Northern First Nations will need trauma support after hunt for B.C. pair ends: chiefs

It isn’t clear when, where or how the hunt for two B.C. homicide suspects will end, but Indigenous leaders suspect it will linger in the minds of northern Manitoba First Nation residents well after the large police and military presence is gone.

“Everybody is still kind of overwhelmed and uneasy,” Leroy Constant, chief of York Factory First Nation in York Landing, Man., said on Tuesday.

Constant and other leaders in the North say when the expansive search for fugitives Kam McLeod and Bryer Schmegelsky comes to a close, people in remote communities will need additional help processing what happened.

Schmegelsky and McLeod have been charged with second-degree murder in the death of University of British Columbia lecturer Leonard Dyck, and they’re suspects in the killings of American tourist, Chynna Deese, and her Australian boyfriend, Lucas Fowler.

The search, now in its ninth day, was initially focused on Gillam, about 740 kilometres north of Winnipeg.

RCMP and military personnel swiftly descended on the community. Locals in the small, isolated town of about 500 people were warned to lock up and stay indoors.

After a thorough, if not brief and unfruitful, ground and air sweep of the area, those personnel had mostly pulled out of York Landing by Tuesday and refocused on Gillam.

Even though the imminent threat appears to be gone now, Constant said, the tension remains and residents in York Landing are shaken.

“That’s the feeling, still,” he said.

Constant said the next step is to bring in counsellors and therapists for those in York Landing who need help.

Garrison Settee, grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak (MKO), an advocacy group that represents 30 First Nations in northern Manitoba, said the impact of having such a large police and military presence on such a tightly knit community will likely include lasting psychological effects.

“It was quite intense for the people there,” he said. “Most definitely, a community of that size was traumatized.”

Settee said spoke with York Landing leaders about the need for healing, which is why, he says, MKO’s mobile crisis response team will soon be made available.

The MKO team consists of support workers who are flown into remote First Nations, typically when there has been a family tragedy or suicide crisis, Settee said. Team workers specialize in critical incident stress debriefing, sharing circles, one-on-one counselling and mental health therapy, among other services.

The team has already been deployed to Fox Lake Cree Nation, where part of the search took place last week.

Settee said York Landing could benefit from even more support. Constant said he plans to utilize federal crisis services, including additional counsellors, through Indigenous Services Canada.

Now that Gillam is again the focus of the search, Mayor Dwayne Forman said the town is considering ways it, too, should support residents’ mental health once the hunt winds down.

“I think for the short-term there’s going to be some concern still and apprehension: still locking doors, I guess, the feeling of not being totally secure anymore in our community,” he said.

“I am hoping that we can get back to the way we were.”

Brian Sauvé, president of the National Police Federation, the union that represents RCMP members, said the northern Manitoba search comes with the kind of demands Mounties are trained to face in other mass deployments, such as floods or wild fires, with one important exception.

“You’re obviously a little more vigilant, because in a flood you’re not thinking that someone is going to shoot you,” said Sauvé. “That weighs on the exhaustion stand point — exhaustion comes quicker — but as far as mass deployments it’s not unique.”

Still, Sauvé said, the droves of RCMP and military personnel who have been working around the clock for more than a week will need care themselves.

“Fatigued, tired, overworked, [they will] need time away with their families, time to decompress,” he said.

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