PORT ALBERNI, B.C.—On a hot, quiet Saturday, the city’s museum lobby is empty save for a sole receptionist. The large paved parking lot outside, which it shares with the next door library and town pool is mostly empty, and local birds outnumber pedestrians on the wide paved city streets that are as quiet as those who live here.
As Port Alberni deals with the weight of two young local men accused of murder and on the run, many here don’t want to talk.
The receptionist’s warm greeting turns tense as she learns that the person who’s approached the front desk is a reporter.
She tells Star Vancouver that she can’t talk and that Port Alberni’s city manager emailed all city staff with instructions to not talk to media and instead direct them to contact city management. The receptionist also refused to suggest a community leader who might want to speak to media and repeated the instructions she had been given — to not talk to reporters.
Her response comes at a difficult time for the town of 17, 000 people.
RCMP are looking for Port Alberni residents Bryer Schmegelsky, 18, and Kam Mcleod 19, who are suspects in three high-profile killings in northern B.C. that made international headlines. The two Port Alberni residents, who are reportedly lifelong friends, were last spotted Monday in Gillam, a remote town in northern Manitoba.
While the manhunt continues 3,000 kilometres away, Port Alberni’s high school, school district office and shelter have all told Star Vancouver they had been told not to talk to reporters.
But it’s not just front-line staff who’ve been instructed to keep quiet.
On Saturday, one of the town’s elected officials told Star Vancouver that councillors have also been ordered to stay mum.
“We have been told to keep our mouths shut, not to make any comments,” said Port Alberni councillor Cindy Solda.
The mayor, she said, has instructed all of council to decline interview requests and direct reporters to the mayor’s statement, posted on Facebook.
Solda said she, an elected official, would prefer to speak for herself.
“I would love to speak independently.”
In a three minute-long phone conversation with Star Vancouver, Solda reiterated her desire to comment another four times and apologized profusely.
In a statement posted on Facebook, Mayor Sharie Minions describes this as a “challenging” time and says the town is “being linked to crimes that are unthinkable” and that the community is “under the watchful eye of the rest of the country.”
“Let’s show the rest of this nation we are much more than the latest headlines. We are a community that sticks together in a crisis. We care about each other and will lean on one another during this time.”
The mayor’s statement “reflects the whole of the community,” Solda said, adding that if she were allowed to speak to media, she would say something along the same lines.
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The city’s messaging appears to have impacted even people who are not city workers — many residents were hesitant to speak to Star Vancouver.
Mimi Burton, a support worker who’s lived in the town for 30 years, broke the town’s Saturday afternoon silence, despite a stern warning from the young woman with whom she was seated. From across the table at the bustling Tim Hortons, the young woman urged Burton to stay quiet lest she face scrutiny from others on Port Alberni’s highly active residents-only Facebook discussion group.
Burton was unfazed.
“I think it would be quite difficult for them (Mcleod and Schmegelsky) to come back to town. I don’t think that would be a smart thing — everybody will be watching, there’s only two ways into (town).” she said.
Although Burton didn’t know either of the two men, she said she recognized one of them from the photos and had seen him working at Walmart.
“I don’t think I’m worried they’ll come back, but you never know,” she said.
“Of course, every night, I’m glued to the news to see if these kids are found, have they done any other things … we don’t want to see more people hurt.”
With files from Jesse Winter and Alex McKeen.
Wanyee Li is a Vancouver-based reporter covering courts and conservation issues. Follow her on Twitter: @wanyeelii
Tessa Vikander is a Vancouver-based reporter covering diversity, inequality and education. Follow her on Twitter: @tessavikander