British Columbia

'Living in fear': Killings drive home vulnerability for Northern B.C. residents

Pristine wilderness draws tourists and residents alike to a vision of Northern British Columbia as a kind of unspoiled Eden. Many say they've been left uneasy by seeing it turned into a crime scene.

Residents of isolated B.C. communities say killings have brought home just how vulnerable they are

RCMP officers sift through evidence from the scene of the burnt-out truck on B.C.'s Highway 37. The vehicle belonged to suspects Kam McLeod and Bryer Schmegelsky. (Chris Corday/CBC)

"Relief."

A palpable shudder rippled through Iskut Band Chief Marie Quock's shoulders as she described the feeling that came with the news Tuesday that police had identified a pair of suspects in a string of deaths that have turned her territory upside down.

The First Nations community's 330 residents live less than 20 kilometres south of the spots where a burning truck and a dead body were discovered separately last Friday — sparking a mystery and a manhunt that has gripped this region.

The days since have been a haze of panic, fear and speculation.

"It's been very uneasy. A lot of people are living in fear. It's the fear of the unknown," said Quock, as she stood outside the band office, framed by the spectacular mountain that stands watch over the town.

"It really brings it home exactly how vulnerable we are."

Iskut band Chief Marie Quock says her First Nations community of 330 has been unsettled by the string of deaths. (Jason Proctor/CBC)

'I don't feel very safe'

It's a sentiment that has been echoed repeatedly in towns and hamlets dotting the isolated highways crossing Northern B.C. since the bodies of Lucas Fowler and Chynna Deese were discovered.

Like thousands of tourists every year, the Australian and American were drawn by the pristine wilderness.

But the same qualities that give the land its unspoiled reputation also make for difficult travelling for people used to the comforts of the communication age.

McLeod and Schmegelsky's burnt-out truck was found four days after the bodies of Fowler and Deese were discovered near Liard Hot Springs. (Chris Corday/CBC)

Cell coverage is close to non-existent. Wi-Fi can be found at the occasional gas station or lodge — but often at a steep price. Calling 911 is not an option.

And when you're driving a long stretch of single-lane highway and you get tired, sleeping in a pullout or a rest area is unavoidable.

It's a way of life that drew Leah Miller from Calgary to manage the Bell 2 lodge on Highway 37 about 150 kilometres farther south.

But since news of the killings spread, she says she has felt "captured" in the middle of what she had considered a kind of paradise.

The expanses of Highway 37 are beautiful and long. But they also have little cell phone coverage or amenities for anyone who runs into trouble. (Jason Proctor/CBC)

The lodge is a hub for anyone passing. But Miller has more questions than answers to offer these days.

"It's kind of scary for us when people come and ask us what we've heard. We don't know who we're talking to. Are we talking to a suspect and they want to know what we know so far?" she asked.

"I was used to always coming and going as I pleased — doors unlocked — and now I don't feel very safe."

'Here in the wilderness — you never know'

The RCMP announced Tuesday that the two men whose truck was discovered on fire about 50 kilometres south of Dease Lake are now considered suspects in the killings of Fowler, Deese and another unidentified man.

Kam McLeod and Bryer Schmegelsky were last seen in the area the day before the man's body was discovered, along with the truck. Police say they might have recently been in northeast Manitoba, near Gillam. 

Police remain at the site of both crime scenes. The traffic between the two locations is reduced to one lane. A white plastic sheet sits behind police tape on the grass where the dead man was found and small orange cones mark tire tracks.

RCMP officers sift through evidence from the scene of the burnt-out truck on Highway 37. (Jason Proctor/CBC)

The grey, burnt-out shell of McLeod and Schmegelsky's truck is in a clearing two kilometres north. Forensic investigators wearing white boiler suits and masks combed the interior, carrying pieces of debris across to a makeshift sifter perched on a blue tarpaulin. A slow stream of camper vans and work vehicles crawled past.

One of those vans carried Kent Shearer and more than two dozen fellow Texas cyclists who are raising money for cancer research by riding from Austin to Anchorage.

Shearer said they learned about the killings from family back in Texas. The news has caused them to re-evaluate their safety. They stayed in a lodge overnight instead of camping. They're riding in larger groups with less distance between them.

And today, they drove part way.

"There's always a stereotype of Canada as our friendly neighbour of the north. And so to come up here and have to deal with the idea of gruesome murders happening along these highways and stuff is definitely a little shocking," the 21-year-old said. 

"But out here in the wilderness — you never know."

'A glaring fact'

Quock said she started locking her door at night, as did many others in Iskut.

Band manager Maggie Dennis said she knows of others who unlocked their gun safes in order to keep their weapons close at hand.

Quock said Iskut has been asking for an RCMP detachment for the past 20 years. The nearest one is about an hour away.

It's also not lost on her that, while communities to the south have struggled to gain attention for missing and murdered Indigenous women along the so-called Highway of Tears, the deaths of three Caucasians has drawn the world's focus to Highway 37.

Texan Kent Shearer is leading a group of cyclists on a trip from Austin to Anchorage to raise money for cancer. They changed their plans after hearing about the killings. (Jason Proctor/CBC)

"I guess the easiest way I can put it is that I feel like the missing and murdered women are marginalized. They don't make big news sensations, but they're people and they have family who love them," said Quock.

"It's a glaring fact right there that it's not fair. And some people are counted more than others."

Shearer said he and his fellow cyclists will be back on the road Wednesday, feeling a bit more at ease. Fighting cancer is a big task. He said hope is the pillar of their mission.

"Hope is not deterred by fear. The fear of these killings has shocked these communities," he said.

"But hope is still our driver."

About the Author

Jason Proctor

@proctor_jason

Jason Proctor is a reporter in British Columbia for CBC News and has covered the B.C. courts and mental health issues in the justice system extensively.

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.