If last year found us surprised by COVID-19, then this year was about persevering – trying to guard against the virus while navigating all kinds of challenges, both related and unrelated to COVID.
As our stories of the year for 2021, we chose COVID-19 and the vaccine rollout, truth and reconciliation, extreme weather, an eventful election race, and five murder investigations. There were other major stories we considered – local impacts of the housing crunch and opioid crisis, for example. And of course, our community newspaper covered significant community-level stories such as Nanaimo’s 100,000 population milestone, downtown revitalization plans, major employer Tilray leaving town, a controversial animal control bylaw and a sad story about two Gabriola Island friends dying on a work site.
Those were some of the bigger stories during 2021. Along the way, as always, we tried to cover many of the other things that make a community tick, reporting on council meetings, promoting community fundraisers, previewing theatre productions and attending big games. Some of those news beats have been different during COVID, but in other ways, life has gone on, and would you look at that, another year is approaching an end.
We would never try to diminish anyone’s experience of the pandemic and its challenges – these are hard times. But we hope that in a year that was about persevering, Nanaimo and its people found occasion to celebrate, reasons to hope and ways to thrive. And may we have happiness, health and good fortune in 2022.
Happy new year.
COVID fight intensified
Unfortunately, COVID-19 has made the News Bulletin’s Stories of the Year list for a second straight year.
The COVID-19 pandemic was the Story of the Year in 2020 and although it is again, what changed in 2021 was that British Columbia really began to fight the virus with the rollout of vaccines.
By early January, supplies of Pfizer and Moderna COVID-19 vaccine were starting to arrive on Vancouver Island and long-term care workers in Nanaimo were some of the first people to get the jab. About the same time, Snuneymuxw First Nation members were also some of the first to be inoculated in response to an outbreak.
The vaccine rollout didn’t start out smoothly, as doses were in short supply in February.
“The big frustration is the degree to which we’re playing who gets into the lifeboat, who gets out of the lifeboat and this is not something that we ever anticipated that we’d be facing this early on,” said the Island’s chief medical health officer, Dr. Richard Stanwick.
In mid March, the province’s mass immunization started and Nanaimo residents and other British Columbians 85-plus started getting their shots at a clinic set up at the Beban Park social centre.
Vaccination numbers climbed rapidly, but not quickly enough to slow a resurgence of the virus in early spring. Various additional health and safety measures came and went, as indoor dining was shut down and trips off Island were limited to essential travel only, and case counts dwindled in late spring and early summer.
At the end of the summer, the province announced its B.C. Vaccine Card system, requiring people to show proof of vaccination to dine in at restaurants or attend indoor events.
Eventually, COVID-19’s Delta variant started to break through and case counts spiked again, with Nanaimo re-emerging as a hot spot for the virus in November. Now the Omicron variant is in B.C. and case counts province- and Island-wide are at record levels, and health and safety measures are becoming more restrictive once again, with bars and fitness centres now closed until mid January.
Through it all, the fight against COVID-19 has come with infighting of sorts, as 2021 saw anti-maskers become anti-vaxxers, continue to oppose health and safety measures and be more likely to end up hospitalized with COVID.
In Nanaimo the most notable opposition was concentrated at a rally opposing vaccine passports outside Nanaimo Regional General Hospital in the fall and there was also a disturbance at a north-end retail store.
Mayor Leonard Krog, in his final mayor’s report of 2021, said people are frustrated that they don’t see an end to the pandemic, but he asked people to try to be kind and tolerant.
“This is going to be with us for a while longer and sometimes it’s hard when the reservoir of your patience and humanity is a little dry … but we have to do our best,” he said. “I am confident that all of you will do that over the coming weeks as we work through the next phase of the pandemic and hopefully look forward to potentially a spring or a summer where we’ll all be a lot happier and feel a lot better about everything in our lives.”
City was sweltering hot, soaking wet
Nanaimo was extra dry and extra wet this year, and the consequences were deadly and destructive.
According to the B.C. Coroners Service, 11 Nanaimo residents died due to this summer’s heat dome, a weather event that killed 595 British Columbians from June 18 to Aug. 12.
Environment Canada issued provincial heat warnings in June, July and August, and the agency reported that Nanaimo’s hottest day over the summer was June 28, which reached a high of 40.5 C.
On July 20 Nanaimo set a record for its longest dry spell, going 35 days without rain according to Environment Canada. That beats the former record of 34 straight days with no measurable precipitation set on July 31, 2013.
According to the province the heat dome also aggravated this year’s wildfire season. The B.C. government reported that 1,610 wildfires burned 868,203 hectares from April 1 to Sept. 30. That made 2021 B.C.’s third-worst wildfire season, following 2018 and 2017, when 1,354,284 and 1,216,053 hectares burned, respectively.
In August, 20 properties were put on evacuation alert and one evacuation was ordered due to a 70-hectare wildfire on Mt. Hayes near Ladysmith. The fire prompted the Cowichan Valley Regional District to declare a local state of emergency and flights were cancelled and delayed at Nanaimo Airport.
In November the weather pendulum swung to the other extreme, with Nanaimo experiencing one of its wettest weekends on record.
Environment Canada issued a warning for “copious amounts of rain” on Vancouver Island due to an atmospheric river event and Nanaimo ended up with 47.4 millimetres of precipitation on Nov. 13, breaking a daily record of 32mm set in 1954, and 77.8mm on Nov. 14, breaking a daily record of 67mm in 1983.
The atmospheric river resulted in flooding in Cedar and a sinkhole shut down the Island Highway in Lantzville from Nov. 18 to 19. Weather-related supply issues led the province to implement gas rationing in parts of B.C. including Vancouver Island.
As of press time, the week after Christmas was bringing freezing temperatures below seasonal norms, and snow was continuing to pile up.
Nanaimo showed a willingness to talk truth and reconciliation
More than ever before, the community heard truths and was willing to listen. Conversations about truth and reconciliation became more uncomfortable and more important in 2021 after the remains of 215 children were found buried outside a Kamloops residential school.
The discovery was felt by Indigenous people across Canada, including Nanaimo, where a vigil was organized.
“It’s a very trying time for our people. We all have family members that went through that devastating time in our history,” said Snuneymuxw Chief Mike Wyse at the time. “To have this news come forward … it’s like bringing that sorrow back to life, all those sad memories.”
Canadian flags were lowered to half-staff until the fall and Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians grappled with history and its implications in the present.
The discovery of the unmarked graves in Kamloops led to searches of other residential school sites, including one on Penelakut that some Snuneymuxw children had been forced to attend. Penelakut Tribe confirmed there were more than 160 undocumented graves on the grounds and foreshore of the former Kuper Island Indian Residential School, more than the 121 children previously known to have died there.
About the same time, Snuneymuxw announced it will search the old Nanaimo Indian Hospital grounds near Vancouver Island University.
This year’s Canada Day celebrations were cancelled or muted out of respect and remembrance, replaced locally by Orange Day at the Bay, a festival held on Snaw-Naw-As territory that supported residential school survivors and amplified Indigenous voices.
Then, on Sept. 30, Nanaimo gathered to mark the first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation and see a new welcome pole at Maffeo Sutton Park.
Wyse talked about how those who were forced to attend residential schools were forbidden to speak their language and how they were subjected to other mental, emotional, physical and spiritual abuses. He talked about how patients at Indian hospitals were experimented upon and tortured.
“For generations now, to this day, Snuneymuxw people walk through life carrying these burdens without acknowledgement, and [faced with] denial of these violent experiences of our history,” Wyse said.
The chief asked those in attendance to “truly and meaningfully reflect.”
Election night was drawn-out
The federal election was a national story, but Nanaimo-Ladysmith’s experience was unique to the riding.
The vote count eventually confirmed Lisa Marie Barron of the NDP as the riding’s next MP, unseating Green incumbent Paul Manly, but it took days before the final count was known and Nanaimo-Ladysmith was the very last riding in the country to find out its election results.
Vying for the right to represent Nanaimo-Ladysmith were Barron, Manly, Tamara Kronis of the Conservatives, Michelle Corfield of the Liberals and Stephen Welton of the People’s Party of Canada.
Four days after election night, once mail-in votes were counted, Barron maintained her lead, finishing with 19,286 votes (28.8 per cent), while Kronis received 18,627 votes (27.1 per cent). Manly received 17,640 votes (25.7 per cent).
Speaking to the News Bulletin after results were made known, Barron said she had been “apprehensively excited.”
“I’m feeling beyond excited and thrilled to serve in this position and honoured that this community has put their trust in me,” Barron said. “I’m really looking forward to getting to work and seeing the positive impact of us having an NDP voice in Parliament.”
In analyzing the results, Alex Netherton, a Vancouver Island University political studies professor, told the News Bulletin the NDP had a robust campaign, with leader Jagmeet Singh making stops on Vancouver Island.
“They had probably targeted this riding because Jagmeet was on the Island a whole series of times and so that was huge momentum for the NDP campaign and as we know, on the Green side, unfortunately the party had to air its dirty laundry and dissension before the election and there were leadership issues,” Netherton said.
As a consequence of the federal election, there will be a school trustee byelection Jan. 15 to fill the seat vacated by Barron, who resigned as a trustee after being elected MP.
Five homicide investigations concerning
Five simultaneous active homicide investigations in a single year set a new record for this city in 2021.
The first of the murder investigations announced by Nanaimo RCMP for 2021 followed the suspicious death of Randell Charles Thomas, whose body was found near a wooded trail between Tamara Drive and the Nanaimo Parkway on March 31. Thomas, 58 at the time of his death, had suffered several injuries and emergency crews were unable to resuscitate him.
Homicide investigators put out signs alongside the parkway near where Thomas was found in a bid to draw out witnesses and tips that could move the investigation forward. To date, the case has not been solved.
When a man was shot to death in an SUV in the Wendy’s parking lot in Rock City Plaza on May 20, witnesses said it seemed as if the RCMP were on the scene in seconds.
Police seized a Cadillac Escalade believed to have been associated with the crime and three suspects were arrested, but were later released.
“We believe this event has a nexus to the ongoing gang conflict and violence currently plaguing a number of Lower Mainland communities,” said Nanaimo RCMP acting Insp. Donovan Tait in a press release.
On May 27, RCMP forensic investigators drew attention when they combed an apartment building at the corner of Rosehill Street and Vancouver Avenue and closed Diver Lake Park as part of their investigation into a missing person they said they believed had met with foul play.
The person whose suspected death they were investigating wasn’t revealed, however, until July 10, when RCMP divers searched the waters near Pipers Lagoon and Neck Point parks and Nanaimo RCMP said the searches were related to the case of Sidney Joseph Mantee, 35, who was reported missing in October 2020.
So far, Mantee has not been found.
On June 3, the body of a woman who was reported missing by her family May 27 was discovered in a ravine near the Albert Street and Victoria Crescent intersection in downtown Nanaimo.
The woman’s identity was revealed June 16 following an autopsy that found that Amy Watts, 27 at the time of her death, had met with foul play.
Watts, originally from Prince Edward Island, had worked with the Nanaimo Youth Services Association and Samaritan House women’s shelter. At a vigil held for Watts on June 16, her mother Janice Coady spoke about her daughter.
“Amy led a life of happiness, love and caring and compassion, but she led a life with a fractured mind through her mental health and her diseases that she struggled with,” Coady said. “And then that instrument of addiction jumped in and it tore her to shreds on so many levels. But she fought, because my girl was a fighter, and she was a beautiful soul.”
In spite of an investigation that Const. Gary O’Brien, Nanaimo RCMP spokesman, described as “active and aggressive,” no arrests have been made.
Nanaimo RCMP’s final homicide investigation in 2021 was into the death of Ryan Mosher, 30, who died shortly after moving to Nanaimo from Kelowna. His body was discovered when investigators, acting on information from Kelowna RCMP, checked on a residence in Nanaimo on Aug. 12.
All five homicide investigations are continuing.
Anyone with information about any of the cases is asked to call the Nanaimo RCMP serious crime unit at 250-754-2345.