Saskatoon

Generations of grief: Family still reeling 50 years after little-known mass axe murder

It was about –40 C in the northern Saskatchewan town of Buffalo Narrows the night Frederick McCallum terrorized the Pederson family with an axe.

7 members of the Pederson family were killed by an axe murderer in 1969

Cynthia Laliberte and Connie Woods in the early 1960s. (Submitted by Shaylee Gardiner)

It was about –40 C in the northern Saskatchewan town of Buffalo Narrows the night Frederick McCallum terrorized the Pederson family with an axe.

It was Jan. 30, 1969.

McCallum, then 19, punched through the Pedersons' door and started killing.

After he was done, McCallum called the local priest and told him about it. The priest called RCMP then headed to the Pedersons' home. He was one of the first on the scene. The Pedersons were devout Roman Catholics and close friends.

All of the Pedersons were in their beds, the sheets stained with blood. John Herman, a family friend, was found in the living room.

When police apprehended McCallum he was sitting at his mother's kitchen table drinking tea. Later, a psychiatrist said in court that McCallum had showed signs of schizophrenia.

Connie Woods (left in both photos) and Cynthia Laliberte in 2019 and in the 1970s (Bridget Yard/CBC, submitted by Shaylee Gardiner)

Fifty years later, on another frigid day in Buffalo Narrows, Connie Woods and Cynthia Laliberte sit beside each other at a family-sized kitchen table. 

They've been crying, but not together. As they recount the tragedies of their lives, they wipe their own tears.

Connie and Cynthia are sisters, but they're not close. They can't be.

"There's too much anger," Cynthia said.

Connie and Cynthia's mother, father, two sisters, two brothers and a family friend were killed that night. Their brother, only seven at the time, was the sole survivor.

'We feel like people don't care'

Connie and Cynthia, 11 and 10 respectively at the time, were staying with their grandmother the night they became orphans. Their worlds were upended in the wake of the murders.

The sisters were close with their grandmother.

"She took me right away because Social Services were stepping in to come get me," said Cynthia.

She said her grandmother told the workers to leave.

"She said 'You are not taking her! I am not healthy but you are not taking her from me.' "

Connie and Cynthia were both briefly sent to Saskatoon to live with a white family — the sisters consider themselves part of Saskatchewan's Sixties Scoop — but were able to return to their grandmother's care soon after.

They said their grandmother raised two traumatized young women the best she could, without any government assistance, other than her old age pension.

"Maybe if someone were to help us, we could have coped a little better," Connie said, back in Cynthia's kitchen 50 years later.

Cynthia said she received a total of two hours of free counselling.  She remembers a doctor holding up pictures and asking her what she saw.

"It was all blood," she said.

There was no follow-up.

'It's getting harder and harder to deal with'

Sometimes Connie and Cynthia ruminate on why so few people in the province are even aware their family was murdered.

The wound is still painful, especially when the sisters compare their story to another horrific massacre in Shell Lake in 1967. That tragedy received international attention, while the Buffalo Narrows massacre is little-known even throughout Saskatchewan.

"You think people did forget, because we've gotten older and we realize more of what really happened with our parents," said Cynthia, gazing beside her at her sister, who weeps quietly.

"It's getting harder and harder to deal with."

Maybe if someone were to help us we could have coped a little better.- Connie Woods

Ronnie Laliberte, Cynthia's husband, chimed in to the interview. He'd been listening to the conversation, taking in his wife and sister-in-law's tears and anger.

He said he does this every day and it's hard to see them still struggle.

Asked about their anger, Connie asked, "where to begin?"

She said she and her sister feel there is too much anger between them to have a loving relationship. The anger has affected their whole family. It spans generations.

The sisters are so emotional when they're together that it's hard for them to relate to one another. 

They are protective of each other, but they want their bond to go deeper. Connie gets angry at Cynthia easily. Cynthia "holds it together" most of the time, but described episodes of depression and anxiety that come from keeping her emotions in.

Connie's children speak often of their mother's relationship with her sister, so different from their own. Even their grandchildren have recognized the need for mental health support for their beloved grandmothers.

'A sad life'

The surviving Pederson sisters keep pictures of their family to remind them they're not alone. (Bottom left: Donny "Big Man" Pederson, top right: Tommy and Bernadette Pederson, middle right: Bernadette and Rhoda Pederson, bottom right: Bernadette and some of her children) (Submitted by Shaylee Gardiner)

Donald Frederick Pederson, the seven-year-old lone survivor, was in a coma for months after the attack. After he woke, he had what his sisters call "a sad life."

He spent time in a home for boys in northern Saskatchewan and many months in Saskatoon's youth correctional facility, Kilburn Hall.

Cynthia said Don was always getting into trouble, but that his rebelliousness had a cause. 

Frederick McCallum was sent to the Prince Albert Penitentiary in 1970. Although the surviving Pederson children didn't know it — they were never informed of court proceedings or outcomes — Don figured out McCallum was probably there and spent much of his life trying to get put in the prison so he could confront McCallum.

"He hit the Pen twice," said Cynthia. 

The men's paths never crossed.

Newspaper reports from the 1970s say that McCallum was transferred to an institution in Ontario.

Later in life, Don had children that his sisters said he loved and cared for, but like his parents and most of his siblings, Don's life was cut short.

Cynthia, Don and an uncle were driving down a beach road in Buffalo Narrows when another vehicle passed them and hit a side mirror.

Cynthia said the group got out of the truck to check the damage when another oncoming vehicle crashed into Cynthia — sending her flying into the air — then hit and killed Don.

It was Cynthia's turn to spend months in hospital. The idea of being alone without her family members sent Connie into a tailspin.

Cynthia eventually recovered and came home. One night she went out with her husband to a party. When they left, Connie followed them home, just to make sure they made it.

"It's a huge responsibility," Connie said

Almost 30 years later, she said worry still tears her apart.

What could have been

The sisters both said that they feel joy only when they are with what Cynthia called the "little family we have" or when they're able to get away from Buffalo Narrows.

It's hard for them to feel safe. During the legal proceedings after the massacre, McCallum expressed regret at not murdering the entire family. The memory paralyzed the sisters for years.

The trauma still affects the entire family, even generations down the line.

Rhoda's children Kayle Woods and Shaylee Gardiner, with Jayme's son Bryant Woods at Shaylee's recent wedding in Buffalo Narrows. (Submitted by Shaylee Gardiner)

"I just want them to be able to love each other and get the counselling they need because they should be together," said Shaylee Gardiner, Connie's granddaughter.

The Pedersons who died won't ever be forgotten by the family they left behind, even those that never met them. They live on in names, in memories and in memorials. 

Even though the loss happened 50 years ago, the trauma is still raw.

"I could never run to my Grandma to tell on my mom," said Jayme, Connie's other daughter, laughing at a memory that never happened.

She said her son is angry and she doesn't know how to talk to him or stop it. 

The members of the Pederson family slain on January 30, 1969 were laid to rest in the Buffalo Narrows cemetery. Connie and Cynthia are now fundraising to purchase headstones for their loved ones. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

Connie and Cynthia held a memorial in late January with the people they still have left.

Some are adopted aunts and uncles who mentored and loved the girls as adults in place of their parents. Most of the people in attendance are related in some way.

One battered headstone marks a spot with six people buried beneath it.

They are hoping to purchase new markers for the Pederson plot, but headstones are expensive. Connie and Cynthia say they'll do fundraisers and collect bottles if they have to.

Anything for family.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Bridget Yard is a journalist and content creator based in the Greater Toronto Area. Originally from Schumacher, a small mining community in northern Ontario, she spent a decade pursuing a career in journalism close to home, then in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan with CBC.

now