As James Brady and Absolom Halkett waved goodbye to the twin-engine Beech plane on June 7, 1967, they did not realize they’d been dropped off at the wrong lake. The men would soon have recognized the pilot’s mistake, though, and they would have known to sit tight. But when a third man, Berry Richards, arrived with more supplies on June 16, all he found was an abandoned camp, with a canoe tied to a birch tree. Richards knew Brady, a Métis leader and Second World War veteran, and Halkett, a band councillor, would not have tried tackling the dense bush alone; he reported them missing to the RCMP.
It was Richards who had hired Brady and Halkett to look for uranium in the rugged mix of Canadian Shield, boreal forest, and muskeg that is northern Saskatchewan. Prospecting was just one of their many skills. Brady was also something of a radical intellectual. The walls of his cabin were lined with books, everything from the Bible to The Communist Manifesto; he spoke Michif, English, French, even Latin. In 1932, he’d helped found the Association des Métis d’Alberta et des Territoires du Nord-Ouest, and in 1963, he’d tried to convince Tommy Douglas that the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation should address the plight of Indigenous peoples (the revered socialist rebuffed his advice).
Although it was already June when the men went missing, fresh snowfall had obliterated any tracks. Nonetheless, skilled trackers found clues that didn’t add up. Why would Brady and Halkett tie their canoe to a birch tree, when everyone knows birch roots have a tendency to disintegrate? One respected tracker, McIvor Eninew, found “quite a bundle of white moss and straw (reeds) with stems as wide as a man’s thumb” near the shore. But it didn’t belong there. And there was also a mark on a rock, from where a boat — not a canoe — seemed to have docked. Still, the Mounties chalked up the disappearance to “misadventure” and ended their search after less than a month.
Rumours have been whispered ever since. Was the settling of political scores involved? Had the two men hit a deposit worth killing for? One member of the La Ronge community, Frank Tomkins, never believed Brady and Halkett had, as the police concluded, “gotten so lost in the bush that they had decided to try to walk out.” He was always sure that his friends’ bodies had been dumped in the lake, where the cold temperatures would have preserved them for decades. And, eventually, he decided he had found a resource to help solve the case: his niece, the Indigenous studies professor Deanna Reder.
“No one would mistake me for an outdoorswoman,” Reder writes near the beginning of Cold Case North. “I do not think that I have the ability to lead searches on land or under water.” But in 2016, she agreed to help her uncle, then nearly ninety, to look for answers. Her cousin Eric Bell, from Lac La Ronge Indian Band, joined her, as did Michael Nest, a researcher from Montreal. Together, they searched the Lower, Middle, and Upper Foster Lakes and the surrounding forest, as well as archival maps and registries.
Nest, Reder, and Bell draw some conclusions in their book. They rule out Richards as a suspect, for example, as well as the young pilot who dropped the men off. They also point out that the Foster Lakes region never proved to have enough uranium worth mining. And while circumstantial evidence seems to implicate someone from the men’s home community, most people still won’t name names.
Even without solving the mystery, Cold Case North underscores the long-standing indifference the RCMP and other police forces have shown Indigenous people, including, of course, the thousands of missing and murdered women. The book also places northern players within the larger history of uranium and nuclear power in this country, a history that too often focuses on southern dramas at Chalk River, Darlington, Pickering, and Douglas Point.
For decades, Ottawa didn’t talk about how uranium was first transported from the mines to the shipping containers that took it to power plants and, before that, to the Manhattan Project. But in 1999, the Ontario filmmaker Peter Blow produced Village of Widows, a searing documentary about the Sahtu Dene, who once carried the material in cloth sacks — on their backs and in their canoes. The year before, a delegation had travelled from the Northwest Territories to Japan, to apologize for their community’s role in developing the atomic bomb. At home, however, they have yet to receive an apology from the government that exposed them to the radiation that made Little Boy and Fat Man possible.
Whether in the ’40s, in the ’60s, or today, uranium veins are worth fortunes — far more, in the eyes of many, than the lives of two Indigenous prospectors. While Cold Case North doesn’t offer a lot of answers about James Brady and Absolom Halkett — or any of the others who have lost their lives so that southern Canada could have seemingly endless supplies of energy — it does include many important lessons about this country, then and now.