Book Review: Cold Case North–The Search for James Brady and Absolom Halkett

Several times each month, we are pleased to republish a recent book review from the Canadian Law Library Review (CLLR). CLLR is the official journal of the Canadian Association of Law Libraries (CALL/ACBD), and its reviews cover both practice-oriented and academic publications related to the law.

Cold Case North: The Search for James Brady and Absolom Halkett. By Michael Nest, Deanna Reder & Eric Bell. Regina: University of Regina Press, 2020. 311 p. Includes illustrations, maps. ISBN 9780889777491 (softcover) $24.95; 9780889777545 (hardcover) $89.00.

Reviewed by Leslie Taylor
Research and Instruction Librarian
Lederman Law Library, Queen’s University
In CLLR 47:1

In June of 1967, James Brady and Absolom Halkett disappeared in the bush in Northern Saskatchewan. The official conclusion of the RCMP investigation was that these two Indigenous men got lost and perished, but those who knew Brady and Halkett did not believe this to be true. For years, rumours swirled that “secret mining interests and foul play” (p. 18) were at the core of their disappearance. Cold Case North: The Search for James Brady and Absolom Halkett is the gripping story of a recent attempt to crack this 50-year-old case.

James Brady and Absolom Halkett were seasonal prospectors and skilled bushmen, as well as respected leaders in their communities. James Brady was a well-known member of the “Famous Five” who helped to establish the Metis Association of Alberta, and Absolom Halkett was a band councillor for the Lac La Ronge Indian Band. In 1967, they were hired by a mining company to investigate a potential claim at Middle Foster Lake near the town of La Ronge, Saskatchewan. Nine days after their drop-off in the bush, their camp was discovered deserted, and both men were nowhere to be found.

Frank Tomkins, whose father was a close friend and political ally of Brady, was one of many people from the La Ronge community who believed Brady and Halkett were victims of foul play. He was angry that the RCMP had ignored leads brought forward by the community and dismissed the possibility of wrongdoing. Haunted for his whole life by this misjustice, Tomkins enlisted his niece, Deanna Reder, an associate professor in the English and Indigenous Studies departments at Simon Fraser University, to follow up on these leads and investigate the true cause of Brady and Halkett’s disappearance. Unable to perform the task herself due to her work obligations at the university, Reder sought the help of award-winning freelance researcher and author Michael Nest, along with Eric Bell, a member of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band and owner of the La Ronge Emergency Medical Services, to help with the investigation.

Cold Case North documents the story of this small but skilled team’s search for new evidence to solve the mystery and to understand the actions of the RCMP during their 1967 investigation. Michael Nest, whose prior experience includes researching and writing about corruption in the mining industry, led the team’s research efforts. His research is extensive and thorough. Librarians and archivists will appreciate his accounts of visiting numerous libraries, archives, court registries, and government offices in search of primary documents and other sources that could offer clues. He also interviews numerous people from the La Ronge community who were involved in the original search and investigation and/or knew Brady and Halkett.

Through his extensive research, Nest finds compelling evidence that the RCMP’s original search and investigation was marred by racial prejudice, false assumptions, and investigative incompetence. In addition, relying on local knowledge and information, he rediscovers a forgotten clue originally found by an Indigenous tracker not long after Brady and Halkett’s disappearance. This clue spurs the authors to take on an ambitious project that, without telling more and spoiling the ending of the story, leads to an incredible discovery.

This book makes several contributions to the existing literature about the disappearance of Brady and Halkett. It represents the first time in decades that new clues have been uncovered in what is otherwise considered to be a cold case. Additionally, by showing how racial prejudices likely biased the RCMP’s original search and investigation, this book serves as a keen reminder of the need for our institutions of crime and justice to do so much better when it comes to serving Canada’s Indigenous communities.

In addition to making important contributions to the literature, Cold Case North is also an eminently readable story. Nest effectively builds tension from one chapter to the next, making the book hard to put down. He is a compassionate writer, who is skilled at telling vivid and personal stories that bring life to the characters who populate the text. In addition, his haunting descriptions of the Northern Saskatchewan landscape add a wonderful atmospheric quality to the story. It is no surprise that Cold Case North was shortlisted in 2020 for the Crime Writers of Canada Best Nonfiction Crime Book, as well as the American Book Fest’s International Book Award.

I recommend Cold Case North to those who are interested in social justice and Indigenous communities, police searches and investigations, and the secretive Canadian mining industry. In addition, since the book explores these topics in an engaging and accessible way, it would fit in well with both academic and public library collections.

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