Society

They Were Loved: Remembering Canadians who died of COVID-19

A cowboy at heart. A devoted caregiver. A grandpa who sent the best gifts. A nurse who chatted up Freddie Mercury. These are some of those we have lost.

A cowboy at heart. A devoted caregiver. A grandpa who sent the best gifts. A nurse who chatted up Freddie Mercury. They are among the first people commemorated in They Were Loved, a partnership with Carleton University’s Future of Journalism Initiative and journalism schools across the country. The project seeks to pay tribute to every Canadian lost to ­COVID-19. Maclean’s will publish a selection of obituaries every month. If you would like your loved one included in this project, please email: theywereloved@macleans.ca

Click/tap on a name to view their tribute:

Jamal Ali, 45, Toronto
Sandra Cairns, 80, Vancouver
Deb Diemer, 57, Calgary
Edward Hrynkiw, 90, Calgary
Mubarak Popat, 77, Toronto
Sharon Roberts, 59, Toronto
Bianca Rossetto, 85, Niagara Falls
Wayne Thunderchild, 61, Everett, Wash.
Maria Tomaszewski, 83, Etobicoke, Ont.
John Tsai, 41, Kitchener, Ont.


Jamal Ali (Courtesy of Mike Ali)

Believed in people

Jamal Ali, 45
Died in Toronto, April 10, 2020

When an injury meant Jamal Ali’s son couldn’t try out for the Scarborough Blues basketball team he had previously played on, Jamal created a new team and—despite working 60-hour weeks at his consulting business—became a coach for the first time. Jamal’s friend Emmanuel Bonney says Jamal was looking for players other coaches hadn’t chosen. “He wanted to develop those kids.”

Jamal had first approached Emmanuel, who worked at the Scarborough Basketball Association, looking for some pointers so he could help his son in the game. At that time, Jamal didn’t know anything about basketball. Emmanuel showed him the ropes and later helped Jamal with team practices. But soon enough, “Coach Ali” found his footing.

“He believed that you could make it,” says Emmanuel. “He believed that we just keep growing.” And he was always willing to help other people. He bought his whole team Air Jordans, and “he would just go and practise [for] endless hours with them,” says his older brother Alauddin. This past February, Jamal and Alauddin were heading to the bank when they encountered a young woman outside in -23° C weather. Jamal spent a few minutes asking if she needed help, and when he came out of the bank he gave her a $20 bill.

Last year, when Alauddin lost his corporate job of 18 years, Jamal encouraged him to take the plunge and be his own boss. “He just told me: you’re going to leave that place and we’re going to make this work,” says Alauddin. “You just got to take a little leap of faith and believe in me because I believe in you.” —Prajakta Dhopade


Sandra Cairns (Courtesy of Anita Coueffin-Cairns)

Exuded 20th-century cool

Sandra Cairns, 80
Died in Vancouver, March 19, 2020

Sandra Cairns, a trained nurse, was pregnant when she and her husband, John, moved to Spain from Boston in 1962. John was a medical student at the time and was studying under a renowned corneal surgeon in Barcelona. Sandra wasn’t about to let a language barrier complicate her son’s entry into the world, so she taught herself Spanish and spoke with the nurses in their mother tongue after going into labour.

Sandra exuded 20th-century cool. Anita Coueffin-Cairns, her daughter-in-law, recalls a story about a trip to London, U.K., where Sandra, then in her 20s, watched her prima-ballerina mother perform. At that show, she struck up a conversation with a charming young man named Freddie Mercury. She once hung out with Greenpeace’s founders and, on a California road trip, witnessed an early Van Halen show just by chance. Sandra worked many years at the East Vancouver police station as a nurse who cared for female inmates and pioneered a needle-exchange program for the Downtown Eastside.

Shortly after her retirement in 1999, a decade after her husband’s death, Sandy and a girlfriend hopped on a flight to Spain, giddy at the prospect of seeing her old haunts. She suffered a stroke en route and never stepped out of the airport in Spain. Her son, Rob, flew overseas to help her return home. Sandra’s health never fully recovered, and in 2015, after she admitted to missing meals and forgetting medication, the family decided to move her out of her West Van home. That fall, she took up residence at the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver. —Nick Taylor-Vaisey


Deb Deimer (Courtesy of Mike Diemer)

Always there for everyone else

Deb Diemer, 57
Died in Calgary, March 30, 2020

Every year on Nov. 12, Deb Diemer and her husband, Mike, brought out something like 50 Rubbermaid containers of Christmas decorations to deck the house. For days ahead of their annual holiday bash, Deb was busy in the kitchen, cooking far too much food; dozens of guests would end up leaving with Tupperwares of leftovers. “You made sure you didn’t eat for a couple of days before you came to my wife’s party,” says Mike.

The social calendar was always full. They’d celebrate “Gotcha Day” every April to commemorate the adoption of their daughter, Helena, in the early aughts. Deb organized dinners where newcomers to Calgary could share traditional dishes and get to know each other. She invited neighbours for a drink on the deck. She drove friends of friends to the airport.

In 1986, the year after Deb and Mike got married, Deb was diagnosed with primary pulmonary hypertension, a rare lung disorder, and given 12 to 18 months to live. She kept beating the odds, but one Christmas party in 2001 felt like a final goodbye. Unable to stand for long, Deb wore a gold pantsuit and kept trying to help in the kitchen. “It didn’t matter what she was going through. She was there for everybody else,” Mike says. “She was there to make sure that you were okay.”

They didn’t know it at the time, but Helena was born that same December. A double lung transplant would save Deb’s life the following January. —Marie-Danielle Smith


Edward Hrynkiw (Courtesy of Bonnie Krall)

Loved watching rodeo

Edward Hrynkiw, 90
Died in Calgary, April 2, 2020

Every July, the Hrynkiw household would fill up with house guests—one year, it would be Edward’s family from Manitoba, and the next, his wife Joyce’s family from Saskatchewan. The Calgary Stampede would be on, and to Edward there was no better time to showcase his city to relatives. He grew up on a farm north of Brandon, Man.—mostly a grain operation—but fell hard for horses once he moved west in the 1950s to work for the Canadian Pacific Railway in Stampede City. He loved watching rodeo, and revelled in his VIP access to the backstage barns, which a cousin who raced chuckwagons had arranged for him. He’d dress his three daughters in matching Stampede hats, shirts and denim every year. He and Joyce enjoyed an annual date night at the fairgrounds, and would bring their girls cotton candy when they came home.

“Still today, I have a closet of cowgirl boots,” says daughter Bonnie Krall, who has lived in Oakville, Ont., since 1997 but brings her family to the Stampede every other year.

Edward missed the last several Stampedes after suffering a stroke eight years ago. But he would still get dressed in cowboy duds, watch rodeo on TV and take in the traditional pancake breakfast at his nursing home in Calgary. Though the stroke slurred Edward’s speech, he could pronounce one word perfectly: Grandstand. He’d smile ear to ear, wishing his family a blast with 17,000 others at the Stampede’s marquee stadium. —Jason Markusoff


Mubarak Popat

His calling was his customers

Mubarak Popat, 77
Died in Toronto, March 21, 2020

If it was quiet at Kohinoor Foods in Toronto’s Little India, Mubarak Popat would initiate long conversations with customers, first asking them where they were from or where they worked, and then casually meandering from there: city life, politics, sports, religion, you name it. If a driver was delivering food to the shop, Mubarak would offer a bottle of water, or, if there was a fresh-baked batch at the counter, a free samosa. Popat worked at Kohinoor for four decades, starting as a young man not long after his family arrived in Canada in 1972 as refugees from Uganda. He and his youngest brother, Azim, took over the store from their brother-in-law in 1990, and Mubarak kept working there three or four days a week even into his late 70s. “He couldn’t stay at home,” Azim says. “He wanted to be with customers, to talk to them.” When he stepped away from the corner store’s counter, he’d deliver groceries to seniors in the Ismaili Muslim community. He was easygoing and affable, and preferred that Azim deal with clients when it came to the awkward business of settling accounts. A favourite Mubarak quip: “I came all the way from Africa to serve you.” He had one daughter, who had aspirations in health care. She became a physician specializing in lung disease and works at the hospital where her dad was admitted when he got sick. —J.M.


Sharon Roberts. (Courtesy of Veronica Neckles)

Gave everyone a nickname

Sharon Roberts, 59
Died in Toronto, May 1, 2020
When Sharon Roberts was a girl, friends would sneak ingredients from their father’s grocery store to her so she could make them her famous milk fudge. Her sister, Veronica Neckles, raves about that milk fudge. And the coconut rolls. And the sweet breads. “I always tell her she’s the only woman I know who does not get excited about bags and shoes and clothes. She would get excited for food and mangoes.”

The two, technically cousins, grew up in Grenada. Sharon’s mother passed away when she was very young, and her aunt, Veronica’s mother, took her in. At their home, there were animals of all kinds to look after—rabbits, goats, chickens, peacocks. Sharon loved them. She mastered the art of collecting eggs. Nobody knows why, but from a young age she would never call anyone by their real name. Nicknames only. Veronica was Eileen. Their other sister was Mam’selle.

After spending time in Trinidad, Sharon moved to Canada in the ’80s. An uncle was living in Toronto. Veronica, who settled in Brooklyn, N.Y., expected her to cook for a living. But Sharon fell in love with caregiving. During regular phone calls with Veronica, she would wax on about her patients, calling each by their nickname. She would also tell Veronica if she saw a particularly nice box of mangoes at No Frills. She often skipped vacations, preferring to work extra hours. When she did travel, she’d land in Grenada or Brooklyn and, before long, busy herself in the kitchen to bake for those she loved. —M.D.S.


Bianca Rossetto (Courtesy of Vivian Davidson)

Her smile invited everyone in

Bianca Rossetto, 85
Died in Niagara Falls, Ont., April 9, 2020

When weather permitted, Bianca Rossetto could often be found sitting on the front porch of her Thorold, Ont., home. She would greet anyone who walked or biked by her house—having lived in the small town since 1958, she was a familiar face to many—before inviting them inside for a meal or a snack. She always had something cooking, says her daughter Vivian Davidson: a pot of pasta or minestrone, meatballs or a salad made of fresh vegetables from her garden.

Bianca left her home in Valdagno, a small town in northern Italy, when she was 24 years old. She’d met Luigi when he was in Italy visiting family and, after a six-week romance (which included a flurry of handwritten letters), she came to Canada to marry him. She never looked back. “It shows you the strength she had,” says Vivian, “even at that young age.”

It didn’t take long for Bianca to feel at home in Thorold, where she befriended others in the town’s Italian community. “My mom had a beautiful smile,” says Vivian. “When she smiled, she invited everybody in.”

Luigi died suddenly in 2004. Bianca found solace in spending time with her three children and six grandchildren. “We’ve always been a close-knit family, but she became the queen of the castle after my dad passed away,” Vivian says. Bianca maintained an active social life after moving to the Lundy Manor Retirement Residence in Niagara Falls, Ont. “Her smile spoke millions of words without anything ever being said,” says Vivian. —Nadine Yousif


Wayne Thunderchild (Courtesy of Raylene Dion)

In constant touch with family

Wayne Thunderchild, 61
Died in Everett, Wash., April 4, 2020

When family would visit Wayne Thunderchild in Everett, Wash., where he lived with his soulmate, Jerrilyn, for 25 years, he’d tell them not to pack too many things. Maybe even bring an empty suitcase or two. Without fail, after touring them around Seattle, Wayne would stuff his family members’ bags with gifts. New clothes for the grandkids. Merchandise from his beloved Seahawks.

That Wayne once met the Hart brothers, practised wrestling at their mansion and etched his name on the driveway, is family folklore. But it was baseball that first stole the sports fan’s heart. A gifted hitter, he went to baseball camp in Humboldt, Sask., as a teenager. His frequent fastball tournaments were a fixture of his daughters’ childhoods. And one of his proudest achievements working in the concrete industry was a job on Safeco Field, now T-Mobile Park—the stadium is a regular stop on his Seattle tour. Wayne also took pains to ensure his descendants reached their athletic potential. His daughter Janine Abraham says he once had a top-of-the-line baseball bat for her eldest son, Dominic, delivered to their front door.

Wayne was in constant touch with family. He would make several calls a day to his 89-year-old mother in the Thunderchild First Nation in Saskatchewan, just to joke around. His grandkids FaceTimed him “whenever they could,” says his daughter Raylene Dion. Janine says when Wayne rang, he’d start calls with, “Hey, it’s your annoying creator.”

In March, Wayne scored an Amazon gift card for participating in a medical study. He planned to use it to buy a Seahawks outfit for his daughter Jocelyn’s three-month-old girl, Harlee. Jerrilyn is making sure that it will soon be delivered to their front door. —M.D.S.


Maria Tomaszewski (Courtesy of Henry Tomaszewski)

Quick to laugh and praise

Maria Tomaszewski, 83
Died in Etobicoke, Ont., April 15, 2020

When the Nazis bombed her village in eastern Poland, Maria Tomaszewski was in no shape to run: recent treatment for tuberculosis had left her in a leg brace. She removed it prematurely to flee with her family, resulting in complications that left her permanently disabled; she walked with a cane most of her life. At 22, she travelled from Poland to Toronto to stay with an uncle and get better medical treatment. There she met Kazimierz, a charming Polish-Canadian tool and die maker who was a decade her senior. They married, settled in Etobicoke, Ont., and raised four sons.

Maria and Kazimierz were fiercely proud of the freedoms and possibilities Canada had given them but also remained tightly bound to their home country. Twice a year, Maria would mail care packages of food and other staples to relatives struggling to survive on communist Poland’s rations, as well as clothes for orphanages. She sponsored two sisters to immigrate to Canada and share in the opportunity her own family enjoyed.

The boys grew up speaking Polish at home, and every Saturday, Maria drove them to Polish folk dance lessons, sewing their traditional costumes. Her perogies and cabbage rolls were the best in any country, says Henry, her youngest son. While she couldn’t chase the boys, Maria was quick to twist their ears if they misbehaved or spoke at church. She was quicker still, Henry recalls, to laugh, to praise and to provide a sturdy shoulder to cry on. —J.M.


John Tsai (Courtesy of Steven Tsai)

An ‘all-in’ uncle

John Tsai, 41
Died in Kitchener, Ont., March 31, 2020

When he was into something, John Tsai was all in. “That’s kind of his personality,” says close friend Alex Takasaki, also known as DJ Flash. Take ’90s hip hop, for example. Johnny, as he was known to friends, would drive all the way to Toronto just to listen to hip hop radio when Waterloo, Ont., his hometown, didn’t have any. His encyclopedic knowledge of music came in handy in his work in Waterloo’s nightlife industry, where he co-owned and managed various establishments and worked at a DJ booking service. His personality was an asset, too. “He could talk to somebody for 10 minutes and make that person feel like he’d known them their entire lives,” says his friend Yasser Pervaiz.

Johnny also went all in with his collection of Lacoste polo shirts; he had stacks of them in every colour you could imagine. Those who knew him say he prized them for their quality and air of professionalism; he would snag a dozen every Black Friday. His Instagram handle was @johnnylacoste.

A browse of his feed reveals another side to Johnny—the adoring uncle. Among the many posts wishing his DJ friends happy birthday are plenty of selfies with his young niece and nephew, each tagged with #prouduncle. Soon after they were born, Johnny’s Black Friday trips began to revolve around gifts he could buy them—including, of course, Lacoste polo shirts. —P.D.


The Giustra Foundation, which supports initiatives that focus on women, children, education, homelessness and refugee settlement in British Columbia and elsewhere in Canada, provided a generous seed donation to this project.