For those of us who report from Canada for The New York Times, it was again a year in which there was no escape from covering the pandemic. But the arrival of vaccines and the drop in infection rate (remember that?) did mean that we were again regularly traveling throughout the country.
Here are some highlights from our recent experiences.
Sections of Merritt, British Columbia, were washed out by the flooding in November.Credit…Ian Willms for The New York Times
A Day in the Mountains
British Columbia couldn’t catch a break in 2021. There was a record heat wave that led to hundreds of deaths and wildly out of control forest fires that destroyed the town of Lytton. Flooding this fall killed four people and caused damage to buildings, highways, utility lines and railways. The rainfall was devastating, killing 628,000 chickens, 420 dairy cows, 12,000 hogs and submerging 110 beehives.
Other news from British Columbia shook the nation. The Tk’emlups First Nation announced a preliminary finding that ground-penetrating radar had located the remains of 215 people, most of them very likely children, in unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
More grim findings soon followed from other First Nations communities.
The discoveries were confirmation of former students’ stories that many of their classmates died while being forced to attend the schools: from malnutrition, disease spread through overcrowding, fires, neglect and abuse from clergy who ran the schools.
In my many years reporting on the residential school system — established to eradicate Indigenous identity and cultures — I hadn’t seen the same level of intense public reaction that these recent events evoked. The unmarked graves seemed to have made real the horrors of residential schools for many Canadians and people around the world.
It was while reporting on the issue in Kamloops, British Columbia, that I had a meeting I won’t soon forget. Garry Gottfriedson is a residential school survivor, educator, a former rancher and a poet who studied under Allen Ginsberg.
Mr. Gottfriedson invited the photographer Amber Bracken and me to travel with him up into the mountains outside of Kamloops where his grandmother spent her summers. We were joined by some of his extended family members and planned to hunt for a medicinal root.
The harvest didn’t work out. Mr. Gottfriedson learned from a cousin that the plant had matured beyond its harvest point earlier in the year. But we did have an extraordinary day. We sat under a tree, its pine scent filling the air, for a long conversation about residential schools, his activist rancher parents who also traveled the rodeo circuit, poetry and life in general.
Much of our conversation made it may into an article. The Times’s podcast “The Daily” used it to tell the story of residential schools.
[Listen: The Daily, “State-Sponsored Abuse in Canada”]
[Read: With Discovery of Unmarked Graves, Canada’s Indigenous Seek Reckoning]
In a year of much bad news, meeting Mr. Gottfriedson, among many other Indigenous people, brought me hope. He and others are living proof that the residential school system ultimately failed in its objective of destroying their cultures.
— Ian Austen
Unforgettable landscapes and people
In a pandemic year, made worse by the agony of periodically being stuck at home, the stories that stand out are the ones that allow me to explore new landscapes. Among the most memorable was a faux Florida retirement community in Quebec, with 30-foot fake plastic palm trees covered with snow.
I went there during a chilly March. Because the pandemic had spoiled their annual pilgrimages to Miami, the 520 residents of Domaine de la Florida had re-created a make-believe tropical refuge in Quebec, trading in their bathing suits for thermal underwear and living in identical boxy houses on streets with names like Cocoa Avenue.
[Read: Canadian Snowbirds Find Refuge In Their Mythical Miami]
The complex had a pool (closed off because of freezing temperatures) and golf carts to whisk residents to summertime shuffleboard games. Locals even decorated their gardens with pink flamingos, and held outdoor barbecues in winter.
The effect was both surreal, a tad kitsch and entirely endearing, impressing upon me the adaptability of human beings during a pandemic.
“At least we had a white Christmas this year and can pretend we’re in Miami,” Gérard Ste-Croix, a 71-year-old resident, told me while cradling his shivering Yorkshire terrier, Mala.
My year was also defined by a series of heartbreaking stories. The one that stood out the most was a reporting trip to Manawan, an Indigenous reservation, to report on the death of Joyce Echaquan, an Indigenous mother of seven, who passed away in a Quebec hospital amid a torrent of racist taunts, which she had captured on video.
[Read: After Video of Abusive Nurse, Canada’s Indigenous Seek Health Overhaul]
The trip to the reserve over a 50-mile unpaved dirt road was harrowing, and made me wonder how ambulances endured it. Indigenous leaders on the reserve told me that road accidents were frequent.
The trip underlined the health care challenges faced by Canada’s 1.7 million Indigenous citizens, including prejudices that were shortening life spans. On the reserve, families of as many of 20 people were living in four-room houses, making self-isolation challenging during a pandemic.
I was awed by the resilience of Ms. Echaquan’s husband, Carol Dubé, who told me about the pain he had endured since her death, including having to tell his young children that they no longer had a mother.
— Dan Bilefsky
This week’s Trans Canada section was compiled by Vjosa Isai, Canada news assistant.
Braulio Rocha, a Roman Catholic Portuguese immigrant, started his life in Canada as a janitor at a Montreal synagogue, where a chance encounter launched him on a new path as the city’s bar mitzvah photography king. Mr. Rocha is the subject of this week’s Saturday profile by Dan Bilefsky.
Devon Island is an uninhabited Arctic outpost in Nunavut featuring a 14-mile-wide crater left by a cosmic impact. For scientists, it’s also the perfect backdrop for pretending to be on the moon or Mars.
The Montreal-born director Jean-Marc Vallée, who made a big mark in Hollywood, sought to expose the imperfections of human nature. He was found dead last weekend of a heart attack, his publicist confirmed. He was 58.
Health care pressures are mounting across Canada as hospitals battle the Omicron wave. In Quebec, health care workers who test positive for Covid-19 will be required to continue showing up for their shifts if they satisfy certain requirements, including being asymptomatic.The province also reinstated a curfew on New Year’s Eve.
The World Junior Championship, an annual hockey tournament scheduled to run until Jan. 5 in Alberta, was canceled on Wednesday after several players tested positive for Covid-19.
A native of Windsor, Ontario, Ian Austen was educated in Toronto, lives in Ottawa and has reported about Canada for The New York Times for the past 16 years. Follow him on Twitter at @ianrausten.
Dan Bilefsky is a Canada correspondent for The New York Times, based in Montreal. He was previously based in London, Paris, Prague and New York. He is author of the book “The Last Job,” about a gang of aging English thieves called “The Bad Grandpas.” @DanBilefsky
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