In September I took on a photo assignment for The Tyee called The Big Smoke, documenting Vancouver shrouded with haze from the wildfires burning all around as the climate crisis mounts.
For the past several days I’ve revisited the theme. Call it the Big Sweat, as record high temperatures trapped the area under a sweltering “heat dome.”
Some media are treating this as a surprise guest but we shouldn’t have been taken off guard by its rude arrival. For 30 years climate scientists have accurately foretold of the dramatic weather that we are now experiencing in all four seasons.
Most of us have no right to say that we are “suffering” in the heat. Yeah, it’s hot, sticky and uncomfortable but let’s not confuse suffering with inconvenience.
As I set forth with my bottle of water and cameras, I met stoic, even cheerful people getting on with their jobs no matter what. And discovered there are people in our communities experiencing the heat in conditions that most of us would not imagine exist in Vancouver. I found some celebratory joy, too. Here are some of the people I encountered.
Janette’s job as a flagger meant working outside at the corner of Ash and 10th in Vancouver as Monday’s thermometer scraped 40 C. “I’ve noticed when it’s really hot, people don’t have the patience. You have traffic and cyclists and pedestrians. You have the whole group. You have to be professional but you also have to be a little stern. We are not allowed to be aggressive in this industry. We try to take regular breaks.
“I have a bit of a medical breathing problem,” she shared with me. “It’s like asthma. The heat, it’s a bit too much sometimes.”
Many businesses closed for the heat wave but for a lot of workers the job’s daily duties still needed doing — without air conditioning.
Like the delivery truck driver making the rounds downtown. Or health workers conducting a pop-up COVID-19 vaccine clinic in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Ruthy is originally from Bolivia, and has owned the San Juan food truck for 10 years, parked near English Bay on the hottest June day there maybe ever.
“Sales are up during the heat — especially the drinks — but not the food. That will come later tonight when it cools down. Nobody wants to eat when it’s hot, but later they will. In the meantime, we are selling a lot of drinks.”
And who cares about heat when you consider that the truck and her livelihood were closed down during the pandemic. Ruthy’s advice in hard weather: Keep smiling.
These Japanese tourists spoke no English but pantomimed that it’s very hot. Too hot. The kids at Edmonds Park in Burnaby didn’t need words either. In 38 C on Saturday, they said it all with their joyful dances through the spray.
Shaina Clark works at Mushroom Cuts, an alternative medicine dispensary and barber shop on Davie Street, near English Bay. “People are coming in with their pandemic hair looking for a cut ‘cause it’s so hot out,” she said.
But her business offers more.
“So many people are going to the beach right now, they stop here to grab mushrooms to enjoy there,” she said. “And with the hot weather the mushroom kombucha is going to be popular.” Her advice: drink water, gallons of it.
I caught up with Peter Julian, the New Democrat MP for Burnaby-New Westminster as he was distributing water to people on the streets of New West.
“The heat wave shows who holds a certain kind of passport,” he told me.
“Wealthy people, folks who have air conditioning, are able to get through this heat wave with no difficulties at all. People who are on the street are extraordinarily vulnerable. That tears open this profound chasm that exists with the growth of inequality and climate change. The extreme heat waves, the torrential flooding, the ice storms; all of these have a disproportionate impact on the poorest and the least privileged among us.
“And yet,” he added, “the federal government is looking to build a massive pipeline that will blow up any chance of hitting any climate targets.”
A special passport for heat waves? I’m going to assume this driver of a classic Jaguar rolling down Georgia Street is among those holding one.
I was drenched in perspiration as I approached garbage collectors Rasham Aujla and, at right, Omar Adamu, who looked fresh as they told me they were surviving just fine on Friday as the scorcher took hold.
“The heat hasn’t bothered me at all,” said Omar. “We are working in an air conditioned truck, so it’s not bad! And we are collecting cardboard, not garbage, so it’s not at all smelly in the heat.”
Shayne lives in a Downtown Eastside single-room occupancy hotel. “The hardest thing is the fact that I can’t drink the water in the building. You get giardia if you do. I can’t brush my teeth. I have to buy bottled water. It’s expensive and a pain in the ass. I am having three or four showers a day.”
“I just got this fan about 15 minutes ago,” Shayne continued. “Before that, it was so bad that by the time I got dressed I was soaking wet. I have lived here too long. Seven months of hell. I have lived in SROs since I left home at 14. And I am done. Just walking into the hallways is treacherous. The staff can’t risk their lives for what they are getting paid by the hour.”
“You gotta stay in the shade.” Terry was inhabiting a sweltering Oppenheimer Park — with gratitude. The rare reprieve of grass near the Downtown Eastside had just opened after being shut to the public for a year.
“I live in the building over there. I am so glad that they opened up the park again.”
Nikki used to live in the Oppenheimer Park tent city before it was cleared and the park was closed in May 2020. Now she lives in a Downtown Eastside SRO room that gets suffocatingly hot. But she is afraid to leave her door open at night to get some air moving.
“I go to sleep. I plug my phone in and my vape and when I get up it's not there. I can even be in here and go to the bathroom and if I leave the door open someone takes my vape. But I just can’t keep my doors closed with the heat.”
Gary Buntain told me being a lifeguard at Vancouver’s English Bay involves a fair amount of customer relations, particularly when searing heat meets polluted water. “I have 300 conversations a day about swimming and the high coliform counts right now.” I motioned to the water and lots of people splashing around. “It’s like talking to kindergarten kids eight hours a day,” he said with a smile.
On days like this he’s supposed to get out of the sun every other hour, “but it doesn’t always work out that way.” This is Gary’s 26th season as a lifeguard and “most days, it’s a fantastic job, way better than a nine to five.”
He points behind us, at Pacific Avenue. “It’s buildings and traffic over there, but once you put your feet in the water here, it’s another world, an escape from the city. It’s a holiday.” His expert hot weather advice: You need more than just water and shade. You need electrolytes too.
Saheed Adeleke was just taking it all in as he sat on a bench along English Bay not far from the lifeguard. He is from Calgary visiting with his family who were swimming. “It hot, but we get this same weather in Calgary a few times a year. Hot and dry.” He’s a civil engineer from Nigeria and went to university in England. “I would really like to move here.”
As I wandered down Davie Street, Paul shared with me this advice for hot times: “Make out in a fridge. Have sex in a cooler. Get laid. Stay in the shade.”
I ran into Vinny on a Burnaby basketball court on Saturday. He had it increasingly to himself as the temperature rose, but as far as he was concerned it was not too hot to play.
“I got a hat on. Got my kids. That’s all I need.”
If you live on the street, a pair of found umbrellas may be all you have to protect yourself from the intense rays.
By comparison, Stephanie Kipp, just above, considers themself fortunate. “I live in an old wooden building from 1907, so I can open all the windows and doors to keep cool,” they told me.
“This is the beginning of weather that is going to be extremely dangerous. A taste of what is to come. This is Arizona or northern Mexico weather. It has no business being here. We are going to have hundreds of forest fires and we are going to have lots of climate change immigration: so much sooner than we would have thought.”
Stephanie asked me to guess their age: I guessed lower 50s but the right answer is lower 70s. Oh, and they let me know they are an avid reader of The Tyee. With some advice for the heat: “I sleep starkers.”
At a Burnaby park I happened upon a big boisterous gathering and introduced myself. I learned this was a party for the smallest in the group, Sabrina. “It’s her second birthday and we missed it last year," her mother told me, “We are a big family. Can we offer you a drink?”
Robert, closest to the camera, and a friend, were hanging out beneath an overpass near a shopping mall in New Westminster. “It’s pretty cool here,” Robert said of place. “This is my living room, and back there, behind the fence, is the bedroom. I just grabbed this table from a bin a couple days ago. Down by the beach, by the tracks, I know a secret spot.”
By now everyone has a secret spot of their own. The place where we’ve found refuge during the Big Sweat. Mark it well. This won’t be the last.