It’s been just over a year since two Port Alberni teenagers left their homes and for reasons still unknown went on a random killing spree through northern B.C., sparking a two-week nationwide manhunt.
Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, and Kam McLeod, 19, told their families they had quit their night-shift jobs at Walmart and were hitting the road on July 12 to find work in Yukon. Three days later, American Chynna Deese and her Australian boyfriend Lucas Fowler were found shot to death on a northern highway near Liard Hot Springs.
Four days after that, the body of Leonard Dyck, a university botany lecturer, was found at a highway pullout.
The two-week search for the young men gripped the country and made international headlines. It ended with the discovery of their bodies, with self-inflicted gunshot wounds, in the dense bush of rural Manitoba.
It was there investigators found videotaped confessions of the three homicides – and enough evidence to suggest the friends had plans to hijack a boat in Hudson’s Bay and flee to Europe or Africa.
The tragedy highlighted long-standing public safety issues in B.C.’s north, particularly along the route McLeod and Schmegelsky travelled. It sparked calls by safety advocates and local leaders, echoing concerns raised for years by Indigenous women and girls about the risks of travelling or living along B.C.’s northern highways.
Black Press Media reporters Quinn Bender and Ashley Wadhwani look at the fears that still exist and the public safety measures still needed.
Psychological impacts caused by unpredictability of killings, psychologist says
From Liard Hot Springs on Highway 97 where the bodies of Deese and Fowler were found, McLeod and Schmegelsky drove 200 kilometres west. They then turned down Highway 37, a desolate route with no cellular service that winds its way south for 740 kilometres until intersecting with Highway 16, half way down the province.
In most summers, a procession of tourists travel this road to or from the Alaska Highway. The Tahltan village of Iskut, population of 300, sits on the highway’s edge roughly 20 kilometres south of the roadside pullout where the body of Leonard Dyck was found.
Until Schmegelsky and McLeod were identified as suspects, the villagers assumed the missing teens were also victims of a killer headed their way.
With the nearest RCMP detachment 80 kilometres to the north in Dease Lake, two Iskut men conducted car patrols of the area from 11 p.m. to 8 a.m. for several nights. Residents locked themselves indoors. Many women with young children, whose husbands were away in work camps, felt especially vulnerable. Some slept within reach of household hunting rifles and shotguns.
“There was just fear and uneasiness,” Marie Quock, Iskut Band Chief, said at the time. “It’s going to take a while for everybody to get back to normal, if we ever do.”
Schmegelsky and McLeod passed Iskut without incident, likely on the night of Dyck’s murder. But one year later, Quock said the sense of unease sill hasn’t fully lifted.
“I’m nervous to travel by myself,” Quock said. “I really don’t like to stop at any of the pullouts along the way, like the washrooms, especially if there’s any vehicles around. There are others who feel that way too. It wasn’t like that before.”
In isolated areas like this people often rely on the generosity of neighbours and strangers, particularly on a highway with no cellular service. Now there are cases where residents have sat in broken-down vehicles for hours, afraid to flag down passing motorists, waiting for family members to find them. Meanwhile, against their moral instincts, drivers speed past others stranded on the road.
This is a common response to events like last year’s manhunt, according to University of British Columbia psychology professor, Steven Tyler. He said a psychological autopsy could allow the public to make sense of why the murders happened, but in its absence this region, once identified as a place for nature and sustenance, family and security, becomes a place of uncertainty.
“There could be some dangerous person out there, and compounding that is that [you’re] out of cellphone range,” he told Black Press Media in a phone interview.
“People become alarmed or stressed when important things in their environment are unpredictable and uncontrollable. The thing about this killing spree is, for many people, it seems senseless … The number of people who can be impacted by such events is significant, including the people in rural communities whose sense of safety has been changed.”
Communities in north continue to call for more RCMP officers
For 20 years Iskut Band Council has lobbied for a permanent RCMP presence in the village. Each time they’re told there isn’t a budget for a population of its size. Quock nonetheless filed another request once the manhunt ended.
“I’m hopeful, but I think our chances are pretty slim,” she said. “They say there’s no money, but it’s definitely still needed.”
This is a common plea among many rural and remote communities. On this highway in particular, with heavy tourist traffic, it raises the question whether the province is obligated to increase policing, even if a local tax base isn’t there to pay for it.
Dr. Rob Gordon, a professor of criminology at Simon Fraser University, said without conventional funding, the unique challenges of policing B.C.’s north necessitates creative solutions tailored to the communities’ needs.
“It’s not insurmountable. You don’t have to pick one option. If I were organizing the policing along Highway 37, I think I would look at a combination of community safety officers or auxiliary constables, drawn from the local community and trained up the point you need to be trained to, combining that with a regular daily patrol from the nearest detachment … and you could improve that policing with technologies in use by the general public.”
It’s beneficial during emergencies to have someone on-call locally who’s tapped into the police infrastructure and versed in police procedures, but the daily presence also raises the community’s sense of security and well-being, he said.
Iskut council had considered this hybrid approach before, but they’ve been told by the RCMP these new officers would have very little authority and still be dependent on police response from Dease Lake.
“I attended a BC First Nation Justice Council in Vancouver and heard the same thing from other First Nations communities who have community policing,” Quock said. “It was mentioned that at times their community police were at risk dealing with a situation, due to the slow response of the RCMP.”
There is a growing consensus the province needs to step in and fund more policing through revenues generated by the billion-dollar mining operations in Tahltan Territory, where according to the Tahltan Central Government roughly 41 per cent of B.C.’s mining exploration revenue is generated.
It’s a similar stance taken by 21 communities and three regional districts that formed the Northwest BC Resource Benefits Alliance. The group is demanding more returns from major projects they were instrumental in getting off the ground, only to see the financial benefits channeled to southern cities as their own infrastructure crumbles.
It’s a near-universal belief in the north that cellular service would dramatically improve public safety and sense of security, but again there aren’t enough people to support the multi-million-dollar investment from service providers. The large amounts of electricity needed to power cellular towers is also unavailable.
To the south, along Highway 16, there are near-regular announcements of new cellular towers going up for travellers along desolate stretches of road. Through a partnership with Rogers Wireless in 2018, for example, the province spent $1.2 million to bring service to the village of Witset, the last Indigenous community along the highway without coverage.
Such accomplishments however are backed by political will and sustained public pressure due to Highway 16’s notoriety as the Highway of Tears.
First Nations find interim fixes to address public safety concerns
The Tahltan Central Government has found its own solution to bringing better connectivity to its communities, which may eventually be extended to highway travellers.
In 2015 the TCG negotiated access to fibre optic lines from BC Hydro as partial payment for the use of Tahltan lands to build the Northwest Transmission Line for mine sites in the province’s so-called Golden Triangle.
Last year the Tahltan Nation Development Corporation was approved for a $13-million, two-year project to build two new fibre optic segments along Highway 37. The federal program is cost-shared, with the province paying 30 per cent.
Ottawa has earmarked $1.7 billion for its Universal Broadband Fund to bring service to rural and remote areas of Canada currently cut off from economic opportunities due to lack of digital technologies.
Partly because public safety technologies are also increasingly dependent on broadband connectivity, in 2016 the CRTC declared it a basic, or essential, telecommunications service and ordered the country’s internet providers to begin boosting speeds to rural and remote areas.
Beyond Highway 37, in all parts of B.C.’s north, connectivity is an issue top-of-mind for elected officials at each level of government.
Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Taylor Bachrach said he appreciates cellular and internet providers need to see a viable business case before investing in infrastructure, but otherwise it must fall to government to fill the void.
“We continue to push hard for improved internet connectivity and cell phone coverage in the north,” he said. “In Canada, if we truly value these rural places as part of the fabric of the country, then we have to commit to invest in that infrastructure. It’s one of the big opportunities and challenges when it comes to not just public safety, but quality of life in general.
“It comes down to equity. Rural communities with poor internet access are being left behind.”
The Tahltan project will cover just a couple hundred kilometres of terrain, starting with 72 kilometres from Kitwanga north to Cranberry Junction, and from Iskut 80 kilometres north to Dease Lake. This leaves the majority of Highway 37 still without connectivity, but the lines could serve as a gateway for later expansion.
With this in mind, the Tahltan Nation hopes to one day tie in cellular service to community end points.
Discussions are also underway with the province to establish wifi hot spots along the route, which observers see as the most attainable next step to create a safer environment for the 750 drivers who travel the highway every day (yearly average).
The driver who discovered Dyck’s body had to drive 60 kilometres before reporting it to police in Dease Lake. Officers then had to double back to confirm a crime scene. A wifi hotspot would likely have accelerated the turnaround.
An auxiliary constable in Iskut could have advanced it substantially further. Without, there has been a lot of speculation Schmegelsky and McLeod were given a two-hour lead on what became a Canada-wide manhunt.
District pushes for cellular dead zone alerts
Until any new infrastructure is in place, the Regional District of Kitimat-Stikine is pushing for highway signage alerting travellers to the cellular dead zone.
The distance from the Highway 16-37 Junction to Whitehorse, Yukon is approximately 1,115 kilometres. Notwithstanding cell service in Dease Lake, the only way to connect is through landlines or wifi at businesses along the highway. These aren’t always offered to tourists due to high costs.
Last year, the province initially turned down the request for signage in part because highway travellers everywhere are accustomed to entering cellular dead zones.
Area F Director Tina Etzerza, who lives in Dease Lake, said at the time the government’s response failed to appreciate the exceptional circumstances of Highway 37.
“[Travellers] expect the typical sporadic 50 kilometres here and there but not 1,000 kilometres,” Etzerza said.
The province said it was concerned about setting a precedent on Highway 37 that may not be workable in other areas of the province with more complex connectivity issues. The ministry also said was not their responsibility to communicate on behalf of private cellular service providers.
“The Ministry of Transportation puts up signs that the next fuel service is 200 kilometres and they don’t sell fuel; they put up signs that say there’s a payphone but they don’t run the payphone,” she said at the time. “Now they don’t want to put up no cellular service signs because they don’t run cell service? It’s not very consistent.”
The BC Ministry of Transportation and Highways has since brought in an illuminated changeable message board at the head of Highway 37 in Kitwanga, as a temporary measure, with one of three rotating messages warning travellers about the absence of cell service.
The regional district applauded the move but said it will keep pushing for a permanent solution and clearer messaging.
Government fixes could ease lingering fears
From a psychological perspective, Prof. Tyler said the resilience and adaptability of most people will allow them to move past their trauma. For those that can’t, anniversaries can trigger lingering fears. Their inability to adapt, however, can also be looked at positively, in that fear is an adaptive emotion that can keep us out of danger in this remote area.
“To some degree, wariness in a potentially risky situation is a very wise thing to have,” he said. “People should trust their gut instincts because our intuitions can keep us safe.”
While progress to fill the public safety void appears to be moving slowly forward, Prof. Tyler added it’s important higher levels of government continue communicating with residents on their concerns. Otherwise, the lack of response often heightens people’s sense of isolation and distress.
“If your government or community is still not coming to address this issue, that you still have these blackout areas, it can make people feel ‘oh, we are on our own.’”