[Editor’s note: These photos and interviews were gathered by photojournalist Maggie MacPherson on Dec. 31, 2020.]
It’s over. Done. Gone. But 2020 deserves respect if only because it will go down in history for how the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world. To mark the last day of 2020, I spent time with a dozen people in British Columbia’s Lower Mainland who were kind enough to share with me the challenges they’ve faced and their thoughts on what lies ahead.
Inside the homeless camp at Strathcona Park, resident Kirs Fuhrmann begins her day by boiling water to make oatmeal for other residents and cleaning up garbage around her tent.
Fuhrmann says being homeless takes constant work. The wet and windy winter weather destroys tents and floods the belongings inside. As residents scramble to find new solutions, items are often abandoned throughout the park.
In 2020, Furhmann says she lost her work placement due to COVID-19 restrictions and was kicked out of her housing because of a destructive house guest.
In May, Fuhrmann moved herself and her three dogs into a homeless camp next to Crab Park. About a month later, police enforced an injunction which resulted in a move to the current homeless camp in Strathcona Park.
Fuhrmann’s hope for 2021 is for her and her dogs to receive housing soon.
Further east in the Hastings-Sunrise neighbourhood of Vancouver, Chris Won comes home from a walk with two-year-old son Ronin. His partner Marie Hui greets him with their baby daughter Rogue.
Hui says having young children during the pandemic has been challenging, as opportunities to socialize have been very limited for children as well as for parents.
Before the pandemic, Hui would work most New Year’s Eves, serenading a crowd with her soulful voice. Hui says that the public health orders put in place in March to slow the transmission of the virus essentially halted the entire music industry.
Although she’s enjoyed the extra time spent with her family, Hui says, “I’m pretty much unemployed due to COVID-19, which is really sad for me.”
Won says, “The things that have affected us this year aren’t going away because the date has changed.” But he believes we can choose to start fresh any day we want to.
At Vancouver General Hospital, registered nurse Jessica Donald drinks a coffee while on her lunch break.
Donald works in the emergency room and the intensive care unit dedicated to treating COVID-19 patients.
Donald says it’s been a difficult year filled with a lot of learning and a lot of grieving.
A quote by American author Glennon Doyle has resonated with her since the pandemic began: “We can do hard things.”
She says the hardest thing she had to do in 2020 was to acknowledge the fragility of mental health, “and the very fine line between being okay and trying to pour from an empty cup.”
Donald doesn’t believe anything will change overnight. But it is an opportunity to look forward to better things, such as the recently approved vaccines.
For 10 years before COVID-19, Herb Varley has organized housing and poverty advocacy events in the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood.
At the beginning of 2020, Varley helped organize rail and traffic blockades held in solidarity with a blockade of the Coastal GasLink pipeline in northern B.C. by members of the Wet’suwet’en Nation.
He says he had never seen the kind of energy that those events were able to attract.
Similar actions were held across Canada and in other countries like Germany and Australia.
“And then COVID happened and the energy dissipated. And now we’re just in a holding pattern.”
Varley sees a direct correlation between the situation in the Downtown Eastside and the one in the Wet’suwet’en territory.
“The connecting factors are the structures of capitalism and colonialism. It's capitalism and colonialism that are trying to force that pipeline through Wet’suwet’en [territory]. It’s capitalism and colonialism that are forcing gentrification down here [in the DTES],” explains Varley.
Varley says that colonization is not an event that happened over 150 years ago. It continues to happen every day. “It's a process, not an event.”
This time next year, Varley hopes to see people breaking through the limitations set by that process.
In North Vancouver, Aurora Watson visits Candis and Glen Davies through the glass of her window.
Watson is 102 years old and lives in a room on the ground floor of Capilano Long Term Care.
Davies says she is amazed that her mother was born in the year of the previous pandemic and is now surviving the current one.
“Quite frankly, we didn’t think she would.”
Davies says it makes her cry to think of how hard 2020 has been for her mother and for the staff at the care home who have dealt with outbreaks and deaths from COVID-19.
Davies says that her mother can’t really grasp what the pandemic is, but the lack of physical touch has been very difficult for her.
When asked what the new year means to her, Aurora gestures through the glass toward her family and says, “I want them to be near me.”
Watson received her first dose of the Pfizer vaccine on Christmas Eve.
In East Vancouver, master barber B Kenyan cuts the hair of long-time client Cole Wood. Kenyan opened Ice Kol Kuts Barber Shop on Commercial Drive 10 years ago.
In keeping with the March 2020 public health order implemented to slow the spread of coronavirus, Kenyan temporarily closed his business for several months last year. Only businesses deemed “essential” were able to continue to operate during that time.
Kenyan says that being designated non-essential really hurt him. He also doesn’t believe that it’s true.
He says that his work is important to the people of the community that has built up around his shop. Kenyan explains that being a barber is much more than cutting hair. It involves having deep and meaningful conversations with people.
As Kenyan finishes Wood’s cut, the two exchange a few words and Wood’s eyes well with tears. Wood explains that he lost his mother on Christmas Eve.
Kenyan says that according to the Ethiopian calendar, the new year is 2013 and it started in September. Regardless, he says that you can choose to treat every new day as the start of a new year if you want to.
In Surrey, Glenda Watson Hyatt and her husband Darrell Hyatt are online, hosting a cocktail party with friends over Zoom.
Watson Hyatt is an author and motivational speaker living with cerebral palsy. She says she hasn’t fully processed the enormity of 2020.
“So many huge events happened — Australian wildfires, Iran shooting down a passenger jet, railway blockades, George Floyd, the protests, rallies and riots, the U.S. elections. All amidst a global pandemic.”
Watson Hyatt says that she’ll also remember the creativity that people released after suddenly having free, unplanned time on their hands. “Witnessing that is what kept me going.”
Watson Hyatt hopes that the positive shifts we have seen in our society through this challenging year continue to move forward in 2021.
At Number 1 Firehall in Vancouver’s Strathcona neighbourhood, firefighter Kyle McCreath jumps up from his dinner upon hearing a set of tones that indicate the crew is being dispatched to an emergency.
McCreath started his shift at 8 a.m. and will finish it at 8 a.m. on January 1. Firefighters started working rotating 24-hour shifts in April in order to limit potential cross-contamination and exposure between firefighters on different shifts.
McCreath says that this year his job has been noticeably more stressful than previous years due to COVID-19 and the fentanyl crisis. The other few firefighters near him nod in agreement.
New Year’s Eve is typically a very busy night for firefighters but McCreath says that this one is unpredictable because of the one-day public health order announced on Dec. 30 which requires restaurants and bars to stop serving alcohol at 8:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve.
Although he expresses pride and joy in his work, McCreath also admits that his biggest struggle this year was staying positive.
“Sometimes on this job I’m not known for my positivity,” he says. “However, if you’re not staying positive during 2020 then 2021 isn’t going to be any better. You know, we gotta keep going and keep pushing through this.”
In Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, members of the Overdose Prevention Society have just finished moving from their original location into a new space nearby.
Sarah Blyth, executive director of OPS, says that the old space is being converted into social housing.
Since opening on Hastings Street as the first OPS in Vancouver in 2016, the organization has been responsible for saving over 2,000 lives.
Even so, Blyth says that losing people was the biggest challenge of 2020. Among those who died were two staff members, her father and her dog.
This year Blyth learned that things can get worse even when you think there’s no way that they possibly could.
She remembers a point in September when smoke from wildfires from the U.S. filled the air while she battled to keep herself and others safe from COVID-19. At the same time the B.C. coroner’s report revealed that over 1,000 people had died from illicit drug overdoses so far in 2020. Hundreds more would be added to the grim total before the year was out.
“It's too much to even take on for a person. To really do anything about it. It's a hopeless situation in a lot of ways,” says Blyth.
Despite the devastating year, Blyth plans to continue her work in overdose prevention, supporting decriminalization of drugs so that users can have access to a safe supply.
“Sometimes you just gotta get up, slap some water on your face and move forward. And do the best you can every day.”
Outside the Vancouver Art Gallery in the heart of downtown Vancouver, dozens of people have gathered at an anti-mask rally and dance party held by the organization Hugs Over Masks.
Three large tents have been erected to protect the crowd from the rain while music plays over loudspeakers on the gallery steps.
Vladislav Sovolav, founder of Hugs Over Masks, says the organization provides an alternative perspective to what the mainstream media and government are presenting about the pandemic.
Sovolav’s views run directly counter to advice by provincial and federal health authorities, who cite research showing wearing masks and limiting sizes of gatherings in social and commercial settings reduces the spread of COVID-19 and lowers deaths.
“We give you all the facts that you don’t see online because they are censored or erased immediately,” says Sovolav.
Sovolav’s mission for 2021 is to create a small business network that provides resources to empower participants to stay open during the remainder of the pandemic.
In Vancouver’s Kitsilano neighbourhood, Neil Shibata and friend Mackenzie Dickson celebrate New Year’s Eve by hitting a piñata and playing dance games in Shibata’s family living room.
Shibata is a 20-year-old social media content creator with two million TikTok followers, one of the biggest influencers in Canada.
At the beginning of the pandemic, Shibata says he was able to use the extra time to be imaginative with his videos, but as weeks and months passed that started to become more difficult.
“2020 was the hardest year to keep motivated,” says Shibata, “my brain was constantly fighting to be creative.”
He says that he learned that his creative abilities are directly connected to his happiness and state of well-being. And they have a limit.
Shibata hopes the pandemic ends in 2021 so he can be in a better state of mind and travel again.
In Vancouver’s Davie Village, Kendall Gender is in the hallway of her apartment performing a drag number to the 2020 hit song “W.A.P.” Gender’s partner Patch Donaghy holds up a laptop so the New Year’s Eve party audience of about 300 can see the show online.
Gender says that it was touching to see many familiar faces in the audience while hosting the Zoom party.
She has received a lot of positive feedback this year for a calendar featuring her dressed as famous Black artists in recreations of 12 different album covers.
“I felt that it was a way that I could continue to use my voice to express myself and create art that would make Black artistry very visible,” says Gender. Partial proceeds from the calendar sales go to Black Lives Matter Canada.
“We need this [civil rights] movement to not stop. We need this to not go away because it's a life-long lesson and it's also a life-long problem,” she says.
What does Kendall Gender wish for 2021? She says it’s important for people to keep having the conversations started by the difficult events of 2020, and to keep the momentum for positive change going into the new year.
“If we can get through this year, we can probably get through anything,” says Gender.
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