VANCOUVER—No one was the wiser as Kam McLeod and Bryer Schmegelsky quietly slipped through the First Nation checkpoint in northern Manitoba on July 22.
Band constables with Tataskweyak Cree Nation, which oversees the local government and police operations in Split Lake, Man., were not aware RCMP three provinces away were searching for them. The two had not officially been named as suspects in three northern B.C. homicides when they passed through the Split Lake checkpoint, but, the day before, B.C. RCMP said they were considered missing after their pickup was found on fire near a dead body in Dease Lake.
Chief Oliver Okemow of Manto Sipi First Nation said his community about 200 kilometres southeast of Split Lake was also not aware they should be on the lookout.
“We didn’t get any warning,” Okemow said. “They didn’t give any information from nobody.”
The teens’ narrow escape in Split Lake has turned a national spotlight on gaps in the way RCMP communicate with local police forces in isolated northern communities, as well as questions about whether police protocol for sending sensitive information about missing and wanted persons is effective, especially in a country as vast as Canada.
While it appears B.C. RCMP followed its provincial protocol for missing persons when the teens — now suspects in the three B.C. deaths and facing a murder charge each — were first mentioned in the midst of two ongoing investigations, it remains unclear how widely that information was shared.
What is clear is that the way things unfolded gave McLeod and Schmegelsky a five-day head start from when their truck was found. It allowed them to drive more than 3,000 kilometres away and have contact with multiple people who could have helped police track them down before, according to police information, stopping near Gillam, Man., where the manhunt continues in earnest.
Okemow said his First Nation did not receive any notice that McLeod and Schmegelsky were missing on July 21. Nor did they receive an advisory that the men had become suspects and were facing charges in the days after.
“We only found it through social media,” he said.
Robert Spence, a band councillor for Tataskweyak Cree Nation, where the teens went through the checkpoint, said word spread in his community via Facebook.
“Of course we should have been told, we should have been made aware,” he said. “We were shocked to know these were the two they were looking for.”
B.C. RCMP said they entered the information about the missing teens into the Canadian Police Information Centre, a police database commonly known as CPIC. Doing so is their policy because, at the time, there was no concern that the two might have been involved in the deaths in northern B.C.
The database is a central source of information accessible by law enforcement across the country.
“Literally hundreds of people are put in and taken off CPIC every day,” said B.C. RCMP spokesperson Cpl. Chris Manseau. “If you were led to believe they were going to be somewhere, you might let them know … and you would send them a message through CPIC itself. But you can’t just speculate where they might be.”
Some First Nations leaders contacted by The Star, however, didn’t even know about the database. Okemow is among them. He said working with the RCMP from his remote location can be frustrating. More broadly, he characterized his First Nation’s communication with RCMP as “cumbersome,” to the point where they have learned not to rely on RCMP for their own missing persons reports.
“We phone them and we have to go through all different channels. And it’ll take about a day, at the most, to get something moving.
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“By the time they show up it would be a recovery, instead of a search,” he added.
The frustration is shared by Spence in Split Lake, who said the two constables at the checkpoint noticed sleeping bags and maps in the vehicle McLeod and Schmegelsky were driving on July 22, and said that they were acting “paranoid.” But, ultimately, the constables, who primarily look for alcohol and drugs coming into the dry community, “didn’t see anything strange” and sent the two men on their way.
Spence, who was a band constable for seven years, said even if they had known about the two men, the officers in the small town would not have been prepared to apprehend them. The lack of information provided, he said, presented a safety issue for the two constables at the checkpoint.
They were “lucky they didn’t get killed themselves,” he said, adding they were not armed and did not have formal police training.
With no RCMP detachment in the town, there are a handful of First Nations safety officers and approximately 10 additional First Nations band constables serving the area, according to Chris Young, executive director of Tataskweyak Cree Nation.
While Tataskweyak receives partial funding from the province for the training and salaries of the First Nations safety officers, the band constables are funded solely by the community and receive no training or equipment. According to Spence, they wear safety vests and carry “maybe handcuffs or batons” but do not have firearms.
“These are two individuals chosen to be band constables, and thrown into having the responsibility of a constable,” said Spence. “But band constables don’t have any training.”
Earlier this week, the Assembly of Manitoba Chiefs released a statement announcing they were developing a safety strategy for the areas on high alert for the fugitives, drawing attention to the lack of resources for policing in those areas.
They pointed to First Nations community patrols such as the Bear Clan that have stepped in to fill the gaps.
“The patrol groups will provide a sense of security to our First Nations communities that are now facing a great deal of uncertainty,” acting Grand Chief Sheldon Kent said in a statement on Friday.
As for missing persons, the RCMP says they are an operational priority, especially in B.C. where there are a disproportionate number of people who have disappeared and never been found.
According to figures from CPIC, British Columbia has a missing persons rate twice the national average with 2,500 unsolved cases since records began being kept decades ago. In the past five years, more than 150 people in the province have vanished.
Officials would not provide an updated version of the numbers when asked during the early days of the cross-country manhunt. Compiling the data, they have said, is too labour intensive.
With files from Kevin Maimann
Cherise Seucharan is a Vancouver-based reporter covering crime and public safety. Follow her on Twitter: @CSeucharan
Omar Mosleh is an Edmonton-based reporter covering inner-city issues, affordable housing and reconciliation. Follow him on Twitter: @OmarMosleh