Saskatchewan

Searchers pursue the truth on mysterious disappearance of Métis leader

Mystery has swirled around the death of Métis leader James (Jim) Brady and Absolom (Abbie) Halkett for 51 years. But now, sonar technology may answer at least one long-simmering question — where did the two men go?

James Brady and Absolom Halkett disappeared in 1967, but now they may have been found

Thompson Mckenzie, Eric Bell, centre, and Stanley Roberts are pictured during a search of Lower Foster Lake for the bodies of Jim Brady and Abbie Halkett, two outspoken leaders and advocates who went missing in 1967. (Submitted by Deanna Reder)

Mystery has swirled around the disappearance of Métis leader James (Jim) Brady and Absolom (Abbie) Halkett for 51 years. But now, sonar technology may answer at least one long-simmering question — where did the two men go?

Deanna Reder, the head of Simon Fraser University's Indigenous Studies department, began searching for Brady and Halkett after a request from her uncle. But others in northern Saskatchewan also need that question answered, she said.

"Part of what we've wanted to accomplish is to let family members know we've looked, we've done our best, and we've tried to bring them home," she said.

"The next stage is really in the hands of the RCMP."

Vanished with no trace

Brady and the Lac La Ronge Indian band councillor had been prospecting in northern Saskatchewan in June 1967 by Lower Foster Lake. Their canoes were in the water, their camp was on shore, but the two men themselves simply vanished.

Many of their community members didn't believe the two men just went missing, but that they were murdered, said Reder.

"That seems to be the general consensus — there's no way that Jim Brady and Abbie Halkett would together get lost, and then manage to perish and hide their own bodies," she said.

Fuelling that suspicion was the fact that both men were outspoken about the conditions faced by people living in northern communities. Furthermore, Brady was known as a Marxist, a socialist and a member of the Canadian Communist party, and a "general shit-disturber," as Reder described him with a chuckle. 

James Brady was an outspoken Métis leader and advocate, who called for better living conditions for Indigenous and Métis people living in northern Saskatchewan communities. (SaskCulture.ca)

'They didn't get lost'

A decade ago, Reder's uncle asked her to do some research into the two men's deaths.

"Years ago, he said, 'Just get some sonar and find them, because they didn't get lost,'" she recalled.

At that time, Reder didn't have access to the technology to finish the task her uncle had set out for her.

It was only within the last couple of years that she and research partner Michael Nest began to delve further into the mystery, doing further archival research to establish where the two men had set up camp, and where they might have ended up.

The search begins

Eric Bell, local search leader and owner of La Ronge EMS, said that Reder and Nest had collected old documents, and had come to La Ronge and talked to him about their search.

"There was no real conclusion to the story," he noted.

The search team included researchers Michael Nest and Deanna Reder, along with Lac La Ronge Indian Band members Eric Bell, Thompson Mckenzie and Stanley Roberts, with Mckenzie and Roberts operating the Grandmother's Bay Indian Reserve sonar equipment. (Submitted by Deanna Reder)

Bell's family had known Brady, and he recalled that as a young boy, he himself had visited the Métis leader. Those memories gave Bell a personal interest in the search.

Knowing the Grandmother's Bay search and recovery team had a remotely operated vehicle that could capture images underwater, Bell thought the equipment could be used to search the lake. The land had been searched beforehand, but the depths of the water still held its closely guarded secrets.

There was relief that we found something.- Eric Bell, part of search group

Twice a group went out to search the area, with the first search taking place in August of 2018, followed by another search in September. The search would end up yielding an "anomaly not natural to the lake," as Bell described it, in the deepest part of the lake. 

Eric Bell pilots a boat on Lower Foster Lake, which, at its deepest, measures 37 metres, as he and a group search for the remains of Jim Brady and Abbie Halkett. (Submitted by Deanna Reder)

The group has since consulted two specialists on its initial findings, with the specialists agreeing that the anomaly could indicate human remains. The results from the latest search in September, in which camera images were taken with the remotely operated vehicle, have not been returned yet.

"Once the job was done, we looked at the evidence we had. There was relief that we found something," Bell said.

RCMP says evidence so far 'inconclusive'

An RCMP spokesperson said the evidence brought forward thus far has been "inconclusive," and not enough to mount a search, but that determination could be revisited if more compelling evidence were to come forward.

"We're at a little bit of a crossroads," acknowledged Reder. While she feels there is clear evidence that the group has found human remains, there's no absolute certainty that those remains are those of Brady and Halkett. An RCMP search or recovery mission will be the only way to put an end to that final question, she said.

While Brady and Halkett's deaths may have taken place years ago, Reder said she hopes the search is not cast aside, their names lost forever in the dusty pages of history.  

"These are very important people to the Indigenous communities of northern Saskatchewan, both Métis and Cree," she said. "So this is not simply a case to ignore."


With files from David Shield

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