Saskatchewan

Authors explore decades-old mystery of disappearance of 2 northern Sask. leaders

Two authors from the Lac La Ronge Indian Band and a researcher based in Montreal explore the 1967 disappearance of Métis activist James Brady and band councillor Absolom Halkett in a new book published by the University of Regina Press.

1967 disappearance of James Brady and Absolom Halkett left community searching for answers, author says

Eric Bell, Stanley Roberts, Thompson McKenzie, and Deanna Reder participated in a 2018 sonar expedition looking for James Brady and Absolom Halkett. Bell and Reder recently co-authored a new book about the 1967 disappearance of the men. (Submitted by Michael Nest)

A cold case from northern Saskatchewan more than half a century old is the subject of a new book, co-authored by a Métis woman, a researcher from Montreal and a man from the Lac La Ronge Indian Band.

Cousins Deanna Reder and Eric Bell, a member of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band, co-wrote Cold Case North: The Search for James Brady and Absolom Halkett, along with Michael Nest, a researcher based in Montreal.

Brady and Halkett disappeared without a trace in 1967, Reder said in an interview on CBC's Afternoon Edition, but many in the community don't believe the official investigation into the disappearance was conducted properly.

James Brady was a Métis leader described by Reder as "one of the most famous activists in Canada."  

She said that Absolom (Abbie) Halkett was a band councillor for the Lac La Ronge Indian Band and was likewise dedicated to Indigenous control of Indigenous lives.  

"These were remarkable men that went missing," she said.  

The circumstances of their disappearance lead back to June 1967.  

The men — who were a prospecting team — were taken by plane to work at Lower Foster Lake. Reder said a radio check was done the day after they arrived. 

A week later, when someone came to replenish their supplies, they found the camp — but the men and their equipment were gone.

RCMP searched for Brady and Halkett, but Reder says police proceeded as though the men were lost. Foul play wasn't considered, Reder says, and the search was called off in July.

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

Community members spent the entire summer of 1967 searching for the men, but nothing was ever found, Reder said.

"Not the men, their clothes, boots, their equipment which included Geiger counters, or their remains," she said.

A coroner's inquest was later conducted, and there were suggestions the men were lost, or may have been eaten by a bear.

But Reder dismissed those ideas, saying the two were experienced bushmen.

"It's one thing to have an accident," she said. "But for both to die accidentally, hide their remains, hide their boots, or have a bear eat their Geiger counters … the community was all very unconvinced that was a possibility."  

She added that if they were missing, they knew how to alert the authorities through the "standard things that people in the bush know to do."

Reder, who is the chair of Indigenous studies at Simon Fraser University, said the book and the ongoing search are very personal. 

The book is dedicated to her uncle and Métis activist Frank Tomkins, a lifelong friend of James Brady and Abbie Halkett. 

"His last message to me before he died in 2019 was 'keep looking,'" she said.  

Abbie Halkett, closest to camera, participated in a tree-planting ceremony at La Ronge Hospital, attended by then premier Ross Thatcher and MLA Allan Guy, in July 1966. (Submitted by Don Neely)

In researching the book, Reder said there was a lot of information at the authors' disposal through archival records in the Gabriel Dumont Institute and the Glenbow Archives at the University of Calgary. 

But the trio also found people in their 80s or 90s who remembered the story like it was yesterday.  

In addition, Reder said they had about six people pass along notes and journals from their own previous investigations to determine what happened to Brady and Halkett. 

"We weren't the first to dig into this story."

Reder says that because it was only ever investigated as a case of missing people, obvious signs of a crime could have been missed. 

That's what she and her co-authors were hoping to bring together — the historical missing persons story, contrasted with stories that the community remembered, but were never told. 

"People remember and mourn the loss of Jim and Abbie," Reder said.  

"It's a testimony to the fact that so many murdered and missing Indigenous people might have been officially forgotten, but they remain in the hearts and memories of those who miss them for a lifetime or more."

Cold Case North: the Search for James Brady and Absolom Halkett is published by the University of Regina Press.

There were more questions than answers when two Indigenous leaders went missing in northern Saskatchewan in 1967. The fate of the men was never discovered, leaving their communities with deep scars. It's a story that Deanna Reder and her co-authors explore in their new book: Cold Case North: The Search for James Brady and Absolom Halkett. Reder joined Garth Materie to talk about it. 10:01

With files from the Afternoon Edition

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