GILLAM, Man. — 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 Thursday.
"If they didn't leave some kind of message, then we are never going to know."
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.
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," McDonald said.
"It's going to take awhile."
The bodies were discovered Wednesday morning in dense brush near the shoreline of the Nelson River, within a kilometre from 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.
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.
The search for McLeod and Schmegelsky, considered armed and dangerous, stretched across the Prairies, but was narrowed to the dense and boggy terrain near Gillam after 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 day-long 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," said local artist Dakota Massan of Gillam. "We had locals who I would see daily locking themselves in their homes, not coming out."
Last week Massan painted a large, colourful mural in the town to let those in the community know they should not be overcome by fear.
When word came that the manhunt was over, 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," Settee said in Winnipeg.
It will take time for people to bounce back, the grand chief added, but they 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."
— By Kelly Geraldine Malone in Winnipeg