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True Crime and Indigenous People: A Reading List

—Michael Nest and Deanna Reder

Researching and writing about true crime in Indigenous communities is different.  First, what is defined as a crime can be confusing. For example, early in the twentieth century, in an effort to estrange First Nations children from their cultures and communities, the Canadian government enforced attendance at residential school. The recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission recorded a litany of abuses against those students who were mandated to attend these harmful institutions—a system in place up until 1996. Yet the official “criminals” at the time were parents who didn’t want to comply and sought to hide their children from being sent away. When in 1999 John Milloy published a book on the history of this education system, he called it A National Crime (1999). Even today, this past coercion by the state and the attendant damage encourages Indigenous people to have a rational suspicion of authority and a wariness of outsiders making inquiries.

Second, violent crime against Indigenous peoples is higher than the national average.  For example, a Canadian national inquiry identified that between 1980 and 2012, 1,181 Indigenous women and girls were murdered or disappeared; the equivalent number for the non-Indigenous community would be a staggering 24,000.  The magnitude of trauma is substantial, making the topic even more difficult to examine.

Third, historically Indigenous people have been less likely to be published. Presses often haven’t understood the obligations that Indigenous writers have to stories from their communities and the courage it takes to write about difficult topics. A shocking example of this came to light with the re-release of Maria Campbell’s classic memoir, Halfbreed (McClelland & Stewart). The 2019 edition includes Campbell’s account of being raped at 14 by a police officer, text that was excised by the publisher from the original 1973 edition against Campbell’s express wishes. 

These differences are compensated by the research team for Cold Case North, a new book published by University of Regina Press, that tells the story of the unsolved murder of indigenous activists, police investigation misconduct, and the community who tracked down the clues which officials failed to uncover. Two of the three co-authors have lived experience as Indigenous people, used to asking relatives and community for information even if it contradicts “official reports.”  We recognize that starting this investigation would both upset and assure people, sometimes at the same time, and that perhaps the best gift is to listen with respect. Sometimes it helps to share difficult stories. The fact that we could collaborate with an experienced, top-rate researcher new to Canada meant that we knew we could introduce him to the history from our perspective, and benefit from seeing things from his point of view. 

Below are excerpts from Cold Case North and a list of 7 books about true crime that open up these themes:

Excerpts from Cold Case North

pp. 5-6: [Deanna’s Uncle Frank] talked about his memories of Brady and Norris [another Indigenous activist]. Regardless, at some point he always returned to the details of Jim and Abbie’s disappearance and often told me that it wasn’t too late to conduct a search. He was confident that the RCMP theories were wrong, that their murders had taken place, that their bodies could be found in Lower Foster Lake, and that the lake was so cold that their bodies could still be intact, even after almost half a century.

pp. 113-114: If there was one event that determined the course of history in northern Saskatchewan in June 1967 [when the men disappeared], it was the drop-off of Jim and Abbie at the wrong lake. If they were murdered as part of some conspiracy, and it is still ‘if’, then this act made it possible.

A drop-off at the wrong lake is crucial to the murder plot. In fact, it would be the perfect crime: a pilot puts down two men at what they think is the right lake, but is actually the wrong lake, and does not tell anyone, so the deaths seem to be “natural” but accidental caused by animals, exposure to the elements, or eventual starvation. The catch is that Jim and Abbie were expecting a visitor—their boss, Richards—who came looking for them, found their camp in the wrong place, and then raised the alarm. Not such a perfect crime after all. The pilot would also need a motive to participate in it. But whether it was intentional or not, the drop-off at the wrong lake remains the act that set in motion this course of events. I had no expectation of being able to find the pilot who dropped Jim and Abbie off, but I had some clues … his name and that he had been a theology student. I search his name online and find a Catholic newsletter from British Columbia with an article about an interdenominational week of prayer for Christian unity in 2013. It has an accompanying photo in which a Reverend Gerry Mitchinson, of the Evangelical Lutheran Church, is dressed in a white cassock and green stole. Can this be him? Is he still alive?

I contact the church, send a message enquiring whether he is the Gerald Mitchinson who flew in northern Saskatchewan in 1967, and can’t believe it when a reply appears in my inbox the next day: “Yes, you have the right person”…

7 books about true crime and Indigenous people

Sierra Crane Murdoch, Yellow Bird: Oil, Murder, and a Woman’s Search for Justice in Indian Country

Yellow Bird from Penguin Random House ostensiblyhas many similarities to Cold Case North: two men disappear, in this case on North Dakota’s Fort Berthold Indian Reservation; rumors they were murdered implicate influential figures in the wider community; and Indigenous voices become key to tracking down the truth.  It is a terrific read but what most piqued our interest was the different treatment Murdoch afforded the material.  Murdoch’s background is in journalism and she relies on evidence and evidence-gathering techniques that we would have hesitated to use (we are both social scientists), but her use of protagonist Lissa Yellow Bird, an Arikara-Mandan-Hidatsa-Sioux woman, makes for a complex gripping narrative.  Like Cold Case North, Murdoch shows how Indigenous and non-Indigenous people can collaborate on an equal basis to investigate true crimes that affect Indigenous communities.

Chloe Hooper, The Tall Man: Death and Life on Palm Island

Selected for The New York Times | Globe & Mail ‘Best books of the year’ lists

The Tall Man from Penguin is about Palm Island, Australia, the tropical paradise where one morning Cameron Doomadgee, an Aboriginal man, swore at a white policeman and forty minutes later lay dead in a police cell. When the police pathologist announced Doomadgee’s death was due to a fall – despite an autopsy that found broken ribs, a ruptured spleen, and a liver nearly cleaved in two against his spine – the community marched to the courthouse, police station and police residences and burnt them down. Described by the New York Times as a “haunting moral maze,” The Tall Man is the story of the police officer implicated in Doomadgee’s death – tall enigmatic Chris Hurley who had prided himself on good relations with Aboriginal people – and of the struggle to bring him to trial.  Hooper traces the history of Palm Island as a settlement for “troublemaker” Aboriginal families who were thrown together into this closed missionary-controlled community, and how politicians, media and lobby groups dealt with their discomfort at the trial’s revelations by grasping for racialized positions.

Steve Lillebuen, The Devil’s Cinema: The Untold Story Behind Mark Twitchell’s Kill Room

Winner, Arthur Ellis True Crime Award Canada

The Devil’s Cinema from McClelland & Stewart does not involve Indigenous people but it provided an epiphany for how we wanted to write Cold Case North.  The book is about a real life filmmaker and wannabe serial killer in Alberta, Mark Twitchell, whose modus operandi was to pose as a woman on a dating website to lure men to his garage, then film himself murdering them.  He succeeded with one victim; a second man got away.  Twitchell got life in jail.  The Devil’s Cinema focuses on Twitchell, his planning and his psychology, and the cover has a photograph of him behind a camera staring straight at the reader.  The killer is front and center.  It was everything we didn’t want Cold Case North to be.  Instead, we focus on the two men who disappeared, their legacy 50 years later as inspiration for activists today, and how the community gradually shared private stories about what happened.  The Devil’s Cinema is an exemplar of a certain kind of true crime writing but we deliberately wrote against this convention.

James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life

National Bestseller | Winner, Governor General’s History Award | Aboriginal History Prize | Sir John A. Macdonald Prize

Some true crime literature focuses on a single murder, other on mass murder.  Clearing the Plains (University of Regina Press) does the latter, in the process eschewing the adrenalin of some crime writing for sober historical analysis.  Daschuk lays out evidence of attempted genocide in the late 1800s on the Great Plains by the Canadian government, which wanted to clear them for white settlers, push through a railway and expand the nation.  Thus did Canada’s first Prime Minister and progenitor of native policy, Sir John A. Macdonald, champion starvation, forced clearances, restrictions on independent livelihoods, crushing of cultural practices, and police brutality that left First Nations on the edge of extirpation.  True crime on a continental scale. 

Jesse Thistle, From the Ashes: My Story of Being Métis, Homeless, and Finding My Way

Winner, Indigenous Voices Awards | Winner, Kobo Emerging Writer Prize Nonfiction | Winner, High Plains Book Awards | A Globe and Mail Book of the Year | A CBC Best Canadian Nonfiction Book of the Year | Finalist CBC Canada Reads

Thistle is now an acclaimed professor at York University, Toronto, but his was a long road: separation from his Métis-Cree grandparents, chaotic love in a dysfunctional family, failure in school, followed by homelessness and a decade-long bender of drugs and alcohol. From the Ashes (Simon & Schuster) describes how Thistle became a petty thief and drug dealer to feed his habit, but think Trainspotting rather than Oliver Twist: it is a brutal, ill, hungry, world and the only ‘fun’ is fuelled by drugs. Thistle is perpetrator and victim (while hitchhiking two Ontario farm-boys try to murder him and while unconscious from drugs at a nightclub he is raped), and the book shows why there are few ways out of this addiction-crime cycle until totally crashing and burning (the ‘ashes’ of the title). It is a mesmerising read: the drug-induced highs make the reader feel lightheaded, but it also makes us want to puke and cry for help and leave us aghast at the carnage one can do to body, mind and spirit…until the choice is death or a different path.

Rudy Wiebe and Yvonne Johnston, Stolen Life: The Journey of a Cree Woman

Shortlisted in 1998 for the Governor General’s Literary Awards Prize for Non-Fiction

The two authors of this book are united by Big Bear, the famous and fiercely independent Cree Chief who resisted white settlement until 1882, when because of the near extinction of the buffalo and the starvation of his people he became a reluctant signatory to Treaty Six. In 1885 Big Bear was blamed for an uprising that he did not lead and jailed for treason, only to be released two years later due to failing health, just before his death.  In 1973 author Rudy Wiebe wrote an award winning novel about this history, The Temptations of Big Bear, that the Chief’s great-great-grand-daughter, Yvonne Johnston, read while an inmate in prison.  Inspired to reach out to Wiebe, the subsequent correspondence details Johnston and Wiebe’s growing trust in each other.  The narrative has a vice-like grip as Johnston shares details of a childhood filled with racism, violence, poverty, sexual abuse, the spectre of an older brother killed in prison, all the unhappy continuation of the dispossession, incarceration, and degradation of her ancestor. As her life story unravels, the narrative leads to the ultimate disclosure of details of a chilling murder.

Ken Roach, Canadian Justice, Indigenous Injustice: The Gerald Stanley and Colten Boushie Case

Finalist, Shaughnessy Cohen Prize for Political Writing

In August 2016, a young Cree man, Colten Bushie, was driving with four friends when their car developed a flat tire and they drove onto the farm of Gerald Stanley. Two of the friends drove off in one of Stanley’s vehicles before crashing a short distance later. Stanley grabbed a pistol and fired warning shots, prompting Bushie to get into the driver’s seat of his friends’ car to flee. What happened next is not in dispute: Stanley approached Bushie and held a gun behind his left ear, safety catch off; Bushie was shot point-blank. The case bitterly divided the community. Whites defended Stanley, claiming farmers were under siege; Indigenous people demanded a murder conviction; Stanley’s lawyers managed to block anyone visibly Indigenous from serving on the jury; Stanley was acquitted by the all-white jury of all charges, but was fined for unsafe storage of firearms. After the verdict, some whites used social media to call for the murder of Indigenous people; Saskatchewan’s Premier called for calm. Canadian Justice, Indigenous Injustice (McGill-Queen’s University Press) analyzes the application of law during the trial. Roach argues that the Canadian legal system’s smugness and defensiveness prevent reforms that could deliver anything Indigenous people might view as justice.

Tells the story of the unsolved murder of indigenous activists, police investigation misconduct, and the community who tracked down the clues which officials failed to uncover

Missing persons. Double murder? Métis leader James Brady was one of the most famous Indigenous activists in Canada. A communist, strategist, and bibliophile, he led Métis and First Nations to rebel against government and church oppression. Brady’s success made politicians and clergy fear him; he had enemies everywhere. In 1967, while prospecting in Saskatchewan with Cree Band Councillor and fellow activist, Absolom Halkett, both men vanished from their remote lakeside camp. For 50 years rumours swirled of secret mining interests, political intrigue, and murder. Cold Case North is the story of how a small team, with the help of the Indigenous community, exposed police failure in the original investigation, discovered new clues and testimony, and gathered the pieces of the North’s most enduring missing persons puzzle.

Michael Nest

Deanna Reder

Eric Bell

MICHAEL NEST is a freelance researcher and award-winning author whose work focuses on mining and corruption. Michael lives in Montréal.

DEANNA REDER is a Cree-Métis literary critic and an associate professor in English and First Nations Studies at Simon Fraser University. Deanna lives in Vancouver.

ERIC BELL is a member of the Lac La Ronge Indian Band and the owner of La Ronge Emergency Medical Services. Eric lives in La Ronge, Saskatchewan.

Feature Image by Simaah from Pixabay

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