A decoy tent sits in the forest adjacent to a new development in the Oceanside area on the east coast of Vancouver Island. No one lives there. The tent, pitched not far off a trail, is meant to draw people away from real encampments farther into the woods. Go deeper into the wilderness and you will find them: Men living under tarps and tents in makeshift shelters.
Is it possible some of Vancouver Island’s missing men have disappeared into the woods? That’s a question at the heart of ‘Misfits’, Episode 5 of the true crime podcast series Gone Boys.
Doreen (Coco) Littlejohn is a registered nurse who specializes in providing outreach services to vulnerable populations. She is contracted by the Forward House Community Society in Parksville.
“They lived in this community and they are part of this community, but they are like shadows,” she says of the men she helps. “It is something that isn’t talked about, or looked at as they’re not our problem, they’re not from here. We don’t have to deal with it. And that rhetoric of course is carried on, on various Facebook and social media sites that people have set up with. Literally, I would call it hate speech.”
On the other side of Vancouver Island, men on the margins are also struggling to be included in the community of Port Alberni.
Brandon Cairney is one of Vancouver Island’s missing men. He disappeared in October 2017.
Brandon loved nature and would frequently venture up into the mountains. The quiet helped soothe the constant headaches he experienced after a serious brain injury in his teens.
His uncle, Mark Cairney, worked with the provincial homelessness program for years and advocated for help for his nephew. But he says Brandon had trouble fitting in, in the very community he was born and raised in.
“It’s almost like he didn’t fit anywhere,” says Mark. “Knowing what I know and doing what I do for a living and doing what I can to help Brandon, if somebody like Brandon is not making it, what hope is there for these other guys out there? You just need to be an eighth of a turn off to not fit in society. And Brandon couldn’t fit in. A lot of these people can’t fit.”
That’s a sentiment which rings true for Stacie Johnston. She was a community resource coordinator at the drop-in centre where Brandon was a regular.
“If you have a brain injury and if you’re a little bit different and a little quirky, where do you fit in?” she says.
Johnston says Brandon’s behaviour made him an easy target for harassment.
“I think it was because of his brain injury, because he was easily pushed over the limit where he would lose his cool. Because he was good-looking, because the girls liked him, he was an easy target,” she explains.
Missing man Kelly McLeod was also known to ‘camp’ in and around the forests near Campbell River before he disappeared in October, 2019. The former logger and father of two broke his neck and later became addicted to drugs. Homelessness followed. His sister, Loral McLeod, says her brother was living under a bridge in a tent before he vanished.
“He had a table and his cart and all of this stuff he used to collect recyclables, and that’s kind of how he made his money, recycling metals and pop cans,” explains Loral. “From my understanding, Kelly was pretty routine, always seen around town, riding his bike, pulling his cart, always collecting bottles. He’d go to the bottle depot almost every day. For somebody that was homeless, he was fairly routine.”
Loral and the rest of Kelly’s family tried to maintain a relationship with him throughout his deepening addiction and homelessness.
“You know, we always knew that he was around. We’ve got very good friends over there that we knew if anything happened, they would let us know. We always knew he was safe. You know, we could keep in touch with them to know that he was doing okay,” adds Loral.
More recently, another man, Maxime Ouellet, who vanished near Port Alberni was also known to ‘camp’ in the forests on the outskirts of town. He was last seen in June 2020.
Police issued a statement saying the 43-year-old may be camping in or near local trails in Port Alberni.
Littlejohn sees the men she works with moving deeper into the woods to protect themselves from being hassled by local officials or from being harassed by citizens who don’t view the men as part of the community.
She worries about the health and safety of the men, concerned that they are vulnerable to overdose and violence. And she doesn’t see the situation improving.
“The men are marginalized; they’re shunned and blocked off from the community. And they’re told they’re not part of the community and don’t deserve services and don’t deserve shelter. All of that isn’t changing. As a matter of fact, I think it gets worse because they are so vilified in the community,” says Littlejohn.
Listen to Gone Boys, a true-crime podcast part of the Island Crime series, for more on Vancouver Island’s missing men. Gone Boys drops a new episode every Monday. You can catch them on the Frequency Podcast Network.
Rogers Sports & Media is the parent company of this station and the Frequency Podcast Network.