On November 13, 1971, the nude and mangled body of a 19-year-old high school student, treaty Indian 848, lay dumped in the snow-covered bush near a lake north of The Pas, Manitoba.
Fifty-six puncture wounds from a flat lathed screwdriver slashed the body. A blow from a boot had crushed the skull beyond recognition. The autopsy report listed shock and hemorrhaging as the cause of death. The victim’s mother could only identify the eyebrows on the face of her pretty daughter, Helen Betty Osborne. Two of the four men involved in her death were charged; one was convicted of second degree murder-16 years later.
In the early morning hours of March 9, 1988, the body of 36-year-old native leader John Joseph Harper slumped to the snow-covered sidewalk of a westend Winnipeg street. A bullet from a police-issue .38-calibre revolver lodged in his chest, severing his left subclavian artery. Blood gushed out of the hole and onto the boots of a dazed Constable Robert Cross. Cross had stopped to question Harper minutes earlier because he fit the description of a car theft suspect. The two then began a struggle that ended in a single fatal shot.
Harper, executive director of the Island Lake Tribal Council, was pronounced dead within a half hour. Two days later an internal police investigation absolved Constable Cross of negligence.
Sixteen years and 700 kilometres separated the two deaths. But for 529 days during Manitoba’s Aboriginal Justice Inquiry, time and distance would become insignificant when the haunting photographs of Osborne and Harper returned to the front page of Canadian newspapers.
City crews washed the dried blood of the native leader into the street gutter hours after the shooting. But they could not wash away the outrage and frustration left by the red stain. Manitoba’s native community began to look back in anger-and they saw centuries of racial injustice in the deaths of the Indian leader and the high school student.
They saw a justice system numbed by intolerance and ignorance. They saw only nine native officers on Winnipeg’s police force of 1,096. They saw Indian and Metis inmates occupying 56 per cent of the prison cells in a province where natives account for six per cent of the population. And they saw a justice system that allowed Osborne’s murder to go unpunished for almost two decades, but absolved Constable Cross within 36 hours. And this time they demanded a public investigation. In September 1988, six months after the shooting death of Harper, the provincial government passed a peace pipe and set up the native justice inquiry to respond to these accusations. The two-judge commission was to determine whether the police, courts and jails discriminate against Manitoba’s 91,000 natives and Metis. They reviewed court and prison procedures, probation and reintegration programs, native knowledge of judicial proceedings and employment opportunities in this system.
The inquiry travelled Manitoba, visiting 43 communities and 15 correctional facilities. It listened to the testimony of more than 1,000 people at 48 public hearings, two of which probed the Harper and Osborne deaths and subsequent investigations. It became one of the most disturbing and sensational inquiries in the province’s history.
The scab of the past would be ripped loose to expose the raw burn of racism. Manitobans winced under the scrutiny. And a nation stared in curiosity as a province tore itself apart over its private prejudice.
The inquiry would attempt to bring two colliding cultures into a hearing room and sift through testimonies of apathy, ignorance and prejudice to find the truth. It would struggle to do justice to the native issue once and for all.
But Winnipeg’s newspapers, in covering the justice inquiry, failed to do the same.
The commission’s fragile grasp on the issue of racism in the justice system was snatched away by bold headlines; headlines that in trying to untangle, only twisted and tightened the knot of ignorance.
The province’s two major dailies, the Winnipeg Free Press and The Winnipeg Sun, would report the inquiry as an investigation of isolated victims-a teenager and a native leader-and ignore the other 46 hearings into the treatment of natives by Manitoba’s police, prison guards, judges and lawyers. “The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry has spent probably 10 or 20 per cent of its time on Harper and Osborne and 80 per cent of its time on the systemic problems of native justice in Manitoba,” said Jack London, lawyer and professor of law at the University of Manitoba.
“So that’s where you get the skewed version of press reporting. The press has reported the sensational-the murders and not the thousands of pages of transcripts that have detailed the way in which the First Nations people and justice interface or don’t interface in Manitoba,” says London who moderates a Centre for Investigative Journalism panel on inquiry coverage, including the final session, “Did We po Justice to the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry?”
Sidetracked in sensationalism, the story of injustice would remain buried under the grainy photos of Osborne and Harper. And Manitoba’s natives would remain the nation’s forgotten people. Forgotten, at least, until the province’s next native victim becomes another ‘isolated’ tragedy and another suitable front-page photo.
The aboriginal justice inquiry lingered as back-page news for almost a year until the angry voice of an accused town swelled in the August heat of The Pas. The small northern logging town of 6,700 was fingered by its native community as a silent partner in the murder of Helen Betty Osborne. The Pas of the 1970s, with its segregated movie theatre and high school cafeteria, returned to haunt its residents almost 20 years later. Inquiry witnesses labelled the town “The Alabama of the North.”
A town without a conscience became a city of hate when the inquiry moved to Winnipeg and testimony into the shooting death of J.J. Harper in late August.
After II months, the justice inquiry became news to a province-and to a nation. Canadians watched as Manitoba’s internal investigation erupted into a daily drama.
They read testimony of alleged bungled investigations by the RCMP and the Winnipeg police department. They read about a northern town housing racial tensions and four murder suspects, about a police union frustrated and resentful of unrelenting scrutiny, of a police constable traumatized by publicity and considering suicide. And of a police inspector choosing it. Inspector Kenneth Dowson, the officer in charge of the Harper investigation, held his Smith and Wesson service revolver to his temple three hours before he was to testify at the inquiry, calling it a “sacrifice” for the “screwed up” investigation.
They read about a police chief shouting accusations and of a mayor and an attorney general who said things have gone far enough. It was tragic. And it was sensational.
“And then the media took over and it’s downhill from there. The media has turned it into a circus, nothing is private anymore, not even a grieving constable’s mental condition. The media eats it up and the circus act continues. They have no shame.”
(Excerpt from letter written by Winnipeg. Police Inspector Kenneth Dowson to his friend Rex Keatinge shortly before he killed himself on September 20, 1989.)
And then the country watched as Inspector Dowson’s four-page suicide letter wrote the local press into the news.
A city rupturing with frustration and rage was looking for a release valve-and they found it in the inspector’s note. Charges of sensationalism, misquotes, slanted coverage and misinterpretations had found a tragic voice in Dowson’s death.
The city’s two dailies were thrown into the glare of an accusing public, police force and city hall. Winnipeggers began to meticulously measure words and letters to the editor stacked up. Wrote one Winnipegger to the Free Press, “Circumstances in and around the Aboriginal Justice Inquiry point out how convenient it is that members of our police force take the heat for all of us when they mirror the values most of our society communicates daily. Consider your own experience.”
Wrote another, “One of the most important questions facing the public in light of the…inquiry is whether the media have reported the facts, sensationalized the facts, or invented the facts.”
Don MacIver, a lawyer in The Pas, accused the media of “uncovering charges of racism that didn’t seem to exist until reporters started creating them,” according to Janet McFarland, a Winnipeg Free Press reporter who spent 17 days in The Pas covering the testimony.
The messenger was being held accountable for feeding the fires of racism and perverting the inquiry into a theatrical spectacle of victims and villains and suicide.
But Bryan Dunlop, editor of The Winnipeg Sun, says the press can’t be blamed for routine coverage of a provincial investigation. “If we were entirely reactive in this then we were merely a part of the circus-we weren’t the ringmaster-if in fact it was a circus.”
The suicide turned Winnipeg into a sideshow in the national media. Dowson’s death, charged a September 26 Globe and Mail editorial, should serve ”as a stark reminder of the need to move beyond an approach that sometimes seems more directed at fixing blame than on rooting out the cause of a deep societal infection.”
City leaders joined the finger pointers, safe behind a veil of public sympathy over a policeman’s suicide. Robert Lunney, the City Protection Commissioner, passed sentence on reporters at a media conference. Pressed for answers to Dowson’s suicide, Lunney said, “I turn to you and say look around and you’ll have the answer.
And the story of an inquiry into discriminatory justice became, at some subtle point, a twisted battle among the police department, the police union, the inquiry, native leaders and the media.
“In a full two-page quotation found in the Free Press on Sept. 2  regarding this inquiry, where were the questions regarding racism and prejudice within the police department?” asked a frustrated reader in a letter to the editor.
“The association [police union] is continually trying to find loopholes to escape the true story. The news media also had a hand in the process,” wrote another.
Editorials and columns were quick to deny the accusations. If the stories were sensational it was because the inquiry was sensational, they said.
“There’s a truism there-that sometimes the messenger is blamed and if people didn’t like the inquiry they didn’t like the coverage either,” says Winnipeg Free Press columnist Gordon Sinclair. “We just reported on it.”
And they reported on it extensively. “For the first time in our history there was such a coverage of an incident,” says Harry Wood, J.J. Harper’s brother and coordinator of the Island Lake Tribal Council.
In The Pas, the RCMP, impatient with evening newspaper delivery, faxed newspapers to the town from Winnipeg each morning during the Osborne hearings to monitor their reputation in the press.
In Winnipeg, judgments and complaints piled up on Gordon Sinclair’s desk in the Free Press building daily. The city’s love-hate relationship with the outspoken columnist intensified during the inquiry. Sinclair’s series of columns on the Harper hearing, on racism and on a police department verging on collapse, pricked at the conscience of the city. Reader response divided itself in praise and condemnation. The story of the Harper and Osborne hearings had penetrated the psyche of a province and its press. But what the press wrote were testimonies of unchallenged opinion voiced at the inquiry-not proven fact-and not the whole story. “That gives coverage from an inquiry a totally different flavor than most jury trials or court cases,” says Barry Mullin, who as the Free Press ombudsman became both apologist and defender of his paper’s coverage of the inquiry.
The judicial inquiry-caught in ambiguity between a trial of facts and a public hearing of opinions-was leaving the public with assumptions of truth and the press with the subtle power of judge and jury. An inquiry is not a trial-there are no verdicts. There are also no defendants-only witnesses. And those witnesses are allowed to provide opinions without proof because there is no judgment-therefore no due process of law that assumes innocence until proven guilty. Without this burden of proof, lawyers are able to draw conclusions based on opinion not fact. And all this is done under the public’s watchful eye-through reporters.
Reporters synthesized the Osborne and Harper testimony into simple stories of guilt and innocence because they were protected by the inquiry’s loose rules. The inquiry wasn’t restricted by burden of proof, so the press wasn’t either.
Good guys and bad guys became the story and racism became a sidebar. Judgment is easy and unrestricted testimony made it easier. It made for great theatre. It didn’t make for great justice. “That’s the one criticism I would have of the inquiry and probably the media,” says Dunlop. The inquiry got “a lot of play because it probably enforced what a lot of people choose to believe about Indians-and it’s all entirely accurate up to a point. It’s just not the whole story.”
The story became “a morality play of the powerful and the powerless” says Sinclair. And the media and public sat back comfortably and watched. They confined racism to the deaths of Osborne and Harper, to a northern town and a Winnipeg police constable. It was safe that way. The native dilemma for many Winnipeggers was no more than rolling up the car windows and locking the doors as they drove past Main Street’s Indian population.
The media “reacted in a very predictable true-to-form knee-jerk way,” confident in the traditional excuse “that we were the messenger-don’t blame us which in this case was essentially true,” says Dunlop. True, but not necessarily responsible or guilt free.
The press, stifled and protected by the traditional armor of objectivity, became a bystander, writing circles around the issue for fear of touching it. “There was ample opportunity to take it beyond just this reporting of the inquiry; we should have been out there talking to people,” says Mullin. “The press is reactive. If the press were proactive maybe it would be doing these things before the shooting death of Harper. We’re always dragging our feet. We’re never on the front line…of bringing these things to light.”
The press reflected an inquiry of selective and unchallenged views. And reporters tagged along as the Osborne and Harper hearings transformed into something other than the investigation into native justice they’d started out to be. The press gave us the facts and nothing more. And the story became a battle of name calling in a northern town and within the Winnipeg police department. Reactive coverage only records history. It doesn’t attempt to change it.
But simply being reactive, “just the facts,” is a dangerous defence and a comfortable role says Claudia Wright, a University of Winnipeg political science professor who participated in a CBC Radio panel discussion on inquiry coverage. “The press has a tremendous power at its disposal in terms of how it chooses to focus. Simply saying one reports the facts I think is somewhat less than accurate because those facts are always structured in a context,” says Wright. “Distortion comes in focus.”
The press can’t be condemned for doing its job. But it can be criticized for its practice of burying native issues an1ong back-page advertisements and waiting for an issue that has plagued the province’s history to become newsworthy. And when it does, the press sits by, smug in the knowledge that the story will come to their doorstep, then they stereotype and twist the focus when it does.
“It’s not like a John Wayne killing all the Indians all the time,” says Harry Wood. “As far as the media is concerned, they decide what they think people want to hear. It’s ironic though; the people that write those papers first of all know nothing of us. There are certain things happening in our communities, in our street life… that are not mentioned.”
The Winnipeg Free Press published a 24-page award-winning feature on the province’s native dilemma in 1988. One page covered native justice. The feature put a tragic face on the statistics of the nation’s silent people. The newspaper also printed a four-page summary of the inquiry’s mandate on the eve of the investigation. Both articles raised thoughtful and critical questions about the plight of the native in a white man’s justice system. But inquiry coverage failed to attempt any answers. Instead, the Free Press and The Sun focused in-depth coverage on police suicide, police stress, or the stereotypical “View from Mainstreet.”
“There hasn’t been a great deal done to look at the overall picture,” says McFarland. “Where is racism at in Winnipeg and how bad is it?”
The press’ policy on native coverage hasn’t extended beyond the stereotype of drunken Indians slouched in Main Street gutters or beating drums in protest on Portage Avenue because newspapers are reactive, says Mullin.
And coverage, defined by reaction only, is not the total picture. It is not responsible for detecting injustice or intolerance, delivering the issue to the community, educating, and commenting in context of the public interest. It is also not responsible for pursuing the story and the truth when the news peg shrivels or the public tires of it and sends a chilling message to the publisher-a message received after the suicide of a police inspector.
“The coverage was not as wide open as it was before the Dowson [suicide],” says Wood. “I’m wondering whether the media was feeling the impact of some of the statements about sensationalism, misquotes and that they’re being blamed for the death.”
But fears of being accused of fueling racism and editorializing, says Dunlop, produced stagnant coverage. “I don’t think the press, particularly when it came to the inquiry was proactive at all…maybe because we might be accused of fomenting racism.”
Racism is the story that few want to write and even fewer want to read. The press would have been condemned no matter what.
But in simply printing reactive coverage (this is what so-and-so said at today’s inquiry) and shying away from the active struggle (this is what is happening on our streets, in our reserves, in our courts, prisons, police department and city hall) the Free Press and The Sun churned out hit-and-miss coverage.
“Why have the news reporters not been down to city hall asking those kinds of direct accountability questions of city council?” a member of Winnipeg’s city council asked a panel of reporters. “That’s where the ultimate responsibility lies.”
The two dailies failed to put the issue of racism into context for their readers, a generation of Canadians that grew up watching the civil rights movement to the south but has since tucked the images and the consequences away in the past.
“I’m often taken back to the kind of reporting The New York Times did in the late sixties during the large urban riots in the United States,” says Wright. “They compared the status of black people in the ghettos with the status of white people and it showed incredible comparative differences. Those are the kinds of things that print can do.”
The aboriginal justice inquiry offered the press the news peg to deal with native issues in a complete and insightful manner, “a public education rather than just a story of John someone,” says Wood.
But publishers, editors and reporters missed the chance. And the chance not taken has stifled the Canadian newspaper, says Jack London. “I don’t think that we have in Canada, daily media coverage which even pretends to be thorough or educative in the way that The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times or Christian Science Monitor would cover in the States. I think the press is open to that kind of accusation. We tend to have broad rather than narrow casting and tabloid rather than literate newspapers.”
But educative and thorough coverage is an expensive and time-consuming commitment for a profession that works overtime to keep up with the pace and impact of radio and television. It’s a dilemma that requires a change in attitude rather than a punchier headline, says Mullin.
“We’re going to have to change our focus in the next 10 years if we’re going to make newspapers relevant and keep us in step with the electronic media. We’re going to have to look at proactive things-things that we do best.” And the things that newspapers do best, says Mullin, are tracing issues that demand “long protracted digging and following dead ends and trails.” Issues that don’t fit into 30-second television and radio clips.
But at $600 to $990 a week for a reporter, it’s a risky investment. “The bottom-line is always the dollar isn’t it? I wonder what kind of information sources we could be if we became proactive-but that’s up to the owners of the newspapers.”
But, says Mullin, issues such as racism carry their own seeds of destruction as far as thorough coverage is concerned.
“It would be wonderful to explore this whole problem of racism and get it out in the open and put it to rest. But you’d go so far and all of a sudden the doors close and everything is hermetically sealed.”
Sealed by a publisher who won’t spend the money, by a city desk that can’t afford ~he time or the manpower and by a community that wrings its hands in frustration but would rather not talk about it, or read about it, thank you.
“If we went down to the police department in 1987 and wanted to talk about racism there wouldn’t be many people who wanted to talk to us. We wouldn’t get a great story,” says Mullin. But taking an active stance means you don’t wait for the great story. You don’t wait for walls to crumble, you hammer away at them, says Wright. And you do it by “repeatedly committing yourself to programs that put you in the shoes of the individual, the victim of racism. People respond to things that they can relate to.”
But this type of coverage isn’t front page. It becomes a policy of the paper that penetrates every story. It says that a lot of what happened to Helen Betty Osborne happened because she was a native woman, not an isolated victim. And it says that a lot of what happened to J.J. Harper happened not because of overt racism, but because of a subtler form of discrimination. And it makes these comments not only on circumstances surrounding the two deaths, but also on such articles as “comparing the life of a native…to a non-native in terms of life expectancy, lifetime income and likelihood of education,” says Wright.
It’s a commitment that involves patience, time and risk. “I remember back in the forties, fifties and sixties -there were front-page editorials and newspapers took stances. They followed things,” says Mullin. “I think newspapers have sort of sat back and really not gone out of their way to get onto these kinds of crusades.” Now is not the time to sit easy, says Mullin. Manitoba’s Aboriginal Justice Inquiry has been too important to “just let it gather dust in some drawer in the Free Press.”
With a budget of $2 million, the inquiry accumulated 700 hours of hearings, 21,000 pages of transcripts and 20,000 kilometres looking for the truth in a history of “too many lies” and too much silence. Wrote one Winnipegger after the suicide of Inspector Dowson, “We don’t find the truth, it finds us; the results are tragic.”