Throughout the remote Northern Manitoba town of Gillam, there were signs of normalcy Friday – children riding bicycles, moms on walks, pushing their infants in strollers, residents preparing to spend the long weekend away at their cabins.
But the stress and angst of living with a police manhunt for two fugitives wanted in three killings in Northern British Columbia was evident at a community meeting that evening.
Nearly 100 residents of Gillam and Fox Lake Cree Nation attended to hear the latest information about the RCMP investigation and to learn what will be done to keep their communities safe, now that the police have scaled back their search.
Gillam Mayor Dwayne Forman said he wasn’t surprised to hear that many residents were still feeling very uneasy.
“Ultimately, we’re still in a state of unknown. Nobody knows where they [the fugitives] are,” he said after the meeting. “So I understand that there’s still going to be fears and it was definitely raised by the community. And that’s what this meeting was about, to find out to what stage of fear is still within the community.”
That fear stems from that fact that the RCMP manhunt for Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, and Kam McLeod, 19, has hit an impasse in the vast Northern Manitoba wilderness.
The Mounties have been searching the remote region for 11 days. They have combed through more than 11,000 square kilometres, 100-plus abandoned buildings and more than 250 tips. Police have used sniffer dogs, drones, helicopters and ATVs in the manhunt. The RCMP also tapped two military aircraft: a Canadian Air Force CC-130H Hercules plane and a CP-140 Aurora outfitted with an infrared camera and imaging-radar systems.
But at this point, the police search has yielded few clues on the whereabouts of Mr. Schmegelsky and Mr. McLeod, childhood friends from Port Alberni, B.C. The pair has not been seen since July 22, when the grey Toyota Rav 4 that police believe the pair was driving was found burning in a ditch near the Fox Lake Cree Nation.
The young men are suspects in the deaths of American Chynna Deese, 24, and her 23-year-old Australian boyfriend Lucas Fowler, who were shot to death on the side of a Northern British Columbia highway and found on July 15. Four days later, the body of Vancouver resident Leonard Dyck, 64, a sessional lecturer at the University of British Columbia’s botany department, was discovered on a road near Dease Lake, about 500 kilometres southwest of the hot springs.
RCMP have charged Mr. Schmegelsky and Mr. McLeod with second-degree murder in Mr. Dyck’s death. They are also suspects in the deaths of Ms. Deese and Mr. Fowler, police said.
The community meeting in Gillam on Friday evening was closed to reporters to allow residents to speak freely. Political leaders from Gillam and Fox Lake were present to answer questions, along with Sergeant Ian McKenzie, commander of the RCMP Gillam detachment, and a mental-health counsellor.
Mr. Forman said the town will examine the possibility of re-establishing a citizen patrol group, disbanded a while ago due to a shortage of volunteers.
He said residents also expressed a desire for additional staff and security measures for summer programs for children in the community.
About 1,200 residents live in Gillam and another 500 at the Fox Lake community, about 50 kilometres northeast of Gillam. An RCMP detachment is located in Gillam, but no police officer is based in Fox Lake.
The community used to have band constables, but funding for that program was cut under the previous federal Conservative government, Fox Lake Chief Walter Spence said after Friday’s meeting.
Chief Spence believes the RCMP scaled back their manhunt for the fugitives too soon. At the moment, volunteers from Fox Lake are patrolling the community at night to keep watch and help residents feel safe.
“There is still a high sense of stress, anxiety,” Chief Spence said.
While many residents remain uneasy, Jeff Short and his wife, Andrea, are easing back into their old routines, like taking their dog for a walk in the bush. Mr. Short, a civil engineer for Manitoba Hydro, said the community meeting was helpful. He believes the passage of time will help Gillam truly return to normalcy.
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