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Evening scenes in Gillam, Man., on Aug. 2, 2019

Melissa Tait/The Globe and Mail

People in a northern Manitoba town are grappling with questions about how a massive manhunt for two murder suspects from British Columbia ended in the unforgiving terrain near their community.

“Did they run here because they didn’t look at a map and made the wrong turn? Or did they come here on purpose?” Gillam Deputy Mayor John McDonald said on Thursday.

“If they didn’t leave some kind of message, then we are never going to know.”

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Community leaders and the chief of nearby Fox Lake Cree Nation held a meeting Wednesday night with locals after RCMP announced they believe the bodies of two murder suspects had been found after a two-week search in the remote area.

Mr. McDonald said it will still take a long time for things to return to normal.

“We were still locking everything up, you know. We kept the door locked during the day when we were in the house and same with the vehicles,” Mr. McDonald said.

“It’s going to take a while.”

The bodies were discovered on Wednesday morning in dense brush near the shoreline of the Nelson River, within a kilometre of where several items linked to the two young men were found last week.

Autopsies are being conducted in Winnipeg to confirm the remains are of Kam McLeod, 19, and Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, from Port Alberni, B.C.

VIDEO: How two close-knit communities coped with a national manhunt in their own backyard

The teens were suspects in the killings of Leonard Dyck, a university lecturer from Vancouver, and American tourist Chynna Deese and her Australian boyfriend, Lucas Fowler. The bodies of the three were found in mid-July near highways in northern B.C.

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The search for Mr. McLeod and Mr. Schmegelsky, considered armed and dangerous, stretched across the Prairies, but was narrowed to the dense and boggy terrain near Gillam after Mr. Dyck’s burned-out vehicle was discovered there.

Armed police, helicopters and military aircraft descended on the region, and residents were advised to stay inside and lock their doors.

On July 28, RCMP said there was a “credible” tip that suspects were spotted in York Landing, about 90 kilometres by air southwest of Gillam. That community also went into lockdown for a daylong search that didn’t uncover any new leads.

The hunt was winding down when police received an important break last Friday. Items connected to the suspects were found near the river, about eight kilometres from where the burned vehicle was located.

“Our whole town was under a dark cloud of depression, anxiety,” local artist Dakota Massan said of Gillam. “We had locals who I would see daily locking themselves in their homes, not coming out.”

Last week, Mr. Massan painted a large, colourful mural in the town to let those in the community know they should not be overcome by fear.

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When word came that the manhunt was over, Mr. Massan said the relief there was palpable, as if “the dam that was holding out all these emotions and feelings from the townsfolk kind of just opened up.”

“I think all of us kind of felt that weight get lifted off our shoulders,” he said.

Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee, who represents northern First Nations, said anxiety levels were high for many. People who often spend much of their time on the land were staying inside out of fear, he said.

Community members with knowledge of the area also helped RCMP in the search, he added. And Fox Lake Cree Nation began its own community patrol.

“From where I was on the ground, there was a concerted effort that everybody worked together, they helped each other,” Mr. Settee said in Winnipeg.

It will take time for people to bounce back, the grand chief added, but they are strong and resilient.

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“For our Indigenous culture, the land is our way of healing ourselves,” Mr. Settee said. “Now they can go back to the land and they can go back to that and that will bring the healing for their minds and their spirits.”

Half way across the country, the mayor of Port Alberni expressed her sorrow Thursday for the nationwide tragedy that resulted in five deaths.

Mayor Sharie Minions said the grief is local, national and worldwide.

“We very much just want to express our condolences,” Ms. Minions said outside City Hall. “There’s been so much tragedy that has happened in this situation. Locally, certainly people are feeling it, but across the country and across the world. … This is definitely not what we had hoped for in terms of an outcome. A lot of people in the community have struggled with how to handle the news.”

She said there is concern for the local relatives of Mr. McLeod and Mr. Schmegelsky, the families of the victims and the impact the ordeal has had on people and communities across Canada.

Sarah Mackie said she felt overwhelming emotion for the families of the two suspects and the town of Port Alberni as it attempts to comprehend what has happened.

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“It’s a good town,” Ms. Mackie said outside a local McDonald’s restaurant. “There’s a lot of sadness because we’re never going to know why. Who’s going to talk?”

Ms. Minions played down speculation the two men were involved in violent video games and may have been involved with or influenced by far-right ideologies.

“It’s difficult to speculate at this point because there’s so little information with what has happened now and we might not get the answers that we’ve all been really hoping for,” she said. “We don’t know what caused this, what might have led to it. The important thing is how we move forward now.”

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