Nicolas Huberdeau was born on Dec. 3, 1959, one of nine children—three girls and six boys—born to René and Marguerite, dairy farmers and strong Catholics from St. Lazare, Man. The tightly knit francophone village of 300—an “island” among anglophone communities where the Church remains important, says town councillor Phil Fafard—sits on the eastern edge of the Qu’Appelle Valley, 10 miles from the Saskatchewan border. “We were a poor family,” says Guy, the eldest, “so we made our own fun.” Nic, an “awkward” little boy, was working the fields and milking cows by the time he was seven, says Guy. Using shoebox lids, he’d design “his ideal barn,” figuring “which cow should be in which stall,” says Cam, their younger brother.
There was never any doubt where Nic was headed in life, and at 13 he made it official when he dropped out of École Saint-Lazare. “His passion was farming,” Cam explains. At 24, Nic and Guy took over their parents’ dairy operation. Six years later, at a dance in St. Lazare, Nic met Rebecca Fouillard, a nurse’s aide a decade his junior. He was “the shyest person,” says Rebecca—“the kind who’d go bright red at the drop of a hat.” She loved his gentle manners; they were married within a year, and were later joined by two sons: Shane and Mathiew.
Guy and Nic, who lived in separate houses on the family property, were up by 5:30 every morning to milk the herd, which peaked at 100 in the ’90s. Before stopping for lunch, they’d put in four hours cleaning the barn and feeding the cattle. Add to that seeding, haying, bailing and harvesting in the summer and their small-scale grain operation. At dusk, they’d milk their herd all over again. Rare was the night either was awake past 10. For Nic, who knew each of his “girls” by their spots, it was an exhausting but sweet life. “With anyone else, the cows would shy away,” says Rebecca. But they trusted Nic: “You could see it in their eyes. He was like the Pied Piper with them.”
Six years ago, Nic and Guy sold the dairy operation, becoming the second-to-last of St. Lazare’s 15 family-owned dairy farms to throw in the towel. The genesis for the decision was a conversation Guy had with his workaholic eldest sister Angèle—“the one everyone looked up to.” She and her husband planned to retire young—“55, tops,” says Guy—but on her 50th birthday, she was diagnosed with cancer. “Don’t do like I did,” Angèle told Guy, two weeks before she died—live for today. “I said, the hell with it,” says Guy. “When you’re dairying, it’s 24-7, so we called it quits.” They stayed in their houses but let the fields go fallow. The decision was much easier on Guy. Nic watched until the very last cow was loaded onto the truck bound for the University of Wisconsin, which had bought the herd. “He was never the same,” says Cam. “A part of him went that day.” Once, Rebecca teasingly asked what he’d do if he won a million bucks. “Buy back my cows,” he said without missing a beat.
A jack of all trades who could fix just about anything, Nic brought his work ethic to his new job as St. Lazare’s town foreman: clearing the sidewalks, maintaining the sewers and cemetery, andrunning the rink—cleaning the ice, tying skates and teasing kids. “You couldn’t give him too many jobs at once because he’d be back at dinnertime looking for more,” says Richard Fouillard, his boss.
A year and a half ago, Nic, who’d been fit as a horse his entire life, started getting constant, agonizing migraines. Even after a spinal tap and tests, doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong. By November, he was so weak he had to stop working. By January, he was 40 lb. thinner, mostly blind, and in and out of Winnipeg’s Health Sciences Centre. Still, “the town wouldn’t hire anybody else,” says his friend Eugène Simard; a group of volunteers did Nic’s work, in hopes that he’d return.
On Jan. 17, Nic was prescribed a combination of seven different steroids and antibiotics. It relieved his pain, but left him extremely disoriented. On Sat., Jan. 24., when St. Lazare was hosting an atom hockey tournament, Nic put on his blue, insulated coveralls and drove his white, ’95 Grand Marquis to the arena while Rebecca was out. “In his mind, he was going to work,” says Guy. He was sent home. Around 9:30 a.m., he stopped for gas, but seemed very confused, says gas bar owner Jean-Marie Simard. He was the last to see him alive. Five days later, police found Nic’s car, snowbound, on an unplowed service road nearly 300 km east of St. Lazare. It had been –41° C with the wind chill the day he disappeared. An RCMP dog team spotted his body three-quarters of a mile from the car. Guy believes the medication made Nic hopelessly confused, and he ended up stuck on the snow-filled road. “Instead of following his tire tracks out, he walked forward,” says Guy. “He must have seen a light ahead of him.”