50-year-old case of two men disappearing revisited, investigated from Indigenous perspective

Community in La Ronge disbelieved RCMP report, contributed to authors’ work

Cold Case North: The Search for James Brady and Absolom Halkett by Michael Nest with co-authors Deanna Reder and Eric Bell peels back over five decades of history by revisiting the cold case that has hung like an impenetrable cloud over La Ronge, Saskatchewan, since 1967.

It was in June of that year that James Brady and Abbie (Absolom) Halkett, two prominent members of the Métis and Cree community on contract to a mining company, were airlifted to one of the Foster Lakes to undertake prospecting in the northern region. Their boss would arrive a week later to find the camp deserted and no trace of the two men.

The RCMP conducted an extensive two-week search but abandoned it, concluding that Brady and Halkett had lost their way in the bush, and the case was deemed unsolvable.

Deanna Reder, Cold Case North co-author and Cree-Métis literary critic and associate professor at Simon Fraser University, has strong family ties to La Ronge and environs, and was approached by her uncle Frank Tomkins – then almost 90 years old – to investigate the case from an Indigenous perspective.

Realizing that a project of this scope would need more human resources, Reder enlisted her cousin Eric Bell – a member of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band and owner of La Ronge Emergency Medical Services – to provide access to local people and knowledge of the area, and Australian freelance researcher and author Michael Nest to document their findings.

Michael Nest
Michael Nest

“I’d just arrived in Canada, and it was literally three days when Deanna called and asked if I was interested in this cold case,” says Nest. “Deanna told me about the disappearance of Jim and Abbie – both Indigenous activists and prospectors – and how the dominant explanation centred on a conspiracy by white business partners involved with them in a mining venture.”

What followed was an itinerary of on-site investigations, interviews with residents of La Ronge, Prince Albert, Saskatoon, and Lower Foster Lake; many phone calls and emails; and a trip to the Glenbow Archives in Calgary where Jim Brady’s papers are kept. Two and a half years later, a full draft of the manuscript was ready.

La Ronge citizens, who had never believed the RCMP’s official report that concluded Jim and Abby simply got lost, were initially wary of further investigations.

Eric Bell
Eric Bell

Nest states, “Investigating missing persons cases, especially when they are presumed murdered, is a delicate matter. The challenges are manifestly greater when coming in as an outsider and when the missing are Indigenous, for Aboriginal communities have rightly learnt to be skeptical of police and other investigators.”

Indigenous knowledge, dismissed by the original investigators, was essential to getting the full story. Working together with people who know the land was key.

Cold Case North is a story about the outdoors and local knowledge: how to read the land to look for clues, what those clues can tell us, and how people behave when in the bush,” Nest says.

“Our collaboration with co-author Eric Bell, and other Cree and Métis people who gave us information, was invaluable in this regard.”