Essential Canadians: Meet the people working on the front lines of the pandemic

Essential Canadians: Meet the people working on the front lines of the pandemic

As COVID-19 has invaded the country's communities, there are many Canadians who cannot — must not — stay home and avoid it.

Among them are the more recognizable heroes, the doctors, nurses and paramedics. These essential workers always have to be there when help is needed most, and they have risen to the call time and again.

But in 2020, Canada's essential workforce has expanded its ranks. It now includes people who never expected to be on the front lines of a crisis. These truck drivers, grocery store clerks, cleaners, municipal workers and social activists had little time to prepare themselves for their newly dangerous roles.

They entered the pandemic without masks, face shields or plexiglass barriers. Along with those in health care, they've had to learn on the job how to protect themselves from the virus. A lot of them have gotten sick. Many more have been fearful for loved ones who might get sick by proxy.

And yet, they show up day after day.

Everyone has been affected by the challenges 2020 has delivered so far. Here are the stories of Canadians who have tackled them head-on.

  • CANADA DAY SPECIAL | CBC speaks to reporters from coast to coast to coast about how the country is marking this Canada Day, and profiles front-line workers to thank them for their work. Watch live across the country on July 1 from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. ET on CBC Television, CBC News Network and CBC Gem, as well as on our digital and social channels.

Rechev Browne, grocery store clerk (Toronto)

Rechev Browne has been working as a grocery store clerk for 11 years in Toronto. He says that regardless of his paycheque or "where we may be placed on the wage scale," grocery store employees are doing important work.

"No matter what's happening in the world, people are always going to need to eat, right? You're always going to get hungry. You're always going to need groceries."

Browne is a strong supporter of rights for essential workers. His biggest concern throughout the pandemic has been his commute to and from work. He thinks not enough people wear adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) on public transit, and some don't do enough to maintain a safe physical distance.

He's not just concerned about his own health, he lives with an older family member who has severe asthma.

As a Black Canadian, he says he has also worried about being stopped by police on his way home after a late shift. He carries a letter from his employer stating that he is an essential worker.

Browne says meditation and yoga have helped him cope with the stress of working on the front lines of the pandemic.

Shelley Uvanile-Hesch, long-haul trucker (Cambridge, Ont.)

Shelley Uvanile-Hesch comes from a family of long-haul truckers. As a child, her father would take her along on trips. She says that seeing new places and meeting new people are what drew her to trucking as a career.

"I'm very big on meeting new people. Where they live. Where they work. So trucking was a good and natural fit for me," Uvanile-Hesch says.

She's been on the road for almost 30 years, 16 of which were spent behind the wheel of a big truck as part of a driving team along with her husband. Uvanile-Hesch retired from trucking last year after the death of her husband in a tragic workplace accident.

"After driving for over 16 years with my husband, it was very difficult to make the decision of driving solo again. I didn't think I could do it."

When the COVID-19 outbreak began, Uvanile-Hesch felt compelled to come out of retirement and do her part to help her colleagues.

"I have quite a few friends that have had COVID-19 and been very sick with it, and it was impacting drivers' lives everywhere. So I decided that I really needed to come back out and do my part, and if there was any time for me to get behind the wheel it was now."

Her first job back on the road was a cross-country trip dropping off hand sanitizer at various locations — free of charge.

Martha Morin, local emergency coordinator for COVID-19 (La Loche, Sask.)

Martha Morin spent the early weeks of the pandemic in her home in La Loche, Sask. An employee at the local high school, Morin worked remotely and watched the winter ice melt on the lake in front of her home as she worried about COVID-19.

Then she got involved in a task force planning the response to the virus.

When locals started getting sick, Morin found herself running the Emergency Operations Centre, liaising with provincial health authorities and coordinating deliveries of masks, meals and water to those in isolation.

It's been a big job. Many people in La Loche can't easily self-isolate due to full households, and a lack of running water in some cases. But Morin says helping out has emphasized the resilience of her community and made her more confident in the face of the pandemic.

"It was very healing, and gave me direction and a sense of purpose. So, I'm still going," she says.

Else Leon, nurse (Montreal)

When Else Leon heard the Quebec government's call-out for volunteers to help in long-term care homes, she put her hand up right away.

"I couldn't help myself," says the Vanier College nursing instructor, whose classes had gone online during the pandemic.

The mother of two set up a bedroom in her basement to separate herself from her young family, and started shifts at a long-term care home in the West Island of Montreal that had confirmed cases of COVID-19.

Inspired by her work, Leon's brother Gat signed up to help when his own workload slowed in the education sector. The two were placed together, and Leon says Gat's laughter got her through the tough days.

Impressed by the hard work of her colleagues in long-term care, she says, "I was just so happy that I could get in there and lend a helping hand."

Lieutenant Celene Stamper, Canadian Armed Forces nursing officer (Petawawa, Ont.)

Lieutenant Celene Stamper is new to what she's been facing in recent months — all of it.

As a recent graduate from nursing school and a new member of the Canadian Armed Forces, she couldn't have known she would soon find herself on the front lines of a global pandemic.

Lt. Stamper was posted in a hard-hit Montreal long-term care home for six weeks as part of the military's response to the virus.

When she looks back on her time at the home, she says, "Everybody was just so happy that we were there and grateful for the help. And I think that's the thing I'm going to remember the most about the whole experience."

Despite having seen first-hand one of the hardest-hit communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, Lt. Stamper is optimistic.

"Canada is definitely going to come back from this," she says.

Rachel LeBlanc, scale, traffic controller & landfill labourer; Caroline Ollenberger, scale, traffic controller & relief foreman (Calgary)

There are some routine trips that are unavoidable, even during the COVID-19 lockdown. Among them are visits to the dump.

Rachel LeBlanc and Caroline Ollenberger have been greeting customers entering Calgary's landfill sites throughout the pandemic. They say that Calgarians' increased social isolation has made their job more important, and not just because they help make sure waste gets disposed of properly — some members of the community have come to rely on them for much-needed social interaction.

Ollenberger says she has seen whole families drive to the landfill for something to do during the pandemic lockdown.

For those who want to chat, LeBlanc says, "We do strive to help people stay positive and on the right track, and let them know that they're not alone and that we are there to support them."

Jacob Callender-Prasad, activist (Vancouver)

Jacob Callender-Prasad, a 21-year-old social activist, has taken to the streets of Vancouver during the COVID-19 outbreak.

His family has been involved with community activism for years, but they've never had to brave a pandemic to push for what they believe in. He's the force behind the logistical and strategic planning for the recent anti-racism protests that have been going on throughout the city.

It was his personal experiences that pushed him to address systemic racism in Canada. In 2017, Callender-Prasad was arrested for mistaken identity by the RCMP in Burnaby, B.C.

"They took their guns out at me. Did not tell me why they were doing so, or who they were. They did not I.D. me or anything. And that was one example. I've had other racial incidents …."

His current social activism efforts focus on trying to build a community of people who can band together to support people of colour.

Moving forward, Callender-Prasad says he hopes to see "a plan in place that can show our people hope and faith, and to fix racism and injustice that's been going on, and that our governments will listen to us."

J.R. LeBlanc, Hospital Cleaner (Newmarket, Ont.)

"The hardest part for me personally was seeing people die. It's really tough to see that on a daily basis," says J.R. LeBlanc.

He's the first line of defence in the fight against the pandemic — a cleaner in the COVID-19 ICU ward at the Southlake Regional Hospital in Newmarket, Ont.

Working five days a week, eight hours a day, LeBlanc's job is to ensure every surface in the COVID-19 ward is decontaminated.

"For sure I was nervous at the beginning. I didn't know how to, you know, deal with the virus, and I was learning as I went," he says.

LeBlanc is not the only member of his family working on the front lines against the pandemic. His two sons, 17 and 19, both work in grocery stores. To help unwind, the family relaxes together by singing karaoke at home.

LeBlanc says he feels that the biggest difference he's making is to help support patients. "The nurses are quite busy, the doctors are quite busy, so sometimes patients need a cleaner to say 'hello, how are you today.'"

Marwa Ataya and Mohamad Salem Ajah, grocery store owners (Victoria, B.C.)

Marwa Ataya and Mohamad Salem Ajah came to Canada with their four children as Syrian refugees in 2016. The move for the family was tough, but the community in Victoria, B.C., made it easier for them.

"It was a very big shock for me. because everything was very different. Here now I feel like it's my second home, because people helped us a lot. People supported us," says Salem Ajah.

In 2019, the family opened the Damascus Food Market, an ethnic food store specializing in Middle Eastern products.

When the pandemic hit, both Salem Ajah and Ataya decided to keep the store open, regardless of any personal risk.

"In the pandemic, we still keep open the store because we want to feel part of the community and help the community. Also, most of the people ... like to come to our store instead of going to the big stores," Ataya says.

The couple's 11-year-old son Mohamad helps out at the store as well. To him, keeping the store running during the lockdown was his family's way of thanking the community for helping them when they first arrived in Canada

"Lots of Canadian people, they helped us a lot when we came here. So we wanted to help them also," Mohamad says.

Dr. Yashi Yathindra and Dr. Paul Koblic, ER physicians (Toronto)

Dr. Paul Koblic describes being an emergency-room physician as, "the front door to the hospital … and if you're having the worst day of your life and you're really sick, odds are you may see one of us."

He's an ER physician at Mount Sinai Hospital. His wife, Dr. Yashi Yathindra, is an ER physician at North York General Hospital. Every day, the couple works on the frontlines in the fight against COVID-19.

With a five-year-old and a two-year-old at home, the couple's biggest worry was bringing the virus home to their family.

"Every patient we see is someone who potentially has COVID-19, and we have to make sure that we ourselves are protected," Dr. Yathindra says.

Both Dr. Yathindra and Dr. Koblic are grateful to Canadians for banding together and quarantining themselves for months, ensuring that the hospital systems didn't get overwhelmed or fall apart — keeping all front-line health workers safer.

Dr. Koblic says he hopes that moving forward, the COVID crisis inspires positive change.

"This pandemic has brought out the good in a lot of people," he says.

"I really look forward to a future in Canada where we've addressed systemic racism and everybody can get the access that they need specifically to health care."

John Zielinsky, STM bus driver & Tatum Crane, STM manager (Montreal)

Driving a bus has become a bit unnerving for John Zielinsky, a transit worker in Montreal.

With more than 130 employees at the city's transit company having been infected so far, the stress induced by the ever-present risk of catching COVID-19 is palpable.

The environment on the buses has changed, too. Personal interactions with customers have become rare, as ridership has dropped and passengers have been asked to board from the back doors.

But Zielinsky has noticed the passengers he does pick up rely on him for the most crucial of trips — from grocery runs to hospital visits. And he's received more thanks from customers during the pandemic than he did in the past.

Zielinsky says it has made him think differently about his role. Though he wouldn't have called himself "essential" a few months ago, he says he has come to recognize that his job "is actually extremely important."

Zielinsky's station manager, Tatum Crane, says she's grateful in these hard times that she and her team can be there for the City of Montreal.

As Crane puts it, "This is our job. This is what we're getting paid for and the people really appreciate, you know, seeing us every day."

Jake Sanford, paramedic (Halifax)

Halifax paramedic Jake Sanford says he still gets a lot of the same kinds of emergency calls as he did before the pandemic. But trying to safely treat those individuals while taking measures to protect himself from COVID-19 has added an additional layer of complexity to his job.

It's not just the added time it takes to put on PPE. Comforting gestures, like handshakes and smiles, can no longer play a big part in his interactions with people.

"We just don't have the ability to do that as easily," he says.

But his experiences on the front lines during these challenging times have led him to gain "an additional appreciation for the strength that [we] as Canadians have," he says.

A decade from now, Sanford says he looks forward to reflecting on this period in Canadian history and thinking, "you know, we did a great job."