‘Overwhelming relief’: Gillam getting back to normal after homicide suspects found
After two weeks of stress, uncertainty, and fright, residents of Gillam and Fox Lake Cree Nation are slowly getting back to normal.
An international spotlight was on the northern Manitoba communities, as a manhunt for two suspected killers dragged on, and finally ended this week.
Manitoba RCMP said the bodies believed to be that of Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod were found in Fox Lake around 10 a.m. Wednesday.
Gillam resident Jennifer Church was vacationing with family in Winnipeg, when she learned two men suspected of killing three people in British Columbia had made their way into her community.
Church said she extended her holidays as long as she could, but eventually had to come back to Gillam.
“I run outside a lot, so when I was running while they were still searching for them, I was hesitant and nervous,” said Church.
“You’re looking around for any sound, you’re watching the trail lines, watching the bush.”
A mom of two, Church was worried for her family’s safety, with so many unknown factors, like whether McLeod and Schmegelsky were even still in the area. But finally, the search came to an end Wednesday.
“I feel overwhelming relief. I’m not as nervous going around town,” said Church. That feeling is echoed by many residents in the area.
“It’s kind of relieving. You don’t have to worry about being up in the middle of nowhere,” said Brendan Bristow.
“Good. I guess, relief,” said Wilfred Sandberg.
RCMP said the bodies were found about one kilometre away from their belongings which were discovered Friday near the shore of the Nelson River, and just eight kilometres from where a burnt out vehicle was found more than two weeks ago.
On Thursday, police said autopsies will take place in Winnipeg in the coming days.
RCMP in B.C. confirmed Thursday there was no previous relationship between McLeod and Schmegelsky, and the three murder victims found dead in northern B.C.
Police also confirmed the Toyota Rav-4 the pair was photographed driving in and was later found burning in Gillam, belonged to UBC Lecturer Leonard Dyck, one of the victims.
“They don’t have to worry about anything hiding in the bushes anymore,” said Gillam Mayor Dwayne Forman.
Now, he said the community is focusing on healing. Forman said mental health services are available for anyone who needs them, after what can only be described as a traumatic couple of weeks.
“If you see someone that’s holding it in, just make sure you let them know help is available, and bring them to the help, to bring the help to them. One way or the other, we have to heal as a community,” Forman said.
While it was a chilly, windy, and rainy day Thursday in Gillam, Church was happy to be outside with her son Caleb, without having to look over her shoulder.
“Definitely I feel much more comfortable doing things today than I did a few days ago, for sure. I’m very grateful to all the law enforcement for what they’ve done,” said Church.
Members of the community, including Forman, said while this provides some closure for them here, their hearts break for the families of the victims.
The RCMP says they may never be able to provide a motive to the victims’ families, now that the suspects are believed to be dead.
Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak Grand Chief Garrison Settee, who represents northern First Nations, said anxiety levels were high for many in the community. People who often spend much of their time on the land were staying inside out of fear, he said.
Community members with knowledge area also helped RCMP search, he added. Fox Lake Cree Nation, located near the burned-out vehicle, 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," Settee said in Winnipeg.
It will take time for life to return to normal, the grand chief added, but the people in the area are strong and resilient.
"For our Indigenous culture, the land is our way of healing ourselves," 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."
-With file from the Canadian Press