sexual advances of these men challenged their racist expectations that an Indian “squaw” should show subservience. In the Algonquin language, the term “squaw” simply means woman, but during the years that the residential schools operated, Native culture was ridiculed and Native people were looked down upon. The term “squaw” was appropriated, twisted, and redefined to reduce Native women to lesser human beings undeserving of the normal respect granted any other human being.

Helen Osborne’s murder and the years it took to be resolved ultimately inspired a television show based on her life and death. It also attracted enough media attention to make people realize that bodies of murdered Aboriginal women were being discovered in Vancouver, Winnipeg, Saskatchewan, Regina, and along the Highway of Tears in British Columbia. It took many years for the words “serial killer” to be used in the same sentence as “murdered Aboriginal women.” But eventually one man would define the word, and his name was Robert Pickton, convicted of the murders of six women and charged with the murders of 20 more. Pickton wasn’t the first serial killer to prey on Native women, but he was living proof that psychopaths were indeed preying on them.

One of the first was a barber with a serious drinking problem and an obsession with murdering Native women. Gilbert Paul Jordan didn’t look like a serial killer. Short and of slim build, he was bald on top and wore thick black-rimmed glasses that gave the impression he might work in a library. He had a slight resemblance to actor Jim Backus and an unassuming manner, plus a love for strong liquor which disguised the dangerous side of his persona. Jordan had the perverse habit of luring a woman with free drink, then forcing a lethal amount of alcohol down her throat. His favourite line was probably “Down the hatch, baby!”  followed by a challenge: “Twenty bucks if you drink it down. See if you’re a real woman.” He never physically assaulted any of his victims; his psychopathic urges mixed with his love for alcohol were both gratified when he left his victims comatose in some sleazy hotel room. By the time he was finally arrested in 1987, five Native women had been poisoned by him and his sixth victim (a white woman named Vanessa Buckner) was found dead in a room at the Niagara Hotel. Jordan ended up serving only six of the eight years he was sentenced. He never showed the slightest remorse. “I didn’t give a damn who I was with.” Jordan told the Vancouver Sun, “I mean, we’re all dying sooner or later, whether it’s in this bar, across the street or whatever.”