30 years after Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, too little done to protect Indigenous women and girls, critics say

When the 1991 report of Aboriginal Justice Inquiry was released, one of its priorities was clear — to come up with ways for Manitoba’s justice system to better protect Indigenous women and children from harm.

Now, on the 30th anniversary of the report, a disturbing reality is clear, critics say: the murders keep happening. The missing remain missing.

“There is a disregard towards the life of our people,” said Percy Ballantyne, an Indigenous rights advocate whose former partner, Josephine Martin, has been missing since 2015.

“There are very poor investigations … of these people that disappeared from the face of the Earth.”

The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, commissioned by the Manitoba government in 1988, was mandated to investigate the depths of racism in Manitoba’s justice system, through a forensic probe of both the 1971 homicide of Helen Betty Osborne and the 1988 police shooting of J.J. Harper.

Percy Ballantyne says little has changed since the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry released its report three decades ago: ‘People that are involved in the justice system are still very ignorant towards Native people,’ he says. (Jeff Stapleton/CBC)

Osborne, 19, was abducted, beaten, burned and stabbed more than 50 times in the northern Manitoba town of The Pas on Nov. 13, 1971. It was more than 15 years before anyone was convicted in her death.

In March 1988 — just months after Johnston was convicted — Island Lake Tribal Council executive director J.J. Harper, 37, was fatally shot during an encounter with a Winnipeg police officer.

The officer, Const. Robert Cross, was quickly cleared by the police chief of any wrongdoing, leading to an outcry from Indigenous leaders and the formation of the AJI.

The commission concluded the police investigation into Harper’s shooting “was, at best, inadequate.”

Report ‘just collected dust’

Their resulting report made 296 recommendations, some of which were specifically designed to better protect Indigenous women and girls.

Among those recommendations, it called for better co-ordination between police, social workers and abuse teams to deal with women involved in domestic violence.

It also called for more community-based policing in predominantly Indigenous populations, and cross-cultural training among police officers and justice officials.

“There’s been some effort on behalf of policing institutions to forge a better relationship with the Indigenous community now. And I know because I’ve seen some of the things,” said Nahanni Fontaine, the justice critic for the Manitoba NDP and an advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

“I’ve had the benefit of sitting on the RCMP Aboriginal advisory committee and the Winnipeg city police Aboriginal advisory committee, both of which were born out of the [AJI] recommendations.”

The AJI report also called for more Indigenous-led safe houses and supports for vulnerable women.

In 2020, the federal government committed about $44.8 million over five years to build 12 new shelters to “help protect and support Indigenous women and girls experiencing and fleeing violence.”

Meanwhile, Indigenous communities and grassroots activists are now speaking out and demanding justice, Fontaine said.

The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry’s co-commissioner, former Sen. Murray Sinclair, who co-wrote the recommendations, agreed.

Many of the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry’s recommendations have not been fully implemented because of ‘pushback from institutions within society,’ says former senator and AJI co-commissioner Murray Sinclair. ( Kim Kaschor/CBC)

“There’s willingness on the part of the Indigenous community to start standing up for themselves” Sinclair said.

However, “there is this pushback from institutions within society,” he added.

As a result, most of the AJI’s recommendations have not been fully implemented.

“There are a lot of wonderful recommendations out to improve the justice system,” Percy Ballantyne said.

“But the justice inquiry [report] has actually just collected dust, sitting on the shelf.”

Missing or murdered

Meanwhile, Indigenous women and girls continue to be targeted.

Annie Yassie: missing. Amanda Cook: murdered. Evelyn Kebalo: murdered. Elizabeth Dorion: missing. Cherisse Houle: murdered. Tina Fontaine: murdered.

Old cases and new, all unsolved. 

“I don’t think that we can honestly say that we’ve seen the results that we want to see and that we deserve to see, because there are still incidents,” the NDP’s Fontaine said.

Josephine Martin, like Helen Betty Osborne before her, went missing from the streets of The Pas in 2015. The 58-year-old was last seen near Giant Tiger, a favourite store of hers. Since then, no one has heard a word from her.

Josephine Martin disappeared in The Pas in 2015, 34 years after Helen Betty Osborne was murdered in the northern Manitoba town. (Submitted by Tanya Martin)

“Still to this day, she hasn’t been located and nobody knows what happened to her,” Ballantyne said. “Josephine Martin is a sad case.”

Martin is one of an estimated 1,500 missing or murdered Indigenous women and girls across Canada. But that estimate only includes the ones we know about, Fontaine said.

“There are so many Indigenous women and girls that we don’t know their names, because those historical records have never been kept,” the MLA said.

“So what are the actual numbers, right? Like, what is it?”

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