Charlotte waited several hours after her husband had stormed away, then returned to the Prince of Wales Hotel, where she stayed overnight before returning to Edmonton on her own. From Edmonton she flew to Toronto on a prearranged holiday and stayed about a week. When she returned and discovered that Colin was still missing, she contacted the authorities. Then, with Barney O'Connor an old friend who had travelled as far as Jasper with them the week before she drove to Waterton Lakes National Park to co-operate in an investigation led by the local RCMP detachment.
That Charlotte did not immediately report her husband's disappearance may seem odd but he had apparently long had the habit of vanishing without notice sometimes for a week or more at a time. Charlotte had concluded that this was yet another incident in a familiar pattern.
The man in charge of the Waterton detachment then was thirty-three-year-old Corporal Ralph Brockbank, who, in the previous ten years, had served in British Columbia, the Yukon, and Northwest Territories. His was the only regular, year-round position in the detachment, although it was usually augmented in the summer months by men culled from Pincher Creek, Lethbridge, or Carden stations. Brockbank and his wife lived in an apartment attached to the RCMP building in the park.
Corporal Brockbank first reviewed the circumstances leading up to the disappearance. That Dafoe may have gone into the hills with some alcohol was intimated, and Brockbank's instincts told him that he was probably dealing with a suicide. He was nevertheless obliged to conduct a search.
From the outset, Brockbank's dilemma was considerable, but for ten days he searched the bush and dock areas by foot, then along the edges of the lake by boat. Four to six RCMP officers were involved, including a dogmaster with a German shepherd, and two park wardens. Eventually they moved into the area surrounding the golf course, "where it's pretty rough going," Brockbank recalled. But finally the corporal was frustrated by his own inability to find even a trace of Dafoe.
Brockbank recalled that a lot of RCMP signals traffic concerning the investigation passed back and forth between Lethbridge the Waterton detachment's reporting station and Ottawa. He ascribed this to Dafoe's "stature as a respected surgeon." But at no time did he feel unduly pressured to accelerate his investigation or provide an unusual number of reports.
The investigation continued, whenever the men found time, throughout the year. Brockbank had formulated several suspicions by then, the most important of which was that once in the woods Dafoe had deliberately concealed his whereabouts.
He had learned from Charlotte during his preliminary inquiry that Dafoe was angered by a sign posted next to one of the park's trails, requesting the public to keep out. "He was a man who didn't like signs," Brockbank had concluded. Perhaps he had returned to the hotel for a bottle of gin (or vodka), then stormed defiantly past the sign and into the dangerous trail. This theory certainly fit with the lack of evidence as to his direction. Whether he then had an accident, suffered a heart attack or a stroke, or committed suicide was open to speculation, although Brockbank still believed the last was the most likely.
There were other theories. That Dafoe was not even in the park area was considered. It was even suggested that Dafoe had been involved in "some sort of CIA deal." The park, abutting Montana, would have provided an easy "escape route" to the United States. Brockbank pursued this notion, sending a request to the CIA via Lethbridge, K Division HQ in Edmonton, and then Ottawa. He never received a reply.
Foul play was considered. But where was the body? Other, less dramatic possibilities were discussed. One that he might have been attacked by a bear Brockbank all but dismissed. "Bears are dangerous if you come across a kill," Brockbank allowed, "but Dafoe was an experienced outdoorsman." And such incidents were just too infrequent.
Brockbank ruled out the possibility of an accident, heart attack, or stroke more by gut instinct than from hard evidence. Surely a body could be found if the missing individual had stumbled or collapsed on one of the trails. Instead, the corporal grew increasingly convinced that Dafoe had deliberately hidden somewhere in the park. And the likelihood that he had committed suicide was, while repugnant to Dafoe's family, too great to ignore.
In the meantime, Charlotte had tried to get on with life as best she could. Of course, she never gave up hope. She sent a Christmas card to Miki in 1971. "We still have no news of him, and I am certain he is not alive although we continue to hope for a miracle," she said.
Michael Dafoe recalled that his mother several times had him suddenly stop the car as they drove in and around Edmonton sure she had seen Colin. Fred Day was similarly moved: "Like many others who loved Colin, I refused at first to accept the facts and looked constantly for him in every country and every hotel that I visited. More than once I thought I saw him in a crowd, but it was never him. I just hated to let him go."
Only two small articles had appeared in the Edmonton Journal in connection with the matter. The first, on August 23, 1969, stated that Dafoe had not been seen for two weeks. It noted that he had grey hair and a small moustache, and was wearing green trousers and a green sweater over a beige shirt when he disappeared. Several days later, The Journal reported that the RCMP were continuing the search.
Charlotte sent a package to Miki in 1971. In it, she enclosed several souvenirs of Colin Dafoe's mission to Yugoslavia. Miki had requested the items for a memorial to Dafoe in Sarajevo: newspaper clippings, photographs, Dafoe's black beret, a haversack, and his Order of Service to the People were among them. "He would be proud to know that he is not forgotten," she wrote in an accompanying letter, "and I am very sorry that he never had the opportunity to return to visit you and his other friends. He talked of you and his experiences so often. I will always be grateful for your country's gratitude to my husband. He had a tremendous experience in Yugoslavia."
Of course, Dafoe was not forgotten by his Partisan friends. And when President Tito visited Canada in 1971, an invitation to the official reception in Ottawa was sent to the Dafoes. Charlotte told Miki afterwards that her husband's disappearance "must be unknown to those who issued the invitation." In fact, many of his friends had begun to wonder why they had not heard from him in so long.
Nothing of significance had developed in the investigation not even a shred of clothing. Corporal Brockbank was transferred to Edmonton but his interest in "The Dafoe File" persisted.
Early in May 1972, several hikers reported discovering a skull with its lower jaw missing; it had apparently washed down from quite high up in Waterton Lakes National Park. One of the park wardens immediately recalled the investigation into Dafoe's disappearance three years earlier, and had the skull delivered to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner in Edmonton, where it underwent forensic study. Already, it had been positively identified using pre-mortem dental x-rays as that of Colin Scott Dafoe, late of Edmonton.
Shortly after Charlotte was notified and the remains returned, a memorial service was held at Metropolitan United Church in Edmonton. Colin Ross delivered the eulogy.
"Colin was my friend a great man," he began. "I know you all miss his presence as much as I do. We are saddened by our loss, but what of him? I think that, to Colin, death would be accepted as a challenge, and an adventure, as great as any in life. To him, death was not the end merely a pause in time. Who knows what death is? We talked about it several times, and I think I can express the wish he might have us feel about him, in these lines
Stand not by my grave and weep,
I am not dead I do not sleep,
I am a thousand winds that blow,
I am the diamonds glinting in the snow,
I am the early morning rush of birds in flight,
I am the velvet softness of a summer night,
I am the look of wonder in a baby's eyes,
Deo volente nothing ever dies.
Stand not by my grave and weep,
I am not dead I do not sleep,
Stand not by my grave and cry,
I am not dead I did not die.
Without a full explanation for Dafoe's death, his family and friends concluded that it had at least occurred in fitting surroundings. They closed the book, and in doing so perhaps unconsciously echoed the sentiment Bill Gillanders had voiced when Lindsay Rogers had died so tragically: "He died as he lived violently and spectacularly."
But is that enough? What happened to Colin Scott Dafoe that July day in 1969? In the intervening years, no startling new evidence has surfaced no "smoking gun," or "inside story" to shed new light on his disappearance. Still, a number of questions remain unanswered.
The Yugoslavs argue that Dafoe was murdered by Ustasi or Cetnik gunmen living in Canada. Others are tantalized by the notion that he went to Vietnam, as he told Salom Suica he wanted to do. Suicide, while supported by no known motive, is the theory still retained by some.
John McNichol was not sure what to think. He recalled the day he phoned Dafoe's house and first learned of the disappearance. McNichol next called Jesse Turner, a mutual friend who had been Dafoe's best man. Turner did not seem unduly alarmed by the news. "He's probably on a boat to China or gone to see the Indians again," he said. Turner remembered Dafoe's remark shortly after the war that he wanted to return to the north.
How to reconstruct the events of July 29, 1969?
A "Certificate of Witness who Identifies a Deceased Person" was completed by Dafoe's dentist, Dr D H McDougall, on May 12, 1972. In it, he averred: "That I identify the skull as being that of Dr Colin S Dafoe, my patient, late of Edmonton, Alberta (identified by dental records)."
Forensic specialist Dr R J Swallow next summarized his findings: "It is my opinion that the skull was that of a well-developed and muscular adult male and there was no evidence of trauma in the material examined."
Since we must accept the verdicts of doctors McDougall and Swallow without prejudice and conclude that Dafoe's skull was properly and accurately identified, this leaves questions about the search.
Bill Gillanders visited Canada in 1971 and went with Charlotte to the Waterton Lakes district. Although he did not venture far into the woods and rough brush, Gillanders was perplexed by the outcome of the RCMP investigation. "I could not see how anyone could have got lost there," he said afterwards. "The bush was fairly open, very unlike New Zealand bush which is more jungle....I am sure that a properly organized search must have discovered his body if it was there. I have been on searches in New Zealand and even turned up a body missing twenty-five years!"
Yet Brockbank's investigation was apparently well organized and thorough. If anything, Gillanders' reservations may support Brockbank's unofficial contention that Dafoe did not wish to be found.
How seriously to pursue the suggestion that Dafoe was not in the park for some unknown period of time following his disappearance? What of the theory that he went to Vietnam or anywhere else or that he was involved in "some sort of CIA deal"?
Dafoe could easily have slipped across undetected into the United States and had a rendezvous with persons unknown. But this means he was absent from the Canadian park until his remains were returned to where they were found. To accept this notion stretches one's imagination almost to the limit.
Why, then, could Brockbank not find Dafoe? One problem was that the investigation started at least a week after Dafoe's disappearance. He was not seen by any of the hotel's employees, although Brockbank had evidence that made him certain Dafoe had returned to his room. All of the guests in the hotel on the day he vanished had moved on and when Brockbank attempted to locate several of them for questioning, he discovered the hotel records were kept in a hotel on the US side, which owned the Prince of Wales. This took on added significance when he learned that the FBI and, to a lesser extent, the CIA was conducting its own, independent investigation.
The idea that Dafoe was murdered or that any sort of foul play was involved must be examined, if only because it surfaces repeatedly. Corporal Brockbank dismissed the idea early in his investigation, but many Yugoslavs regard it as a logical conclusion. Only a skull was found, after all. Without any other remains, we cannot know if he suffered a mortal wound to another part of his body. This begs the question of motive.
The story given wide circulation in Yugoslavia is that Dafoe had attended several meetings of Yugoslav emigres in Edmonton at least where he encountered strong anti-Tito, anti-Communist, and anti-Partisan sentiments. This is quite plausible: among Yugoslavia's expatriates, the wartime bratoubilacki rat left deep divisions between the Croats and Serbs especially. Evidently, Dafoe had been known to argue loudly and forcefully, in the bluntest language, with the expatriates, accusing them of spreading a false account of the Partisan victory, which he had seen first-hand.
So far, the story seems true to Dafoe's character, and it goes on to suggest that the Yugoslav ambassador in Ottawa, or someone with one of the country's consulates, was made aware of an angry mood building against Dafoe, and grew fearful for his safety. The Yugoslavs relating these details provide, not altogether tangentially, an account of the murder of Vladimir Rolovic formerly political commissar of the 38th Division and commandant of the Third Korpus after Kosta Nadj's departure by Ustasi terrorists in Stockholm in 1971. Dafoe is thought to have been the victim of some similar "gang" who had tracked him into the wilds of the Waterton Lakes district.
Finally, what to make of the question of suicide? Both Dafoe's son John and his brother Eric had predeceased him that way. The family admitted that he had been preoccupied by his advancing age; certainly any restriction of his mobility would have been difficult for him to bear. Moreover, he was reportedly depressed by the imminent loss of his hospital privileges as of his sixtieth birthday only four months away at the time of his disappearance. Then there was his volatile mood at that precise time, and the question of pressures building up within him.
Most important is motive. Why would a man travel all the way from Edmonton to the Waterton Lakes with his wife, stopping at several points en route to go golfing, if he intended to commit suicide, if he even had it within him to do so? It seems totally out of character.
Moreover, as Michael Dafoe argues: "If Dad had planned a suicide...he would [not] have left his financial matters in a state where his wife, the one woman in this world to whom he was devoted, had to return to work."
Indeed, during the years until Dafoe's remains were recovered, a substantial share of his assets and his life insurance was held by a trust company, leaving Charlotte to survive on her own.
All attempts to clarify the matter of Dafoe's disappearance and death are frustrated because of the circumstances, and to some extent the lack of documentation available. RCMP records of that period were destroyed in accordance with "disposal schedules" approved by the Dominion Archivist. Nevertheless, a search was conducted by the RCMP at its record offices in Alberta and Ottawa, at this author's request. No files concerning Dafoe were located.
Subsequent attempts to obtain documents newly available as a result of freedom-of-information (FOI) legislation in the United States provided a letter from the CIA stating that only one item a cable dated October 22, 1971 had been located. It was withheld pursuant to FOI Act exemptions, but given the date, it would seem reasonable that the CIA was referring to either Brockbank's inquiry or a reply forwarded to Ottawa.
Similar inquiries directed to the FBI were more successful. Of thirteen documents reviewed in connection with the request, eight were withheld in their entirety again, pursuant to FOI Act exemptions. The five made available provide interesting "nonreading," as broad sections are blacked out, leaving only the letterhead, dates, and Dafoe's name usually misspelled.
Still, from the evidence in those five, we can conclude that the FBI was greatly interested in Dafoe's fate. In the only letter which arrived largely intact sent from the FBI branch in Cincinnati on November 5, 1969 we find:
RE: DOCTOR COLIN SCOTT DAFOE
On October 31,1969, XXXXXXXXXXXXXXXXX XXXXXXXXXX advised a Special Agent of the FBI that they had spent the night of July 29, 1969, at the Prince of Wales Hotel in Waterton Park, Alberta, while on a vacation trip in Canada. They stated that they only stayed there one night and believed they had been in room number XXXX. They advised that the hotel was very quiet and they did not meet any of the guests there. They stated they did not hear any noise from the room occupied by Dafoe, nor were they in possession of any helpful information regarding him and/or his whereabouts.
The FBI, too, was apparently unable to find any trace of Dafoe, or an explanation for his disappearance.
Efforts to obtain information from archival sources in the UK proved particularly frustrating. Aside from the single sheet giving a brief outline of his military service, which was located in the Army Records Centre in Hayes, Middlesex, no file is available for scrutiny. Further inquiries were rendered virtually impossible when it was learned from a reliable source that Dafoe likely had a personal code name in addition to "Toffee," which identified his mission while serving with SOE. As that code name remains unknown, no serious attempts can be made to retrieve his records from the labyrinthine archives in Britain.
In the absence of any conclusive evidence to the contrary, Dafoe's disappearance must be ascribed to a "cause or causes unknown." But whatever happened that day, Dafoe's legacy remains.
"This man, to whom I was married for thirty-one years, was a unique human being, who loved life and lived it fully," Charlotte said many years later. "He was capable of deep loyalty and tender love. Who knows it better than I?"
Barney O'Connor added his own testimonial.
"For many years...he was one of my very best and closest friends," he said simply. "He was an honourable man of the highest morals and integrity and honest to a fault. I am proud to have been called his good friend."
From Fred Day: "He was truly one of the most outstanding and unforgettable characters that I have ever met."
And Colin Ross, recalling how his partner had quietly put his Order of Service to the People in a little tin box, out of sight "somewhere in a trunk," said that "for him, it was the game that was worthwhile not the reward."
Shortly after Dafoe's remains were identified, Charlotte returned to Waterton Lakes National Park. Early one morning, under cerulean skies, she climbed a trail into the mountains. Coming to the spot where she was told her husband's remains had been found, she stood in solemn remembrance alone; yet somehow she felt close to her husband again.
As she stood there, brushed by the gentle winds, the words to "The Burial of Moses" by the nineteenth-century Irish poet Cecil Frances Alexander came to mind. She had learned it by heart as a child, and at that moment it seemed to her both comforting and appropriate.
And had he not high honour?
The hillside for a pall!
To lie in state while angels wait,
With stars for tapers tall!
And the dark rock-pines, like tossing plumes,
Over his bier to wave,
And God's own hand, in that lonely land,
To lay him in his grave! ...
Speak to these curious hearts of ours,
And teach them to be still:
God hath his mysteries of grace,
Ways that we cannot tell,
He hides them deep, like the secret sleep
Of him he loved so well.
That Colin Scott Dafoe was relatively unknown in Canada at the time of his death was tragic. He deserved much better than that.
It was just as tragic that he never returned to Yugoslavia, where he would have been received as a hero the surgeon from Canada who had saved countless lives during a brave nation's epic war of liberation.
Instead, Dafoe lived his life by his own rules and remained to the end an enigmatic individual, known well by only a few and understood by precious fewer. And in Yugoslavia, there are many who still weep when they think of the man they once knew as tata.
Copyright © Brian Jeffrey Street 1987,1998. All rights reserved.