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Jack Knox: 21 non-COVID stories from 2021

The P-word might have dominated, but there was other news to report this year. Here, not necessarily in order of importance, are 21 non-COVID stories that Times Colonist readers might remember from 2021.

• Residential schools

The flashpoint was May’s news that the unmarked graves of 215 children had been found at the old Kamloops residential school. The broader issue, though, was entrenched inequity, the reality that for as long as any of us can remember, many Indigenous people have faced barriers that others have not.

In an impassioned legislature speech following the news from Kamloops, MLA and Tsartlip First Nation member Adam Olsen spoke of Indigenous overrepresentation in statistics related to the criminal-justice system, homelessness, suicide, addiction and drug poisonings, “all statistics you don’t want to be overrepresented in.”

Will 2021 be a turning point? Certainly there was an outpouring of emotion. On Aug. 2, after the Penelakut Tribe revealed the existence of more than 160 unmarked graves at the site of the Kuper Island residential school, about 1,000 orange-shirted people demonstrated in Chemainus.

All summer, children’s shoes crowded the legislature steps as a daily reminder of the past. Justin Trudeau declared Sept. 30 the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation (though he then used the occasion to vacation in Tofino).

For some, 2021 became about trying to balance the equation. Not every action taken in the name of reconciliation (a word that appeared in the Times Colonist 611 times in 2021) was embraced; the decision to close the Royal B.C. Museum’s Old Town left many aghast. Still, it felt like something finally shifted this year.

• Climate, round one

Hands up if you had ever heard the term “heat dome” before last summer. On June 29, the temperature in Lytton soared to a Canadian record of 49.6 — that’s 121 F, hotter than it has ever been in Vegas — and on June 30, the village went up in flames.

Then came hundreds more B.C. wildfires, some so massive that they met like overlapping pools of water, razing homes, forcing thousand to flee and for weeks choking skies with an apocalyptic orange smoke that turned Interior streetlights on at mid-day.

Worst of all, close to 600 British Columbians died in the extreme heat, most of them during that week at the end of June. Victoria wasn’t immune, reaching an all-time high of 39.8 on June 28. Concrete buckled. Crops died. Get used to it, we were warned.

• Climate, round two

Same hands-up question, except for “atmospheric river.” They had to come up with some sort of new term, because to merely refer to November’s meteorological muggings as storms would be like calling Gretzky “a hockey player.”

Mudslides, floods, washouts, hundreds of thousands of dead livestock — you didn’t know if you were reading the Times Colonist or the Old Testament. The supply chain came apart as the Trans Mountain pipeline and highways and railways linking the Lower Mainland to the Interior were knocked out.

On Nov. 15, helicopters from CFB Comox rescued 300 people, 26 dogs and a cat trapped between mudslides on Highway 7 in the Fraser Valley. The Malahat was severed, rekindling the never-ending debate over what to do when the Island’s main artery is cut.

Vancouver Islanders knee-jerked into panic-buying, emptying grocery shelves. The government rationed gas to 30 litres per fill-up. November saw Port Renfrew soaked by almost 1,200 millimetres of rain, just shy of four feet. We’re still recovering.

• Non-affordable housing

Same story as last year, except on steroids, as Victorians were forced to choose between A) making rent/mortgage payments and B) eating anything other than pet food and carpet underlay.

In June, the $12-million sale of a home on 67 acres in Metchosin set a Greater Victoria MLS record. A condo went for $1 million in Sooke. The benchmark price for a single-family house in the core hit $1.12 million in November, up from $904,000 the same month last year.

Has your income risen at that rate? Homes sell as fast as they put them up, because people keep moving here: The metropolitan Victoria population has reached 409,000, up from 345,000 in 2011. Build it and they will come.

Meanwhile, post-secondary students who returned to town this fall after a year of Zooming from afar found nowhere to rent.

• Non-existent housing

Plenty of people were mad when the city allowed 24/7 camping in Beacon Hill Park, but some also fretted when ­provincial and federal tax dollars were spent this year to house the campers and other homeless people ($25 million for the ­Capital City Center Hotel, $9.4 million to buy and renovate a Russell Street property, ­millions more for four supportive-­housing projects in Victoria….).

So, what’s your alternative? And is your primary worry the homeless, or do you really just pray that anti-social street behaviour doesn’t spill onto your street? Most Beacon Hill tents were gone by June, when Victoria council voted for a two-year ban on sheltering in the park.

• Fairy Creek

A generation ago, the battle lines in the War in the Woods were more clearcut (as it were), with environmentalists and Indigenous people on one side, forest companies on the other. At Fairy Creek, it’s muddier.

Old-growth logging protesters (there have been 1,100 arrests) ignored the leadership of the Pacheedaht First Nation when it repeatedly urged them to leave the Fairy Creek area near Port Renfrew. The Pacheedaht, Huu-ay-aht and Ditidaht First Nations, who in June got the province’s backing in deferring logging old growth in the Fairy Creek and Walbran areas, said they, not outsiders, would determine what’s best for their territories.

It didn’t help clarify things that the main issues — old-growth logging, Indigenous rights — were often overshadowed when the focus of the story became the treatment of the protesters themselves.

B.C. First Nations felt pressure in November when the province gave them 30 days to say if they supported two-year logging deferrals in 26,000 square kilometres of old-growth forests deemed at risk of permanent biodiversity loss. The forest industry warned that 18,000 jobs could be lost if all deferrals were approved.

Downtown safety

Business groups don’t like to scare away business, so it was significant when three of them — the Greater Victoria Chamber of Commerce, Destination Victoria and the downtown business association — joined Our Place and the Victoria Conservatory of Music in warning city council that the core is in “a state of public safety crisis.”

The cumulative effect of stories of random violence — a five-year-old boy slapped by a stranger, an elderly woman pushed to the ground, Forests Minister Katrine Conroy knocked down near the legislature, police officers assaulted, a woman whose dog fled after her van was attacked with a hammer — might create an impression bleaker than reality, but it’s hard to deny the streets are meaner than they were.

In September, an armed man in crisis was shot dead by police near the Mayfair mall. Something has to change.

• Opioid crisis

With 1,762 overdose fatalities in B.C. in the first 10 months of the year, illicit-drug deaths outpaced those due to COVID. So why don’t they dent the public consciousness in the same way?

The answer, of course, is that COVID is contagious, while drug deaths feel like something that happens to people from another orbit. Yet even those unmoved by faceless statistics were staggered when a 12-year-old Greater Victoria girl, Allayah Yoli Thomas, died in April.

• Labour shortage

Blame CERB for keeping kids on the couch. Blame Boomers for calling it quits. Blame a lack of immigrants. Whatever. There are more jobs than people, which is why restaurants simplified menus, hotels closed rooms they couldn’t clean, bus schedules went out the window, ferries stayed docked, surgeries were cut and goods piled up at ports due to a lack of truckers.

• John Horgan

In a year in which he had already been challenged by a pandemic, wildfires and a record-setting heat dome, B.C.’s longest-serving NDP premier found himself contending with throat cancer. Yet three weeks after divulging that he was about to begin radiation treatment, there he was in late November, huddling with Justin Trudeau to plot recovery from that month’s storms.

There’s no room for partisanship at times like this. We all look forward to seeing him back at the Q Centre, cheering on his beloved Victoria Shamrocks.

Federal election

Have you ever driven off with a destination in mind, only to get lost and wind up half a block from where you started? Justin Trudeau’s search for a majority brought him as far as Saanich’s Lodge at Broadmead (where earlier in life, he raced his grandmother down the halls in her wheelchair), but in the end, his $610-million September election left Parliament virtually unchanged.

The big losers on Vancouver Island were the Greens, who saw incumbent Paul Manly lose in Nanaimo-Ladysmith and their share of the popular vote on the Island fall by half to 13 per cent. The NDP won six of seven Island seats.

Zim Kingston

The 1949 movie Whisky Galore was based on the true story of a shipwreck that sent a load of liquor floating into the arms of Scottish islanders. The 2021 version dumped scores of refrigerators — along with an eclectic selection of sea-soaked sofas and school supplies — on northern Vancouver Island beaches.

The debris washed up after 109 shipping containers were swept from the freighter Zim Kingston as it approached Juan de Fuca Strait in heavy seas on Oct. 21-22. A day later, Victorians had a front-row seat as fire broke out on the same vessel offshore.

It wasn’t until December that the Zim Kingston, which had crossed the ocean from China and South Korea, was moved to Nanaimo so that its remaining 2,000 containers could be unloaded.

• Cruise ships

So, let’s get this straight: In 2020 we freaked out that plague-ridden cruise ships might stop in Victoria, but in 2021 we fretted that they might not. Changes to U.S. shipping rules this year led to fears (or hopes, depending on your perspective) that the vessels, worth $143 million to the capital’s tourism economy, might pass us by — though when the 2022 schedule came out, it showed cruise liners stopping at Ogden Point a record 350 times in 2022, starting April 6.

• Monumental messages

What’s Captain Cook doing in the Inner Harbour? It would appear to be the front crawl. On Canada Day, a crowd that took it upon itself to act in the name of Indigenous people chucked the landmark causeway statue into the chuck. The next morning, someone set a Malahat totem pole on fire, apparently in retaliation, even though there was no connection between the totem and the previous day’s statue topplers. All those involved probably felt justified in their actions.


Even on Vancouver Island, home base for many Canadian Olympians, it took a while for the Tokyo Games to capture our attention. It didn’t help that Canada’s men’s basketball team fell short at a qualifying tournament in Victoria, a prestigious event that few got to see live due to COVID rules.

But then came the women’s soccer final, not to mention the joyous scenes at YYJ when the Elk Lake-based women’s eight arrived with gold medals around their necks, and fellow Victoria rower Caileigh Filmer and softball’s Emma Entzminger deplaned with their bronzes.


From Mel and Goldie racing through Fan Tan Alley in Bird On A Wire to Deadpool and the X-Men romping around Royal Roads, it’s always fun to see ourselves on the screen. Maid meant more than that, though. The 10-episode Netflix series, shot over nine months at 160-odd in locations around Victoria, created hundreds of jobs and almost single-handedly kept the local film industry alive at a time when most productions were shelved by the pandemic.

Clover Point

Not since 2005, when a woman attending a Sarah McLachlan concert had the temerity to stand up and dance, has the Times Colonist letters section been swamped with such passionate debate. What became obvious was that the fuss wasn’t really about how many cars or picnic tables should be at Clover Point. Rather, it represented a disconnect between city hall and a segment of the population who felt they no longer mattered.

B.C. Ferries Wi-Fi

The problem wasn’t that B.C. Ferries didn’t have Wi-Fi, but that for 11 years it promised connectivity but couldn’t deliver. If you were in the cafeteria and some guy was pounding his keyboard like Ray Charles at the Apollo, snarling and moaning in a manner more commonly associated with shiny shoes and sidewalk dog dung, you just knew he had lost his signal halfway through Tiger King. It was telling that after the corporation quietly stopped offering onboard Wi-Fi on three of its routes (including the Swartz Bay-Tsawwassen and Nanaimo-Horseshoe Bay runs) in July, few complained.

Cold-water swimming

A weird time calls for weird coping mechanisms: dance marathons during the Great Depression, the streaking craze of the mid-1970s recession. This year, swimmers began plunging into the Strait of Juan de Holy Fuca It’s Cold on chilly mornings when normal people were day-drinking their breakfast in bed. One adherent of suddenly popular cold-water dips described the experience as “funcomfortable.”

• Most Oak Bay crime ever

In June, a bottle of Macallan No. 6 scotch valued at $4,600 was stolen from an Oak Bay liquor store. The real crime is the thief drank it with ice.