Before it became a manhunt, the story was about a young couple in love, murdered during a road trip to visit Canadian national parks.
While it is undoubtedly a unique story — especially now that the search for the two suspects, initially presumed missing, stretches into its second week in northern Manitoba — it’s also prompted many to question why this case has commanded so much public attention and drawn on so many official resources while the disappearance and murder of Indigenous women and girls seem to command far less.
“There’s definitely a racial element there,” says Heidi Matthews, co-director of the Nathanson Centre on Transnational Human Rights, Crime and Security and an associate professor at Osgoode Hall Law School at York University.
Matthews notes how many aspects of this case have been publicized so quickly. The father of 18-year-old suspect Bryer Schmegelsky penned a book fictionalizing aspects of his son’s troubled life. A former classmate has described Schmegelsky’s history of disturbing statements about murder and suicide. And there have been details on the “swampy” and “challenging” terrain officers are combing through.
There are even details on the love and lives of Fowler and Deese, Matthews notes — a public eulogy Indigenous victims disproportionately do not get.
“We don’t see as much fascination when it comes to the, unfortunately, more ordinary crimes.”
While there are plenty of contributing factors to the substantial public interest, Matthew says it’s due in part to the fact that Fowler and Deese were foreigners, which ignited international interest in the investigation pretty quickly.
But it’s also because the victims are young, attractive and white, which puts them “in a demographic that gets automatic sympathy from the public,” says Rachel Décoste, an immigration and multiculturalism expert based out of Ottawa.
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Compare that to a murdered Indigenous woman who is “an allegedly drug-addicted prostitute,” Décoste says. “The general reaction is ‘Meh, she was living a different life.’… The sympathy and the attention is heightened when a victim is ‘palatable’ to the general public.”
Look at the Highway of Tears, for instance.
While neither Deese, Fowler nor Dyck were found along the highway (despite some initial reports), it is one of northern B.C.’s most infamous routes — a remote stretch of Highway 16 where dozens of Indigenous women have disappeared or been murdered since the 1970s and where their communities have had to fight for decades to bring attention to the issue.
It took until 2005 for the RCMP to launch a project dedicated to investigating “the commonalities between victims’ files and determine if a serial killer was responsible,” recounts the special report Highway of Tears Revisited in the Ryerson Review of Journalism in 2010. Cody Legebokoff was later convicted of killing four women along the stretch, however, the cases of many Indigenous women who went missing or were murdered in the area remain unsolved.
A 2010 review of Canadian media from Kristen Gilchrist, a Carleton University PhD candidate at the time, indicated that even if the Indigenous women who had gone missing or been killed were “girl-next-door types,” the coverage they received was far less substantial and less sympathetic than their white counterparts. Their stories also appeared less frequently on the front page and without the “full biographies with intimate details about their hobbies, idiosyncrasies and life goals” that white victims received.
Ultimately, Décoste says, the media tends to “sponsor stereotypes,” portraying white suspects as people from troubled backgrounds in need of public sympathy while portraying suspects of colour as more violent, more aggressive.
“We need to think more critically about how we write or report these things,” she says, adding that the media needs to try not “to perpetuate the negativity when describing people of colour and the unearned positivity in the way we portray white men.”
When considering that discrepancy, Matthews thinks of Cindy Gladue.
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Gladue was a 36-year-old Cree woman from Alberta and a mother of three. She died in an Edmonton hotel room in 2011. A few months ago, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Ontario trucker Bradley Barton should be retried for manslaughter in Gladue’s death. Gladue, who had been hired by Barton for two nights of sex in 2011, bled to death during their second encounter.
During Barton’s initial trial, experts testified there was an 11-centimetre cut in her vaginal wall as a result of a sharp instrument. That trial ignited protests across the country in 2015 because Gladue’s preserved vaginal tissue was shown in court.
“She was dehumanized and objectified,” Matthews says.
“The Crown brought in a portion of her vaginal tissue in a jar as evidence. That is a very contemporary example of how we treat Indigenous female victims in a dehumanizing way, whereas here we’re focusing very much on who this couple was, seeing a lot of photos of them enjoying themselves on vacation together.”
For this to change, police and the rest of the Canadian justice system need to understand the history that led to this point, says Gail Paul, interim president for the Native Women’s Association of Canada. To learn, people need to look back just a few months to the release of the final report from the inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG).
“It all points to genocide and it’s important that we accept that,” Paul says. “I can’t stress enough for all Canadians to read the calls for justice.”
The calls for justice — the inquiry’s recommendations — call on all levels of government to take a much more aggressive approach in tackling violence against Indigenous women, including developing “laws, policies and public education campaigns to challenge the acceptance and normalization of violence.”
There are actually similarities between the MMIWG report and the murder of Fowler and Deese, Matthews says.
The report, which sparked controversy over its use of the term genocide, “really challenged Canada’s sense of self in the way that people were asked to be responsible for and responsive to this violence (against Indigenous women),” she says.
The recent B.C. murders also challenge how Canada sees itself, Matthews says, because they take aim at the idea that Canada is a friendly, safe place to enjoy and explore — even in the isolated, expansive wilderness.
The difference? Unlike the MMIWG report, Matthews says Canadians aren’t being asked to take responsibility for what happened.
“If we’re looking at reporting on violence specifically from a consumer perspective, it’s much easier for ordinary Canadians that are not racialized — but even for ones that are — to take in the kind of spectacle, the production of this manhunt.”