Reporters for The Vancouver Sun and The Province share their most fondly, or sadly, or humorously remembered stories of 2019. Here, in alphabetical order, are their reflections on the stories and people that stuck with them the most this year.
An end to the long-running story of the Bountiful polygamy sect
Fifteen years and 362 columns later, it was a final punctuation point to the long-running and fraught story of British Columbia’s polygamous community in Bountiful.
After more than two decades of legal wrangling, I was finally able to write that a former bishop of the fundamentalist Mormon sect was going to jail. In August, James Marion Oler was sentenced to a year in prison and 18 months’ probation.
But in many ways, it was a pyrrhic victory.
Oler no longer belongs to the church — he was cast out nearly a decade ago.
It was 15 years ago that he trafficked his 15-year-old daughter into a coerced marriage in exchange for a fifth wife who was the same age as his daughter.
Oler was never charged with sexual misconduct, nor was Winston Blackmore. Blackmore, Canada’s most notorious polygamous, has sired 150 children and has admitted that half of his 26 wives were under 18.
There are unlikely to be more prosecutions anytime soon. It’s partly because all of the attention that has been focused here and in the United States on the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints for two decades or more has forced it to change. But mostly, as was the case 15 years ago, there’s little political will.
Beyond that, the conditions that allowed the community to flourish have never been fully addressed. No changes have ever been made to improve the regulation and oversight of independent schools or homeschoolers.
And, while Canada’s polygamy law was upheld in a constitutional reference case in the B.C. Supreme Court and again at the trials of Oler and Blackmore, it remains untested in an appellate court.
Former champion trampolinist dies at age 22
I feel lucky, as a journalist, that I get to meet so many people, although some interviews are easier than others. When I was asked to write a story about a former medal-winning national gymnast who was fighting terminal cancer at age 22, I was nervous: How do I approach such a difficult subject with someone so young?
But when I met Tamara O’Brien, I encountered a thoughtful, confident young woman who unreservedly wanted to speak about her diagnosis in the hope it would help other youth facing a similar battle.
“I think that is a huge purpose in my life, just being able to share and help, in whatever people decide to take out of my story,” she told me in April.
She wanted people to know that the cancer diagnosis had not left her mired in sadness, but taught her to appreciate what was important. “Your whole perspective changes when death sits right at your door. As morbid as it sounds, that’s true.”
O’Brien made the national team at age 11. At 12, she won an unprecedented seven medals at the Canadian nationals. She took silver at the 2017 World Games in Poland, but was forced to quit the sport after her melanoma was discovered that year.
O’Brien also kept a blog, where she chronicled her medical journey with raw, honest writing. In June, I was heartbroken to read that the cancer had spread to her brain.
“There is no handbook when life hands you a hurricane,” she wrote on her blog. “Sometimes I think the universe tests us just to make sure we are committed. I’m here to say I’m f—ing committed. Committed to living my life the best way I can with any cards I’m given.”
September was the last time I heard from O’Brien, who sent me an enthusiastic email asking for advice about how to write a book.
A month later, on Oct. 15, Gymnastics Canada reported that O’Brien had died. “Tamara was such a bright light in our community and she will be sorely missed,” said CEO Ian Moss.
Indeed, I remember her with fondness and gratitude.
Vancouver’s annual homeless count sets a record
There’s been no shortage of material to write about during the colourful first year of Vancouver’s new mayor and council. But with our coverage of urban issues, we also try, when possible, to get away from the corridors of power at 12th and Cambie.
Considering how debates around housing have dominated local political discourse recently, we wanted to hear from some of those most profoundly affected by this issue, but whose voices aren’t always most prominent — our neighbours who have no housing.
There was no scoop in the story I filed March 13. Just an on-the-ground look at the city’s annual homeless count early that morning. This wasn’t an orchestrated photo op — the city employees with whom I tagged along didn’t know what or who we’d find that morning, in the alleys, parks, nooks and crannies of a downtown neighbourhood. Most homeless people we encountered that morning were friendly and candid. But some didn’t want to talk, and others were sharply critical of the civic government’s inability to fix the homeless problem.
The count ended up setting a sad record, finding 2,223 homeless Vancouverites. As a simple walk and a few early-morning conversations underlined for me — and hopefully for readers — those are 2,223 perspectives worth keeping in mind.
Growing calls to put teeth into health-care coverage
When we talk about affordability in B.C., we often focus on the housing crisis. There are so many more ways people are suffering here.
In late 2018, Gabrielle Peters, a disabled Vancouver writer living in poverty, had the last of her teeth pulled. While recovering and in pain, she started a frank discussion on Twitter about why dental care should be part of our health-care coverage.
In a private message, she urged me to write about dental care. I’m glad I listened to her. So many readers shared and commented on the article, telling their own stories about not being able to afford to fix their teeth. I learned so much. It was devastating.
For our story, I interviewed NDP health critic Don Davies, who had been working on dental coverage for years and told me he wanted to make it a federal election issue (he managed to do that). Health Minister Adrian Dix told me the B.C. government was “already moving in that direction.”
Months later, interviewee Anita Simon, who removed her temporary top dentures for a front-page photo, found a denturist in Abbotsford to replace those dentures and install new bottom ones, charging only the small amount the ministry covered. Her self-esteem soared, she told me earlier this month.
But it will still cost her much more for a permanent solution. She wants the province to move faster toward dental coverage.
“There are people walking around in pain,” Simon said.
“They need to get it together and they need to hear the people of this province, and listen to them and realize that by not taking care of the people dealing with this, they’re going to deal with way more financial burden.”
Man acquitted of shooting pregnant former girlfriend
One of the most surprising verdicts at the Vancouver Law Courts this year had to be the decision by a judge to acquit a man in the shooting of his pregnant former girlfriend.
B.C. Supreme Court Justice Jennifer Duncan found that Carleton Stevens had shot his former girlfriend, identified only by the initials J.Y., causing her to lose her 6-1/2 month unborn child.
But the judge ruled that there wasn’t enough evidence to prove Stevens intended to kill J.Y. and therefore he was not guilty of attempted murder, the only charge on the indictment.
She concluded that the bullet fired by Stevens had first passed through the arm of J.Y.’s friend, Taj Lovett, before hitting J.Y., and that there was a struggle preceding the shooting.
While there were threats by Stevens to kill J.Y. in the weeks preceding the incident, there were also threats against Lovett and it was a “reasonable” scenario that Lovett, and not J.Y., was the intended target, said the judge. No charges were laid in the shooting of Lovett after he did not co-operate with police. He did not testify at trial either.
Observers of the case were left wondering how a man who was found to have shot two people could be acquitted.
Asked whether there will be an appeal, a spokesman for the Crown said the decision is being carefully reviewed and had no other comment.
The Yucho Chow exhibit opens
Writing about Yucho Chow was remarkable in many ways. I found out that he was unique in the first half of the 20th century for operating a photo studio that was the go-to place for Chinese-Canadians and many of the city’s minorities and marginalized groups. His incredible visual record was mostly lost until curator Catherine Clement set out on a mission to find as many of his photographs as possible for an exhibition in Chinatown.
At the opening, I met both Eleanor Collins, the legendary jazz singer, and her daughter Judith Collins Maxie, who contributed a Chow photograph of her grandmother and her five mixed-race grandchildren and helped the exhibition include the historical presence of black Canadians.
After the initial story appeared in The Vancouver Sun and The Province, a number of people realized they had Yucho Chow photographs of family members and were able to add to Clement’s archive. Plus, a family member who saw one of the family portraits published with no names was able to identify her grandparents, father and uncle.
A “silent” photo was able to tell its story again — much like the saga of Yucho Chow.
Difficult to stay detached as toddler dies in hot car
Even for seasoned police officers, the news was “absolutely heartbreaking” and “extremely tragic,” and for reporters, it was among the toughest to cover this year.
A 16-month-old infant died after being left for several hours in a car parked near Kingsway and Inman Avenue near Burnaby’s Central Park in May, when temperatures soared into the 20s Celsius.
We reporters were sent to the neighbourhood to see if we could find out details and likely not one of us relished the assignment.
Burnaby RCMP Chief Supt. Deanne Burleigh held a press conference at the Burnaby RCMP headquarters, a task usually handled by a less senior media officer, which indicated to reporters the gravity of the announcement to come.
“It’s absolutely heartbreaking,” she said. “It’s a tragedy and it has ripple effects throughout the community.”
Police said at the time they were interviewing family members, witnesses, pedestrians and people in the area but couldn’t release many details.
All Burleigh could confirm was that RCMP received a 911 call at 5:45 p.m. on May 9.
The baby boy was unconscious and was declared dead in hospital. The baby’s father was at the scene and both parents were co-operating.
Burleigh called the death “extremely tragic” and said it was too early to discuss the possibility of charges but they weren’t being ruled out.
The B.C. Coroners Service said it was the first time such a death had been recorded in B.C. and couldn’t confirm if it would investigate.
Seven and a half months later, the RCMP’s cryptic response to a request for an update offers no clues to what might have happened or how the RCMP will respond.
“The investigation has not yet been concluded and therefore I am unable to provide an update at this time,” media relations officer Cpl. Daniela Panesar said in an email this month.
And from coroner media spokesman Andy Watson: “Our investigation to determine how, where, when and by what means he came to his death remains open.”
Reporters at the time of the death were left to interview people in the neighbourhood, including workers at a daycare on the street, and later to write followup stories to try to put the tragedy into context.
We wrote that there are an average of 38 deaths every year of children in hot cars in the U.S. (Canadian statistics aren’t available but likely fewer than 10, so not many precedents for RCMP to follow.)
In the U.S., 40 per cent of the deaths were deemed accidental with no criminal intent to justify charges and 60 per cent did face some sort of criminal-negligence charges. It’s not known how many were found guilty.
In Canada in 2003, a Quebec father was charged with involuntary manslaughter in a similar case but the Crown later dropped the charges, calling it a tragic accident.
While reporters wait for official word on how the baby died to update our readers and viewers, we are left with psychologists explaining what is called “forgotten baby syndrome,” a tragic outcome of a flawed memory: The part of the brain that deals with routine matters can be overwritten by the part of the brain that is consciously dealing with other matters.
Impact of Hong Kong protests hit close to home
I was nowhere near the Hong Kong protests of 2019, but their reverberations in Vancouver make up the story that moved me the most this year.
The protests swelled in size and intensity as demonstrators — who initially took the streets over a piece of legislation allowing crimes committed in Hong Kong to be tried in China — focused their fight on wider freedoms and the city’s independent identity.
I had travelled often to Hong Kong and spent my early days as a reporter there, arriving in 1997 as the former British colonial city returned to Chinese rule. In more recent times, I also lived there with my young family for four years, returning to Vancouver in the fall of 2014.
Now, I was talking to students at B.C. universities setting up and protecting their own Lennon Walls in solidarity with protesters in Hong Kong. There were small but ugly clashes that gave Vancouver a place in the battle over Hong Kong. I wrote about travel advisories, contingency plans and inconveniences as chaos and violence gripped and changed the nature of the protests, as well as the emotions being felt by students and professors at campuses here.
And all while I was seeking sources to interview and moments to chronicle, I felt like I would never adequately capture the situation. Over face-to-face, but also long and nuanced, text message conversations, it seemed impossible to reconcile the experiences and views of so many family members and close friends in Vancouver, who span the spectrum in their connections to Hong Kong and China, as they argued both sides of this most dramatic and complex story.
Toddler with sun allergy spends her first hours outside
An ice cream cone in the park.
A simple pleasure, but for Langley toddler Charlie Lock, an impossibility.
Born with porphyria, a disease that is sometimes called an allergy to the sun, the little girl lived her life inside.
But this spring, after a series of surgeries, including both a liver transplant and a bone-marrow transplant from her dad, Charlie spent a few hours in the park, eating ice cream.
Speaking to her parents led to one of my most memorable stories of the year.
When I first met Charlie in the summer of 2018, I was taken with the feisty toddler, who is the same age as my son.
Is it a cliché to say she was like a ray of sunshine?
Happy and a little shy, Charlie was determined to make photographer Nick Procaylo’s camera her new toy. Her world, by necessity, was small and dark, but thanks to her remarkable parents, it was filled with love.
The windows of the Lock’s home were coated with UV-blocking film. Even small amounts of ultraviolet light caused Charlie’s skin to painfully burn, blister and swell.
“She’ll stare out the windows and point at the leaves in the trees,” Charlie’s mom, Bekah, told me. “She knows what’s out there, but she’s never fully experienced it.”
Last fall, that painful reality, coupled with life-threatening liver failure, sent the family to Sick Kids Hospital in Toronto, where, in a darkened operating room, surgeons gave Charlie a piece of her dad Kelsey’s liver.
In February, Charlie had chemotherapy to destroy her bone marrow and then received another transplant — this time her dad’s bone marrow. Doctors hoped it would give the toddler’s body the ability to create the enzyme that breaks down porphyrins, which caused both her liver problems and sun allergy.
The surgery was successful.
In June, I interviewed the Lock family again as Charlie spent some of her first hours outside.
Kelsey was looking forward to his perfect Father’s Day: A few hours in the park with his family. Something so common, it’s an understatement to say I take it for granted.
Since then, in the aftermath of two transplants, Charlie has been in and out of hospital. The family was able to return to B.C. in late October. Still, Bekah’s Facebook page is a record of various medical procedures.
But for every picture of Charlie in a hospital gown is one of a little girl doing ordinary things — dressed up for Halloween, jumping in puddles and, last week, after being released from hospital in time for Christmas, fast asleep in her own bed.
Three lives that reflect profound changes in Canadian culture
My favourite stories are about people. And this year I had the good fortune of interviewing three amazing men whose stories reflect the profound cultural changes in Vancouver, and Canada, over the last century.
The 97-year-old Kaminishi and 88-year-old Horii are Japanese-Canadians who were forced to leave the west coast for a camp near Lillooet during the Second World War.
Ninety-four-year-old Chung is a Chinese-Canadian who was the only Chinese person in his medical class at McGill University in the early 1950s.
Chung went on to become a surgeon and professor at UBC and assembled one of the great collections of historical items in Canadian history. My jaw dropped when I visited his condo and saw his library and some of his treasures.
I live in Strathcona, near Japantown, and it was a revelation talking to Horii and Kaminishi about their lost neighbourhood.
As a baseball guy, it was wild talking to Kaminishi about his playing days with Japantown’s legendary baseball team, the Asahi. As a Canadian it was heartbreaking to hear Horii recount how Japanese-Canadians were branded aliens after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
All three men persevered in the face of adversity and prospered. They’re an inspiration to us all.
A year of wackiness, senseless violence and hope
We get into this job, many of us anyway, to try to make a difference. So my favourite story of 2019 was writing about a new and costly life-saving device in ambulances that keeps heart-attack patients alive until they can get to hospital. Upon reading it, one anonymous philanthropist donated $1 million to purchase more of the gadgets.
Many other stories from 2019 stand out.
There was the wonderfully wacky: A look at the life of Vanier Park fixture and world champion kite flyer Ray Bethell, who passed away this year, and an afternoon with unicyclist Ryan Kremsater, who bounds down North Shore trails on one wheel.
There was bravery: The memories of Trevor Shuckburgh, a veteran who was a sub-hunter in the English Channel on D-Day.
There was empathy: The efforts of Kristi Blakeway’s students in Coquitlam and Maple Ridge, who have reunited more than 700 people in the Downtown Eastside with their families.
And there was hope: Speaking with Rumana Monzur, who, after her husband gouged her eyes out with his bare hands when she asked for a divorce, went on to become a lawyer, and became the focus of a documentary on violence against women. Monzur asks not to be thought of as a victim, but as a symbol of hope.
B.C.’s crisis in forestry
“In the worst-case scenario, 13 (sawmills) will close,” was the succinct, grim summation that forest industry analyst Jim Girvan read off to me during an interview last May.
The frankness of it seemed shocking, audacious even, but after decades of the mountain pine beetle ravaging Interior forests, two successive years of record wildfires, and increasing needs to set aside land for the conservation of threatened mountain caribou, there simply wouldn’t be enough timber to go around.
That stark assessment was already coming true as Girvan was recounting it to me — venerable sawmiller Tolko Industries had already announced the closure of its Quest mill in Quesnel the previous week, followed in short order by Canfor, which announced closure of its Vavenby mill, West Fraser Timber said it was shuttering its Chasm mill, and Conifex its Fort. St. James facility.
By Nov. 11, when Tolko announced that it would end operations at a second sawmill in Kelowna, companies had already listed six mills for permanent closure of the 13 Girvan said would go.
I had reported on looming difficulties for logging and sawmilling due to the coming timber shortage before, but 2019 saw a crash in American lumber markets that touched off in earnest a sudden and painful transition for many Interior forestry towns.
Hospital paid parking felt by all of us
This year I wrote several articles about how hospital paid parking can add to the stress and anxiety patients and family members experience during some of the most difficult times in their lives.
Then my family experienced just that.
The first article covered a $14.5-million contract the Provincial Health Services Authority had signed with Impark to run Fraser and Coastal Health hospital parking lots. The second covered alternative parking models, and the third looked at the millions health authorities make each year off their lots.
The stories resonated with readers who shared their experiences of paying high rates week after week to visit those suffering or dying, or of being ticketed after forgetting to plug their meters while in states of distress.
This summer a close family member had a heart attack and was rushed to the hospital. Their surgical procedure the next morning took much longer than expected and by the time they were wheeled back into their room alive and recovering, there was a ticket waiting on our windshield.
Suddenly those stories resonated and stuck with me too.
Memorable stories of love and loss
My most memorable stories of 2019 were the love stories — quiet stories of ordinary people such as June Walmsley, who passed away at the age of 99 in the same east Vancouver house where she had made a home for 200 foster kids over the years. Walmsley always said she loved them all like they were her own and that she never forgot any of their names. Her life was a love story.
A story of forgetting became unforgettable when I met Tony Wanless and his wife June Hutton. Wanless shared his journey with Alzheimer’s disease. He told of losing his thoughts and his words, but not his way, while Hutton helped him write the book they hope will help others. This too was a love story.
The story of a refuge for the dying pitted against a developer brought me to the Vancouver hospice where I met staff and volunteers who cook favourite meals, tend their tranquil gardens, and stand in respectful silence with families as loved ones make their final journeys out the back door. Their work is a love story.
A meeting with Darrel McLeod and Terese Mailhot, two Indigenous authors who opened their hearts in memoirs that detailed the effects of growing up under the cloud of Canada’s Indian Act, its residential schools and reservation system was particularly meaningful. Their work is a love letter to their families, and ours.
A political rumble that stood apart from the rest
As a transportation and regional government reporter, I have seen Jonathan Coté wrestle with serious policy issues, but I had never seen the mild-mannered mayor of New Westminster jump into the ring and physically wrestle an opponent to the mat.
So, when I was given the opportunity to see Coté suit up in gold lamé pants and practise his routine before wrestling in a tag-team match at the Royal City Rumble — becoming the first sitting mayor in Canada (that we know of) to participate in a professional wrestling match — I couldn’t pass it up.
Coté had attended the rumble before, and even refereed, but he decided to assume his alter ego, Johnny X, and team up with Mr. India in a tag-team match when he saw how the free event brought out residents and delighted hundreds of children.
I spent a few hours on a Sunday evening watching Coté practise his signature move, the stunner, along with a few others, and it was enlightening to see him out of his element and away from the usual meeting rooms. Plus, it was a heck of a fun story to write.
They build and live authentically
Walking up the driveway to meet Amanda-Rae and Chris Hergesheimer, I was struck by the density of projects and experiments built into every available space on their Sunshine Coast property.
Tools and non-motorized building equipment were either stored or in use everywhere.
A large retaining wall built of recycled tires stretched up the hillside, and nestled in the middle of this cacophony of human energy was the structure I had come to see.
Their 600-square-foot cob studio, made of straw, sand and mud, was constructed by Chris, Amanda-Rae and her crew from the Mudgirls Collective. It is a beautiful structure built literally with hands and feet from mostly found materials.
What impresses the most is their utter disinterest in wealth — although armed with a PhD, Chris has earning power. They pledged to one another early in their relationship to live their lives authentically and do only what feels right. Often that means making do with less in material terms, but the payoff is music, joy and love.
Since our meeting, they have packed up, pulled their kids out of school, and gone to pursue projects in rural Africa.
Enjoying the right to roam on billionaire’s B.C. ranch
What’s not to like about driving out of traffic-congested Metro Vancouver? And what destination could surpass the rolling grasslands of the Nicola Valley?
After cruising 270 kilometres northwest of Vancouver, I almost immediately understood why the Nicola Valley Fish and Game Club has been fighting for more than a decade for the “freedom to roam” in this stunning, open land. The club recently won a B.C. Supreme Court decision that gives the public the right to access two peaceful fishing lakes, owned by the Crown, that have been blocked off by U.S. billionaire Stan Kroenke’s giant Douglas Lake Ranch. It’s one of many battlefronts in the war against B.C.’s dubious “No Trespassing” signs.
Rick McGowan and Harry Little took me out on the range in a Dodge Ram truck, where we saw geese, heron and ducks, not to mention horses and cattle. It was useful to legally go onto Kroenke’s B.C. land holdings, which together cover almost twice as much terrain as Metro Vancouver. Talk about the majesty of nature.
Call me shallow, but it was extra fun at the end of the afternoon, after we left the ranch, when cheerful McGowan asked this city boy if he wanted to fire his 7mm Remington Magnum rifle, which he uses to hunt deer. That was the first time I’d shot a gun in more than four decades. The innocent boulder, nestled 100 metres away in the tall grass, didn’t know what had hit it.
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