Manitoba events inspired investigation into missing and murdered women in B.C. decades later

Obstruction of Justice: The Search for Truth on Canada’s Highway of Tears by former RCMP officer turned private investigator Ray Michalko is not a whodunit. It doesn’t solve the unsolved murders it focuses on but it does paint a picture of why people argue that cases of missing and murdered indigenous women are so numerous in part because of the way they have been investigated – or not investigated – by police with toxic results for the relationship between aboriginal people and those who are supposed to enforce the laws intended to protect all of us.

Though the bulk of the story takes place in northern B.C. along the 700-kilometre stretch of Highway 16 between Prince Rupert and Price – known as the Highway of Tears because of the large numbers of women, mostly aboriginal, who have gone missing or been murdered while hitchhiking along it – Michalko’s own story begins further east, in Manitoba, where he began his career as an RCMP member in Dauphin in 1967 before being transferred to Gillam in 1968 and then to Thompson the following year before being shipped to a rural southern detachment and resigning from the force. He briefly rejoined the force again four years later but soon left a second time, this time for good.

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Michalko has spent the last decade or so searching for answers about what happened to nine women who were killed or disappeared along the Highway of Tears – Monica Ignas, Delphine Nikal, Ramona Wilson, Roxanne Thiara, Leah Germaine, Lana Derrick, Alberta Williams, Nicole Hoar and Tamara Chipman – between 1994 and 2005, all of whom but Hoar were aboriginal. But he pinpoints the murder of Norway House’s Helen Betty Osborne in The Pas in 1971, when he was still an RCMP officer in Manitoba, as the inspiration for his quest. Osborne’s murder was eventually solved in 1987 and was the subject of a Manitoba justice inquiry that identified racism as one of the reasons it took so long to bring any of the perpetrators to justice. “Thirty-five years after that murder, two provinces away and 1,800 kilometres west, the RCMP’s prevailing attitude toward the Highway of Tears investigation can be likened to that surrounding the Helen Betty Osborne case,” Michalko writes.

Much of Michalko’s interest in and investigation of the relationship between aboriginal people of Canada and the police, specifically the RCMP, seems to have been informed by the time he spent as a member of the force in Manitoba before being transferred to B.C. in 1977. He opens the book with an account of his finding a six-year-old boy missing from Birtle Indian Residential School in 1967, who had run away from the school in an attempt to return to where his parents were several hundred kilometres to the north. Michalko ended up sending the boy back to the school but says that later hearing tales of abuse from other people who were educated there made him wonder if he had actually done the right thing. He also writes of the role he played in the apprehension of five young men who were convicted of sexually assaulting an aboriginal teenager during his time in Thompson.

When he first began spending his own time investigating the Highway of Tears disappearances and murders, Michalko says the fact that he was a former member of the RCMP worked against him because the victims’ families and friends saw him as a member of the old boys’ club that they believed had done little to find out what happened to the young women who’d gone missing or been killed. But when his private investigation brought rebukes from RCMP detachments in northern B.C. which, he says, seemed to prefer that he stopped sticking his nose in where it didn’t belong, he began to be approached by more people, who now saw him as an outsider like them.

Michalko’s criticism of the RCMP for things like complaining that victim’s friends and family didn’t want to talk to them, or failing to even show up to investigate a report of a pile of women’s clothes being found in an isolated area along the Highway of Tears, if true, are disheartening illustrations of the two-tier system of law enforcement that seems to be applied to cases of women who used drugs or were runaways or were involved in the sex trade as opposed to those who were “good girls.” Ultimately, though Michalko fails to solve the mystery of what happened to these nine women in northern B.C. whose cases he became obsessed with, he does uncover some clues as to why, more than four decades after Helen Betty Osborne’s murder in The Pas, so many indigenous women are still going missing or turning up dead in many parts of Canada without anyone seeming to care about it the way he does.

Obstruction of Justice: The Search for Truth on Canada’s Highway of Tears is published by Red Deer Press and is available from the Thompson Public Library.

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