MMIW case ends with difficult answers for family decades after death

Barbara Kate Keam, 21, of Norway House was found beaten to death on June 7, 1981, in the remote Manitoba community. For years, her family sought answers — until documents showed up in the mailbox of a reporter’s home.

Access to information request brings closure for Norway House Cree Nation family

Debbie Favell looks over documents obtained through an access-to-information request that shed light on her sister's death more than 30 years ago. (Martha Troian)

It took longer than Barbara Kate Keam's lifetime for her family to finally find out what happened the night she was beaten to death.

Keam, 21, of Norway House, Man., was found beaten to death in the remote community on June 7, 1981.

Her husband was charged with her death, but he committed suicide before he went to trial, and her family was never sure how she died.

Barbara Keam, 21, was found beaten to death in Norway House, Man., in 1981. (CBC News)
For years they tried to find out what happened, starting with Keam's father, Victor Bruce. Before Bruce died in 2005, he asked his daughter Raven Thundersky to get answers about her sister. When Thundersky died in December 2015, sister Debbie Favell took up the cause.

I learned about the case and contacted Thundersky as part of my work on the CBC's missing and murdered Indigenous women database, which was first published in April 2015. I filed an access to information request to obtain documents about Keam's case, but I was told the documents did not exist — then I received them in my home mailbox a year later.

​Newlywed mother of 2

Barbara Keam was a newlywed and a mother of two young boys when she died.

She and her husband, Bruce Keam, were out celebrating separately the night before she died.

Thundersky, who is an advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, believed her sister was beaten up by others and left in a field to die, where she was found by her husband and carried back to his parents' home, where the couple lived.

'Purged' RCMP documents

Thundersky's passionate desire to find out what had happened to her sister was part of the reason I filed the access to information request in June 2015, seeking records in the case.

"It is likely that any RCMP record that may have existed has been purged," was the response I received.

Over 10 months, Thundersky and I worked to find out more, despite the lack of police information, but we never got to finish the work, at least not together. She was 50 when she died on Christmas Eve 2015 in her Winnipeg home. Her sister Favell, 53, of Poplar River, Man., took over her search for answers.

Then in April 2016, the brown envelope with 350 pages of files arrived in my mailbox from the RCMP's national headquarters in response to the access to information request. The documents included analysis and exhibit reports, statements from Bruce Keam and witnesses, diagrams and photos of Barbara's body.

I gave Favell copies of the police documents. She also got a copy of Barbara Keam's autopsy report from the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner.

'I think my sister suffered a lot'

The RCMP documents said Keam died of a traumatic head injury caused by a severe beating delivered by her husband.

The night before she died, Keam went to a local pub with some friends, while Bruce Keam drank elsewhere, the documents said.

At approximately 1 a.m., Bruce Keam went to search for his wife. The couple met up at around 3 a.m. before making their way home.

Bruce Keam admitted to police that he'd beaten his wife during that walk home, but said it was not a severe beating. After the meeting, he carried his wife, because she said she was tired, he told police.

Because they lived on an island, the couple had to cross a river by canoe to get home, Favell said. According to the documents, Keam said his wife was alive when they crossed the river and when he carried her into the house around 7:30 a.m.

In April 2016, reporter Martha Troian received a brown envelope full of files from the RCMP's national headquarters. The documents included analysis and exhibit reports, statements from Bruce Keam and witnesses, diagrams and photos of Barbara's body. (Martha Troian)

According to the police documents, Barbara was barely alive during this time. It is believed she died around 10:30 a.m. By noon, Barbara was found lying in her bed, face up.

Thundersky had said her sister's body had knife marks on it, but there was no mention of knife wounds in the RCMP documents. Favell believes the ladies who dressed Barbara's body for the funeral may have mistaken the abrasions for knife wounds because there were so many injuries.

"I think my sister suffered a lot from the time it happened, from the time she died," said Favell.

Names of those who gave the statements were redacted in the RCMP documents.

"The important part of the RMCP report was … blanked out, and I really wanted to read those parts. It kinda angered me," Favell said.

For Favell, reviewing the police documents sparked old memories about Bruce Keam. She recalls him getting violent when he was drinking, she said.

"After reading all those reports and everything, it kinda makes sense."

'Death pact'

Exactly one month after Barbara's death, Bruce Keam was found hanging from a tree, approximately 100 metres from his home.

He had been charged with second-degree murder and was on bail at the time. Police documents said he was depressed over the death of his wife and because he would have to spend the rest of his life in jail.

Two letters were found with him, one tucked in his belt and another by a tree, and there was a small red Bible on the ground. He also left letters at home, one for chief and council, and another one believed to be intended for his lawyer. In one of those letters, Keam explained a death pact he claimed he had with his wife: If Barbara died before he did, he would also have to die.

Keam was expected to appear in court on July 16, 1981.

'It will take time'

The revelation that Bruce Keam killed her sister has left Favell feeling angry.

"It was kind of hard," she said. "It was kind of difficult for me to read the stuff, but to forgive, it will take time."

The grief is compounded by the loss of several family members, most recently Thundersky.

Favell wishes Thundersky had had the opportunity for closure in the death of their sister.

"I feel bad that she never got to see the RCMP reports or the autopsy reports. I wish she would have seen them," she said. "I always look at the good things about people, and I look at the good things that my sister had. She was a really good person."


Originally from Obishikokaang (Lac Seul First Nation) located in northwestern Ontario, Martha Troian is an investigative journalist who frequently contributes to CBC News, including work on the multiple award-winning and ongoing Missing & Murdered: The Unsolved Cases of Indigenous Women and Girls. Follow her @ozhibiiige