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Gone Boys: Families of Vancouver Island's missing men face a lifetime of uncertainty

Last Updated Feb 15, 2021 at 6:33 am PDT

Sometimes when there is a knock at the door, for a fraction of a second Lynda Koehle hopes it might be her 31-year-old son Brandon.

Brandon Cairney vanished from Port Alberni in October, 2017. His story is part of a new podcast series called Gone Boys, the second season of Island Crime, which aims to draw attention to the missing men on Vancouver Island.

Koehle doesn’t know whether to believe he is dead or alive.

“It’s hard as a mother to say I think something has happened to him,” she says. “It’s difficult because sometimes when I talk about Brandon, I say he was, and sometimes when I talk about him, I say he is. And sometimes I don’t know what to say. I had a dream that he said goodbye to me. Dreams are interpretive, dreams are simply dreams, but it was lovely.”

For the loved ones of the missing, it is often impossible to move forward.

Elizabeth Louie last saw her son, Desmond Peter, along the highway near Duncan in 2007. He was alone on foot, walking towards Victoria. Louie was searching for her boy when she spotted him on the other side of the busy road. By the time she turned the car around and raced to pick him up, he was gone. Desmond was 14 years old.

“I couldn’t say his name for the longest time. Every time I said his name, I just I’d fall apart. I couldn’t function for many years. I couldn’t sleep. I couldn’t eat,” says Louie. 

“It’s just been recently that I’ve been able to talk about it. I’ve been able to function somewhat. People don’t understand how much we live on the hope,” she adds. “Helps me through my day. It’s that hope.”

Desmond’s father shares his son’s name, as did his father before him. He describes himself as a spiritual, traditional man who finds comfort in the teachings of his ancestors. Because of an experience he had in ceremony, he has accepted that his son is gone.

“We have our ways of doing things in communion with spirits,” the boy’s father says. “There are people among our people that can still do that. One of them is called talking cedar boards. They commune with the other world and with the ones that are taking care of them. They said he was on the other side and he was happy.”

And yet Cowichan Tribes members can’t fully move on. Desmond is one of four men missing from the community. In a place where everyone is connected, the impact hits everyone hard.

“I feel for my families that are in my community,” says Chief William “Chip” Seymour – Squtxulenuhw. “We try to support those families with the missing loved ones. We all need closure, that closure will never come until we find those loved ones. We have set days, we have a set period for mourning. We have teachings we follow until our love is laid to rest. Those teachings are put there to enable us to allow our loved ones, to continue their journey to the other side.”

And yet, without knowing for certain whether the missing men are alive or dead, Chief Seymour says they are stuck. They can’t proceed with the customs that would normally follow a death in the community.

“We don’t know if they’re gone or not. There was talk about following those steps, but the elders cautioned they said, ‘You’re saying they’re dead. If they’re not, what you’re doing, you’re pushing them to the other side and we don’t want to do that.’ And that’s why it’s important we find these loved ones. So that process can be followed,” he explains.

The BC Coroners Service is trying to help communities across the province find that closure by matching unidentified human remains with missing persons cases.

“Never lose hope,” Ian Charlton, an analyst with the Special Investigations Unit, says to those whose loved ones have yet to be found.

“I think, especially in B.C., we have a great infrastructure in place that if these people are found in the wilderness or wherever by hikers or by the public that we have the infrastructure in place to hopefully quickly resolve the cases. There were seven unidentified human remains last year, so they are being found. And we have the tools in place to bring these people home,” explains Charlton.

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Until then, the families of the missing will continue to live without knowing what has happened to their loved ones, and whether or not they could still be alive. Cairney’s mother believes her son is gone, but she doesn’t rule out the possibility she could be wrong.

“I don’t know how we would be living. I honestly don’t see it. I can’t really visualize it in my mind or figure it out.  I hit a wall with that. I really, I don’t think that because we were so connected, and it has just been too long. But maybe I’m wrong because who can predict this? So, who could predict whether I’m wrong or not?,” says Koehle.

Gone Boys, a true-crime podcast part of the Island Crime series, drops a new episode every Monday. Catch them on the Frequency Podcast Network

Rogers Sports & Media is the parent company of this station and the Frequency Podcast Network.