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Family prays for justice 12 years after Felicia Solomon's remains found in Red River

04/08/2015 04:12 EDT | Updated 06/08/2015 05:59 EDT
A dozen years after 16-year-old Felicia Solomon walked out the door of her Winnipeg school and later vanished, her family marked the grim anniversary of her disappearance and death.

At a memorial feast in her home community of Norway House Cree Nation recently, the family prayed her killer will come forward or police get a break in the case.

"People have to understand that we will never forget our daughters or granddaughters," said Felicia's great aunt, Darlene Osborne.

"We have to stop violence against women, and we have to keep [saying] that over and over again."

The Osborne family gathered with almost 200 community members in late March for a "feeding the spirit" ceremony for Felicia.

But the memorial also served to honour the unusually high number of missing or murdered women from the remote First Nation in northern Manitoba: Helen Betty Osborne, Claudette Osborne and Hillary Wilson.

"If we don't say anything, if we don't talk about it, then it can be looked upon as something that's normal," said Norway House chief Ron Evans.

Remains found in Red River

Felicia's family remembers her as a teenager who loved to write stories, powwow dance and make people laugh.

She went missing in March 2003. Her mother Matilda Solomon-Osborne phoned Winnipeg police when she didn't return home after school, but says police were no help.

"I knew right away. It was not like her to not come home and phone," said Solomon-Osborne. "They said they can't do anything about it until it's over 24 hours."

Solomon-Osborne says it took more than a week for police to finally interview her. Family members began searching for Felicia on their own, combing Winnipeg streets and putting up homemade missing posters.

 It took two months for police to publicly declare Felicia "missing."

Nearly three months after her disappearance, Felicia's dismembered body parts — her arm and thigh — were fished out of the Red River. Her case remains unsolved.

It also bears a startling resemblance to another tragic case just last year: 15-year-old Tina Fontaine's body was found dumped in the Red River, weeks after her family reported her missing.

'We know the pain'

That case garnered national attention, and Darlene Osborne was shocked when she heard the news.

"I just broke down and said: 'That's the same place where they found Felicia.' My heart went for the (Fontaine) family because we know the pain."

The people of Norway House First Nation have experienced repeatedly the pain of losing young women — tragically and brutally.

"Our stolen sisters were taken from us at a very early age … we just want to remember them," said Darlene Osborne.

In 1971, 19-year-old Helen Betty Osborne was abducted and beaten to death, stabbed more than 50 times, in the town of The Pas where she was attending school.

Four men were eventually implicated in her death, but it took 16 years for any conviction — and then it was only one man.

Many blamed racism and police inaction for the long delay and her case later gave rise to an inquiry into aboriginal justice in Manitoba.

In 2008, 21-year-old Claudette Osborne went missing from the streets of Winnipeg. No trace of her has been found and her family has directed anger at police for an investigation moving slowly out of the gate.

Shock and then anger

In 2009, the body of 18-year-old Hillary Wilson turned up in a field on the outskirts of Winnipeg.

Wilson's uncle Dwayne Balfour says the day he learned of her death is still fresh in his mind.

"I felt like passing out, like I was in shock. And then later on it hit me, right? And emotions came, and anger," said Balfour, who attended the Norway House memorial.

 "I almost let go of everything.  I held on, [but] I'm barely hanging on today."

Police have treated Wilson's death as a homicide, but no arrests have been made.

Manitoba Deputy Premier Eric Robinson, who is from Norway House, also attended the memorial and says provincial and federal governments must do more to address the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women.

"Just putting on public demonstrations is not simply the answer," said Robinson.

 "We've got to find innovative ways to address the issue — a public inquiry is something that most people want at this current time."

Cases under review

Project Devote, the joint RCMP-Winnipeg police unit created in 2011 to investigate unsolved homicides and missing persons, is reviewing all three unsolved cases from Norway House.

Members of the team were scheduled to speak at the memorial but didn't attend, saying there were mechanical problems with the police jet.

The gathering closed with a community feast, which included some of Felicia's favourite foods – fresh pickerel from Little Playgreen Lake, homemade buns and strawberry shortcake.

Her mother says the ceremony is all part of her family's healing process, but it's difficult to heal when Felicia's case remains unsolved.

"Something's going to happen. I know that," said Solomon-Osborne. "That person is going to be found soon. It's all up to God."

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