Pandemic, disasters, deaths: A grim, hectic year in British Columbia

A pair of ongoing public health emergencies, horrible revelations about Canada’s residential schools, and a series of extreme weather events dominated much of British Columbia’s news cycle in a particularly busy year.

While these topics are disparate and distinct, one thing experts say these stories all share is they are unlikely to be history with the end of 2021.

For a second consecutive year, the COVID-19 pandemic was prominent in headlines. Unfortunately, that is likely to be the case again in 2022, said Dr. Brian Conway, medical director of the Vancouver Infectious Diseases Centre.

“COVID will dominate our lives in a meaningful way, at least for the first half of 2022,” Conway said this week.

“How quickly it goes away after that — in terms of switching to being endemic, switching to being less intrusive — is, to some extent, in our own hands and in the hands of those who establish policy.”

The two most useful lessons illustrated by the pandemic, Conway said, are about the importance of collective effort and the efficacy of vaccines.

“These types of generational events require us to stick together. When we have chosen to stick together and not make things political — by that I mean, choose to be vaccinated, choose to follow the rules, choose to not go to work when we’re sick so we won’t spread things — when we pull together, it makes a huge difference,” Conway said.

“At times when we have not understood what is for the greater good, we have lost ground in the COVID pandemic.”

With one day remaining in 2021, COVID-19 had claimed the lives of 1,527 British Columbians this year and 2,420 since March of 2020.

Meanwhile, B.C.’s other, longer-running and deadlier public health emergency continued to worsen, recording 1,782 overdose deaths in the first 10 months of 2021, the highest number of fatalities due to drug toxicity ever recorded in the province in a single year.

B.C.’s chief coroner Lisa Lapointe expressed frustration that the government failed to act on this health crisis and called the deaths of more than 200 British Columbians in October — more than six a day — a “devastating loss.”

In terms of a single major news event, it’s no exaggeration to say that when reports surfaced that the remains of 215 students were found at the Kamloops Indian Residential School, Canadians from coast to coast were shocked.

Flags were lowered across the country as people responded with tributes and memorials. Locally, people covered a patch of grass with flowers in front of the Musqueam Nation office in south Vancouver and turned the south-facing steps of the Vancouver Art Gallery in downtown Vancouver into a memorial for all the children who died at residential schools.

Cheryl Casimer, one of three members of the political executive of the First Nations Summit, said Indigenous people had always been aware that children were buried at the sites of residential schools.

What was different about the remains found in Kamloops is that average Canadians finally seemed to understand what had been done to Indigenous children, she said.

“People were finally made aware of some of the horrible things at residential schools,” Casimer said.

“I think a lot of times, people were thinking, ‘They were just stories. Why don’t you get over it?’ When this came to light, that there were children as young as three years old that were discarded like they were nothing, I think that really triggered a lot of emotions of the general public. That’s in essence what we kind of needed to bring these issues to the forefront.”

The First Nations Summit executive members are elected by chiefs and focus on treaty negotiations.

Casimer, a member of the Ktunaxa Nation, said her own nation did a similar search using ground-penetrating radar and found 182 unmarked graves.

She said even though the number of unmarked graves at other former residential school sites has reached just under 7,000, the issue seems to have faded from the public agenda.

“Hopefully in the new year we’ll be able to carry on with that important work,” Casimer said.

A little more than a month after the news about the unmarked graves spread across the country, B.C. experienced a weather event so extreme it shocked meteorologists around the world.

An unprecedented heat dome descended on the province. In Lytton, it led to a new Canadian high temperature of 49.6 C degrees on June 30 that was 24 C above normal. The next day, the community was devastated by a forest fire that killed two and displaced 1,200 people.

The B.C. Coroners Service reported the summer’s extreme heat led to the deaths of 595 people, 88 per cent of which occurred during the heat dome between June 25 and July 1.

Later, the B.C. Centre for Disease Control reported that statistical models showed that the province had 740 excess deaths in an eight-day period ending July 2.

Armel Castellan, warning preparedness meteorologist with Environment and Climate Change Canada, said the heat dome was a wake up call for British Columbians about how lethal heat can be.

He said Western Europe experienced its own advance warning about the deadly affects of high temperatures when more than 70,000 people died from extreme heat in 2003.

“We’ve seen stronger heat events in Western Europe since but haven’t been as deadly” because governments have taken preventive measures, he said.

While the heat dome may be considered an extreme event, Castellan said, it shouldn’t be seen as isolated from what came before and after.

The extreme heat, he said, led to a forest fire season that started a month earlier than usual. By the time the it ended in late September, 8,682 sq. km of forests had been burned. It was the third-worst forest fire season in B.C.’s history after 2017 and 2018.

“The drought and the fires have an impact on the ecology,” he said.

“The ability for the landscape to withstand moisture is different once it’s drought affected or has a burn scar.”

When the severe atmospheric rivers of moisture hit B.C. in November and caused billions of dollars of damage to homes, roads, farms, and bridges, the ability of the landscape in the southern part of the province to absorb moisture had been dramatically affected not only by this summer’s forest fires but from the earlier years of severe burning.

Castellan said while research still has to be done on how and to what extent forest fires are connected to flood damage, he believes connecting the dots will show that the effects are cumulative.

“The more in depth answer will come in months and years to come,” he said.

Castellan said while there may be months or years without extreme weather events in future, the overall trend of the climate emergency is clear.

“The projections are that we will have overall a warmer planet and as a result extreme weather will become more common — more frequent, longer lasting — and higher extremes,” he said.

“We need to adapt to these extremes just as much as we need to mitigate the effects in the decades to come to reduce the likelihood of them happening again.”

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