Port Alberni’s waterfront shines under the sun and the shadow of Mount Arrowsmith in this iconic photo from August 2018. SUSAN QUINN/Black Press

Port Alberni fights bad reputation in international media amid manhunt for wanted teens

The Canada-wide manhunt for two Port Alberni teens suspected in three deaths in northern British Columbia has thrust the small city located in the heart of Vancouver Island into an unwanted limelight.

Kam McLeod and Bryer Schmegelsky have been charged with second degree murder in the death of Leonard Dyck of Vancouver, whose body was found at a rest area on Highway 37 a couple of kilometres away from where the Port Alberni teens’ truck was found on fire last week. They are also implicated in the shooting deaths of international tourists Lucas Fowler and Chynna Deese near Liard Hot Springs on July 15.

READ: ‘Struggling to understand’: Family, UBC pay tribute to lecturer killed in northern B.C.

Barry Shep of Calgary was already down on Port Alberni after his truck was broken into while he was helping a fellow fisher, whose truck and boat trailer were stolen while he was fishing down the Alberni Inlet. “Wow, seems this town has its share of murders as well,” he said.

Tom Shanahan from Pickering, Ontario wrote to the Alberni Valley News with his thoughts regarding the manhunt for two Port Alberni teens. “This sad story disproves the idiotic theory that raising kids in a small town is better than raising kids in a big city,” he said.

Port Alberni Mayor Sharie Minions said her city is not unique in the negative attention it has been receiving.

“We do get big media attention when it’s for something negative; I don’t think we’re unique in that,” she said.

Minions said she reached out to Gillam, Manitoba mayor Dwayne Forman, whose community has been inundated with SWAT team members, law enforcement members and international media because it was the last place McLeod and Schmegelsky were spotted.

“Their community is struggling with the same thing,” she said.

City Councillor Cindy Solda, who has been a politician in Port Alberni for well over a decade, said the press attention has been difficult to take. “I love press, but only for the right reasons,” she said. “This whole situation has affected a lot of communities and so many families, the relatives, the friends.

“People are judging. What happened in our society to innocent until proven guilty? Of course, everyone’s talking about it. People are being judge and jury before these young adults even had a chance. We don’t know; we’ve just heard bits and pieces and we’re judging.”

READ: B.C. fugitives believed to still be in northern Manitoba

Port Alberni has been labeled one of the worst places to live in Canada by Moneysense magazine for several years. The label spawned a spoof Facebook campaign called The Worst Place to Live, then a social media campaign called Heart of Vancouver Island to try and combat the bad reputation by highlighting positive things about the community.

“I do feel that Port Alberni unfortunately only gets international media attention when something bad happens,” said Kama Jones, one of Vancouver’s top mom bloggers of 2018 who is from Port Alberni. Jones was part of the team that operated Heart of Vancouver Island blog from 2016–2017.

“We started Heart of Vancouver Island as a direct response to Port Alberni’s notoriety as ‘The Worst Place to Live in Canada’ by Moneysense Magazine,” Jones said.

“We didn’t agree with this label, and wanted to create a grassroots campaign to increase local pride about living in the community, which would ripple forward to all of our social networks.

“Even though the city stopped funding it and the page now lays stagnant, I’ve been told it helped to change the story about why people love living in Port Alberni.”

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