“Politicized Butchery”- The Indigenous Experience in Manitoba

Sue Caribou (CTV News)
Sue Caribou – CTV News

“Politicized butchery,” or an issue all Manitobans should be concerned about?

That’s the question.

I recently read an article published in the Winnipeg Free Press titled, “Aunt of sisters charged with murder chronicles family’s painful past.” (Author – Alexandra Paul)

The story is a tragic account of one woman’s experience living in a Province that has led a nation in homicide statistics for eight (8) consecutive years – yet we call it, “Friendly Manitoba.”

The story was undoubtedly prompted by the recent killing of Cynthia French (35), an Indigenous woman who was killed by Candice Nepinak (31) and her older sister Vanessa Nepinak (35).  The Nepinak sisters are both Indigenous women.

To add to the tragedy, the accused killers are the younger sisters of Tanya Nepinak (31).

Tanya Nepinak is believed to have been killed in 2011 by infamous Winnipeg criminal misfit Shawn Lamb, who was convicted in the murders of two other Indigenous women. (Lorna Blacksmith and Carolyn Sinclair)

Lamb was charged with 2nd degree murder in Nepinak’s death but those charges were stayed in a controversial plea bargain.

Her body has never been recovered.

The story gets worse.

Nepinak’s aunt, Sue Caribou is featured in the article chronicling a story of murder, missing women, premature death and despair.  Her account includes half a dozen missing or murdered Indigenous women and a grotesque number of violent deaths dating back to 1972.

A Chronology of Darkness

Paul’s story provides Caribou’s chronology of death;

  • 2016 – Candice Nepinak & Vanessa Nepinak charged with 2nd degree murder in the death of Cynthia French
  • 2013 – niece Sky Bighetty (8), killed in Pukatawagan, her brother Kyle Bighetty (20) was charged but found not criminally responsible (NCR)
  • 2013 – grandfather George Bighetty found dead in mysterious circumstances in Leaf Rapids a year or so after Tanya Nepinak went missing
  • 2012 – cousin Caroline Sinclair (25) murdered by Shawn Lamb in Winnipeg
  • 2011 – niece Tanya Nepinak (31) is reported missing in Winnipeg.  Police believe Nepinak was killed by convicted killer Shawn Lamb
  • 2006 – cousin Myrna Letandre (36) murdered in 2006 in Winnipeg by convicted killer Traigo Andretti (40).  Her remains were found in 2013 in a rooming house in a Point Douglas neighbourhood
  • 1972 – family caregiver Nancy Dumas (75) reported missing in Lynn Lake
  • 1970’s – grandfather Lazare Bighetty murdered in Pukatawagan

(The list of close family members who died premature deaths includes Caribou’s husband, sister and brother-in-law.)

So what is the point of the story?

“You have politicized this butchery Madame Paul,” one reader suggests.  “Have you no shame?”

Another reader takes a more predictable position;

Screen Shot - WFP
Screen Shot – WFP

You will note the comment garnered fifty-two (52) “thumbs up” votes and a number of supportive comments.

After reading the story, complete with the comment section, I was struck by the bold indifference expressed in the comments section.

“Things will never change until “they” start helping themselves.”

I’m not a Psychologist but I do have insight regarding how difficult it is to overcome life’s circumstances when a person is born into poverty or raised in an environment rife with violence, alcoholism, sexual abuse, street gang associations, criminality or other forms of dysfunction.

IP Gangster - FB
IP Gangster – FB

I know these things on a personal and professional level.

Saying, “get over it” or “help yourself” is an extremely simplistic expectation.

It takes tremendous courage, determination, confidence, hope, belief, intervention or some form of external support to help break that cycle.

Time for a Reality Check

Take a minute to digest the magnitude of murder Sue Caribou and her family members have endured in their lifetime.

Here’s the frightening thing…

Sue Caribou’s experience is not even remotely unique in the Indigenous world in Manitoba.

I can’t even begin to share the number of tragic family histories I came to know as a Homicide Investigator in the City of Winnipeg.  Indigenous families who experienced frightening levels of violence that resulted in the loss of multiple family members.

Grandparents, parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins or extended family members stabbed, shot or bludgeoned to death.

Conversely, not a single person in my immediate or extended family has died as a result of a homicidal act.  Of course, that is true for most people who live within our borders.  The majority of people living the dream in Manitoba don’t come close to experiencing the kind of every-day violence Indigenous people in this Province face.

That reality has to change.

Violence of this enormity would never be tolerated in Tuxedo, Charleswood or St James, so why is it tolerated in Northern Manitoba and disadvantaged communities in the City of Winnipeg?

If you happen to be fortunate enough to live in one of our peaceful communities you don’t have to apologize because it’s not your fault, or is it?

The Care Factor

Who do we blame?

To me, it’s a question of leadership.

Nothing changes without leadership.

That leadership has to come from people empowered to make change – Aboriginal Leaders, Government Leaders and Politicians.

The problem is people living in our Province are desensitized and disaffected by the violence.

(Look no further than the Freep comment section for supporting evidence.)

That has to change.

Indifference certainly contributes to the problem.

If the population doesn’t care, those who “lead” us mirror our ambivalence.  If we cared, our voices would be heard.

“We” cared about the Winnipeg Jets and the impossible happened.

If we cared about the Indigenous experience in Manitoba the possibilities could be endless.

Change will never come if the care factor isn’t raised.

In the meantime, don’t expect an Indigenous teen, raised in a gang infested impoverished neighbourhood, by two, or more likely one, alcohol or drug addicted parent, in a violent or abusive household, to “suck it up” or “start helping himself.”

Mad Cowz Gang Tag - Photo JGJ
Gang Tags Inner City Neighbourhood – Photo JGJ

The cycles of poverty, addiction, violence and abuse are powerful inhibitors to employment, productivity and success.

I managed to overcome these inhibiting factors as a teenage boy but I didn’t do it on my own.

I was fortunate.

People living in the outside of the cycle invested in me and helped me find my way.

Don’t be distracted by complexities like colonization, residential schools, TRC commissions and #MMIW inquiries.

Break it down to the simplest terms and ask the basic questions;

  • Should Indigenous men, women and children residing in Manitoba be living in abject poverty?
  • Should Indigenous people living in Manitoba, like Sue Caribou and many others, be so profoundly affected by violent crime?
  • Should Indigenous people living in Manitoba have the right to live in peace, experience prosperity and enjoy equal opportunity?

After all, that is the essence of the Canadian dream, isn’t it?

Peace, prosperity and equal opportunity for all.

A Peruvian Child and his Favorite Toy / Un niño Peruano con su juguete favoritoThese are things all residents of one of the richest Countries in the world should enjoy.

I’m not making excuses for anyone, I’m not an apologist, I’m not a bleeding heart and I do very much believe in personal responsibility.

I also happen to be pragmatic and have realistic expectations given the things I have seen.

I feel for people trapped in the cycle and I hope for change.

That change won’t come until we, as a community, decide to make it a true priority.



  1. The city of Glasgow- once infamous as the murder capital of Europe- has made tremendous progress in reducing the incidence of violence. The initiative was led by police, but involved the whole community. I see many similarities with our situation in Winnipeg, and with other communities across the country. It’s truly an amazing story, and one we could use as a guide in addressing our own challenges. We’re all in this together, although some of us suffer much more as a result of the violence.


  2. Denise Fromm

    Well stated James Jewell. Very appropriate considering the tragedy in Saskatchewan yesterday.
    We need to put a end to this circle of violence, poverty and racism.

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