Cold Case North by Deanna Reder, Eric Bell and Michael Nest

The synopsis for Cold Case North: The Search for James Brady and Absolom Halkett (University of Regina Press, 2020) captured me immediately. Two prospectors, Jim Brady and Abbie Halkett disappeared from the Northern Saskatchewan bush in 1967. After an extensive ground, water, and air search, nothing of note was found and the RCMP assumed they must have died of exposure, gotten lost, or been consumed by wildlife. Jim and Abbie’s communities and families; however, were not convinced of these theories and had ample reason to believe that foul play was involved. Although Cold Case North delivers on its synopsis, I struggled with how this story was told and from whose perspective it came. Jim and Abbie were Indigenous men who spent their lives fighting for the rights of their people. The authors of this book are very right to criticize the RCMP investigation (or lack thereof) that was done, because it was done with extremely damaging Indigenous stereotypes in mind. Blatant racism on behalf of the RCMP was one of the many reasons why this case was never solved. And so, why then, I kept wondering as I read, did the perspective and narrative telling of this story come mostly from a white Australian man who had no ties to the community in which the crime took place?

Michael Nest, the first listed author of this book, is clearly an accomplished writer and researcher. He did everything he could do to earn the respect and trust of the people for whom this story was not just a story but a part of their everyday life and family histories. His portions of the book are meticulous, balanced, compassionate, and well written. In short, he is everything you could want in a researcher. However, who I really wanted to hear more from was Dr. Deanna Reder and Eric Bell, who are also credited as authors. Deanna, a Cree-Métis Indigenous Studies and English Professor beautifully opens the book and explains her ties to La Ronge, Saskatchewan, the small town in which these crimes took place. Deanna’s account introduces readers to the crime and its reverberations, but more than this, it places the people who have been affected by it in the center of the narrative. Deanna relies on all the typical pieces of information that are important when investigating a cold case, but she also graciously invites her reader into conversations with elders, with her mother, and with other community members. In short, she relies on the rich storytelling culture that is prominent in Indigenous communities, and for me, this was fascinating. I learned from Deanna in a way that was invaluable to me.

Perhaps that is why I found the shift that the book takes into Michael’s perspective so jarring. It is certainly not that Michael’s perspective or account is not as valuable—Michael goes into great detail about who Jim and Abbie were as people and who they were to their communities. He also chases down every conceivable lead with detail and precision, while also rightly criticizing the RCMP at every turn. This being said, he is lucky to have Deanna as well as Eric Bell who are knowledgeable about the land, the people, and the crime from the inside looking out. Without Eric Bell, their investigation into this case would have stalled—he’s clearly a jack of all trades and someone who is well respected and well trusted in his community. Indeed, Michael, Deanna and Eric are able to actually look for Jim and Abbie’s bodies in Lower Foster Lake because of Eric’s incredible abilities to make things happen (along with Deanna’s dedication to securing funds for their research). As tips began to trickle in and plans began to be made, I found myself yearning to hear this story from Deanna’s perspective. I found myself wondering how Eric was faring in the community when new developments were coming to light about the case. Put simply, Michael’s contribution to the text, while extraordinary, was a little too narrow to tell me everything I wanted to know as a reader.

The sheer number of theories about what happened to Jim and Abbie that are explored by the book are extraordinary and well worth reading about. As far as cold cases go, this one is extremely complex with many players and moving parts. When the authors are given one final tip that gives them the potential location of Jim and Abbie’s bodies, I was riveted. I thought, finally, a cold case with a conclusion! I won’t spoil here what they discover in the end. What I will say is although there were things about this text that didn’t fully track for me, the story of Jim and Abbie is one that needs to be read about. Michael concludes his section of the text by explaining what their far-reaching investigation accomplished:  

“What we did do was expose the RCMP’S failure in 1967 to listen to the community, to treat the missing persons case as a potential crime, to interview everyone who should have been interviewed, and to put an experienced officer in charge of the case.”

The long list of failures committed by the RCMP in this case are also echoed by Deanna, who ends the text by not only explaining where the investigation concluded, but by explaining her own feelings and her communities’ feelings about where the investigation had gone. After discussing the case with an elder, Deanna says that:

“He shared with me a word that was on his mind—pâstâhowin—a Cree word that warns against passing a forbidden point. Implied are the bad effects on the person who goes against the rules in place. Later I read a quotation from Cree language teacher Reuben Quinn, who says that pâstâhowin means to ‘shatter the future.’”

This quotation weighed heavily on my mind as I read the rest of Deanna’s account of those last searches for Jim and Abbie. This section of the book was by far my favorite section. I was deeply moved and frustrated for the authors, for Jim and Abbie, and for a community that so deserves answers. In this section, Deanna also relays a conversation that Eric had with an elder about the word “pâstâhowin”, a conversation in which the elder said that “[s]ometimes you’ll get signs that tell you that this is as far as you can go.” With cold cases like this one, ones in which the original investigation was so poorly carried out, limits are always placed on future investigators and what they are able to discover. It seems to me that Michael, Deanna and Eric did receive the kind of sign that the elder spoke of, despite their extraordinary efforts to close the case for good. This is a story that exposes the very cracks and faults that make up Canada’s past and present, and for this and many other reasons, it is well worth your time.

*A proof of Cold Case North was provided to True Crime Index by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review. All quotations that appear in this review may be slightly changed in the finished copy.

Jesyka Traynor is an academic living in Kingston, Ontario, Canada. When she’s not writing or researching her dissertation, she’s consuming all the true crime and non-fiction she can find time for. Jesyka holds two degrees in English literature and is currently pursuing a doctorate in contemporary Californian literature.

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