Mary Ann Garlow is being remembered as the “house mom” of the now-closed Balmoral Hotel who looked out for other Downtown Eastside residents and was devoted to caring for her son.
“She was a daughter, a sister and a life-giver,” her niece, Misty Fredericks, told The Tyee days after Garlow’s body was found in the ruins of the Winters Hotel.
“I’m finding out that she was very soft spoken and quiet and gentle, but she had a good sense of humour. She was a homebody, but always very helpful. And my family wanted to say that she was a dedicated mother and caregiver.”
Because of the family-destroying effects of residential school and the '60s Scoop, Fredericks had never met Garlow and was reunited with many of her aunts, uncles and cousins later in life. She’s acting as the family’s spokesperson and is in touch with other family members who did know Garlow.
Garlow was living at the Winters, a single-room occupancy hotel in Gastown, when it was gutted by fire on April 11.
While it was initially reported that all residents had been accounted for, that was not the case. Garlow’s body was found in the ruins of the building as it was being demolished, 11 days after the fire, a fact that has left Fredericks and her family shaken and looking for answers.
A second body, which has yet to be identified, was also discovered on April 22. The coroner is still investigating the cause of death for both victims. The building could not be searched by firefighters after the blaze because it was too unstable.
Garlow had lived at the Winters, a historic 1907 building that included 79 rooms on the second and third storeys, for around five years. She had moved there after she and all her neighbours had to leave the Balmoral Hotel when the city declared the building unsafe in June 2017.
The Balmoral, at Hastings and Main, was known as one of the most badly neglected SRO hotels in Vancouver. Shortly before it was closed, the city barred residents from entering some of the bathrooms because of fears that a full bathtub could fall through the rotten floors.
But to Garlow, the Balmoral was home. The day the city announced it was ordering the Balmoral to close, Garlow told Metro News that she had lived in the building for 40 years, and had worked there as a cleaner for most of that time.
Wendy Pedersen, a community organizer who advocated for tenants of the Balmoral, said she remembers that Garlow was very unhappy to leave the SRO, and “missed her view of the mountains there.”
“She was like a house mom to many,” Pedersen said.
Garlow lived there with her son, John, who needed extra care throughout his life. John also moved with Garlow to the Winters, and Fredericks said her cousin had to jump out of the window to escape the fast-moving fire, which quickly engulfed the building in flames and smoke. He’s still in hospital because he has broken bones and needs reconstructive surgery on his feet.
Garlow was from the Oneida Nation and the Six Nations of the Grand River in Ontario. When she was a child, Garlow and five of her siblings were sent to the Mohawk Institute, an Indian residential school. For generations, the colonial institutions separated Indigenous children from their parents and culture for 10 months of the year, provided little education and left students with deep emotional scars from the abuse many endured at the facilities.
The buildings were also poorly maintained and often had faulty fire escapes — meaning that for most of her life, because of poverty and racism, Garlow lived in buildings that were at high risk of fire.
Fredericks says she has never asked any of her uncles and aunts what happened to them at residential school, but she knows it was painful and traumatic.
After Garlow left residential school, she went to B.C. and ended up in the Downtown Eastside in her early 20s. The neighbourhood struggles with poverty and substance use, but many Indigenous people from across Canada have also found community and belonging there. Garlow would live in the Downtown Eastside for the rest of her life.
Fredericks says it’s especially sad for her to think of the way her aunt’s life ended after everything else she had struggled with over the decades.
Fredericks said she and her family have questions about three aspects of the fire and its aftermath: why Garlow wasn’t noticed as missing sooner; why the sprinkler system and alarm were not working at the time of the fire; and the details of how the special fire watch was being conducted while the sprinklers weren’t working.
The Winters Hotel was privately owned by Peter Plett and operated by a supportive housing provider, Atira Property Management Inc., with operations funding from BC Housing.
The day after the fire, a BC Housing executive told reporters that all 71 residents had been accounted for. The same day, it was also reported that all but one person had been accounted for, but that person was believed to be staying with friends or family.
According to CTV News, APMI CEO Janice Abbott said in the days after the fire Garlow was reported missing, then mistakenly accounted for by a provincial welfare employee, then reported missing again.
On the day of the fire, Const. Tania Visintin said Garlow was on a list of people who were unaccounted for. Later that day, “VPD Missing Persons Unit was advised by Atira/BC Housing that all persons had been accounted for," Visintin said.
CTV News reported that on April 15, a housing co-ordinator for the Winters Hotel told police Garlow still had not been seen at either of the temporary shelters that had been set up for residents. That was contradicted by information from a provincial welfare employee, who told police that Garlow had been accounted for and moved to a temporary shelter.
On April 19, the housing co-ordinator again told the VPD that Garlow had still not been found, and a missing persons file was reopened.
“VPD reopened the investigation and obtained information to suggest Mary was possibly still inside the hotel,” Sgt. Steve Addison told The Tyee. “We passed that information on to fire department investigators, as the building demolition was set to begin.”
Fredericks said she found the information confusing.
“How can they say the ministry's word that she was in a shelter was good (enough) to stop the missing persons report?” she asked, adding she’d like to see a “paper trail” from the Ministry of Social Development and Poverty Reduction, Atira Property Management, BC Housing and the Vancouver Police Department.
Addison said that because thousands of people are reported missing every year, police can’t verify every report someone has been found. The Missing Persons Act has designated certain people — such as counsellors, doctors, family members and welfare workers — as “approved verifiers” who can report to police that a missing person has been found.
BC Housing says it is now looking into how residents were inaccurately accounted for during the building evacuation and if any policies or procedures need to change.
When it comes to the sprinklers and fire alarm, Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services says the sprinkler had been activated by a previous fire on April 8, and had to be reset by a technician.
In the meantime, the fire department had ordered regular patrols, called a fire watch, to be done in the building. According to a preliminary investigation, the fire department says the fire was accidentally started by an unattended candle. It was spotted by an APMI staffer doing a fire watch.
Matthew Trudeau, a public information officer with Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services, told The Tyee that the fire department still does not know why the building alarm did not go off during the fire. Trudeau said the fire code does not state how soon a sprinkler system must be back online, but sometimes it can take several days, especially over a weekend.
Fredericks questioned why there was a delay, since it’s well known that SROs are more prone to fires, with the fire department responding to 312 fires in the buildings last year.
“It should have been bumped to the top of the list,” Fredericks said.
Fredericks is now organizing a memorial gathering outside the Winters Hotel to honour and remember her aunt.
“We are a spiritual people — to just sing and pray and drum and make offerings to help her toward her journey to the spirit world,” Fredericks said.
“And to tell her we love her and we know she was there and that’s she’s found — so it’s OK to go now, Mary Ann, we got you, we’re going to figure this out.”