North·In Depth

What happened to Stella Cardinal?

On Thursday Freda Cardinal testified in Yellowknife before the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls on the disappearance of her sister, Stella Cardinal more than 47 years ago.

In the summer of 1970, 19-year-old Stella Cardinal disappeared without a trace near Fort Smith, N.W.T.

Freda Cardinal (front) with her older sister Stella. Stella disappeared in 1970 at the age of 19. (submitted by Freda Cardinal)

On Thursday Freda Cardinal testified in Yellowknife before the national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls on the disappearance of her sister, Stella Cardinal, more than 47 years ago.

The question remains: What happened to Stella?

Stella Cardinal had many things working against her when she vanished without a trace from a remote fire lookout tower north of Fort Smith, N.W.T., in the summer of 1970.

Stella was just 19 years old, and six months pregnant. She was severely epileptic and had run out of medication to control her seizures more than a week before. She was at a remote site with no contact with the outside world. And she was indigenous.

In transcripts from a 1970 inquiry held into her disappearance, it was clear that the tremendous difficulties Stella faced did not rob her of her spirit.

Her mother, Dora, said Stella started having seizures at about the age of 13. She could be stubborn and sometimes had a temper. A doctor who examined her a few months before she went to the Long Island fire tower, sent her to the Charles Camsell Hospital in Edmonton for what he described as a "therapeutic" abortion.

At a coroner's inquest into her death, Dr. Bruce Judkin testified he ordered the abortion because he felt there was no way she could take care of her child "on the grounds of her mental condition and severe nature of her epilepsy."

But, alone at the hospital in Edmonton, Stella put her foot down — she refused to give up her baby.

To understand the will behind Stella's refusal to give up her baby requires an appreciation of how different the world was for Indigenous people in the 1970s.

First Nations children were still being taken from their parents and forced to attend residential schools where many suffered abuse, and many of the landmark legal and political battles that have led to the recognition of Indigenous rights had yet to be fought or were just getting underway.

The mistakes

On May 29, 1970 Stella's friend Violet Catholique invited her to visit Fort Smith, a town near Stella's home community of Fort Resolution.

The next day Catholique asked a forestry department manager in Fort Smith, Clarence "Gene" Earle, if she could hitch a ride on a helicopter resupply run to the Long Island fire tower where her husband, Joe Catholique, was the fire tower watch person. It was supposed to be a relaxing time out on the land.

Houses in Stella Cardinal's home community of Fort Resolution, N.W.T. (CBC)

Earle said okay. At the inquest, he said he agreed because he assumed the helicopter could carry Violet and the supplies in one trip.

Later the same day in Fort Smith, Earle bumped into Violet and Stella at a local store where he learned Stella also wanted to go out to the tower. Earle initially said no, but later changed his mind and said Stella could also go when he found out he would have to make two trips anyway.

At the inquest the pilot, Keith Bennett, told the coroner he took the two women out on the first run, then returned for the groceries and other goods. But when made his second departure for the tower, he left one very important thing behind.

A new radio battery for the fire tower was left sitting on a the seat of a truck parked at the airport. The battery that powered the fire tower's only link to the outside world had died days earlier.

When Bennett dropped the supplies and was powering up to return to Fort Smith, he said Violet came running out with a note from Stella. It was to fill a prescription for drugs Stella was taking to reduce her epileptic seizures. Stella was taking Dilantin, Phenobarb, Valium and Tridione every eight hours.

These are very heavy duty medications.- Dr. David Pontin

"These are very heavy duty medications," said Dr. David Pontin, an emergency room doctor at Yellowknife's Stanton Hospital. Pontin said they would have had a sedating effect similar to taking a shot or two of whisky. He said suddenly withdrawing from them would be similar to withdrawing from alcohol, with the person feeling agitated and shaky for about three days.

Bennett took the prescription to a pharmacist and got it filled that day, but no helicopter returned until 10 days later, the day Stella was last seen.

Stella had only a few days worth of medicine with her. At the coroner's inquest Earle said it was a busy forest fire season so there were no planes or helicopters available to return to the tower, even though it was out of radio contact and, as a result, of no use as a lookout for forest fires.

The seizures

At the coroner's inquest, Joe said he didn't know Stella before meeting her for the first time when she arrived with Violet. When he found out that she was six months pregnant and epileptic, he said he planned to ship her back to Fort Smith when the chopper returned, which he assumed would be the next day because he still needed a radio battery.

Joe said Stella's medication lasted only a few days. But after her medication ran out, he said she started having four or five seizures each day, losing control and thrashing around. She began hallucinating and talking to imaginary people. He said his wife suggested tying her up at night to prevent her from running away while they slept.

"I was watching her," said Joe. "Every night when we went to bed I would keep the doors locked pretty good."

Joe knocked spikes into the door to secure it at night. They had seen four bears in the area.

He said the night before Stella went missing, she complained she was not feeling good, that she was cold. Joe said it was the only time he heard her complain.

At 5:30 a.m. the next morning, Joe said they awoke to find her "standing by the bed, dressed and ready to go." He said she used a hammer to remove the spikes securing the door, opened it, and called outside to two men to stop fighting.

There were no men outside.

Stella was carrying a shopping bag. Joe told her to come back inside. "She told my wife she was going to go home," he told the coroner. "She said she was going to go home and dress up and come back after."

She said she was going to go home and dress up and come back after.- Joe Catholique

The next morning at 10 a.m., the three walked to a nearby lake to get water. Stella pretended to hide from them in the bushes as they walked. She was carrying the bag with her. They said it contained a pair of red shoes, a red towel, a red comb, two tubes of toothpaste, a toothbrush, two packs of cigarettes, two loaves of bread and canned meat and fruit.

Stella lagged behind on the way back. Joe and Violet returned to the cabin. After 20 minutes went by and she had not returned, they went back to look for her. There was no sign of Stella. An hour-and-a-half later, they noticed smoke coming from an area not far from where they'd last seen her.

Then, after 10 days of just the three of them at the isolated tower, people started arriving.

Stella's gone

At 2 p.m. the resupply chopper with the radio battery landed. Pilot Keith Bennett — the same one who had flown Stella and Violet there — said he noticed a fire burning in the bush a kilometre or two from the tower.

The pilot radioed back to Fort Smith and, later that day, firefighters arrived. About 15 were sent to the tower to help fight the fire.

Const. Edward Lowe of the RCMP in Fort Smith arrived that night by helicopter just before nine o'clock to help organize the search for Stella. Lowe told the coroner Stella had last been seen at 10 a.m. He said Joe told him the night before Stella had been having frequent seizures, and they had hidden all the knives because they were fearful Stella would harm herself.

The search

There were two helicopters involved in the search — Bennett says he flew grid patterns from June 11 to 14. Harry Dubinsky, piloting the other, says he flew 200 feet above the ground from June 11 to 13 and landed at all cabins and shacks in the area and searched them.

Stella Cardinal was last seen in the area of a fire watchtower near the community of Fort Smith, N.W.T.

Assisted by heavy rain that began falling the day Stella went missing, the firefighters put out the grass fire by noon the next day. The firefighters from Fort Smith were sent to another blaze, while those from Fort Resolution stayed on to help with the search.

One of them, Alex Lafferty, said it looked like someone had started the fire.

Despite the rain and ravenous mosquitos, searchers combed the bush 14 hours every day while the choppers flew overhead. On June 12, the RCMP brought up a search dog team from the Peace River, Alta., detachment. They walked the bush for three days and the dog picked up no human scent.

Stella's distraught father, Benjamin Cardinal, arrived to help. He had heard about his daughter's disappearance through rumours circulating in Fort Resolution. Neither he nor Stella's mother, were kept informed of what was going on at the tower until after the search was called off.

All I was interested in was finding my daughter.- Ben Cardinal, Stella's father

"I was in there for only two or three days," Ben told the coroner. "I wasn't interested in days — all I was interested in was finding my daughter."

The searchers found no sign of Stella, not a scrap of clothing, nothing from the overflowing bag of items she was carrying. It was as if she had simply disappeared.

Then, four days after it started, the search was called off.

"Advice was received that it was felt hopeless the late evening of Saturday the 13th," RCMP Insp. Harry Nixon told the coroner. "I instructed them to continue searching for another day. Sunday evening, the message was 'still no results,' so I directed that the RCMP participation in the search would be called off Sunday evening."

The backlash

The decision to end the search so soon quickly came under fire.

"The perception at the time was that if it had been a white woman, the search would have gone on indefinitely," said Barney Masuzumi in a recent interview. At the time of Stella's disappearance, Masuzumi was a special advisor to Indian Brotherhood of the Northwest Territories (now the Dene Nation) president Roy Daniels.

Chief Edward Bird of Fort Smith described the search as "a comedy of errors." Joe Catholique said there should have been more people involved.

The priest in Fort Resolution was angry that more local people weren't called in. When the search was called off he persuaded the territorial government to provide $500 in funding for food and gas to send in a group of people from Fort Resolution to continue searching.

Freda Cardinal remembers her sister Stella at MMIWG Yellowknife

5 years ago
Duration 0:47
Freda Cardinal testified on the last day of the MMIWG public hearings in Yellowknife.

The coroner's inquest

The Indian Brotherhood called for an inquiry into the response to Stella's disappearance. Instead, they got a coroner's inquest, which was held in Fort Resolution over three days in November 1970.

The inquest was officially to investigate the cause of her death, but most of the questioning done by Crown lawyer Orval Troy seemed to be aimed at justifying the search.

"[The inquest] seemed to exonerate the RCMP's handling of that search effort," said Masuzumi. "But that also reinforced the communities' perception that the coroner's service was in bed with the RCMP."

"That ... reinforced the communities' perception that the coroner's service was in bed with the RCMP."- Barney Masuzumi

The coroner's jury concluded that Stella died in the vicinity of the Long Island Tower some time between June 9 and 17 and that no crime was involved.

They recommended that government officials notify next of kin sooner when people go missing, that spare radio batteries be kept on hand at remote forestry towers, and that doctors and hospitals take more care of people suffering from conditions such as epilepsy.

The jury also recommended that the RCMP use more experienced people in their searches, presumably meaning local people with knowledge of the terrain being searched.

Masuzumi said that was one of the few good things to come from the tragic case of Stella Cardinal.

"It started a groundswell of people from the communities getting more involved in searches. Unfortunately, we have no answers about what happened to her."

The RCMP have refused a CBC request for details of their investigation of Stella Cardinal's disappearance. They say they don't release details of investigations that are still open, no matter how long ago they began.


  • An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Chief Edward Bird of Fort Resolution. He was in fact of Fort Smith. The Indian Brotherhood of the N.W.T. became the Dene Nation, not the AFN, as incorrectly stated previously. Roy Daniels was the president of the Indian Brotherhood of the N.W.T., not its chief as previously reported. The CBC regrets any misunderstanding or embarrassment this may have caused.
    Jan 29, 2018 4:02 PM CT