Day 6

How the search for B.C. fugitives has disrupted life in northern Manitoba

The isolated town of York Landing, Man., was transformed overnight into a military zone after Travis Bighetty reported seeing two B.C. fugitives in the area. The RCMP has now moved on, but Bighetty says the ordeal has taken a toll on Manitoba's remote First Nations communities.

'You know what? This is the first time in 20 years I've locked my door'

RCMP searched York Landing, Man., Sunday for two fugitive men following a tip from the Bear Clan Control, an Indigenous-led civilian security group. (Angela Johnston/CBC)

As RCMP searched for two B.C. homicide suspects in northern Manitoba last Sunday, Travis Bighetty, a volunteer co-ordinator with the Bear Clan Patrol, was knocking on doors in York Factory First Nation.

"We actually had a mobile patrol, but then we also got out and walked on foot in a more concentrated area of the community just so people can see us … just kind of talking to them like, 'How are you doing, how are you sleeping, how is this affecting you?'" he recalled.

"They were saying, 'You know what? This is the first time in 20 years that I've locked my door.'"

Bighetty reported a possible sighting of Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, and Kam McLeod, 19, on Sunday, after spotting two men who "fit the description" near a landfill in York Landing, Man. The last confirmed sighting of the men was about a week prior in Gillam, Man.

RCMP have since announced that they would scale down their search in Manitoba for the two B.C. men charged in the second-degree murder of a University of British Columbia lecturer, and suspected in the killings of a tourist couple.

"Everybody is still kind of overwhelmed and uneasy," Leroy Constant, chief of York Factory First Nation, said on Tuesday.

Travis Bighetty said 'it didn't click right away' after the Bear Clan patrol co-ordinator spotted what he believed to be the two B.C. fugitives in York Landing, Man. 0:29

RCMP and community liaisons

Last week, six of the Bear Clan's members were asked by Sheldon Kent, acting grand chief of the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs, to assist in the search for the two fugitive men.

The Bear Clan Patrol, created to keep the peace and assist residents in inner-city communities, worked closely with RCMP, supporting the local communities with search groups and passing along tips from residents they met.

"It's about community members taking back their own power and taking responsibility for their own safety and security within their own area," Bighetty told Day 6 guest host Nana aba Duncan.

According to Bighetty, some residents worried that the two men might be in their backyard, requiring response from the Bear Clan Patrol.

Travis Bighetty, first from right in the back row, stands with Bear Clan Patrol members in York Landing, Man. (Submitted by Travis Bighetty)

They would say, "Someone needs to come check behind my shed … There's rattling and there's a footpath that you should check out in kind of, like, the woods there," Bighetty said.

They also liaised with the chiefs and councils in the community.

An Indigenous Services Canada spokesperson said Indigenous people in need of mental health support can call 1-855-242-3310 or visit the Hope for Wellness website for "culturally competent" crisis intervention help.

Worries of isolation

When asked how residents of York Landing were feeling since Tuesday when RCMP began moving out of the area, Bighetty said the mood is improving, but he was critical of the living conditions.

"We went there and ... it was strange because they had a water advisory not to drink the local water; their sewage was actually broken."

Heavily armed police officers search the community of York Landing, Man., for B.C. homicide suspects Bryer Schmegelsky and Kam McLeod on July 29. (Gilbert Rowan/CBC)

Bighetty says in the wake of the search, local leaders must offer reassurance and a sense of community.

"What I found with a lot of people that are part of trauma, or a part of a violent incident, is that they'll isolate themselves and they actually won't go outside because of fear. But then that creates more anxiety," he said.

As the operation winds down, Bighetty says Bear Clan members still hope to be there for the residents of York Landing, a community reachable only by boat.

"People had a traumatic experience ... and if they don't deal with it productively, then it's gonna stay with them unfortunately," he said. 

"Bear Clan members actually are wanting to go back up there and check in on the people, and, kind of, bring back that sense of community."


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