Cracks are showing at the bronze feet of infamous men. Statues dedicated to seafarers and friars, barkeeps and kings, the “founding fathers” of nations and continents — symbols of white supremacy and privilege — are falling.
One still stands in Vancouver. But shouts for the head of “Gassy” Jack Deighton, a colonizer and drinker who married an Indigenous child, are getting louder.
Deighton is coming under increased scrutiny, as well as under buckets of red paint, because he was more than the biography at the base of this statue. Along with the paint defacing, a petition to remove the statue has been signed by thousands.
In roughly 1870, at the age of 39 or 40, Deighton married a child and then had a child with her. His second wife, a 12-year-old Squamish girl named Quahail-ya, lived until she was believed to be 90. Her story has been brought forward since her death in 1948 thanks to the knowledge of women and historians from the Squamish community.
But Deighton remains the namesake for Gastown: a failed miner, respected steamboat captain and backwater pioneer who made the place famous for balancing a board above the muck between two whisky barrels and staking his claim with a supply of cheap booze.
This is a “founding father” of the city. It says so right there at his feet above a cask and the cobblestones of Maple Tree Square.
“They’re anti-reconciliation,” says Carey Newman Hayalthkin'geme, master carver and visual arts professor, of colonial statues.
It’s careless to assume a historic figure has inherent worth because his likeness is enshrined in copper and posed behind endless tourist snapshots.
But we take for granted that “Gassy Jack” embodies Vancouver and its values, says Ginger Gosnell-Myers, the city’s first Indigenous relations manager who was instrumental in council’s move to recognize that it operated on unceded xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish) and səl̓ilw̓ətaʔɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) homelands.
“You go through life assuming the statues in your neighbourhood represent someone of high esteem or of great respect, someone who brought dignity to their work, and then you learn they opened a bar that ended up burning down and married a 12-year-old who ended up running away because of the abuse she was suffering,” says Gosnell-Myers, a member of the Nisga’a and Kwakwak’awakw nations.
“That’s when you start to ask yourself, ‘Who are the people we’re commemorating anyway?’ I don’t think we really ask ourselves that question until we are given information on who they actually were.”
These busts are not mere background. Some are hand-crafted representations of entrenched oppressive and racist systems now being dismantled as part of one of the most powerful anti-racism mobilizations of our lifetime, sparked by the murder of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis.
A prominent statue of the commander of the Confederate States Army, located in Richmond, Virginia, has not only been painted over with political statements and imagery but was also the backdrop for a massive hologram of Floyd as well as Harriet Tubman. In San Francisco and Chicago, monuments to Christopher Columbus, who we know very well didn’t discover this continent, were taken down before they could be dismantled.
“We’ve got these serious problems, so why concentrate on these monuments?” asks Linc Kesler, a University of British Columbia professor who, in 2003, was the inaugural director of the First Nations Studies program.
“It’s important because monuments form the culture and the habits of thought, not only of what history is, but also what current circumstances are. What has value and what does not. What is acknowledged and what is not. All of that is important,” he says.
Kesler’s Indigenous ancestry is Oglala Lakota from the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota. The territory includes Tunkašila Šakpe, or the Six Grandfathers, a spiritually meaningful mountain range in the Black Hills that was blasted apart in the early 20th century to carve out the faces of four U.S. presidents.
If he were in the U.S. today, Kesler says, “I’d be right with them on the Confederate iconography, since those are still very potent symbols that have needed to be removed for some time.” He adds, “In Canada, not surprisingly, there are similar contentions.”
What, if anything, should stand in the place of Jack Deighton? Who, if anyone, should be honoured instead?
The story of Quahail-ya
Quahail-ya wasn’t yet a teenager when she married Deighton. A child from the Squamish Nation who was born in the village of Eslhà7an, according to her death certificate, on land that became the Mission Indian Reserve, she met the older man while caring for her sick aunt, Deighton’s first wife.
The City archives hold two photographs of Quahail-ya, spelled Wha-halia. She was also known by her English name, Madeline Deighton, and as X̱áliya to the Squamish.
Quahail-ya described Deighton as a “nice, good man” during a 1940 interview with Vancouver archivist, Maj. James Matthews. Losing her eyesight and speaking predominantly in language the white man couldn’t understand, Quahail-ya confirmed her and Deighton’s infant son had been buried at Brockton Point. Matthews described her as “worn and faded” but of “undoubted intelligence and character, gracious and kind” and likely “prepossessing,” or attractive, as a younger woman.
In September 1886, 11 years after his death, the Vancouver News wrote a two-part obituary on “Gassy’s extraordinary actions.” The obituary described his ventures in the Cariboo, the loss of his first saloon in New Westminster and his pioneering move to Granville, the townsite on the shores of Burrard Inlet where he smuggled liquor, built a hotel and, according to the series’ author, “never sought for fame, nor had he the least atom of a hero in him.”
In this newspaper eulogy, Deighton’s first wife is not named. Nor is Quahail-ya, though she is roundly slandered and condemned by an anonymous author identified only as “an ancient mariner,” someone who describes Deighton as a drunk, scoundrel and bootlegger inclined to using a shotgun to chase away competition, but then wastes good ink to wonder why the young woman would “leave him about twice a month.”
He could have asked. She was alive and would be for decades.
The author writes that Quahail-ya was “a young native girl bought for a large price” and discredits her as a “doubtful mother,” questioning the lineage of the couple’s son, nicknamed the “earl of Granville” who died young.
Quahail-ya was denied any legal claim to her husband’s property. “There is no monument to Quahail-ya, but her story is important,” Squamish cultural leader, poet and ethnobotanist T'uy't'tanat Cease Wyss told the CBC last year.
In her “Ode to Madeline Deighton,” Wyss writes that Quahail-ya was young, powerful, clear-eyed and self-reliant.
“To know and / Understand / what she did then / It is phenomenal”
In an issue of the Capilano Review dedicated to place and displacement, the poem continues: “She left him / because all the boozing and the / Wild lifestyle of her husband / Which was, by her view / The very element that / would destroy / Her people / And her Culture.”
Wyss declined an interview with The Tyee, saying she’d already spoken at length about the topic in response to the launch of a petition to tear down the statue of Gassy Jack.
But she agrees the statue should come down. “Yes, it should be removed. Yes, it’s offensive,” she told the media in June.
At least 21,000 others feel the same. They’ve signed the petition calling on the mayor of Vancouver to remove the tribute to a man that “never deserved this honour,” recognizing him as a symbol of violence against Indigenous girls and women. They judge him a “pedophile... displayed in the centre of Gastown for fun tourist photo-ops.”
The Squamish Nation acknowledges the conversation about its history and Deighton, who “immigrated to Squamish Nation territory from England.”
Before anyone adds a plaque to the statue of Gassy Jack or puts up a monument to Quahail-ya, there’s a request for protocol.
“The Squamish Nation recommends that the descendants of our ancestors and the Squamish Nation be involved in any decisions about the telling of our people’s history or actions taken in our people’s name,” the nation said in a statement. Representatives respectfully declined to be interviewed.
A Musqueam communications officer also declined comment. “At this time, due to the pandemic and our limited capacity, we are unable to make a statement regarding this or other colonial statues,” wrote Odette Wilson.
The petition against the statue argues that taking down the monument to Gassy Jack isn’t intended to bury the city’s colonial past but to pay homage to a larger timeline, context and narrative — as well as generate a more complete understanding of a man whose choices are no longer commended.
“This is not about erasing history, but about reconciliation,” reads the petition.
Rebuilding our world
Vancouver isn’t doing enough to uphold its own commitments to reconciliation. This criticism comes from members of a group created by the city to ensure progress toward those goals.
The Urban Indigenous Peoples’ Advisory Committee recently issued a call to action and pointed out the ways the city was failing to meet its own goals.
Buoyed by anti-racism movements around the world, the committee is pushing for action on commitments made when Vancouver declared itself a City of Reconciliation in 2014. Those ambitions have stalled, they warned, and the “efforts to foster and deepen relationships through this space have come to a halt.”
“Reconciliation has been dead in the water for a while, actually,” says Leslie Varley, the executive director of the BC Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres.
Calling the pandemic “a perfect storm” that’s sparked reflection and fury over entrenched racism and relentless police brutality, Varley says the global health crisis is forcing people to examine their lives and themselves.
“In the idleness of the lockdown, we all had to spend some time with ourselves and think about, ‘What is the value in my life and my work, and how can I make good contributions to the world?’” she says. “We have a chance to rebuild our world.”
Varley credits the Black Lives Matter movement with inspiring Canadians to examine oppressive, racist systems in this country. “We are trying to ride the coattails and push our agenda.”
Organizing efforts have new momentum, but Varley has had another realization.
“I feel sad, actually. I have to confess I feel very hurt that it took Black Lives Matter for people to open their eyes to the fact Indigenous lives matter, too,” she says, offering the names of Colten Boushie, Brian Sinclair and Chantel Moore as but a few examples of Indigenous people who have died because of racism, whether at the hands of police, violent strangers or indifferent health-care practitioners.
“These are injustices, too, and this is happening in Canada.”
In her five years with the City of Vancouver, urban policy planner Gosnell-Myers, who left her tenure with the city in 2018, saw opportunity for reconciliation in every decision and developed a framework for all city departments to incorporate into projects and plans.
“I spent a lot of time just convincing staff and Vancouverites that Indigenous communities still exist and we’re not all in the Downtown Eastside. There are Indigenous people from all over who chose to make Vancouver their home, like myself,” says Gosnell-Myers, now a fellow at Simon Fraser University’s Morris J. Wosk Centre for Dialogue, where she is focused on urban Indigenous policy and planning as well as decolonization. “Indigenous communities have existed for the most part without government or public support — in fact, mostly government interference.”
She’s adamant statues can come down.
“I don’t believe that we have to live with what we have. If we know better, we can do better. Indigenous people have advocated since the beginning that we’re being written out of history and we’re being discredited and pushed out of cities, and it’s not right. Yes, we’re finally being listened to today. There is a long way to go.”
Varley and the network of Aboriginal friendship centres, as well as other Indigenous leaders and advocates, were instrumental in bringing down a Victoria monument to the architect of Indigenous cultural genocide, a colonial leader who aimed to “remove the Indian from the child” through assimilation and the residential school system. That statue came down in 2018.
“He was notorious,” says Varley of John A. Macdonald, whose likeness stood in the provincial capital for almost 40 years, in part because he had represented the riding as an MP. “He despised Indigenous people, and part of his agenda was basically to have Canadians understand Indigenous people as not fully human by sending them to boarding schools where they could become white — as much as a quote unquote ‘savage’ can be colonized.”
A campaign to remove the statue of Canada’s first prime minister drew opposition, but ultimately Victoria councillors voted to take it down. The policies he shaped more than 150 years ago continue to disrupt and govern Indigenous people in Canada today.
“I am still restricted in my life because of these appalling principles and because of this race-based Indian Act,” says Varley. “John A. Macdonald was known to starve out Indigenous people. What a horrible person. Of course every last statue of him should come down, and his face should come off the bill he’s on.”
Absent but still there
Nothing has gone up in place of the statue that used to stand beside the entrance to Victoria City Hall.
A group called the City Family led the conversation leading to the monument’s removal and brought together hundreds of people before the pandemic to listen to and learn from Indigenous leaders.
City Family, which also runs the Witness Reconciliation Program, counts as members the mayor, city councillors, members of the Esquimalt and Songhees Nation and other citizens, including Kwakwaka'wakw and Coast Salish artist Carey Newman, the Audain professor of contemporary art practice of the Pacific Northwest at the University of Victoria.
Until a decision is made, its presence will be felt.
“When you take something away, it isn’t gone,” says Newman. “It’s still there by its absence until you transform that space, until you associate new memories with it.”
In Bristol, England, a new association was forged at a square where protesters toppled a statue to 17th-century merchant and slave trader Edward Colston, rolling the remains into a river.
All too briefly, the figure of Black Lives Matter activist Jen Reid stood in its place — her likeness taken from the moment she climbed atop the vacant plinth and claimed the space, one fist raised.
Designed by artist Marc Quinn and installed in about 15 minutes with a team of 10 people, A Surge of Power (Jen Reid) came down 48 hours after it was covertly installed.
Newman interprets all colonial statues as nothing more than graphic representations, one-dimensional except for their actual size and shape.
“They are not history. They are an illustration of a version of history,” says Newman, whose powerful and influential work, the Witness Blanket, has been touring the country since 2018 in remembrance of residential school victims and survivors.
“They don’t serve the same kind of purpose as art. For me, art is about expression of ideas about challenging people to think differently, about bringing beauty or commemoration for things that we never want to forget. Those things don’t exist in statues that are really about remembering a particular person for a particular purpose and, very often, a person who was an architect of something that was inherently oppressive,” he says.
While Victoria waits to decide what happens with its monument to “Sir John A.,” as Newman calls the parliamentarian, it remains in storage.
Taking these statues down is one thing. Newman is confident that replacing them can be another. “It’s easy. You take the space and you open it up for artists to submit ideas,” he says, adding the less oversight and committee interference, the better.
What could stand in the place of Canada’s first prime minister is also a question we should ask of the statue of Gassy Jack, as well as the monument to George Vancouver that stands prominently in front of Vancouver’s City Hall.
“There are many ironies in a statue like that,” Kesler, the UBC professor of Indigenous studies, says of the monument to Vancouver with his outstretched arm pointing to the horizon he perpetually claims as his. “It is a very imperialistic representation, to be sure. That would be one I think could use a little interpretive plaque.”
Vancouver arrived from England aboard the HMS Discovery in 1792 and slapped names on everything he found along the Pacific Coast, from Tolowa to Tlingit territories, and bestowed landmarks to his ship’s lieutenants Joseph Baker and Peter Puget, his naval engineer Joseph Whidbey, and friend Harry Burrard. With such gift-giving benevolence, he began a 300-year process of erasing how inhabitants spoke of the land and their place in it.
“Musqueam people and chiefs rode out to meet some of the first white folks who showed up,” says Varley, who lives on Musqueam reserve near the mouth of the Fraser River. “Who were they? Why aren’t they mentioned? We know who was on those ships? What about the people who greeted them?”
The city pays tribute to Christopher Columbus, depicted as a child, with a statue called The Dreamer. Paid for by the citizens of Genoa on behalf of Vancouver’s Italian community, it was installed in memory of a first-generation Italian-Canadian Supreme Court judge and amateur boxer.
The Coast Salish peoples have an “ancient” history, says Gosnell-Myers, but the place names and histories of the land are not widely recognized or spoken today.
“We have an opportunity to take some responsibility for what is commemorated today and what is commemorated in the future. I don’t take it for granted that we have to keep these statues up because I know that, as an Indigenous person, they don’t reflect me and they don’t reflect Indigenous history, so I have no attachment to them,” she says. “I just think it’s so funny that we give credit to these guys for finding a place that had already been occupied. It’s crazy.”
The Musqueam and Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh have names and “beautiful descriptions” for these places already, Varley continues, explaining how markers are drawn from geography, history, culture and myth, built to last in memory and language rather than effigy.
“These aren’t statues to people, because that’s not really our Indigenous way. Where I am from,” she says, “we build totem poles and memorial poles, but they aren’t permanent structures like these statues. They are not meant to last forever and ever.”
Newman, the Audain professor at UVic, led a massive undertaking to carve the Spirit Pole, a 20-foot totem shaped by the hands of 11,599 people as it toured the province ahead of the 2008 Cowichan Indigenous Games.
“A pole is meant to tell the story of its time and is meant to carry that story forward to future generations, but it isn’t up to me or us in this time to tell our future generations what they need to know. They can make that determination,” he says. “It does the work it’s supposed to do in the time that it’s meant to do it, and then clears space for artists and stories of the future. Then totems can go back into the earth.”
It’s not tradition for Coast Salish peoples to raise poles, but the Musqueam welcomed a spectacular and deeply powerful vision on their traditional lands when they formally made space for the Reconciliation Pole, a 55-foot cedar pole that confronts the cultural genocide of residential schools but also looks forward to a shared future.
Haida master carver 7idansuu Jim Hart hammered in more than 68,000 copper nails for each child who never returned home because, as he says in the video below, “No one was talking about the dead children as much as I thought they should be.”
“In spite of this dreadful history, this monumental pole still holds up a vision of racial and political harmony,” says Kevin Ward, a member of the Mikisew Cree First Nation who works at the First Nations House of Learning on UBC’s Point Grey campus.
“Now then, what vision do colonial-era statues espouse? Or for that matter all the names and symbols associated with this time? Clearly, it’s imperial by nature. Consequently, those who’ve been most negatively affected by it, along with supporters of a different vision, are challenging it and rejecting it in various ways, evident by the growing movement to remove some of the more naked symbolic representations of it.”
As one observer, asking for anonymity, said about the statue of George Vancouver: it needs a condom on its extended pointer finger, a symbol of protection for this world and its people as the colonist and others like him inserted themselves unwanted.
Open for interpretation
Paul Wong has a similar point of view on the image of the raping, pillaging imperialist. Colonial statues, he says, “are a throwback to oppression,” made from marble and bronze to enshrine the empire, which is represented across Canada from street names to mountain peaks. When it comes to the statue of Gassy Jack, he says, “I pretend it’s just not there.”
The pioneering mixed-media artist makes site-specific installations and knows the potential canvas of city streets. His latest neon work, Saltwater City — Vancouver 咸水埠温哥华, is named for what Chinatown’s first settlers called the city, along with the Chinese name for the city today, a phonetic transliteration of Vancouver.
The work is an antithesis to the cult-of-personality monoliths that Wong despises.
“I like works that speak about the community,” he says, citing Ken Lum’s Monument to East Vancouver, also neon, as a glowing example. “There we have a very successful, very inspiring work of public art that defined a geographical area and represented the people who lived there.”
Once installed, the pink fluorescent Saltwater City — Vancouver will shine on what was known as Market Alley, hanging at the end of a lane connecting Hastings and Pender streets on a private building that once served as Vancouver’s first city hall. The installation would have been hanging since March if it weren’t for the pandemic.
The City of Vancouver lists 616 examples of public art on its registry. There are fountains, figures, monuments and mosaics, storm cover designs, a poodle and performances that happened in a specific place and time.
If a colonial statue triumphs the state’s actions to displace communities, suppress language and culture, tax people of specific ethnicities and ban others from entering the country, there are other installations that recognize those grave injustices and the losses wrought by such deliberate exclusion and cruelty.
Memorials can hit the mark.
The Komagata Maru memorial is a steel and glass work placed in Coal Harbour, overlooking the harbour where a steamship of the same name was escorted out of Canadian waters in 1914, its nearly 400 predominantly Sikh passengers all but doomed. As British subjects, they should have been allowed on shore to settle and build their lives, but strict immigration laws and racist political sentiment conspired to deny their entry.
An overhead view of the memorial suggests the outline of a ship, its form inviting people to gather within the “waves” of grass that ripple outside a prow of metal framework. A few years after its installation in 2012, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau formally apologized on behalf of a previous government. “We cannot change the past, but we can demonstrate Canada has changed,” he said.
The memorial was received with praise, earned design awards and created national awareness for the travesty it commemorated.
Elsewhere in downtown Vancouver, plans for a memorial recognizing violence against women ignited a heated national debate, with fierce criticism and opposition coming from communities the artwork aspired to embrace.
After the better part of a decade, Beth Alber’s Marker of Change was installed at Thornton Park, each one of its 14 benches designed to evoke a woman’s coffin and placed in a circle, considered a ceremonial and non-hierarchical shape, their pink granite a material the murdered students from Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique would have used had they graduated to become engineers.
UBC geographer Adrienne Burke documents the commitment to and controversy over building this monument along with two others dedicated to women in the Downtown Eastside, the Crab Park boulder and Standing with Courage, Strength and Pride.
The community supported all three monuments, Burke wrote in 2010, but to varying degrees. But she marvels over the fact they were all installed within a span of months, all within walking distance. “People who were among the least likely to be able to set the terms of a social encounter had nevertheless attempted, and succeeded (on three separate instances), in one of the most difficult acts of cultural marking — to install, with permanence and in full view, a monument that acknowledged disturbing social facts.”
Memorials come down, too. They can be replaced.
Last summer, the City of New Westminster dismantled a tribute to B.C.'s first chief justice, known post-humously as the hanging judge, for sentencing six Tsilhqot'in chiefs to death. The province has since exonerated those Indigenous leaders of their alleged crimes, committed defending their land during the Chilcotin War of 1864. City councillors voted to take down that statue of Matthew Begbie.
In 2010, the City of Vancouver announced it would dismantle the monument to Terry Fox that stood before BC Place at the foot of Robson Street. Derided for its pink stucco and Beaux-Arts evocation of the 1980s, the arch was conceived as a triumph to a conquering hero.
But it was widely hated, considered ugly, and not only misunderstood but also unable to inspire the same feeling most Canadians had for the marathon runner himself.
The replacement, designed by Douglas Coupland and installed in 2011, pulls at the heart and tricks the eye — its four sleek statues increasing in size, perhaps suggesting Fox’s perpetual and hopeful westward advance towards an ocean he never reached in life.
Memorials get taken down. And they get moved, sometimes before they’re ever built.
Ten years after Marker of Change was installed in Thornton Park, a second memorial was slated for the same green space. But the park board decided a celebratory monument to Irish Canadians “would conflict with the more sombre, reflective intent,” of the original memorial.
And, still other memorials are on hold in Vancouver.
“The city ended up putting a moratorium on commemorations because there were so many communities that wanted one. The city was inundated with requests,” said Gosnell-Myers, who said this happened as Vancouver sought to establish itself as a city of reconciliation. Meanwhile, it was apparent to her the city lacked Indigenous visibility and iconography.
“If we were going to be proactive and thoughtful about commemorations, we should be thinking about how Indigenous people and history is commemorated first before we allow everyone to fill up the main plazas and public parks with their stories and their heroes,” she said. “Not to say they are not important stories to tell, it’s just that if everyone ended up getting a statue or memorial, there would be one on every corner.”
At the corner of Water and Carroll streets, the statue of Gassy Jack Deighton remains at the centre of this debate in Vancouver. Tips have reached newsrooms that protesters intend to knock it from its footing. So far that hasn't happened, and the city has not announced its plans to formally discuss its status but has reached out to matriarchs and First Nations leaders and had previously launched a multi-year planning process to reshape the “city we need post-pandemic” on “these traditional unceded lands we call home.”
Gosnell-Myers has a clear idea of what could be built, either nearby or in its place.
“I still strongly believe that a commemoration for the Squamish people’s role in saving hundreds of Vancouverites during the Great Fire needs to be discussed and needs to be properly commemorated,” she said about the inferno that destroyed Vancouver in 1886, taking Gassy Jack’s Deighton Hotel along with an estimated 1,000 other buildings in the newly incorporated city.
Vancouver formally thanked the Squamish people for their heroic efforts to rescue anyone who’d fled the flames by escaping to the harbour.
“Despite being forcibly removed from their homelands and crowded onto a small reserve across the Burrard Inlet in Ustlawn, families — at their own peril — chose to bring their own canoes and boats across the inlet to rescue Vancouverites. They subsequently offered food and shelter until Vancouver was rebuilt,” states the 2017 motion from then-city councillor Andrea Reimer who also wanted to see the history appropriately acknowledged in the city’s archives.
“The life-sustaining role these First Nations families played was not acknowledged at the time, nor is it well-referenced in historical accounts of the Great Fire of 1886.”
Few media accounts of the fire — which killed an unknown number of people, though some estimates put the deaths at 25 — include any reference to the presence of Squamish people, nor their decisive courage, goodwill and generosity.
“The things that are prioritized are the things that support white, Eurocentric narratives of heroics and accomplishment,” said Gosnell-Myers, pointing out the fate of Hogan’s Alley, a Black neighbourhood that was razed in the 1970s, its residents left to scatter as an ambitious highway project nearly erased their existence from Vancouver’s history.
“Development is still rapidly taking place, and we need to ensure that all of these communities and their stories are told and reflected so that we’re not just a generic, culturally neutral city, which is boring and robs of us who we truly are.”
Many Vancouverites uphold the accomplishments of Gassy Jack Deighton as a valid representation of the city’s rough-hewn spirit, carving out an existence through entrepreneurialism, exploitation and sheer guts to gain a foothold for the empire and claim a distant shore, one it wouldn’t share with the people who had made it home for generations.
He is a fact of Vancouver history. But his story can’t be the only one we tell about our city.
Read more: Indigenous, Rights + Justice, Municipal Politics
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