Looking back on 2021, another trying year

·17 min read

COVID-19 continued to play a dominant role in our lives in 2021, with the Delta and more recently Omicron variants pushing positive case numbers up to record levels as the year concluded.

Last January brought a sense of optimism as the first vaccines began to be slowly rolled out, with vaccinations peaking in late summer.

Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) offered more encouragement when it released data indicating there was a low rate of COVID-19 transmission in schools across its region, which includes Richmond, during the first half of the school year. Its findings concluded that those aged five to 17 years of age accounted for six per cent of VCH’s COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, despite representing 10 per cent of VCH’s population.

“We want educators, other school staff, parents/caregivers and students to feel reassured that schools are a safe and low-risk environment for COVID-19 transmission, thanks to the hard work and dedication of our schools and school districts,” said VCH medical health officer Dr. Alex Choi. “The safety plans currently in place are robust and effective, and VCH is committed to ensuring that when students or school staff do test positive, a rigorous public health follow-up process is in place.”

But in February, a survey by the Richmond Teachers’ Association again raised concerns within education settings as the majority of teachers expressed concerns about bringing COVID-19 home to their family or immediate household. The results, presented at a school board meeting by Richmond Teachers’ Association president Liz Baverstock, indicated 75 per cent of teachers were worried.

By December, nearly 90 per cent of all British Columbians aged 12 and older had received two vaccine doses. But as the variants began taking hold, many province-wide restrictions that had been lifted were reintroduced, and the demand for greater rapid testing and booster shots increased.

Weather also made its impact in 2021. A record heatwave—peaking on June 29 when Vancouver International Airport recorded its highest-ever temperature of 32.1 degrees Celsius (90 Fahrenheit)—left Richmondites baking rather than basking in the sun. Lytton, in the nearby Fraser Canyon, topped out at 49.4 Celsius (121 Fahrenheit) to eclipse the Canadian record of 45 Celsius set back in 1937 in Yellow Grass, Sask.

But while there was no rain in sight for weeks on end during the summer, late fall more than made up for it. Record November rains caused significant flooding throughout Richmond and considerable and long-lasting damage that uprooted people from their homes in other parts of the province. Vancouver International Airport once again established a record—this time for precipitation—when yet another in a string of atmospheric rivers dumped 52.5 millimetres in 24 hours on Nov. 14.

The deluge left veteran politician and city Coun. Harold Steves with no doubt that environmental change—some brought on by human disregard—played a part.

And following record heat and rain, the end of the year brought Arctic outflow and snowfall warnings, with temperatures below zero degrees Celsius and more than 14 centimetres of snow at Vancouver International Airport between Dec. 24 and 27 alone.

JANUARY

Song reminds all to ’Wear a Mask’

Facing the same challenges and responsibilities as everyone else, a local group of folk singers felt compelled to write and record a song to illustrate their efforts during the pandemic. “Wear a Mask” by the Stone Poets, featuring Richmond singer-songwriter Cherelle Jardine, speaks to the months of isolating and adhering to health department regulations after COVID-19 forced the cancellation of all the group’s live concerts.

Gifted school on ALR seeks to expand

A school for gifted children in Richmond is hoping to construct a new building to accommodate more students, pending Agricultural Land Commission approval. Choice School is located on agricultural land in East Richmond, and about half of its students are what the school calls “twice exceptional,” meaning they are gifted and also have additional learning difficulties or a disability. The school has been on its current site since 1992. After discussion, city council referred the matter to the Agricultural Land Commission, which has final say in whether Choice School will be able to expand.

Centenarian passes at 105 years

Iris Downing served as a constant reminder to all: live life to the fullest. Passing just a week following her 105th birthday, the long-time Richmondite embodied the fountain of youth as a keen volunteer who enjoyed spending time with family and friends and playing bridge—a game she didn’t take seriously until joining the seniors’ centre 32 years ago.

“The biggest thing to bridge is remembering,” said Downing, who also played cribbage and whist at least one day a week until her health declined. In a 2017 interview with the Richmond Sentinel, Downing expressed surprise at becoming a centenarian before adding, candidly, that she frequently became frustrated not being able to complete a task she felt she should be able to.

“I get so mad when I can’t do something. Then I have to remind myself: ‘you’re not in your 80s anymore’.”

Pathways, library team fight mental health

Pathways Clubhouse and Richmond Public Library co-hosted a series of virtual education events in January focused on parenting during a pandemic.

“As families grapple with an ever-changing normal, stress and anxiety can escalate,” said Kate Adams, head of children and family services at Richmond Public Library. “For many families, the already significant anxiety and worry around catching the virus has been compounded by an uncertain future and the stressors brought on by restrictions on social interaction.”

Artists applaud grants in time of need

The Richmond Arts Coalition was delighted to see the BC Arts Council continuing to look for ways to support artists in their professional development and adaptation at a time when so many artists were unable to create performances, theatre, dance, and other works of art.

“We are glad to see them acknowledging through the Pivot For Individuals grant program that individual artists also need support during this time—not just organizations,” said arts coalition executive director Andrew Wade.

Faced with unforeseen challenges due to the COVID-19 pandemic, many artists have been unable to work or worked less due to the temporary closures of venues and restricted audience sizes.

Healthcare couple sing for Canucks

A Richmond couple ushered in the Vancouver Canucks’ 2020-21 home schedule that was played without fans. Victoria Groff and Chris Clute, both frontline workers, married their gifted voices to sing O Canada prior to the NHL game between the Canucks and Montreal Canadiens Jan. 20 at Rogers Arena.

“I think I can speak for both of us when I say how excited we were and our families were about this opportunity,” said Groff. “This past year has not been easy for my family, especially when I lost my aunt to cancer in August, but something that really kept me going and gave me hope that things would get better was always music. I wish she could (have) been here to watch, but I know she (was) cheering for us in spirit as she loved our music and the Canucks.”

Groff and fellow nurse David Taylor helped close out 2021 with The 7 O’Clock Cheer, a fundraising concert, on Dec. 4. The idea was to celebrate the role healthcare workers have played in carrying B.C. through the pandemic, and to support patients in need.

Taxes rise 5.68 per cent

Richmond has a reputation for being one of the safest cities in the region. But while it enjoys a low crime rate, a moderate increase in the last few years, coupled with a recent rash of incidents, raised concerns.

Recognizing public safety as a top priority, and committed to eradicating crime wherever possible, city councillors voted for a 2021 operating budget that provides for the hiring of an additional 16 RCMP police officers. The new budget represented a 5.68 per cent tax increase for 2021.

“I’ve always tried to keep taxes down (but) we need to look at safety first,” said Coun. Bill McNulty, who put the third option on the table after staff recommended a slightly lower increase. “(During the COVID-19 pandemic) we’ve had shootings, drivebys, arsons, all kinds of issues we haven’t faced before in Richmond. An $82 increase (per average household with an assessed value of $996,000) as opposed to a $51 increase can mean the difference between safety in our community and not being safe. We need to have every officer that we can on the street.”

Dike clean-up deemed urgent

A king tide event on Jan. 13 caused damage to the rip-rap—rocks placed along the shoreline for protection—as well as the accumulation of a large number of logs and other wood debris. The repair work included reinstatement of rip-rap along a 300 metre stretch as well as debris removal along a 750 metre stretch. City council approved allocating $500,000 from the city’s drainage improvement reserve fund for repairs and debris removal along the south dike at Gilbert Road.

Rozanski examines landforms

As the sixth Branscombe House artist-in-residence, Rachel Rozanski has set about exploring Richmond’s islands by water. She examined the evolution of these landforms, reshaped many times over, including the unique ecosystems that now exist on them. The Canadian artist’s interdisciplinary works explore biological, geological and material transformations appearing as we enter the Anthropocene; the epoch or time where human activity has noticeably impacted the planet’s climate and ecosystem. Her 11-month residency concluded in November.

FEBRUARY

Kung Hei Fat Choy

Chinese New Year, also known as Lunar New Year or Spring Festival, is usually a time of huge public celebration in Richmond and around the world. Traditionally that includes a big meal, prayer or parties. But in this Year of the Ox, and with all gatherings banned and people spending more time at home, festivities went online. Aberdeen Centre mall hosted a virtual countdown show on Fairchild Radio and Fairchild TV.

While many families were unable to celebrate in person, the first-ever virtual Chinese New Year virtual cooking class with chef Denice Wai—streamed live from the River Green Presentation Centre—showed how cooking and technology can still bring everyone together. Christine Brodie, wife of Mayor Malcolm Brodie, enthusiastically welcomed the opportunity to participate and learn some new Chinese dishes.

Library marks Black History Month

Mary Wilson would prefer to deflect credit elsewhere, asking the author of a 2018 story on Black History Month in the Richmond Sentinel that the article not be about her. But there’s no denying Wilson’s efforts sparked local recognition of Black History Month with the modest Richmond woman continuing to play an important role while standing up for injustice.

Her efforts continue to be instrumental in the Richmond Public Library’s ongoing efforts to unite the community in celebration and raise awareness. Wilson worked closely with community services librarian Millicent Mabi to plan the programming for this year’s Black History Month celebrations. And the library’s popular reading series Storytimes featured age-appropriate children’s materials to address topics of fairness, justice and awareness of Black history.

RCMP officer recognized

A Richmond police officer was one of just six British Columbians to be recognized by the province with a Community Safety and Crime Prevention Award.

Winner of the Youth Leadership Award, RCMP Const. Baljinder Kandola found her passion in crime prevention and community policing early in her 19-year policing career. As co-ordinator of the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program for the RCMP within Richmond schools, she has been instrumental in providing youth the tools they need to make healthy choices, including resistance strategies on how to deal with peer pressure and stress in a positive way.

Chimo hosts walk for homeless

Richmond’s Chimo Community Services encouraged people to bundle up and help raise funds for its fifth annual Coldest Night of the Year event. Money raised supports those experiencing homelessness, hurt and hunger. Respecting COVID-19 protocols, participants walked alone or with members of their pandemic “bubbles” to raise the much-needed funds.

District enrolment up modestly

After five years of decline, student enrolment began to pick up again in the Richmond School District with a modest increase in the last school year. Board chair Sandra Nixon expects the trend to continue, but noted this year’s enrolment numbers were negatively impacted by the pandemic, seeing a decrease by the equivalent of 150 full-time students when compared to projections.

“As a result of the pandemic and travel restrictions, we’ve also seen a 30 per cent decrease in international education student enrolment from the previous year,” she said. “However, the district is projecting that out-of-district and international enrolment will gradually return to pre-pandemic levels over the next three years.”

Meanwhile, student safety got a boost with seismic upgrades completed at Cook, Tait and Ferris elementary schools and at Boyd secondary.

Bags from banners

McMath textiles students made good use of some of the city’s old street banners—recycling them into bags to donate to the Richmond Food Bank. Teacher Akiko Kato contacted the city to see if they would donate banners for a garment-making project using recycled materials. But when she heard that the food bank was in need of shopping bags for their hampers, she asked staff and students to bring bags from home.

“(Then) I changed the lesson plan and talked to all students about the situation,” Kato said. “They all agreed to make reusable bags for the food bank, and made 55 bags in total.”

Bags are in demand at the food bank, as all groceries distributed to clients are individually packaged.

Shirley, it’s never too late for first art show

At the age of 76, Michael Shirley premiered his first solo exhibition, displaying his paintings through the Arts Connection.

After getting very sick in August 2020 with sepsis and ketoacidosis—leading to a three-week stint in hospital and near-death experience—Shirley said he realized life is short, “and if I wanted to scratch this off my bucket list, I better get on it.”

Shirley has been drawing since he was a young child, although with six siblings there was no money for art supplies. In his younger years he painted mostly with watercolours and oils, but later began to use acrylics.

Paying it back

When Tam and Ngoc Phi (Monika) Do, together with their son Trevor, were rescued from a refugee camp in the early 1980s, they made a pledge to help others whenever they could. In February they donated $120,000 for Richmond Hospital’s ACT NOW campaign to support the build of the Yurkovich Family Pavilion, a new acute care tower with a new emergency department, medical imaging centre, larger operating rooms, private inpatient rooms and much more.

MARCH

Sockeyes put on ice

The 2020-21 Pacific Junior Hockey League was barely underway before it was abruptly put on hold. Then in March it was officially cancelled.

It was a bitter pill to swallow for the Richmond Sockeyes which sported a 7-0 record before the proverbial axe fell. The Pacific Junior Hockey League, in consultation with the B.C. provincial health office, had divided its 13 teams into four cohorts to reduce the chances of a large scale spread of COVID-19.

By September, the team was hopeful of avoiding a similar fate as it began its 50th season of play with a home date against the North Vancouver Wolf Pack. On Dec. 22, the Sockeyes had successfully completed 28 games and sported a 17-10-1 record—sitting fourth in the Tom Shaw Conference.

Modular housing project on tap

Another temporary modular housing project is in the cards for Richmond. BC Housing applied last winter for a three-year permit for properties on Smith Street and Bridgeport Road. The intention is to construct a three-storey supportive housing building with 40 studio units. The existing modular housing project on Elmbridge Way will serve as a model for the new proposed project.

The city decided that during construction of the building near Bridgeport Canada Line Station, it would keep its emergency response centre, located in the old Minoru seniors’ centre, open until at least February 2022.

“The goal is for it to remain open as a bridge to the temporary modular housing on Smith Street when it is completed this coming summer,” said the city’s communications director Clay Adams.

Street banner record

The 2021 Richmond street banner contest was colourfully concluded in front of city council when, at a virtual meeting, 10 local artists were recognized and showcased their winning banner designs. The banners will adorn major streets until early 2022.

“In a year where engagement and gatherings have been difficult, we’re proud to have had the opportunity to safely involve the community in beautifying our city,” said Mayor Malcom Brodie.

The city received a record 650-plus design submissions, which included collages, art, photographs, graphic images and other creative designs.

Alexandra park gets $1M boost

The city welcomed with open arms news that it would be receiving $1 million to upgrade Alexandra Neighbourhood Park as part of a $30 million infrastructure fund from the province. The fund is intended to create jobs and support recovery for people and communities affected by COVID-19. Construction upgrades will have an ecological focus, while adding more amenities and accommodating the expansion of the geothermal Alexandra District Energy Utility. Upgrades will also include retaining existing trees and constructing new recreational features, including a playground and dog park. The funding comes from the Community Economic Resilience stream of the Community Economic Recovery Infrastructure Program (CERIP), which is providing $100 million in one-time infrastructure grants for projects that are ready to go throughout the province.

Corvus introduces energy-dense boat battery

A cutting edge Canadian-powered technology will soon be in use on Canada’s West Coast. Richmond’s Corvus Energy is partnering with Seaspan Ferries in a field trial of the development and commercialization of a cutting edge energy dense battery for boats and ferries. This new technology, called blue whales’ design, could power big ferries and even cargo ships. It is up to 50 per cent more energy-dense than other battery systems and reduces engine noise and engine vibration which is beneficial for marine wildlife, crew and passengers alike. This could also be significant in the fight against climate change as energy-dense batteries for big cargo ships have the potential to help contribute to Canada’s efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

River Parkway becomes reality

An important new transportation link opened in the spring, one that will help transform traffic, cycling and pedestrian options within Richmond’s downtown core.

“River Parkway is a critical component fulfilling Richmond’s long-term commitment to a sustainable arterial transportation network,” said Mayor Malcolm Brodie. “Highlighted in our City Centre Area Plan, it will improve traffic mobility and alleviate congestion on existing routes. It will also allow for the future closure of a section of River Road to create Lulu Island Park in the coming years.“

Part of the project is a 15-hectare (37 acre) park where residents, workers and visitors are able to enjoy access to the natural environment and waterfront of the Fraser River Middle Arm.

The new parkway comprises a two-lane road and bike lanes on each side protected from the adjacent vehicle lanes with delineator posts to enhance safety. New traffic signals and crosswalks at Leslie Road and Cambie Road, paved pedestrian walkways and LED streetlights are also included. To improve pedestrian and cycling access to River Parkway, an off-street, multi-use path on the south side of Cambie Road between River Road and No. 3 Road was also completed. This provides safe access to/from the Middle Arm Greenway, River Parkway and the Aberdeen Canada Line Station. The cycling lanes and the off-street multi-use path were partially funded by TransLink’s capital cost-share programs with municipalities to support cycling and walking improvements.

Hannah Scott, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Richmond Sentinel

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