Society

Terry Fox's marathon of grace

Jann Arden reflects on the awe Terry Fox continues to inspire in Canadians, 40 years after his epic cross-country feat that saw him run a marathon-length distance every single day

It’s funny to me—well, maybe not funny, but curious perhaps—how often I think about Terry Fox. Every single time I drive across the country in a tour bus and happen upon Thunder Bay, Ont., Terry comes blazing into my mind with a huge smile on his face. I think about how long we’ve been driving and driving and driving; how big our country is, how vast and open and how far it is between gigs, between cities—and then it occurs to me that Terry Fox ran here from Newfoundland. I will never not be in awe of that.

We’ve stopped at his Thunder Bay monument many times. The beautiful statue showing his young face pointed upwards into the sun, into the future. The band and crew climb out of the buses to stretch their legs and shake off the hours, to grab some fresh air, but mostly to stand and look at Terry and marvel at what he did. Everybody has a story of where they were in 1980 when he started to run. The excitement that started to gather around him almost immediately was palpable—the media didn’t take long to document his every move—and kids ran along beside him as he jogged into every small town that was in his path. It was like nothing we had ever seen before in our lives, because it was something that we’d never seen before in our lives.

His humility was so distinct. The way he spoke, the way he moved through his days with such a mindful dedication to his cause—which became our collective cause to eradicate cancer—touched the most hardened hearts.

He united the country in a way that we hadn’t ever experienced and haven’t experienced since, in my humble opinion.

None of us can get our heads around it—even all these years later, his Marathon of Hope seems as heroic and as remarkable and as unbelievable as ever. He ran an average of 26 miles a day. Any seasoned athlete can tell you that this is unreasonable and unthinkable, and yet Terry made it seem like it was the most normal undertaking in the world. It wasn’t, and we all know that. We all shake our heads in heartfelt disbelief because he made us feel so alive and so grateful to call him ours.

Terry Fox was ours and we claimed him from coast to coast to coast and we have never been prouder. I cried for a week after he died. I felt like I knew him, like we went to school together and drank beer down at the river and rode bikes around the block and swam at the local pool until we could hardly keep our eyes open.

Terry let us all feel like he belonged to us. Unselfish.

Transparent. Altruistic.

I am so grateful that I was alive to serve witness to this young man’s life.

***

Jann Arden is an award-winning Canadian singer, songwriter, broadcaster, actor and author. This letter is excerpted from the forthcoming book Forever Terry: A Legacy in Letters, edited by Terry’s younger brother, Darrell Fox. Timed to the 40th anniversary of the Marathon of Hope this September, the book features letters from 40 Canadian contributors, including Wayne Gretzky, Silken Laumann, Sidney Crosby and Christine Sinclair. Royalties will support the Terry Fox Foundation.

***

Excerpted from Forever Terry: A Legacy in Letters. Copyright © 2020 by The Terry Fox Family. Published by Viking Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Limited. Reproduced by arrangement with the Publisher. All rights reserved.

Society

Reopening schools safely is now Canada's most urgent task

The high-wire act of opening schools up without triggering another shutdown is a make-or-break situation. Just ask parents who quit work to care for their kids.

Tomislav Mesić is no stranger to early mornings. His day usually begins at 6:30 a.m. with his six-year-old daughter, Kata, who has cerebral palsy and needs daily physiotherapy. Then it’s off to breakfast with his wife, Manda, and his other two children, eight-year-old Anka and 22-month-old Mate, before he drops off the older pair of kids at school and starts his workday.

But when schools closed in Burlington, Ont., in mid-March due to the pandemic, Mesić’s life turned upside down. A building contractor for 10 years, he typically has one or two medium-sized projects on the go when his children are in class. With his wife working full-time as a business analyst at Ontario Health, Mesić quickly realized his days needed to be spent in the house with his children to help them with homeschooling. He tried shifting his work hours to the evening.

From March to May, Mesić would begin work at about 4 p.m., finishing off at 1 a.m. before heading home to shower and cram in five hours of sleep before waking up to the same routine. “It became obvious that I can’t take on work, because I can’t provide customers the timeliness that is needed to complete it,” Mesić says ruefully. He hasn’t accepted a job since, which has not only caused financial pinch—“Our household requires two paycheques, now we’re going with one”—but something akin to depression.“Sitting at home is not my nature,” he says. “There’s a feeling of uselessness.”

Mesić isn’t the only one struggling. Mothers like Emily Howell of Toronto have found themselves unable to work at greater rates than men since schools shut down. Howell, a chiropractor for more than 16 years, had to shut down her practice after March break due to the pandemic. But reopening proved a tricky ordeal while her two children were learning from home. Aged nine and 11, the kids are both in French immersion, and Howell is the only other person in the household who speaks the language and could help them with homework. “I became the homeschooling parent by default,” she says.

As the pandemic restrictions loosened and other chiropractors opened up for business, Howell sat idle, waiting for her daughters’ summer break, struggling with the push-and-pull fear of neglecting her children and neglecting her business—a conundrum she says many self-employed mothers have had to face. “I had to pick my kids, and that’s hard because I love my patients too,” Howell says.

Dr. Emily Howell with her two daughters. (Photograph by Dimitri Aspinall)

Dr. Emily Howell with her two daughters (Photograph by Dimitri Aspinall)

Emily Howell, Toronto

   Like many parents of small children, Howell worries about downloading child care responsibilities to her mother-in-law, who is elderly and immunocompromised, as the pandemic rages on. It is why she opted out of her full-time job as a chiropractor for the duration of the school year.
She’s since been able to return part-time as her children are off for summer break, partly by working on Sundays for the first time in 16 years, and by hiring a tutor. But another school shutdown may mean having to move away from her responsibilities as a chiropractor again. “It’s hard because you’re pulled in multiple directions and everybody needs you,” she says. “It’s a real feminist issue.”

The pandemic caused a disruption in education—and by extension, the lives of Canadian families—unlike anything in modern history. Almost overnight, children across the country were barred from returning to school as the threat of the coronavirus grew. Learning (such as it was) transitioned to the web, forcing kids of all ages to adjust to a schedule of online assignments and intermittent Zoom sessions. It was a burdensome, abrupt transition for all: teachers who had never delivered online classes before; parents suddenly forced to play the instructor and caretaker while juggling careers; children who missed their friends and their normal routines.

The shutdown, while difficult, proved justified. The pandemic posed a significant and unpredictable threat to the population, and social distancing is nearly impossible to achieve in crowded classrooms filled with children, some of whom may themselves be immunocompromised. Recent outbreaks in schools outside of Canada, namely in Israel, the United States and Australia, have reinforced the gravity of the threat, even as science suggests children are less likely to contract the virus and suffer symptoms. The spectre of renewed spread will loom until a vaccine is available.

But on the education front, there have already been consequences: teachers warn of a gap in learning for students who scrambled to finish bare-bones versions of their curriculums online, while many young people report a decline in mental well-being as their main means of in-person socializing ceased at a moment’s notice.

For adults, meanwhile, the shutdown has demonstrated the multi-tentacled reach of schooling within their working lives and the economy—and the cascade of crises that ensues when it is shut down. Parents can’t work if their children are at home without access to affordable child care, and the economy will not bounce back if parents can’t work. For generations, schools have been part of the country’s institutional wallpaper—front of mind from time to time, but otherwise taken for granted. Now, suddenly, nothing in the country is more important.

We’ve produced four magazine covers to symbolize the far-reaching impact of the school shutdown on Canadian families. Each features a parent forced to choose between work and the need to care for their children.

Over the four shutdown months leading to summer, adults had to walk a daily tightrope between teaching their own kids and fulfilling what for many remained full-time work duties. The line was strained for most, and for some it has outright snapped. Maclean’s spoke with over a dozen families across Canada who fear that quitting their jobs may be their only option if a safe, practical solution to the schooling question isn’t reached by September. Women, in particular, have been forced to abandon established careers as child care duties fell on their shoulders.

Small wonder, then, that provinces scrambling to finalize back-to-school plans do so amid fury from parents, who have assailed governments that are seen as more driven to get bars and restaurants open than to devise safe and realistic means to get kids back in class. Models for part-time classes, or full-time online learning, have been floated, only to be greeted with boos. Perhaps wisely, many boards were waiting to make final decisions just a few weeks before classes were set to start. Whatever plan they choose, one inescapable fact remains: another shutdown is possible as long as COVID-19 is in the air, with consequences almost too awful to contemplate.

***

In most provinces, March break marked the arrival of the coronavirus pandemic. For parents, it was also the beginning of a months-long storm on a sea of overflowing responsibilities. Ottawa mother Ariel Troster remembers it vividly. “It snowballed really quickly,” she says. “It went from ‘maybe people shouldn’t travel’ to ‘oh my gosh, they’re shutting the school down.’ ” She and her wife both quickly transitioned to working from home full-time and began setting up a daily routine for their eight-year-old daughter, Daphne, who was to continue schooling from home. It didn’t take long, however, for things to fall apart.

“The whole concept of virtual education for an eight-year-old was kind of silly,” Troster says. Daphne is not yet a fluent reader on her own and could not complete Google Classroom assignments by herself. Her days at home were spent rotating between her mothers—one would be sitting at the kitchen table working, while the other toiled at a desk in the basement—asking them to help her navigate the assignments on her second-hand Chromebook. Neither parent could break out enough time to help. “We were completely unable to pay attention to our daughter as much as she needed,” Troster says.

Some days, all three would be on separate Zoom calls at once, straining the internet connection. Others, Troster would set up a movie for Daphne while she worked beside the girl on the couch, trading places with her wife as soon as the other could step away from work. “There were long stretches of time where the screen was a babysitter,” Troster reflects. And Daphne, despite her young age, could sense the strain of this routine.

Their daughter began to feel downcast and discouraged. Soon it became hard to get her to get on calls with her teacher or to even leave the house for a short bike ride. Once, Daphne sent a Facebook message to her mother from a separate room, saying, “I’m sad and I don’t know why.” A few weeks later, she sent another calling her mother a “boring worky-pants.” The label became a family joke, but beneath the lighthearted jibing, Troster says, lay concern for her daughter’s mental health. She was missing her classmates. She needed social interaction with kids her age.

The exhaustion and confusion is not limited to younger students. Nicole Thomas’s two children are set to embark on the pivotal school years of Grade 9 and Grade 12 this fall in their Edmonton schools, and each has voiced anxiety over the coming months. Seventeen-year-old Malachi wants to be a social worker like his mother. But he worries about his grades, which suffered in the aftermath of the shutdown, and whether they will derail his plans of getting into university. This, coupled with the struggle to get out of bed every morning and the cancellation of his extracurricular football program, has clouded his vision of what the future may hold.

As the school year wound down, Malachi waited anxiously for his report card, “just hoping to get a 50 so he can get to Grade 12 English,” Thomas recalls. “From a parents’ perspective, I think, ‘Are they even ready?’ Because the majority of students are barely getting by.”

Edmonton public school teacher Jonathan Hemphill, who teaches a class of 35, says at least half of his Grade 6 students did not do much work after transitioning to online learning, despite the twice-a-week Zoom sessions and instructional videos he posted online to help them. A more concerning trend, he adds, was the near-complete lack of engagement from students who were already falling behind before the pandemic. “It varied from family to family,” he says. “Those that I had to track down and keep an eye out for a little more didn’t do well in this type of environment.”

For teachers themselves, the transition was in many cases a plunge into the unknown, Hemphill says, and he spent many hours in the first few weeks setting up Google Classroom for his colleagues, offering tips on how to provide course material. The varying skill sets of teachers resulted in a patchwork of approaches across the country: some stuck to the basics of math and language; others tried to incorporate other subjects as well; many struggled to meaningfully engage with their students at all.

For younger children, especially, the experience could be overwhelming. “Kids don’t necessarily transition well to learning from the parents,” says Alexandre Da Costa, an assistant professor of education at the University of Alberta and father of two young children. “It’s a different structure. We’re in the house; you’re going from eating breakfast to sitting down to try to teach the kids how to learn.”

Hemphill says the shutdown left a glaring gap in learning that will need to be addressed in September—one that worries many teachers and parents, especially those of children with learning disabilities, who will have the greatest difficulty getting back to grade standard. “We’re going to go through a period where we’re going to have to catch students up,” he says. “I don’t know how long that period is going to be.”

Da Costa warns that socioeconomic disparity may also amplify the gap. Struggling to make sure their children kept up their educations while meeting employment demands, many low-income working families gave up on homeschooling earlier, while others who had the money hired private tutors to carry their children through. “We begin to see a lot of the issues around class and how those kinds of things get in the way,” he says.

Tova Fertal with her daughter Clara, 4, while David, her husband, plays with their son Elliot, 6. (Photograph by Bryce Meyer)

Tova Fertal with her daughter Clara, 4, while David, her husband, plays with their son Elliot, 6 (Photograph by Bryce Meyer)

Tova Fertal, Calgary

   When the pandemic pushed Calgarians to work from home and reckon with Microsoft Teams and other new telework tools, there was demand aplenty for corporate tech trainers like Fertal. But she has stopped taking contracts since her kids’ daycare and kindergarten closed in March. She is able to get her four-year-old, Clara, back into daycare, while her son Elliot’s Grade 1 class will start full-time this September. But she’s uncomfortable with sending him into a full classroom that she fears will not have adequate funds to enact better health measures. “Staying home with them is safest, even if it costs a huge chunk of my career,” she says.

***

Work demands. The learning gap. Child care. The health of kids. The desperate need for economic revival. Provincial governments must balance it all as they cobble together school restart plans for the fall.

Job number one, though, is the challenge of containing the virus, because failure there renders everything else moot. Early in the summer, the Ontario government said it was open to a range of models, from a return to full-time classes with enhanced public health measures to an online-only regimen that would have children learn at home for the duration of the pandemic. In mid-June, the province’s education minister, Stephen Lecce, instructed boards to prepare for a “hybrid” model, which would open social-distancing space by sending students to class part-time, on a rotating basis. The Ottawa-Carleton District School Board, for example, proposed sending half of the students to class on Mondays and Tuesdays, while the other half came on Thursdays and Fridays. Wednesdays would be reserved for the deep cleaning of schools.

The pushback was quick and severe. How, parents asked, will they obtain child care on the three days of the week their kids are not at school—at a time when employers expect them to return to the office full-time? How much teaching were they expected to do at home? Was there any research proving this awkward arrangement would help curb the pandemic?

Ontario subsequently permitted child care centres to increase their capacity from 10 to 15 children per room, operating at 90 per cent of what was allowed before the COVID-19 pandemic. But child care remains a prohibitively expensive option for many families who rely on free public schools, critics note, and that’s assuming it’s available. Burlington’s public school board estimated that a hybrid model would require child care for up to 36,000 students—spaces, it says, that simply don’t exist in the region.

More recently, parents and boards have questioned the public health wisdom of part-time models, noting that it will result in children shuffling between school and child care providers, be they family members or daycares. Halton District School Board chair Andrea Grebenc rejected the idea entirely, predicting Ontario’s initial back-to-school scenario would cause “a chaotic explosion of the virus.” By midsummer, after weeks of declining infection numbers and a growing backlash against hybrid education, the province had shifted track. Premier Doug Ford said he hoped to see kids going to school full-time, a sentiment echoed by Toronto’s Catholic board. The pressure rose on July 29, when B.C. announced a full return based on a system of “learning groups”—60 students and staff for elementary schools; 120 for secondary—that will be kept mostly separate from each other. The next day, Lecce announced that all Ontario elementary students will return full-time, while high-schoolers in the GTA and Ottawa will follow the hybrid model, with classes limited to 50 per cent capacity. Mask-wearing in common spaces will be mandatory for students in Grade 4 and higher.

Robbyn Plumb is photographed with her children Carson, 14, and Morgan, 16, and German Shepherd, Nova. (Photograph by Sarah Dea)

Robbyn Plumb is photographed with her children Carson, 14, and Morgan, 16, and German Shepherd, Nova (Photograph by Sarah Dea)

Robbyn Plumb, Ottawa

   Plumb already made the difficult decision to leave work as a public servant in April for six weeks to take care of her 14-year-old son, Carson, who has a developmental disability, is non-verbal and has severe behavioural challenges. “I felt like I was on a treadmill going nowhere,” she says of the two weeks she tried to juggle working from home and caring for her son and daughter. “Not only was my family suffering, I was personally suffering,” Plumb adds.
She describes herself as career-oriented, saying it wasn’t easy to take a leave from a career she’s built for more than 30 years: “All of a sudden COVID hit, and everything came crashing down.”

***

The costs of doing this while keeping the coronavirus at bay, though, may prove crippling. The Toronto District School Board, Canada’s largest, had proposed a system it believes is the safest and most ideal: a return to everyday attendance, with classroom sizes of 15 to allow for distancing, down from the current average of 23. All vacant classroom space would be put to use. The catch? A $250-million price tag the board says it would need to make the model a reality, partly to fund the hiring of more than 2,000 extra teachers. This at a time of record public deficits. Says Carlene Jackson, the board’s interim director of education: “This model is us being a bit more creative.”

The system would focus on teaching the core subjects of math, language arts and social sciences. Some French would be possible, but there aren’t enough French-speaking instructors in the district’s current roster to teach what would eventually become a larger number of classes with fewer students. High schools would adopt a four-semester system where students take two courses at a time every 45 days.

“Everything would look different,” Jackson says. School buses, which typically hold 72 students, would allow 24, presenting the board with a potential shortage of drivers (some older or immunocompromised drivers have said they’re afraid of returning to work). Extra routes are being considered, Jackson says, as well as prioritizing children who need transportation while making arrangements with families who are able to drive their kids to school.

The plan would require a full cleaning of schools twice a day, with frequent wipe-downs of surfaces like doorknobs and railings, which would also come at a cost. The board hadn’t reached an agreement with Ontario’s Ministry of Education on who will pay for additional cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment for teachers. (The board was set to meet with ministry officials by late July to consider all back-to-school options, with a final decision to be made in August.)

In contrast to Ontario’s slower, vacillating response, neighbouring Quebec and Alberta green-lit full returns to school earlier in the summer—decisions met by sighs of relief from parents despite a bump in COVID-19 cases in both provinces. When announcing Alberta’s back-to-school plan, the province’s chief medical officer, Dr. Deena Hinshaw, bluntly stated that “there’s no risk-free approach to living with COVID-19, yet we still have to live with it.”

Learning to adapt will mean zeroing in on cleaning, social distancing and limiting contact wherever possible. Many of the protocol changes seen in grocery stores and other public spaces will be implemented in Alberta’s schools: hallway traffic will follow one-way signs; there will be designated entrance and exit doors; desks will be spread two metres apart; and bathroom occupancy will be monitored.

Life in the classroom, meanwhile, will change in small yet profound ways. Children will be discouraged from using wind instruments in music class, swapping flutes and harmonicas with guitars and ukuleles. School assemblies will be cancelled for the foreseeable future. The province has allocated money to pay for touchless sinks and soap dispensers; water fountains will give way to hands-free water bottle filling stations.

Teachers and parents have taken some comfort in research cited by SickKids Hospital in Toronto indicating that children account for between five and 10 per cent of COVID-19 cases. This may be in part to early school closures, it adds, but evidence is mounting that children may be less susceptible to catching the virus and transmitting it to others.

Still, COVID-19 outbreaks have already been reported in schools around the world. In Israel, at least 1,300 students and 690 staff have become infected since schools reopened on May 17, fuelling a larger resurgence of a COVID-19 outbreak. In Australia, small outbreaks have led to closures of schools and a child care centre.

So countries around the world are trying new and creative measures to fend off the virus, or, if it comes, limit the damage. Denmark, for example, has split classes in two to promote social distancing and is teaching more lessons outdoors. In South Korea, schools have installed dividers on each desk, akin to the Plexiglas shields now seen in grocery store checkouts.

In Beijing, children donned masks for most of the school day, except during lunchtime, where they ate alone—an approach supported by a growing chorus of health experts and teachers in Canada. Amy Tan, a family doctor and University of Calgary professor, has been pushing for mandatory face coverings in schools as a way to limit community transmission. “Things must be done to mitigate risk so we have a chance of keeping these schools open,” Tan told local media. This has been met with growing support by the public: a poll conducted by the Association for Canadian Studies, a Montreal-based non-profit, suggests two-thirds of respondents believe schoolchildren should be required to wear masks while they’re on the bus or in schools.

Whatever the prevention measures, though, Hinshaw and other Alberta officials acknowledge that the threat of outbreaks will remain. In Quebec, where schools resumed before the end of June, nine children in a Trois-Rivières classroom of 11 students were infected due to community transmission, prompting the entire class to self-isolate. To avoid a similar outbreak in Alberta, parents and teachers will be responsible for screening for symptoms daily before the students enter the classroom. Should a child develop symptoms while at school, they’ll be asked to wear a mask and be isolated in a separate room as they wait to be picked up. If two or more people have symptoms in the same classroom, the school will have to notify public health of an outbreak. It’s unclear yet what will follow, as protocols depend on risk of transmission. In Toronto, Jackson says, school authorities may require everyone in the class to isolate for 14 days.

Alberta’s plan does, however, contemplate major outbreak scenarios, and the impacts would be daunting. In such an event, schools may have to revert to partial in-class learning, or full at-home online models, transporting many families back to the high-wire act of balancing work and homeschooling.

While another shutdown would unquestionably be disruptive, Hemphill, the Edmonton teacher, says teachers are at least better prepared, having learned from their mistakes last spring. He and his colleagues plan to walk students through software like Google Classroom in the first weeks of school to prepare for the event of a shutdown. Boards, too, are preparing for the worst. The Edmonton public school board, for example, has worked over the summer to create physical homework packages that can be given to students should homeschooling return.

Natalie Donaldson with her kids Isaiah, 7, Joshua, 4, and Eli, 2. (Photograph by Dimitri Aspinall)

Natalie Donaldson with her kids Isaiah, 7, Joshua, 4, and Eli, 2 (Photograph by Dimitri Aspinall)

Natalie Donaldson, Toronto

   A single mother of three young children in Toronto, Donaldson knew taking an unpaid leave of absence from her job as an autism support worker and relying instead on CERB was not an option. Instead, she opted for evening shifts, staying with her children during the day when schools and daycares closed, before dropping them off at her 75-year-old mother’s house at night.
Donaldson now survives on an average of three hours of sleep a day. She is kept up at night, she says, by fear of what her options will look like in September when she is forced to work day shifts again. “I hate to say it, but it boils down to money,” she says. “I’ve got to keep a roof over our heads. I’ve got to keep food in their stomachs.”

***

Amid all the preparations, however, glaring problems remain. Online learning, for starters, requires a proper internet connection and a laptop. Thomas, who works as a social worker in two Edmonton Catholic schools, says her role during the shutdown transitioned from counselling to being told “Here’s a list of kids who haven’t logged on. Try to find out why.” Her discouraging, if unsurprising, findings: families who lacked access to online learning tended to be low-income households; many were immigrants and newcomers who didn’t have the knowledge or language skills to navigate the online learning platforms.

Between her two southeast Edmonton schools alone, which have around 550 students, about 70 families couldn’t initially log on, and Hughes relied on donations of laptops. In Hemphill’s Edmonton public school of 200 students, the board loaned out 120 Chromebooks to families that needed them for online learning.

Access to online learning is a Canada-wide issue, with about 11 per cent of the country’s households lacking any internet connection. The Winnipeg School Division alone estimates that 40 per cent of its students are either without a computer or internet access at home. The city of London, Ont., has lent more than 10,000 iPads and Chromebooks to students since the pandemic began. Some school boards, like Ottawa Catholic, have gone as far as advising students without access to log on from school parking lots as a “last resort.”

Moreover, even a scenario where all kids have web access leaves open the question of who will watch over them should schools be shuttered—a question weighing heavily on parents who must work even in the event of another lockdown. Some who are deemed essential workers have gone through hoops to meet both workplace demands and their child care needs. One is Maja, a social worker from Toronto who asked that her last name be withheld because her case is not yet resolved. Her 12-year-old daughter—who has Down syndrome and autism, is immunocompromised and requires intensive one-on-one support—suddenly needed a caregiver at home when her Toronto school closed. Maja was forced to step into that role quickly.

But the conversation with her employer about a fix turned sour. “The response was, ‘You know you’re an essential worker, so you either come in or quit,’ ” Maja says. She eventually resigned and was lucky to find another job that allowed her to work remotely. But she made the shift with a heavy heart. “I loved, loved my job,” she says emotionally. “I didn’t want to leave, I didn’t ask to leave, but COVID made it very difficult for me.”

Other mothers, like Edmonton’s Greta Gerstner, face mounting pressure as their employers strive to resume normal operations. Gerstner, an insurance broker, has two immunocompromised children with learning disabilities who struggled during homeschooling, despite her best efforts to help between work phone calls.

As COVID-19 cases in Edmonton dwindled near the beginning of summer break, her employer asked her to report to the office. “My boss said, ‘online learning is done, you need to come back,’ ” Gerstner recalls, adding it’s a return she’s apprehensive about. Her fears are twofold: that she might bring COVID home from work to her children; and that an outbreak at her children’s school might force a return to full-time online learning, plunging her back into her dilemma.

Economists are sounding the alarm on the long-term implications of forcing parents—especially women—into such choices without a child care safety net in place. “We are staring down the barrel of a gun that is labelled ‘economic depression,’ and we are pointing it at ourselves for inexplicable reasons,” says Armine Yalnizyan, an economist and Atkinson Fellow on the Future of Workers.

In the first month of the shutdown, the jobs of women with children under the age of six were the hardest hit, followed by women with kids aged six to 17. By the third month, men were already starting to return to the workplace due to staggered reopening measures, but women were slower to do so. Yalnizyan cites two reasons: women held many jobs that were declared non-essential, primarily in the retail and hospitality sectors; moreover, they’ve been undermined by a lack of child care—a service sector also financially affected by COVID-19.

“We run child care in this country as if it is a market service,” Yalnizyan says, noting that some spaces are offered through municipalities, others through for-profit private entities or non-profit organizations. All models depend on user fees for survival. Child care, after housing, is the second most expensive cost for a Canadian household and, as they lose income, many families can no longer afford it, causing some child care providers to close shop. “That double whammy means that you’ve got less capacity to serve people that do have jobs, so less people are going to be able to go back to work,” Yalnizyan says. “And that’s a vicious circle.”

That might explain why the hybrid model was so unpopular among Ontario parents. When it was floated, Yalnizyan says, “You could hear the sound of jaws dropping throughout the province, which is the country’s largest single labour market.” Women have done almost all of the homeschooling, she adds, for no pay. Those who can afford to may simply choose to exit the workforce.

At this stage, it is too early to see whether that has happened, but Yalnizyan warns that “we are poised to roll back women’s participation in the labour force by decades’ worth of advances,” with consequences for the rest of the country: as household incomes are destabilized, social and financial inequality will widen, and “the more inequality we’ve got, the slower the economy grows.”

In response to a likely increase in child care demands, the Liberal government announced in mid-July a $19-billion Safe Restart Agreement between provinces and territories, $625 million of which will go exclusively to funding child care. Spokespersons for Ahmed Hussen, the federal minister of families, children and social development, and Employment Minister Carla Qualtrough emphasized the government’s promise of an additional $400 million that will be spent for the 2020-21 school year to address child care needs, including those created by the pandemic.

But as the feds try to remedy the situation, they’ve also made the point that employers need to support families with the school year on the horizon. “We encourage them to work with their employees and be flexible in the coming months as restrictions ease, and to prepare for a possible second wave,” Hussen’s spokesperson, Jessica Eritou, wrote in an email.

Jacqueline Murillo with her daughter, Angela, 15. (Photograph by Carmen Cheung)

Jacqueline Murillo with her daughter, Angela, 15 (Photograph by Carmen Cheung)

Jacqueline Murillo, Toronto

   Murillo lost her job at a Toronto daycare in March, and had to decline an offer to return to work in June. The family caregiver for her 15-year-old daughter Angela, who is non-verbal and autistic, had to leave the city when the pandemic hit. As a result, Angela hasn’t been in school since moving to Canada last winter, after seven years living in the Philippines, away from her mother, who immigrated on a work visa. She is enrolled in a special-needs public school this fall; if full-time school wasn’t an option, Murillo would have had to say no to her employers again. Her other daughter, Bailey, is two, and will likely stay at home with Murillo’s journalist husband when Angela returns to school.

***

A flawed back-to-school model would not only carry economic consequences, experts warn, but would significantly hurt the social and mental development of children across the country—especially those with complex needs or learning disabilities. For Maja, the Toronto social worker, these concerns have become deeply personal as she watched her daughter struggle with her school’s shutdown. She’s become easily irritated and prone to aggressive outbursts. “She doesn’t have friends,” Maja says. “Her only social interaction is with her peers at school. Her social skills have regressed.”

She was also frustrated by how her daughter’s public school handled homeschooling for special-needs children. Both Maja and her daughter found the complexities of Google Classroom difficult to navigate. Worse, she says, was a decision by her daughter’s teachers to create a special classroom just for her, which left her out of general, lighthearted online conversations with her peers. “She was segregated online,” Maja says. “I’m like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ She is still here and she still has a voice and an opinion about what’s going on.”

In their back-to-school recommendations, SickKids advocated for a full return to school in the fall to safeguard the mental health and well-being of children. But the hospital’s report included guidelines for bringing back children with complex needs, saying special focus on the issue “will be extremely important as many families are already in crisis mode.”

The hospital says schools should consult with parents to draft an individualized return-to-school process, and that families of immunocompromised children who choose not to send their children to school should still be able to access adequate remote learning while having access to home care and respite supports.

Certainly the plight of children with special needs and disabilities in the fall remains a big question mark in other parts of the country. The omission of designated funding was a criticism echoed by parents in Alberta as the province unveiled its back to school plan. Gerstner says the province failed to consult with her non-profit, the Strategic Alliance for Alberta Students with Learning Challenges, when the plan was drafted.

Gerstner, whose children have asthma, and whose husband has an underlying heart condition, affirms that some parents may choose to not send their children back for fear of catching COVID-19. She hopes there will be money to support families in this situation, but she’s doubtful: “Our kids are never chosen.” Far from considering the well-being of the families she advocates for, she adds, Alberta seems “more worried about being a hub city for the NHL.”

Tomislav Mesić with his kids Anka, 8, Kata, 6, and Mate, 22 months.(Photograph by Carmen Cheung)

Tomislav Mesić with his kids Anka, 8, Kata, 6, and Mate, 22 months (Photograph by Carmen Cheung)

Tomislav Mesić, Burlington, Ont.

Mesić worries his leave from his job as a contractor to fulfill his family’s child care duties will have long-term consequences on his career. “I’m afraid I’m going to be losing business and contacts I normally would have had,” Mesić says. “Because they’re going to have to go to someone who can work.”
But Mesić maintains he was left with no choice but to stay home—a choice he’ll make again for his three kids if they are forced anew into homeschooling without access to adequate child care, especially when it comes to his six-year-old daughter with cerebral palsy. “I just want the best for her,” Mesić says, even if it means putting his career on the line.

***

Regardless of what protocols schools choose to follow, the hard reality is that COVID-19 will transform the way education will look and feel for months to come. While a pandemic of this scale is a once-in-a-lifetime event, the trials and tribulations of returning to school safely will have consequences that could be felt well beyond this crisis.

No surprise, then, that the country seems conflicted as the first week of September draws near. Provincial and national surveys suggest that, while more than half of Canadian families want children back in the classroom, widespread concern remains about COVID-19: six out of 10 Canadians report feeling concerned or afraid of personally contracting the virus. The fluctuating, sometimes contradictory outlooks are easy to understand given the universal dread of a repeat of the four-month shutdown that began in March, and the need to get a key decision like reopening schools right. On that there is no disagreement.

Back in Burlington, Mesić’s vision of what the new school year has in store remained unsettled well into July. He’s unable to return to full-time work unless his children are at school during the day, but has slipped into a state of resignation that is surely familiar to millions: at the mercy of the pandemic and whatever decisions governments make to address it. “I have to trust a little bit that measures will be put in place,” he says. But ultimately, he hopes his children can return safely. “There’s a number of things in the school system that I can’t provide for them at home.”

So all eyes are now on policy-makers, who are faced with a challenge that scans like a riddle: do the one thing needed most to jump-start the economy; recover millions of jobs lost since March; but do not—do not—cause a spike in COVID-19 that could lead to a second wave of infections. Because it is the one thing Canadians cannot endure. The feds alone have spent more than $212 billion so far on wage relief for workers and businesses. Yet 3.5 million families with school-age children across Canada await the last, key step to resuming something resembling their former lives. Miss the mark and the price of recovery will be incalculably higher.

—with files from Jason Markusoff


Editor’s note:

We hope you enjoyed reading this article, and that it added to your understanding of the ordinary and extraordinary ways Canadians are staring down this pandemic.

But quality journalism is not free. It’s built on the hard work and dedication of professional reporters, editors and production staff. We understand this crisis is likely taking a financial toll on you and your family, so we do not make this ask lightly. If you are able to afford it, a Maclean’s print subscription costs $24.95 a year—and in supporting us, you will help fund quality Canadian journalism in this historic moment.

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Alison Uncles
Editor-in-Chief, Maclean’s

Society

How going maskless became socially unacceptable

For many Canadians, a non-religious face-covering used to signal danger or shame. Now going without one does.

In June, I walked briskly into my local bank then stopped just inside the front doors, with only one thought in my mind: “I’m wearing a mask in a bank!” Sure, my handmade fabric mask—a Provencal print in muted tones of blue and green—hardly screamed “hardened criminal,” yet my heart was thumping. As I stood with other customers on our physically distanced floor dots, wiping our hands with complementary hand sanitizer, I noticed that few others wore face coverings.

In mid-July, I was back at that same bank in downtown Toronto. The standard retail rules of “no shirt, no shoes, no service” had been expanded: no one was allowed into the bank without wearing a mask. 

More than a breach of law in big cities like Toronto, entering a commercial or indoor public space without a facial covering is actually becoming a faux pas in communities across the country. The change is coming not just from governments and businesses, but from society itself. While pumping gas in rural eastern Ontario in early August, I saw a farmer pull up behind me. He got out of his truck and glanced at me and the other customer. We were both wearing masks. Though everyone was outside and well physically-distanced, the farmer immediately reached into his pocket for his mask and put it on.

RELATED: Canadian leaders botched mandatory masking. Here’s how to fix it.

“What’s dramatic is how rapidly this behavioural shift has occurred,” says Frank Graves, president of Ottawa-based EKOS Research Associates Inc, which has tracked the societal transformation. In late March, just five per cent of Canadians polled said they wore face masks in public because of COVID-19. By the end of July, mask-wearing had jumped to 76 per cent. “In previous eras, attempts to [encourage people] to behave more safely have taken decades, not months,” notes Graves. “This is a once-in-a-lifetime collision of economic and health risks and it’s produced an astonishing response from the public.”

But it has happened before. In the winter of 1940-41, in wartime Britain, government scientists were becoming alarmed that the hundreds of thousands of people sleeping in crowded, poorly ventilated communal air raid shelters would be susceptible to respiratory diseases, especially during the seasonal flu season. Their solution: “germ masks.” The face coverings ranged from homemade ones (made of paper, cloth and even gauze), to cellophane face shields, which only covered the mouth and nose and even fashionable yashmak veil masks. To encourage acceptance, they created a propaganda film, titled “A-tish-Oo,” that was created to promote mask usage: “If the shelter doctor or nurse gives you a mask, well, wear it!” the narrator said.

The wartime mask mandate was rediscovered by Jesse Olszynko-Gryn, a historian of medicine who studies how health technologies become mainstream consumer products at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, Scotland, and his fellow researcher Caitjan Gainty, a historian of 20th-century health care at King’s College London. The historians didn’t find evidence of any significant push-back: even when British wartime scientists acknowledged that wearing masks may be uncomfortable, they were seen as sensible and patriotic, Olyszynko-Gryn explains. 

RELATED: Why Theresa Tam changed her stance on masks

Even without the existential threat posed by war, “people will put up with very tough restrictions, so long as they think they have merit,” states the historian, who also combed through newspaper archives to track mask-wearing during the Spanish Flu pandemic of 1918. “Get out your flu mask and wear it regularly,” started an article from October 1918 in the Vancouver Daily Sun. Yet, despite the exhortations, many were still reluctant to wear them, says Olyszynko-Gryn. Alberta rescinded its masking order four weeks later; Edmonton’s medical officer of health reported it had become an object of ridicule after the disease kept spreading through the community.

By contrast, Canada started its COVID-19 lockdown early, when the cumulative number of cases had just topped 100 across the nation. Then, initial public health measures focused on staying home, hand-washing and distancing. Medical masks were seen as being reserved for frontline health personnel. Yet, as other jurisdictions, such as Hong Kong, Vietnam and the Czech Republic, showed how the widespread use of non-medical masks could cut infection rates dramatically, attitudes began changing in Canada. In early April, medical experts, including Dr. Theresa Tam, the country’s chief public health officer, expanded their COVID-19 advice to include wearing non-medical masks in crowded or public places.

Was that shift in official policy a tipping point toward mask acceptance in Canada? No one is sure, at least right now, and Graves’s polling reflects a steady growth in mask wearing over the last few months without any specific uptick. For the sociologist, who has studied risk behaviour for years, the result of this increasing acceptance is that, a vast majority of Canadians, masks are seen “as a precondition for safe passage to the period where we have a vaccine or cure.”

Certainly, the focus on citizens wearing non-medical masks intensified as the nation started down its reopening path in May, bringing people back into close contact with each other in restaurants, shops and hair salons. Along the way, the message from governments has been reinforced by influencers, including hockey great Hayley Wickenheiser, who, as a medical student in a hospital, wears masks daily.

RELATED: The history of our cultural resistance against masks

Along the way, some public health experts have voiced concerns that the intense focus on wearing masks means other crucial measures to stop the spread of COVID-19 will get short shrift by citizens. “First, distance two metres and wash your hands, and then wear the damned mask,” says Dr. Lynora Saxinger, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of Alberta. The importance of all three measures was highlighted in a recent Dutch analysis in the journal PLoS, which found that “a large epidemic can be prevented if the efficacy of these measures exceeds 50 per cent.” 

Graves’s polling research into the current array of public health measures appears to allay concerns from experts like Saxinger. What he found by asking questions of those who are masking was a “strong virtuous circle” that starts with wearing facial coverings: “If you mask, you are significantly more likely to maintain social distance, stay at home, avoid risky situations, to not touch your face… If I were to take a single predictor of who is behaving safely right now, it would be the people who are masking.” 

While mask-wearing is increasing everywhere, the behaviour appears more common in areas hardest hit by the pandemic. Returning to Toronto after a recent visit to Ottawa, which wasn’t as badly affected, I was struck by how many more Torontonians wear masks while walking (including when well away from others), cycling and even driving—all activities not covered by the city’s mask by-law. While that’s anecdotal evidence, there is data to show that just asking people to wear masks can change behaviour. Even though the Toronto Transit Commission isn’t enforcing its mask policy, 95 per cent of passengers wear them, says communications specialist Stuart Green. (It’s a far cry from 2003, when the TTC told its drivers not to wear masks, even though the city was a hotspot for SARS, another new, deadly coronavirus.)

Yet, at the same time, there has been what Sadiya Ansari called a “cultural resistance,” when she wrote in April: “While there are established reasons that normalize mask-wearing in East Asia countries where they are commonly worn, in Canada, the lack of these norms has been our biggest barrier. It’s meant that instead of seeing masks as a form of communal protection, masks evoke panic.”

Graves sees that backlash in his polling: among those who won’t use masks is a growing minority who are falling not only out of compliance but into defiance. For them, masks are seen as “a symbol of those who reject expert authority, who reject health science, reject government notions of what you should do,” he says, similar to anti-vaccine activists. Anti-mask protests have occurred in many places, including at Olympic Plaza in Calgary in late July, ahead of the start of the city’s mask bylaw.

Yet, even in the United States, where President Donald Trump and other Republican politicians mocked their usage for months, mask-wearing is increasingly popular, in part because COVID-19 is spreading so widely that 50,000-plus people are being infected and more than 1,000 are dying each day. A recent Associated Press poll suggested that national support for mask mandates has grown to 75 per cent, while a new Huffington Post poll found that 92 per cent of Democrats and 68 per cent of Republicans believe people “should wear face masks when they are in public around others.”

Early in the pandemic, Olszynko-Gryn felt “a little embarrassed” when he wore a mask in public well before most of his Glaswegians. Now, he says, “it would be inappropriate” not to. 

Health

Coronavirus in Canada: These charts show how our fight to 'flatten the curve' is going

Health officials warn that a COVID-19 vaccine will not be silver bullet and current public health measures could stay in place for several years

Note: Data in the charts last updated on Aug. 6 at 10 a.m. EDT.

As the COVID-19 pandemic enters its fifth month in Canada, there is good news and bad news.

First, the bad news. In her first briefing after most of the nation enjoyed a mid-summer long weekend, Dr. Theresa Tam tempered growing expectations that one of the 160-plus COVID-19 vaccines currently being tested may soon end the worldwide pandemic. “We can’t at this stage just put all of our focus [on a vaccine] in the hopes that this is the silver bullet solution,” said Canada’s chief public health officer. Not only do experts have to determine that a vaccine that passes its trials is safe and effective, but, right now, there’s no way to know how effective such a vaccine would be or the amount of immunity it would provide. In addition, with the entire world wanting such a treatment, scaling up production and then distributing it is enormously challenging. “It’s likely that there won’t be enough vaccines for the population, so there’ll be prioritization,” she said.

Even if a vaccine arrives, Tam believes it should be considered just one more layer of protection. She’s advising Canadians that they will have to keep up the current public health measures—including wearing masks, physically distancing and frequently washing hands—for a lot longer than anyone ever thought possible when the nation initially locked down in March. “We’re going to have to manage this pandemic certainly over the next year,” said Tam, “but certainly [we are] planning for the longer term of the next two to three years during which the vaccine may play a role but we don’t know yet.”

Tam’s caution about putting too many of one’s hopes in a “silver bullet” vaccine was echoed by the World Health Organization, whose director-general also warned on Tuesday, Aug. 4 that, although he hopes there will be an effective vaccine, everyone should realize it may never materialize.

All the precautions and changes we’ve been dealing with for the past few months may be with us for years and years to come. And that could radically reshape our society and economy in ways few can even contemplate at this moment.

That messaging comes as some provinces continue to report an upswing in new cases. Quebec, which had reduced its tally to 500-odd cases a week in early July is now regularly posting around 1,000 per week. (A study of blood donations suggests that 120,000 Quebeckers may have been infected with the coronavirus, double the confirmed tally of 60,000.) Saskatchewan is also struggling: as of Aug. 4, its daily tally of new cases stands at 18.3 per million population, nearly double the national tally of 10.5 cases and well above next door Manitoba, which has just 3.9 per million, on a seven-day rolling average.

Now, the good news. And there truly is some positive news, though with another “silver bullet” reference from a public health official. Alberta, which had seen triple-digit numbers of new cases most days since the middle of July, has since been able to slow that increase. The past two weeks saw the province add 1,171 new cases, or around 10 per cent of its cumulative tally. Still, that’s down 20 per cent from the previous two weeks, in which Alberta added 1,456 new cases. It may still have the worst per-capita rate of new cases in the nation, but the number is falling, down from an average of around 28 daily cases per million population in late July to just above 20.

That positive news is tempered by a continuing outbreak at Edmonton’s Good Samaritan Southgate Care Centre, which is now the province’s deadliest. Since it began in mid-June, some 24 residents have died. In total, the number of deaths has been rising in Alberta, up by 30 in the last two weeks of July.

“There is no silver bullet that will make any setting completely risk-free, and no region or community that is free from the virus,” said Dr. Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s chief medical officer of health. “There is no one perfect way to respond to COVID-19. Each path has advantages and challenges. The most important thing is to continue to learn. I will continue to watch the emerging evidence and, as always, adapt my recommendations as needed in the days and weeks to come.”

As Alberta’s Hinshaw and other officials across the nation focus on how to reopen shuttered educational systems, everyone is keeping a close watch on the daily count of new cases. And there, as well, is hope. After a few weeks of having the daily tally of new cases across Canada regularly nudging the 500-case-mark, the average is subsiding, down to the 350 range in recent days.

Ontario, one of the epicentres of the pandemic in the springtime, is now reporting fewer new cases per capita than British Columbia, which has been able to keep its own number of new cases to a relatively low level throughout the spring and summer. In the week ending on Aug. 4, Ontario reported only 100 new cases a day; in the first week of June, that daily average was 387 cases.

Within Canada’s largest province, the source of new cases is also shifting. Toronto, which had the most cases of any region, has slashed its numbers in recent weeks. In early June, the city was reporting more than 1,225 cases a week. Now, that’s down to around 125. In contrast, Ottawa, which reported 18 new cases a week in early June, is now adding more than 150 per week. As social media was flooded with reports of dense crowds lining up to get into bars, Dr. Vera Etches, the city’s medical officer of health, mulled introducing a reservation system for bars if the COVID-19 numbers didn’t improve.

 

Then there are the four provinces on the East Coast, which are enjoying self-isolating within their Atlantic Bubble. In the past two weeks, the region reported just seven cases: three in Newfoundland, and four in Nova Scotia. As well, only one death was reported (in Nova Scotia) since the end of June.

Real Estate

Out-of-office is the new office. Can the work-from-home boom last?

The pandemic has shown that many of us can work at home. So employers and real estate experts are asking: post-COVID, how much room does a company really need?

On March 16, about 80 employees of Polaris Transportation Group, a trucking company in Mississauga, Ont., packed up their laptops and keyboards to bring home. Some even took their office chairs with them. They continued their work on Polaris’s finances, customer support, customs, and IT and marketing, and about 36 hours later, the team was fully operational remotely, says the company’s owner, Dave Cox. “I think of ourselves as a digital trucking company.”

And, despite the fact that the company completed an addition last year that doubled its office footprint to 15,000 sq. feet in order to accommodate recent technological investments, Cox is now wondering how many of his employees will continue to work from home permanently once COVID-19 is in the rear-view mirror. “I don’t see a full building in the future,” he says.

Cox’s prediction raises a question plenty of other bosses and real estate experts are already pondering: how much room does a company really need anymore? And if it’s significantly less, how will that play out in the economy?

“One hundred per cent of our clients now have a different need for office space than they did before the pandemic,” says Darren Fleming, CEO of the Ottawa-based real estate firm Real Strategy. And based on conversations with dozens of companies, in the immediate future, “we think that will result in a total demand for office space dropping anywhere from 10 to 25 per cent, which is really significant.”

READ MORE: Office workers want a return to the cubicle

In downtowns, the decision of one company to offer a more flexible work-from-home policy might be felt across other workplaces. “If you were downtown because you wanted to be walking distance to the client site, and all of a sudden the clients aren’t there, it throws the network for a loop,” Fleming says. “All you need is one company to say, ‘We don’t need that space anymore,’ and it creates that vacuum effect.”

Some buildings are already getting cleaned out. The Conference Board of Canada recently announced on Twitter that its organization would transition entirely away from the office. The Ottawa headquarters that the non-profit think tank has called home for 35 years will be put up for sale. Less than eight kilometres away, Rogers won’t be renewing the lease on its Ottawa call centre; 375 customer service agents will work from home as part of a pilot project that could later impact 7,000 call centre employees across Canada.

Major players in the tech industry are also making their moves. Waterloo, Ont.-based software company OpenText Corp. announced a restructuring plan that will permanently reduce its number of offices by half. Twitter will let its workers work from home indefinitely. Meanwhile, Shopify founder Tobi Lütke announced on social media that most of his employees will now permanently work remotely as “office centricity is over” and his e-commerce giant is now “digital by default.”

What about projects that are currently under construction? “If I’m a builder with one that’s half-built, I’ll keep convincing myself that things will go back to normal,” says Ryerson University real estate management professor Murtaza Haider. “But the reality is that everything has shifted and the new normal, nobody knows. The future of these buildings is far from certain.”

While decades ago the rule of thumb was to have 250 sq. feet per employee in the office—“the Mad Men setup, where everyone had an office and a secretary,” says Avis Devine, an associate professor of real estate and infrastructure at York University—employers gradually found ways to fit more people into less space. Most recently open-concept layouts and hot desks have become commonplace in many corporate offices. It’s gotten to the point that some workplaces might have less than 100 sq. feet per worker. “That should bring about an image that looks like a call centre, basically,” says Devine. “You’re packed in if everyone is there concurrently.”

RELATED: Why learning from home is an unlikely training ground for a post-pandemic world

Office densification won’t work for employees post-pandemic, says Haider, as we will be mindful of people’s sneezes and coughs long after social distancing is a term of the past. “That fight for a six-foot bubble around us won’t end with COVID.” And so Devine predicts there will be two competing forces over office space post-COVID-19: employees will demand more space at the office when they do come in, while employers figure they won’t need as much office space if more folks are working from home.

“The biggest expenses for knowledge-economy firms are payroll and then rent,” says Haider. “All of these bigger employers have had the realization that their employees can be productive from home and they’re trying to rationalize the expense of an office.”

There’s no shortage of available workspace at the moment. Above downtown Toronto’s now decongested sidewalks, 169 office spaces were added to market in the second quarter of 2020, most of them new sublease offerings, according to a report from commercial real estate company Jones Lang LaSalle Inc. Meanwhile, for larger scale leases of more than 20,000 sq. feet, there was only a single new transaction signed during that three-month span. The Greater Toronto Area had about 3.6 million sq. feet of available office sublet space as of the end of July 2020—an increase of more than one million square feet since the end of 2019—according to data from the real estate research group CoStar. Vancouver’s sublet space nearly doubled to roughly 1.4 million sq. feet in the first seven months of 2020. Meanwhile in Ottawa, the amount of physically vacant office space an employer could move into immediately almost tripled to roughly 300,000 sq. feet.

But the long-term impact on the real estate market might not be apparent for a few years. Office leases are often valid for five years, while the pandemic is only months old at this point. But the (so far) short-term, nationwide work-from-home pilot project has opened the eyes of many employees to the fact that they may not need to spend time waiting in traffic or in line for coffee. About 40 per cent of Canadians work in jobs that likely can be done at home, according to a recent Statistics Canada survey, while an Angus Reid Institute survey found one in five Canadians reporting that they’ll keep working primarily from home post-COVID. Another 44 per cent said they expect they’ll split their work hours between the office and home.

And if fewer people come to the office every day, restaurants and retailers will have less foot traffic—even if they can open to full capacity—leaving retail-building landlords wondering what they can charge when leases come up for renewal. As for condo dwellers, “the big part about living downtown is you cut out your commute,” says Roelof van Dijk, director of market analytics for Canada at CoStar. “If you’re only going into the office twice a week, a long commute isn’t unbearable if the trade-off is more space in the suburbs—especially if you’re in a one-bedroom condo and you don’t have space to work from home.”

READ MORE: Ontario’s back-to-school plan ignores a glaringly obvious problem

Not everyone is pessimistic about the future of the office. Toronto-based commercial real estate services firm Colliers International recently reported that nearly half of its tenant base (47 per cent) said their office space will decrease as a result of COVID-19. But the majority of those said the reason for office-space reduction was a decline in the number of employees. “A lot of that has to do with businesses reducing their costs,” says Daniel Holmes, a senior managing director with Colliers in Toronto. “If, post-COVID, their revenues return, so will their employees and their need for office space.”

Holmes adds that the office market in Toronto is still so tight, he doesn’t foresee the vacancy rate rising to the point that supply outpaces demand. In the interim, he explains, the commercial real estate market in the suburbs could become more attractive—the rent is cheaper and there are fewer elevators and more parking spaces for those who are no longer keen on taking public transit. “Most developers have the foresight to see beyond COVID and know the market will return,” says Holmes. His team even pitched a brand-new development in downtown Toronto, and another in the suburbs to the west.

“You can’t grow a good corporate culture with everyone working from home,” says Greg Kwong, Alberta’s managing director for the real estate firm CBRE. “To climb the corporate ladder, you have to be in the room. Rarely are contractors who are working out of their basement promoted to senior vice-president. Eventually, you have to show your face.” Not to mention, many people don’t have a space at home that’s conducive for working, or they have young children needing round-the-clock attention, or they enjoy the social aspects of going to the office, or their collaboration with co-workers requires face-to-face time.

If a vaccine is, optimistically, less than a year away, worries about being in a crowded elevator could soon disappear. “After 9/11, no one wanted to be in a high office tower in Manhattan,” says van Dijk. “But eventually everyone said they had to get back in there and Manhattan was booming again. Everyone is relying on a certain amount of global amnesia once we get beyond COVID. But will it be soon enough not to affect the office market too much?”

Back in Mississauga, Dave Cox is working out of his office, even if most of his colleagues aren’t. He knows some of them love working from home. He knows with some jobs he needs people on site, and with others, he doesn’t. And he knows the company won’t need all the space it currently occupies.

“Could I lease a portion of my office out? I guess,” Cox says. “But if I don’t need it, who would?”


This article appears in print in the September 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Out of office.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

Environment

The loneliest deer in Niagara Falls

For a whole year, tourists have caught fleeting glimpses of a white-tailed deer marooned on a tiny island on the edge of the Horseshoe Falls. But don't despair for the four-legged squatter.

In the city that is home to gaudy Clifton Hill, towering casinos and a magnificent centrepiece waterfall, the prevailing modus operandi bends toward show-offs and daredevils. Niagara Falls, Ont., is, after all, where barrels used to tumble over the precipice and tightropes extended across the gorge. People watched in awe. But hiding on an island just metres from the falls, rushing water on all sides, lives the exception to the rule: a lonely white-tailed deer, a daredevil only by accident, already marooned for as long as a whole year.

Natalie Erck and John Dickinson, along with their 12-year-old son, Jack, were camping in the area in mid-July when they decided to check out the falls at sunset. They sighted the deer, which had emerged from the island’s impressive thicket of foliage, and were immediately concerned for its safety. “Our hearts started racing,” says Erck. “John called 911.”

The Niagara Parks police, whose chief has personally sighted the deer, told Erck and Dickinson there would be no rescue mission because the currents, and the proximity to the falls, posed too much of a threat to would-be rescuers. And Niagara Parks, the agency in charge of lands on the Canadian side of the river, confirms it is taking a hands-off approach: “If you try to rescue the animal, you could very easily startle it. And then it could go over the falls.”

READ MORE: The Haida Nation is teaming up with New Zealand’s snipers to kill deer and save Haida Gwaii

The provincial Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry also abides by the spirit of live-and-let-live. “The ministry does not have staff trained for a water rescue situation and does not rescue wildlife animals from environmental hazards,” said ministry spokesperson Jolanta Kowalski. “Given the location of the deer, a rescue operation would put staff and the animal at significant risk.”

Thirty years ago, local authorities sang a different tune. Back then, a small herd of deer had been grazing on a chunk of land called Navy Island, which lies a few kilometres upstream from the falls. (In 1837, the island served as the headquarters of rebel leader William Lyon Mackenzie’s failed Republic of Canada.) When American hunters scared six of the animals into the water, an alarm went up and most of the deer were saved by first responders and humane society members, who even managed to lasso a stranded doe.

By 2007, Navy Island’s deer population was so plentiful that the feds partnered with nearby Six Nations hunters on a cull. There’s even a theory that the one spotted last summer on the island nearest the falls—which may have swum downstream from Navy Island—didn’t last the winter. The current ungulate, some speculate, could be a wholly different specimen. The ministry, for the record, officially supports the one-deer theory.

The deer stranded on a small, nameless island next to Horseshoe Falls (pictured to the left of the falls) (Google)

The deer stranded on a small, nameless island next to Horseshoe Falls (pictured to the left of the falls) (Google)

Original tenant or not, despair for the four-legged squatter is probably misplaced. The island’s foliage offers shade during oppressively hot summer afternoons. The deer faces no competition for food; no obvious natural predators. Rhiannon Kirton, a master’s student at Western University who specializes in white-tailed deer movements, floats a theory: “Maybe it doesn’t want to leave.”

If midday gawkers don’t spy the deer, they shouldn’t be surprised. Kirton says the white-tailed variety are crepuscular—most active at dawn and dusk, when Erck and Dickinson caught a glimpse—and typically spend the middle of the day resting. Deer are “specialized browsers” that feed on leaves and woody shoots, she adds, and thrive on a low-protein, high-fibre diet. This one doesn’t appear emaciated, which suggests the island’s smorgasbord of greenery offers enough sustenance. “It’s probably just munching on the bushes and having a good old time,” says Kirton.

RELATED: The game-meat crisis most Canadians have never heard of

The safety of the mainland appears only a short swim away, and it’s a little-known fact that deer are good in the water. A marshy area, hidden under the embankment safeguarding tourists from the rushing water, could offer discreet refuge. That the currents surrounding the island reach 40 km/h might seem a deterrent, but Kirton says the deer might make the crossing safely if it wanted to leave.

For now, it could hardly find better real estate than the island perched near the edge of the falls, which is no less a survivor than its elusive resident. Satellite imagery dating back 50 years shows very little change to its size and shape, even as the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side slowly recedes at a rate of about one foot a year.

The island is currently nameless on official maps. The largest of the Three Sisters Islands, just across the rapids on the American side, was until 1834 known as Deer Island. Surely if any chunk of rock now deserves that name, it’s the one that sustains a creature who bravely clings to its shores, living a life of plenty against the backdrop of the magnificent cataract that could spell its untimely end.


This article appears in print in the September 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Room with a view.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

Society

COVID-19 has drastically affected Canadian travel spending

Canadian tourism spending is projected to drop by $42 billion in 2020. Here's a snapshot of COVID-19’s impact on travel and peoples' vacation expectations.

In 2019, Canadians were passengers riding the tide of a decades-long global travel boom. In 2020, we are watching the world go by. Domestically, few sectors have been impacted as significantly as travel and tourism. In the weeks following the closure of Canadian regional economies, unemployment in Banff, Alta., was estimated at 80 to 85 per cent, while 5,000 jobs disappeared in Niagara Falls, Ont. Altogether, Canadian tourism spending is projected to drop by $42 billion—or 59 per cent—in 2020, shedding as many as 450,000 travel-supported jobs.

And while the spread of the coronavirus slows or stops in almost all of Canada, and regions and economies cautiously open up, tourism will continue to be disproportionately impacted. Canadian summer standards—road trips to the United States, European vacations, overnight camps for kids and city festivals—are all on hold. School may be out, but summer vacation will never completely arrive. Here, a snapshot of COVID-19’s impact on travel and the vacation expectations of Canadians.


Canadians planning to take their longest summer vacation within Canada

2019: 52%
vs.
2020: 65.6%

Number of trips lasting eight days or longer to Ontario’s cottage country, mid-March to late-April

2019: 18,893
vs.
2020: 36,426

Canadians planning to take one or more overnight trips this summer

2019: 79.3%
vs.
2020:46.4%

Deals, Deals, Deals

Airlines, hotels and travel booking firms are offering incentives for Canadians to entice them to travel again. Air Canada is offering a “book a flight and cruise” package with Norwegian Cruise Line, with $400 toward air travel as well as $100 off any vacation plan, for bookings made before July 12. Booking.com is offering up to 15 per cent off hotel stays in various Canadian Cities for bookings made between March 10 and Jan. 4, and for stays between June 1 and Jan. 4. Sunwing has a “buy one, get one 50 per cent off” deal on vacation packages to Mexico, the Caribbean and Central America for travel before Sept. 20.

Sources: Destination Canada; Tourism Economics; Conference Board of Canada; Vanier Institute of the Family; Association for Canadian Studies; Abacus Data; Environics Analytics; International Air Transport Association; STR Canada; Hopper; Toronto Pearson International Airport

Opinion

'I don’t care whether All Lives Matter is said in ignorance—it's just another example of racism'

Five Black women on their experiences of systemic racism within neighbourhoods across Canada

Liz Ikiriko is an independent curator, artist and lecturer at Ryerson University. Melanie Carrington is an investigator. Máiri McKenna Edwards is  diversity and inclusivity training coordinator at the University of Toronto. Kara Stewart-Agostino is a personal trainer. Karina Vernon is associate professor of english at the University of Toronto Scarborough. 

In early July, in Toronto’s west-end neighbourhood of Roncesvalles, Home Hardware store owner, Len McAuley, posted a new statement on the store’s exterior marquee. The sign read “All Lives Matter, Be Safe, Be Kind.” A local resident took a photo of the sign which quickly circulated online.

The meaning of “all lives matter” is now well known: it critiques the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement that has taken root locally and internationally to protest the killing of unarmed Black civilians. It misinterprets “Black Lives Matter” as meaning only Black lives matter. But the BLM slogan is a call for justice and a recognition that not all lives are equally at risk when it comes to police brutality. When the Home Hardware sign went up, public outcry from residents of Roncesvalles and neighbouring Parkdale was immediate. McAuley took down the sign and apologized. He later stepped down from his position as chair of the Roncesvalles Village Business Improvement Area (BIA).

Kaswentha—Two Row Wampum or Tawagonshi Treaty—territory, known as Roncesvalles, has been home to working class Polish families who came to Toronto after WWII. But in the past 20 years, it has transformed into an upper middle-class neighbourhood. While the neighbourhood is less ethnically Polish than it once was, it remains less racially diverse than any other neighbourhood in the city. According to the 2016 census survey, only 26 per cent of residents identified as racialized compared to the 50 per cent of people who identify as a visible minority across the City of Toronto.

MORE: Dear sister: ‘I wonder if my silence played a hand in your suffering’

We are five Black women who have lived across the country, from Victoria to Edmonton to Winnipeg to Toronto. The Home Hardware incident is one example that highlights a greater problem across the country. It provides a chance to address the exclusion and erasure that Black Canadians face from neighbours, in shops and on the playgrounds where we raise our children. It also works to connect the dots between anti-Black racism and the colonial violence that pervades our everyday experience. Here, we discuss how one seemingly small phrase reflects the complex ways that language, ideas and actions continue to oppress Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) in Canada.

Liz Ikiriko: I am a bi-racial Nigerian-Canadian who has lived in Regina, Calgary and Toronto. I have endured countless forms of malicious hate as well as ignorant questions that regularly remind me that I am not viewed as a local resident in any place that I live. When my white husband and I bought our home in Roncesvalles 13 years ago, I felt familiarly uneasy in this predominantly white area. How would I be perceived in this space? My discomfort was heightened once I had our fair-skinned son. I would take him for walks, and I would commonly be referred to as the nanny.

I was saddened to read an article on Medium written by Stephen Dorsey, a local Black Roncesvalles resident, regarding the “all lives matter” debacle. Dorsey suggests that it is our collective responsibility to patiently provide what he calls “on-ramps”, which he defines as spending time guiding the uninformed to be better allies in the fight against racism. Dorsey states that “outrage culture (spewing anger before fully understanding)…leads to more divisions, and the associated negativity impedes progress towards finding common ground and achieving the positive change we all want.”

Attention is often directed to the unfair treatment of a white community member when their racist actions are publicly criticized. Their upstanding neighbourliness is used to excuse acts that are ignorant and sometimes malicious. But insistent rebuke is necessary. It can propel an offender out of their privileged slumber and bring forth a public discourse to address frequently ignored micro- and macro-aggressions that harm so many BIPOC within the community.

Dorsey is wrong: our emotions do not impede progress. Ignorance, even in its most accidental form, is the real offender and deserves no sympathy. There is anger and deep hurt expressed in the silencing of our Blackness and our right to live in the communities where we reside.

Melanie Carrington: Where are you really from? is the question when a stranger (always white) can’t make sense of the fact that I was born and raised in Winnipeg. When I was a child, this question stung, a visceral reminder that my belonging is always in question.

More than 20 years ago, Hazelle Palmer wrote the book But Where Are You Really From? in response to this intrusive line of questioning. This micro-aggression, regardless of whether the inquirer is aware or not, is born of “colonialist and racist assumptions about what Canadians look like and what it is to be Canadian.” The “all lives matter” statement feels like a derivative of this, such is its signal and sting. I have come to understand that the sting represents the enactment of whiteness. In a world where whiteness dominates, my presence is often viewed with suspicion, and this is exactly what makes me vulnerable and unsafe.

In this “progressive” Roncesvalles neighbourhood, and in the north-end Winnipeg neighbourhood where I was raised, I’ve heard the familiar refrain, “I don’t see colour”. While race has no biological basis, it does have real-world consequences. “Colour blindness”, or a lack of race consciousness, offers me no benefit. Rather, it entrenches the status quo, gaslighting the person who experiences racism and allowing the perpetrator to ignore the way in which they enacted racial violence, thereby maintaining racial inequality.

Regardless of intent, public outcries of “all lives matter” devalues Black life and emboldens those with similar or more fervent views. This is no different than other racist acts I have experienced. What is different are the calls for redress coming from non-Black voices. This is crucial. Solidarity in the form of action means taking risks and recognizing that the outcome is worthwhile. I hope that all those who passionately call for an end to anti-Black racism are equally committed to the daily slog of decentering whiteness and the privilege it affords. The revolution is here, it is time for people to decide how they will take part.

A Roncesvalles Ave business. (Photograph by Gillian Mapp)

A Roncesvalles Ave business. (Photograph by Gillian Mapp)

Kara Stewart-Agostino: I have lived in Winnipeg, Kanata and Toronto, and have watched the “good guys” get away with racism wherever I live. Growing up, I was called the N-word by an older boy at school. Another time, a boy threw dirt at me, unprovoked, and called me a b-tch. In both situations, their parents—a teacher and bank manager—could not believe their children would do such things. Therefore, they suffered no consequences.

So it comes as no surprise when neighbours defend and believe that an “all lives matter” sign is put up in benign ignorance because a white business owner has long-standing ties in the community. I’m aware I run the risk of being labelled an “angry Black woman” who is taking out years of frustration on a white man who “made a mistake”. Funny thing is, racism does make me angry. The real “mistake” is in failing to acknowledge that racism exists in every part of Canadian society—even in progressive neighbourhoods; the mistake is in asking BIPOC to continue to give white folks the benefit of doubt; the mistake is in failing to address the systems of power and privilege that perpetuate racism.

Who owns the buildings on Canada’s main streets? Who is being granted the bank loans to open businesses while commercial real estate and property taxes continue to rise? According to a 2017 Government of Canada survey, only 12.2 per cent of small- and medium-sized businesses in Canada are owned by visible minorities, and only 1.4 per cent by Aboriginal people. The imbalance of economic power in Canada has yet to be addressed. The BLM signs that we now see in storefront windows are welcome sights, but symbolic gestures have minimal impact on the experiences of BIPOC residents.

In Canada, if we want to understand racism, we need to stop giving the “good guys” the benefit of doubt. I don’t care whether “all lives matter” is said in ignorance—it’s just another example of racism in another Canadian neighbourhood. I’m ready to finally feel at home.

A Roncesvalles Ave business. (Photograph by Gillian Mapp)

A Roncesvalles Ave business. (Photograph by Gillian Mapp)

Máiri McKenna Edwards: Everyday I benefit from my proximity to whiteness. I am bi-racial and often perceived to be white. I grew up in the rural area of Caledon, Ont. There, I was teased about my Afro, broad nose and lips. However, friends would assure me that I wasn’t “like them”, the other Black people. This was meant as a compliment, but meant that I did not feel safe to be myself. My perpetual feeling of otherness fuels my desire to speak on the impact of racism in all of our lives.

I often benefit from the generosity of my community. Indigenous friends and families have patiently corrected my egregious ”mistakes” like mispronouncing names. I get a distinct sick feeling in my face and chest. I feel the urge to explain, clarify my intent, and find a resolution. Whiteness has the ability to prevent us from seeing when a line has been crossed. It allows us to be ignorant of the racist connotation of a phrase like “all lives matter” used during an age of civil rights action. This can fuel anger and hurt among BIPOC, which is a response often read by the offending party as too hostile. There is comfort in defining the limits of the offence and emphasizing individual remorse, ideally to absolve the sting of the act.

What I’ve also learned from being the target of racism is that absolution is not for the offender to define. The task is to face discomfort without expectation that you will receive guidance from those who have been harmed. We can be accountable to our communities for our actions. The necessary response is to listen and learn about the system from those it silences and to act in solidarity against it.

Opinion

Canadian universities must collect race-based data

Evelyn Asiedu: The absence of demographic information on Black and racialized students renders their experiences untenable and provides no incentive for change

I moved to Edmonton in July 2013 after completing an Honours B.Sc. in chemistry at the Western University. I came to study the oil sands, to understand which chemicals are in tailings ponds and how long they take to naturally degrade. I’m enamoured of the methodical interrogation of our natural world, of the collective curiosity which guides us into the expanse of the unknown. I’m made for research and I’m taking steps to eventually lead my own team as an environmental scientist.

Being a Ph.D. student at the University of Alberta has been the greatest blessing of my life. It’s also been the biggest challenge. I’ve been pushed intellectually, but what’s been more difficult is knowing every day that I’m one of the only people who looks like me in my program—or in graduate school at all—at a university of thousands of people. For many at the university, I am the first Black person they’ve met. I’m greeted with fist bumps, not handshakes; “You’re so sassy!” or “Where are you actually from?” When I question someone’s bias, I’m sensitive, or I’m overreacting. I’m not allowed to be angry. 

A graduate student must defend what they do in their research and how they think. As a Black woman, I have to justify why I am. My actions either reinforce or contradict an idea of who I’m supposed to be. And whether I make a clever joke or a quick rebuttal or a silly mistake, it’s not just me talking. It could be taken as representative of another Black person who may one day share academic and professional spaces. These continuous interactions wear on me. They are subtle reminders that I’m an alien in my own home. But I deserve to be here. I belong here.  

RELATED: Letters to America from Black Canadians

Race inequality and the related economic and wealth disparity is top of mind for me. Always. To keep going, I repress these thoughts, relegate them to the far corners of my consciousness. I refocus and pour myself into my work and other productive distractions. But in the wake of the recent deaths of George Floyd, Regis Korchinski-Paquet and several other Black people at the hands of police, I am experiencing a thaw. I’m now forced to acknowledge a dull, nagging and persistent pain which has always been here inside me. I can’t ignore it: Black people have endured a brutally violent and tragic history in North America, and that history continues to this day. In the ongoing fight for basic human rights, Black people die every day because in the eyes of many, Black people aren’t really people. The subjugation of Blacks extends past the end of slavery and lives on in the resistance against our presence in traditionally white spaces, including in the academy. 

For as long as I can remember, my parents told me I have to work harder than anyone else. This doesn’t just apply to my career. It means carrying a heavier emotional load than my friends and peers. It means learning to smile when I’m hurt so that others can be comfortable. It means accepting that my very existence is threatening to some and I must become more palatable if I want to advance.

When the realities of Black citizens living in the U.S. are discussed—whether through news or social media—Canadians are proud by comparison. We pacify ourselves with the rhetoric that “It’s so much worse in the States!” But Canada’s identity as a “cultural mosaic” restricts candid discussions about unfairness in our country. The reality is that, in the U.S., these discussions happen more openly within several institutions, including the post-secondary educational system.

RELATED: Listen to Donovan Bailey

The hashtags #blackintheivory and #ShutDownSTEM were born not just from personal stories, but actual numbers seen across all levels of scholarship. Data from the National Science Foundation (NSF) shows that in 2016, just 3.5 per cent of American doctoral recipients in STEM were Black women. This number is eclipsed by the analogous value for white females at 28.5 per cent (38.8 per cent of the population), and is lower than the proportion of Black females in the general population (6.9 per cent). Black female STEM scholars hold just 1.7 per cent of tenured positions in U.S. universities.

Corresponding values for Canada are difficult to find. While it is not uncommon to see statements touting diversity and inclusion about various levels of recruitment, race-based data is seldom collected at Canadian universities. The Natural Sciences Engineering Research Council (Canada’s NSF equivalent) does not record the race of scholarship winners or grantees. I found a report from 2018 by the Canadian Association of University Teachers stating that two per cent of university teachers are Black. 

I asked the Faculty of Graduate Studies and Research and the Graduate Student Association at my university why these numbers are not collected. The FGSR explained that any initiative to collect race-based data would be “preceded by consultation and discussion with student groups, among other university stakeholders, to determine what data would be gathered and by what method/format.” The intended use of the data would also be discussed, and any use or dissemination would be governed by the Freedom of Information and Protection Act. The GSA agreed that race-based data would be useful to upholding the university’s commitments to equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI), but said that there were “social, institutional, legal and logistical elements that need to be navigated” before a process for collecting this data could begin. 

The absence of this information renders the experiences of racialized people untenable and provides no incentive for change. In the foreword to a special issue of the Harvard Educational Review titled “The Double Bind,” Drs. Lindsey and Shirley Malcom, a mother and daughter who both study the inclusion of people of colour in STEM, wrote that minority women in STEM are “are at once highly visible and invisible.” I feel this through and through.

RELATED: Canada’s dire need for better race-based data

I have not felt the weight of a 200-lb. man kneeling on my neck, crushing my trachea as I beg for life. Racism of the North is often discreet and insidious. It’s not always bullets, bloodied bodies or battery by batons. Our brand is marked by muted mouths, active avoidance and intentional ignorance. It is silent, systemic suppression of success. On campus it manifests as a lack of presence and a clear imbalance in the representation of the knowledge and ideas of Black people. 

At a minimum, implicit-bias training should be a yearly requirement for those who hold power in post-secondary institutions: senior administrators, deans, researchers, lecturers and teaching assistants. In order to fulfill their commitments to EDI, Canadian universities must critically evaluate the selection and retention of racialized people at various stages of the academy. But first they must thoroughly review the demographics of the student population.

I have a Ph.D. to finish which, in the midst of a pandemic, feels hilarious and futile. Faculty positions are so competitive these days and the projections for Black females in my field are abysmal. The acute awareness of anti-Black racism is draining for me; on some days, the isolation feels too much. But I’ve come too far. Quitting is not an option. I continue to push myself and honour sacrifices of the past. I am resilient now for those like me still to come.

If you’re reading this, thanks, but it is not enough. Just checking in on me (or any of your Black friends) is not enough. You must do something. Call your “liberal-fiscally conservative” parents and ask for their thoughts on privilege. Talk to your friends about unconscious bias. Zoom your colleagues and assess if policies of equity, inclusion and diversity are being effectively implemented at work. 

The road to equality is slow and staggered, but it should be neither lonely nor monolithic. It will require a lot of people to use their influence to enact change within their families and communities, and within political organizations and academic institutions. The work that remains to be done is not for Black people to do on our own.

Evelyn Asiedu is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Division of Analytical and Environmental Toxicology at the University of Alberta.

Books

'I think that my father murdered my mother.'

Jeff Blackstock unravels the story of his mother’s death in the 1950s and lays it in the hands of his father, who at the time was a Canadian diplomat

It came as a profound shock yet no real surprise, Jeff Blackstock allows, when he learned in 1979 how his mother had died 20 years earlier. He was in London, Ont., and in his first year of law school when his sister, Julia, called from her home in Kingston, Ont. She told him about the autopsy report she had found among papers belonging to their recently deceased relative: Carol Blackstock had died of arsenic poisoning. “I ran from the telephone to throw up in the washroom,” he says in an interview, “and when I got back on the line, we both, at the same time, said, ‘Dad.’ We both already knew.”

So does anyone who reads the upcoming book Murder in the Family, which begins, “I think that my father murdered my mother.” In it, Blackstock, a 69-year-old retired Canadian diplomat, presents—in the meticulous language of his profession—a convincing account of how and why his mother died, who was responsible for the murder and who acted as “my father’s enablers” in keeping the crime buried. “I knew following this through could have consumed my life, I knew my mother would have wanted us to have carried on with our lives,” says Blackstock. “And I still knew I would have to write about it someday.”

The roots of Carol’s horrible death run deep. Jeff’s parents, Carol Gray and George Blackstock, came from very different worlds. The Grays, his beloved maternal grandparents and their only child, were comfortable by the end of the Second World War. They were happily ensconced in a Toronto apartment while father Howard, a Great War veteran and a working-class night-school graduate, worked as an accountant. The Blackstocks, for their part, were Upper Canada elite, descended from immigrants to Ontario in the 1830s who grew rich from becoming professionals, and from the liquor trade. One, after whom the town of Blackstock, Ont., is named, was counsel to the Canadian Pacific Railway and a close ally of Sir John A. Macdonald. Later, Jeff’s great-grandfather married into the Gooderham distillery family, and then went into business with his father-in-law as a partner in the Bank of Toronto, a forerunner of TD Bank. His son, Jeff’s grandfather, was a graduate of Upper Canada College (UCC) and the Royal Military College, and a highly decorated officer during the First World War.

George became a diplomat in 1958 (National Film Board of Canada)

George became a diplomat in 1958 (National Film Board of Canada)

The Blackstocks continued to flourish in the 1920s, a good decade for any family that derived its income from mining investments and alcohol. Times were harder once the Great Depression hit, and after Lt.-Col. Blackstock died young of a heart attack in 1945. Still, his widow could afford to live in a six-bedroom house in one of Toronto’s wealthier neighbourhoods, there was a family trust fund and summer estate north of Toronto, and Jeff’s father, George (born in 1933), was still able to attend UCC. There he made lifelong connections, including Ted Rogers, founder of Rogers Communications and godfather to Jeff’s younger brother, Doug.

READ: The secret world of secret diplomatic cables

Then George met Carol, and by the spring of 1950, the highly intelligent, pretty, vivacious 15-year-old was pregnant with Jeff. She and 17-year-old George had their shotgun wedding before a justice of the peace in a Toronto suburb, far from the bridesmaids, bouquets and midtown Anglican ceremony that graced other Blackstock nuptials. A few hard years followed, marked by tense relations with in-laws George despised for their lower social status, and testy correspondence from great-uncle Brooke Bell, a high-powered Bay Street lawyer who doled out money from the Blackstock family trust. Things began to look up after George secured a job with the expanding postwar federal government, and more so in 1957, when he aced the foreign service exam and was assigned to the Canadian embassy in Argentina. In April 1958, the family arrived in Buenos Aires. The following April, days before George’s 26th birthday, Carol fell ill.

It was mysterious from the beginning, and became terrifying. There was endless vomiting and loss of feeling in her extremities, classic poisoning symptoms. Carol was admitted to a clinic where the attending physician, a devotee of mid-20th-century Freudian thinking, was convinced her ailment was psychosomatic and never checked her for toxins. As her symptoms waned at the clinic and—after a pause—waxed at home, she was in and out of the clinic, slowly shrinking from 115 lb. to an emaciated 90 lb. By July, Carol’s doctor suggested she return to Canada for treatment—pressure from an alarmed Ottawa bureaucracy roused into action by her parents probably contributed to that decision (George had never reported her illness to his superiors).

Her husband insisted Ottawa not tell the Grays he was bringing his wife to Montreal for treatment, and then took her on a 36-hour flight, which included a 90-minute stop in Toronto. Carol lay on her stretcher at the airport while her parents, who had no idea she was a short drive away, continued their frantic preparations for a flight to Argentina they could barely afford. On July 25, 1959, less than three days after she arrived in Montreal, 24-year-old Carol Blackstock died. Her baffled doctors performed an autopsy, but George nonetheless moved quickly: Carol died on a Saturday, was autopsied on Monday, was transported to Toronto on Tuesday and was laid in her grave on Wednesday. And then George ground to a halt, remaining in Canada for seven weeks before returning to Buenos Aires in late September to tell his children—Jeff, Doug and Julia, who were then ages eight, six and three, respectively—that their mother wasn’t coming back.

READ: Barry and Honey Sherman murder’s newest twist: family and police join forces

Less than eight months later, he was engaged to his second wife—Jeff Blackstock calls her Ingrid. George ever after claimed not to have met her during Carol’s lifetime, just as he claimed for the next two decades that no cause had ever been established for his first wife’s death, changing that story after the 1979 revelation to a claim no one had ever told him.

Jeff demolishes his father’s lies. There is correspondence from Ingrid that indicates George knew her long before Carol’s death. And while the official toxicology report—which found “significantly large doses” of arsenic in Carol’s liver, kidneys, brain, small intestine and even her toenails—wasn’t issued until the day after George returned to Argentina, the preliminary autopsy findings were enough to keep him in Canada for those seven weeks. The police had warned him not to leave. “He was interrogated more than once, and quite aggressively, according to an older cousin who was present,” says Jeff. “My sister and I have been trying to get the police records for years and are continuing to do so.”

Throughout the children’s confrontations with their father between 1979 and George’s death in 2007, they never raised the question of motive. It’s the same in Murder in the Family , even as Blackstock’s relentless presentation of facts points to two really good motives. Asked why he took that approach, Jeff replies, “I wanted to let my father speak for himself in those notes we found after his death.” In them, George is evidently crafting a defence against all charges. “He raises the issue of motive himself,” Jeff continues, “and writes in effect: Why would I have done this? The only reason that J and J—that would be Jeff and Julia, my sister and I—could possibly think of would be Ingrid. But we never spoke about that with my father at all. That came out of his mind.”

Clearing the path to marrying Ingrid, in an era when divorce could have been a crippling social, career and financial blow to him, made for an obvious motive. Far more subtly, Jeff’s account offers a motive for that motive, a deeper reason for taking up with Ingrid at all: George’s festering resentment of Carol. The shotgun wedding and the reality of her modest socio-economic status grated on him. Then George met Ingrid: the right age, the right social standing, the right family wealth—her father was a German industrialist and postwar immigrant to Argentina. “That conclusion is in the eye of the beholder,” Jeff says. “I leave that to readers.”

Carol’s diplomatic passport, found in her husband’s papers after his death (Courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada)

Carol’s diplomatic passport, found in her husband’s papers after his death (Courtesy of Penguin Random House Canada)

Something else he leaves to readers is almost as appalling as the crime—the silence from authorities, both Canadian and Argentinian, that followed it. “We are getting into speculation here,” says a cautious Jeff about his and his father’s former employer. “We’ve tried to get records from the government. Julia made multiple access-to-information requests back in the ’90s, which always came back empty, no records to be found . . . [Yet] we also know, from my sister’s interview with the pathologist who conducted the autopsy on our mother, that he was preparing for a criminal case, before it all of a sudden went away.”

Blackstock writes at length about how an investigation of a transjurisdictional crime would have required requesting the co-operation of the Argentinian government and the involvement of the Buenos Aires police, and could not have avoided scandalous publicity. Once again, Murder in the Family lays out facts but leaves the conclusion unspoken.

The federal government’s silence reminds Jeff Blackstock of his extended family’s, and his own. “My mom’s father was torn between loyalty to his daughter and burdening me with the knowledge. He did try to tell me when I was a teenager, but I wasn’t ready to listen. So he left us his papers. I think Blackstock family members, in their collective denial that something was very wrong, were conflicted as well.” In the end, as his grandfather came to believe, it would be up to Carol’s children to bear witness to her fate. And her oldest son has met that call.


This article appears in print in the August 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Father. Diplomat. Murderer?” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

Science

Aliens in 2020: Why not?

Marie-Danielle Smith: In a year that has already seen historic fires, deadly pandemics, economic crisis and locust swarms, let's not rule anything out

Could 2020 feel any more cataclysmic? There’s a deadly pandemic and a global economic crisis. New clashes over race have erupted in the United States. In the first six months of this year—this very year!—there were wildfires in Australia, deadly plane crashes in Pakistan and Iran, and impeachment trials in America. Not to mention Brexit. Remember Brexit?

Only during a period as eventful as this would a source in the office of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau offhandedly remark, in a recent conversation, that the Canadian government has a plan for just about every eventuality “other than aliens.” 

Maybe that makes you chuckle. Maybe you feel safe thinking we are all alone. But this year has already seen historic floods, earthquakes and locust swarms. A potentially-apocalyptic asteroid snuck by the planet in June without being noticed and there’s a chance that another (smaller) one will come close this November. We should surely have learned by now to expect the unexpected. So isn’t it possible that this will be the year we discover extraterrestrial life—or it discovers us?

Even if it’s a laughing matter to the Canadian government, my response to that question is: Yeah, why not. As Time magazine posited in March, the COVID-19 crisis shows we are not biologically, epidemiologically or emotionally prepared for aliens. But we might not have a choice. Here are seven super-obvious, certainly-not-anxiety-induced ways aliens could show up this year:

1. Seeing that humanity’s chance for success as an advanced civilization is approaching nil, our observers decide to give up on the planet—or salvage it. 

A popular solution to the Fermi paradox—the puzzle of why we have not found evidence for extraterrestrial life despite the probability that it’s out there—is that the aliens just don’t want us to know they’re watching. In 1973, John Ball, a radio astronomer at MIT, proposed what’s known as the “zoo hypothesis,” which suggests super-intelligent life may avoid us to allow for the development or protection of our primitive civilization. Determining that societies are likely to fall apart before we achieve advanced spaceflight, despite current optimism about space research, they might deem us a failure or—if we are unlucky—decide that Earth is well-resourced enough to salvage for parts.

2. Various space agencies detect a signal emanating from elsewhere in the universe. The international community cannot agree on what to do. 

Earth’s scientists have theorized the possibility that it could be up to 1,500 years before we can reasonably expect our radio signals to be picked up by others in the Milky Way. Based on what we’ve been broadcasting for about 80 years, less than one per cent of the galaxy will have been reached by now, so our friends may not yet know we’re here, and vice versa. Wait a little longer, though, and “we may very well be reached someday,” says the 2016 paper. But suppose we pick up their signal instead—like from a transmitter in the centre of the Milky Way that scientists were theorizing about in February. Surely global governments can come together on a decision existential to our planet? Ha ha, nah, probably not. Russia might just go for it, despite Stephen Hawking’s warnings that we might want to stay silent.

3. Undercover aliens fess up that they’ve been among us for centuries, researching world events. They provide evidence—but they are dismissed as conspiracy theorists.

Supercharge the “zoo hypothesis” and imagine that researchers are dispatched from the heavens to observe us from up close. They may be undetectable. They may occasionally slip up, which could explain UFOs. But say a rogue alien decides that now is a good time to let us in on the secret. The alien uses radio or the Internet to try advancing a benevolent communication, or, if it is humanoid, it holds a press conference and offers to be tested for its DNA. It may even perform unthinkable physical feats. QAnon seizes upon this. The being is ratioed on Twitter and dismissed as a magician and a hoax. It gives up on us. 

 

4. Before the U.S. presidential election this November, President Donald Trump declassifies ultra-secret documents that prove the existence of extraterrestrial life.

Author and scientist David Brin has written, about the theory aliens are in secret contact with governments, that: “Aversion to an idea, simply because of its long association with crackpots, gives crackpots altogether too much influence.” The Pentagon already released three UFO videos in April, feeding all kinds of conspiracy theories. So let’s entertain for a second that, somewhere down the line and not necessarily at Roswell, the U.S. government did come upon evidence of aliens, or even communicated with them. If you were Donald Trump, facing a polling disadvantage and looking for a reason to distract the public or delay the election, what would you do with that information? 

5. Breaking the prime directive, an inter-galactic authority initiates contact to save us from ourselves, offering medicine, technology and membership in the superstate.

You might be familiar with Jean-Luc Picard. A captain in his style could decide that Earth’s civilization is mature enough to bring into the fold, or that it will destroy itself if not for the intervention of a more civilized being, thus breaking the “prime directive” not to interfere with primitive planets—a concept human lawyers recently hypothesized would be almost impossible to enforce anyway. The former is laughable. The latter… well, look, we could maybe use some help.

 

6. Yearning to understand the universe, explorers from a distant galaxy reach our solar system looking to make friends—but after studying Earth, they take a hard pass.

Okay, you have to admit it is probably arrogant of humanity to think that aliens would even bother watching us. They might consider us unintelligent or be entirely uninterested, as has posited Neil DeGrasse Tyson. Or they might consider us dangerous. Not exactly a peace-loving bunch. An E.T.  would certainly do well to think twice before announcing itself to the humans whose thumbs are on nuclear buttons today. 

7. Deciding that this timeline is too dark, a great artificial intelligence decides to terminate the simulation and start anew. 

An all-powerful AI could be our puppeteer, just like in The Matrix. In 2001, two years after that film’s release, science fiction author Stephen Baxter proposed the “planetarium theory” to solve the Fermi paradox. It holds that if we haven’t heard from aliens, it’s because our universe has been deliberately designed to appear empty of life. In 2003, philosopher Nick Bostrom fleshed out the simulation argument. Elon Musk is on board. If we’re just in the sandbox, the gods or descendants that are toying with us might conclude that things have gotten just a little too fantastical in the year 2020. Better reboot. Or throw in some simulated aliens just for fun. 

Opinion

'To the football fans cheering the Edmonton team for decades: there was a time when society allowed this to happen. That time is over now.'

A conversation between Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami President Natan Obed and CFL wide receiver Nathaniel Behar on systemic racism in sports

On July 12, The NFL’s Washington team announced that it would retire its name after mounting pressure from the public, Native-American leaders and FedEx, one of the team’s largest corporate sponsors. In Canada, there were calls for the CFL’s Edmonton team to do the same. Fans of the franchise flocked to social media, spewing insults at the Inuit community, further amplifying racial tensions. Finally, on July 21, Edmonton announced that they would discontinue use of the word “Eskimo” in their team name. 

Natan Obed, president of the Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami, sat down with Nathaniel (Nate) Behar, a wide receiver who plays for the Ottawa Redblacks and spent two years with the Edmonton team, to discuss systemic racism in sports and the lead-up to the name change. This transcript has been edited and condensed. 

Q: The Maclean’s team has been talking a lot about this idea of sports teams co-opting Black Lives Matter. So the Premier League, for example, had Black Lives Matter on their jerseys. Same with some NFL teams wearing Black Lives Matter on t-shirts. Nate, you’re a sportsman. How do you think Canadians who are active sports fans can look at these initiatives and analyze them while at the same time support the cause of Black, Indigenous and racialized communities since “the movement” is clearly being co-opted by teams? 

MORE: Listen to Donovan Bailey

Behar: Sports teams are for-profit organizations. They’re interested in one thing at the end of the day, and it’s their bottom line. Racism always has a cost attached to it and it’s not until that cost is threatened; it’s not until the price they’re paying becomes more than the value they’re getting out of the racism that they look for change. 

Any of the multitude of slurs used against Black people since the inception of the English language would never be tolerated as a moniker, or as a mascot for a team. Whether you want to call it the Edmonton Jim Crows, or whatever else you could think of, none of these terms would ever be allowed and we are one of the most dehumanized sub-sects of society.

Obed: Players have a voice. Players do have some level of autonomy when it comes to choosing the type of organizations they play for and then the voice that they have. I think teams understand the demographics and composition of their workforce and hopefully want to do right by them. I also think that there’s a lot of virtue signalling. You called it “co-opting” and that’s, I guess, a synonym for it. We see it in government. We see it in corporations. And now we see it, particularly this case where the Edmonton team has stood firmly in support of the LGBTQ community and the Black community in the last couple of months. 

MORE: Hal Johnson: ‘Yes, there is systemic racism in Canada’

It is pretty staggering at how the Edmonton team has facilitated the ongoing racism against Inuit, especially on social media. I’m sure that they monitor it and I’m sure that they see it. And so the chorus of social media voices that have demeaned Inuit to save their name, really should be a call to arms for the team if they really do respect Inuit. The fact that they’ve allowed Canadians to disrespect Inuit so personally and so repeatedly is really their brand now.

I believe in the power of sport. But I also believe that sports also can do damaging things, too. Racism in sport is something that always has been something that I couldn’t really accept, but at the same time, I didn’t want to walk away from sports. Nate, I’m wondering what your perspectives on sport are in relation just to how it can bring people together, but also how it can harbour really difficult things. 

Behar: I’ve seen a lot of people in the media talking of how the dream or the goal of society should be similar to a football locker room. I understand the reason in saying that. There are so many diverse people in the locker room. But take Colin Kaepernick. I think it’s the big example. The inability for every single person in his locker room to speak up is the exact issue that you see at large in society. The inability for the vast majority of his 70-person roster to stand up in defence of him is the issue, whether it’s an issue of racism in policing or reconciliation. You see that in sport, just the same way you see it in society. 

MORE: Letters to America from Black Canadians

Obed: I think of a locker room and times when I’ve experienced racism in hockey. There was a time in Montana when we were at a visiting rink, and one of their fans was dangling bananas over the glass and calling me “monkey boy”. And my teammates, people that you wouldn’t consider to be “woke” when it comes to social justice, wanted to go into the stands and start a brawl with him. So they had my back at a time when I didn’t think I could do anything other than take it. I’ve always felt that there is that power within locker rooms. 

But at the same time, there is a fierce culture of guarding your team bias also within a locker room. And it’s interesting to see how this Edmonton team name has played out, where, it’s no wonder that the team’s fans are going to fight anyone that disparages their team. The really interesting thing here is that they’re fighting against Inuit, and they’re saying things against Inuit. And that is their moniker, that name. There is a complete departure from Inuit as people and the term Eskimos. It’s almost like there’s a complete divorce of the name from what it means to be a fan.

I really enjoyed your piece [“To Pimp a Movement” that was published on Medium]. You talk about your understanding of whiteness and how it’s impacted your life and influenced your experiences with racism. Do you want to talk a little bit about that? 

Behar: The term “white people” is really just a colonial term. It’s been used in the court of law in the United States from 1952 to become a class more than anything else. Whiteness is a class structure more than it’s a race of people because there is no white race. And that’s been founded over and over again by science. There is nothing different about a “white person” than any other diverse culture. Upholding the ideals that there is something called “whiteness” is very much upholding the fact that there are two separate classes of human beings, which maintains that “whiteness” trumps being not white.

A question to you, Natan. It often feels like you have to make a decision as a colonized minority to decide to be who you are, which is “less than” in their minds, or to become them, which is whiteness. We’re actively deciding every day: Am I going to be who I was raised to be, or am I going to be what they want me to be? Can you speak on how that’s impacted your life? 

Obed: That’s interesting. In many ways, I as an individual didn’t expect to be a part of a homogeneous. That I, as an Inuk, have to act a certain way, have to have certain skills, have to have certain perspectives, and that our society as a whole is homogeneous. So a lot of people are confused when I say what I believe. They say, Well, I was talking to this other Inuk and this other Inuk told me something completely different. So who is right? And you see how differently the majority of Canadians see “other” people.

Sometimes in my life, I’ve been told I’m not Inuk enough: that I don’t speak the language fluently; that I’d spent some time in the United States; that my mother is white. And it was not until I was in my mid-20s that I became comfortable with my identity and who I am, and started to then assert myself as an Inuk by then going out into the world and saying, I can be Inuk and be educated and have a different life experience and want certain things that not all Inuit want. And a lot of racialized groups and minority groups in this country probably have very similar feelings on an individual level where you’re stereotyped into being a certain way and that affects then the way that you see yourself.

But at the end of the day, I know that I have human rights; I have my own self-determination. I can be Inuk no matter what I choose to do. So that to me is very empowering. 

Behar: You just talked about how homogeneous people like to assume that “the other” is. To go back to mascot names and these sports teams, it sheds light on why uneducated or ignorant people could think that way. The media only shows Inuit or Indigenous people as monoliths. The only representation that they see of these people in pop culture are mascots that all look similar. For the people who don’t think this issue is very important—this is part of it. These are the steps that are needed to run the full marathon. The marathon doesn’t get run in one giant leap. 

Obed: And part of getting rid of systemic racism in all of its forms is sometimes doing things that aren’t necessarily popular. Racism doesn’t work like other opinion issues. Society doesn’t get to debate whether something is racist. People who are subjected to racism get to tell the world what that feels like and what that is. 

Behar: It starts by simply listening. Where I come from, it’s making sure that racist jokes are never okay and stereotypes are confronted in every single way. I grew up in a very white town in London, Ont., and just getting to a point amongst friends and colleagues so they understood why they weren’t allowed to say racist things in front of me. When we were [teenagers], they’d say, You’re barely even Black, this doesn’t involve you. It’s realizing that if you want to be an agent for change, it starts at the micro level. 

Obed: We struggle with this in many different areas of society, to be better communities and to be better individuals. And we don’t look back at the things that we did in the past and say, Oh, I was a terrible person because I used this particular term when that was the common term. It was just what we knew. And on this issue, what we knew, is replaced with what we now know. And there still is time for Canadians to show that they’re empathetic, show that they will fight against systemic racism, but also show that this isn’t a debate, and just demand change. 

It’s important for Canadians to know, that obviously, one of the first things in response is guilt and a pushback. [They think], But I’m not a racist person. I’ve not been doing racist things. I think there’s a very clear difference between somebody who is actively racist and somebody who has participated in something that now is being brought to light as systematically racist. So to the football fans who’ve been cheering the Edmonton team for decades: you know, there was a time when society allowed this to happen and that it was just a part of what Canada was. That time is over now.

History

The end of Toronto's first strip mall

To live in Toronto is, increasingly, to mourn places, including spots like Sunnybrook Plaza. For locals, these places become imbued with all kinds of personal memories and nostalgia.

When it opened in 1952, the strip of shops set back from the intersection of Bayview and Eglinton in Toronto’s Leaside neighbourhood inaugurated a whole new era. Postwar affluence, the ascent of affordable automobiles and the suburbanization of North American life meant the end of Main Street-style pedestrian shopping. With plenty of parking and easy access to street-facing shops, Sunnybrook Plaza seemed like the future—its place in history enshrined as Toronto’s first strip mall.

Surveying Sunnybrook in mid-June of 2020, amid the continued coronavirus-related shutdowns, the place seems extra-abandoned. Its empty storefronts—an optician, a jeweller, a dry cleaner, an H&R Block, a UPS Store, a Subway and the rest—sit behind construction fencing, facing off against construction trailers decked out with mock-ups advertising the new, glassier future of the intersection: an LRT station and multi-storey condo units like the kind you’d find anywhere. Its tall, clay-and-cream totem, cataloguing bygone commercial tenants, stands like a hollow monolith of another era. Soon, backhoes and excavators will come for it. Then steamrollers to flatten out the rubble. Then the cranes that tell the story of a city whose whole history can seem like a cycle of destruction and rebuilding.

“Toronto is a mercantile city,” says Daniel Rotsztain, an urban geographer who completed a master’s thesis on strip malls. Torontonians, he says, experience the city as a fundamentally “commercial backdrop.” The idea rings true in an era fraught by concerns of gentrification, where the need for density scrapes against history. To live in Toronto is, increasingly, to mourn places: a favourite roti shop or live music venue, places that can’t keep pace with rising rents and an urban landscape trending toward corporatization and sameness. Against such forces, even a simple strip mall like Sunnybrook—the sort one could be forgiven for taking for granted—becomes suffused with nostalgia.

READ: The meaning of Yonge Street, Toronto’s civic spine

Shawn Micallef, the author and prodigious urban flâneur, first visited Sunnybrook Plaza shortly after he moved to Toronto to take a job at the nearby CNIB office. “I’d walk down the hill and it felt like a moment in time, frozen in amber or something,” he recalls. “It was actually amber-coloured.”

For Micallef, strip malls like Sunnybrook represent nothing short of “the landscape of Canada” itself. Especially in the 1980s and ’90s, as larger shopping malls sprouted up, strip plazas offered low rents, attracting smaller businesses and restaurateurs priced out of the downtown core. (It’s something of a Toronto cliché that the best Chinese or Indian or Filipino food can be found not in the ostensibly diverse urban centre, but in some unassuming plaza in its outer wards.) For locals, these places become imbued with all kinds of personal memories—birthday lunches, first jobs, awkward high-school dates, formative toots of sloppily rolled joints in parking lots.

For Doug Smith, former proprietor of the plaza’s Wrap-It-Up stationery store, who is described to me as “the mayor” of the plaza during his long tenancy, Sunnybrook was a community hub. “It was my first store in 1985,” he says. “There were a lot of good times there. A lot of good people.” (Among them: astronaut Roberta Bondar, who lived in the neighbourhood and regularly made use of Wrap-It-Up’s Canada Post outlet.) Hybrids of main streets and shopping malls, strips like Sunnybrook drew neighbours together. Smith says that the shuttering (or “redevelopment”) of Sunnybrook spells not just the end of an era for a neighbourhood, but for a certain class of small business. The writing was on the wall, he says, when he closed up shop in 2012. “Fighting all these shopping centres, all these big box stores, the SmartCentres and the Costcos . . . the small neighbourhood stuff was not going to survive.”

READ: The tale of Toronto’s boardwalk foxes

It might seem a bit gauche, lamenting the bulldozing of a stationery store or a Subway, and investing commercial real estate with the residue of memory. Rotsztain notes that commercial properties aren’t typically deemed worthy of protection, but adds: “Just because it’s commercial doesn’t mean it’s not worth our attention. Many Tim Hortons are community centres. You can have a rich, nostalgic relation to a placeless place.”

Such placeless places abound at that intersection of Bayview and Eglinton. Hollowed-out Sunnybrook lies just up the hill from a SmartCentre, in the shadow of an Amazon-owned Whole Foods, and abutted to the east by a 24-hour Metro and Beer Store and Shell station. To Micallef, its passing reveals the ways in which the cobbled-together character of memories attached to our surroundings is evolving. “There’s a change from this hodgepodge to a repeating, mall-like blandness,” he worries. “What are the memories people make at big boxes? At Costco?”

While it’s conceivable that families might congregate in the Costco cafeteria to celebrate a graduation over a supper of Kirkland Signature hot dogs, or that bleary-eyed teens may crouch behind one of those SmartCentre statues of shopping cartoon penguins to smoke some lunch-break pot from a pipe crudely fashioned from a pear, such images of a future nostalgia seem altogether soulless. If the decline of Sunnybrook offers a lesson in anything, it’s in how nostalgia is conjured after the fact, and that we may not even realize how much these places and spaces matter until long after the writing’s on the wall.


This article appears in print in the August 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Sun sets on the strip.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

Health

How anti-vaxxers could disrupt the cure for the COVID-19 pandemic

A COVID-19 vaccine will become the most valued resource on the planet, as governments try to get enough for their citizens. But it would all be for naught if they're unable to convince people to take it when the time comes.

When Maya Goldenberg started research for her forthcoming book on vaccine hesitancy—the term for delaying or outright refusing to get oneself or one’s kids inoculated—she started by looking into measles, mumps and rubella.

These viral diseases were dangerous, sometimes deadly. Fortunately, there is a single vaccine against all three, studied over decades and backed by scientific consensus that it is both safe and efficacious. Goldenberg wondered why some parents—in the face of this overwhelming validation—still wouldn’t get their kids vaccinated. “I went in with the expectation that there was some sort of gap in the scientific evidence,” says the University of Guelph philosophy professor, “that people just needed to hear X and then they’d come on board.”

But as she delved deeper into the psychology and history of vaccines, she found evidence wasn’t really the issue. “The acceptance of vaccines is not about your relationship to science,” she says. “It has a lot to do with your relationship to social and government structures.”

While some anti-vaccination advocates bring up arguments that appear to have basis in science, Goldenberg says, their claims are really acting as a placeholder for cultural and social anxieties around the process; that is, the organizations and government structures that manufacture, approve and market vaccines.

That growing sense of suspicion could have profound implications for what many—Goldenberg included—see as the one development that could pull the world from the all-encompassing crisis caused by the current pandemic. She was putting the finishing touches on her book, Vaccine Hesitancy: Public Trust, Expertise, and the War on Science, when the novel coronavirus started to spread, killing more than 570,000 people worldwide and crippling the global economy. In Canada, within weeks of social distancing measures taking hold, the sense of fear and frustration was visible on streets and in legislatures across the country, where people demanded the reopening of stores, parks and businesses. Says Goldenberg: “The vaccine is our ticket out of the lockdown.”

A ‘reopen Canada’ protest outside a health constituency office in Burnaby on May 17, 2020 (Jen Osborne)

A ‘reopen Canada’ protest outside a health constituency office in Burnaby on May 17, 2020 (Jen Osborne)

But punching that ticket could be a greater challenge than governments and vaccine-makers anticipate. Some of the same protesters at anti-lockdown rallies are using those events to raise their voices against vaccines, presaging resistance against a future COVID-19 inoculation. If history and recent surveys are any guide, one in six Canadians, and one in four Americans, will balk, and their hesitation will take a number of forms. Some will flatly refuse; others will hold off, waiting to see what happens when the rest of society gets it first.

Plenty will think of themselves as too busy to line up, or fear potential side effects, or figure they’ve survived this long without the vaccine so they should be fine. And the seeds of doubt will be easy for avowed anti-vaxxers to plant. “It’s a new virus. It’s a new vaccine. It’s being pushed to market quickly,” Goldenberg says.

Yet returning to the “old normal”—a life without mass casualties; where people fill up hockey arenas and travel around the world on crowded planes without constant testing and monitoring—will require that enough people get vaccinated to develop a herd immunity. If the slow, careful and long-term science behind the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine doesn’t get a buy-in from everyone, it’s hard to believe a COVID-19 vaccine will be widely embraced at first. “There will be a lot of fear around it, that is for certain.”

Health experts have long warned it will likely be more than a year before a vaccine is ready, still longer before everyone on earth has access to one. It will instantly become the most valued resource on the planet, as governments clamour to get enough for their own citizens. But it would all be for naught if authorities are unable to convince people to take it when the time comes.

To develop herd immunity from COVID-19, over 80 per cent of the global population may need to get vaccinated, noted Bill Gates in a recent interview with BBC Radio, citing estimates from some epidemiologists (though the exact percentage to prevent outbreaks of the virus is still unknown). The Microsoft co-founder has committed billions of dollars to vaccination programs over his lifetime through the charitable foundation he runs with his wife, Melinda—including substantial funding for a COVID-19 vaccine. But inoculating four out of five people is no easy target.

“There is a general anti-science, anti-authority, anti-vaccine feeling among some people in this country—an alarmingly large percentage of people, relatively speaking,” warned Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in an interview with CNN.

During the swine flu pandemic of 2009, fewer than 40 per cent of people in Canada, the U.S. and the United Kingdom went to get the vaccine or intended to get it, according to Steven Taylor in his 2019 book The Psychology of Pandemics: Preparing for the Next Global Outbreak of Infectious Disease. In Switzerland, it was fewer than 20 per cent. At one Swiss hospital, only half of health-care workers got vaccinated. “The 2009 influenza pandemic turned out to be a mild influenza, which may have influenced people’s vaccination adherence,” says Taylor in an interview.

But while COVID-19 is far deadlier, only 47 per cent of Canadians said they “definitely” intend to get a COVID-19 vaccine, according to an early July survey by the public opinion firm Research Co. Fully 15 per cent of respondents said they wouldn’t or likely wouldn’t. Another 11 per cent said they weren’t sure.

Approximately 20 per cent of parents consider themselves vaccine hesitant, according to a 2016 survey from the Canadian Immunization Research Network. The World Health Organization (WHO), meanwhile, named vaccine hesitancy among its top 10 threats to global health.

READ: There won’t be a seasonal second wave of coronavirus, there will be a behavioural one

And Taylor is worried by signs he’s seen on Canadians’ Facebook pages of what he calls a “rise of anti-vax [posts] specifically targeting COVID-19”—in many cases recycled theories from previous health crises. “It’s a riff on the new world order—that there’s a shadowy organization intent on world domination.”

There are already plenty of debunked narratives floating around social media, including the outlandish tale that COVID-19 was created as a plot by Bill Gates to get everyone microchipped. And yet, a Yahoo News/YouGov survey in May found half of Americans whose primary TV news source is Fox News believed this to be true; another 25 per cent said they weren’t sure.

A scene from a protest against a lock down due to the coronavirus in Vancouver on May 10, 2020 (Jen Osborne)

A scene from a protest against a lock down due to the coronavirus in Vancouver on May 10, 2020 (Jen Osborne)

“We keep informing people with scientific facts, trying to address misconceptions through statistics and data, but people are much more moved by narrative and stories,” says Eve Dubé, a medical anthropologist at Université Laval in Quebec and former member of a WHO working group on vaccine hesitancy. “I think public health needs to have good stories.”

Here’s one. A century ago, Charles Hastings was a rarity: a doctor renowned beyond Canada’s medical community. As Toronto’s medical health officer, he ordered the city’s milk and cream supply to be pasteurized, which was credited with helping reduce the tuberculosis rate to the lowest of any major city in North America or the U.K. He made changes to the city’s sewage treatment system, helping rid its water supply of 95 per cent of disease-producing bacteria. And when Hastings led Toronto through the 1918 Spanish influenza, his recommendations to close schools and theatres—and to practise physical distancing by walking to work instead of using streetcars—helped keep the fatality count to under 2,000 in a city of a half-million, an enviable stat amid a pandemic that would kill anywhere between 50 and 100 million people worldwide.

“It seems as if we were now only at the dawn of the health age, when people are waking up to the fact that every nation has been spending millions on the cure and the attempt to cure diseases that should never have occurred with proper administrative and preventive measures,” Hastings told Maclean’s in a 1915 article, titled: “Saving lives on wholesale plan: How Toronto has been made the healthiest of large cities.”

So when a mild smallpox outbreak occurred in the fall of 1919 among schoolchildren, Hastings’ answer was easy: there was a smallpox vaccine proven to be effective. Here’s where the success story goes slightly awry. Using his powers under the province’s Vaccination Act of 1914, Hastings ordered all schoolchildren to be vaccinated. It did not go over well.

READ: Why some parents are scared of vaccines

City council was split on mandatory vaccination. Despite Hastings’ proven track record, a group of British-Canadian First World War veterans living in the city’s east end formed a Toronto chapter of the Anti-Vaccination and Medical Liberty League. At one rally, protesters held a sign claiming that the idea of compulsory vaccination was German-born, “because Germany had been one of the first countries to require compulsory vaccination for everybody—especially their army,” says Heather MacDougall, a medical historian at the University of Waterloo. It was an idea that resonated in the aftermath of the Great War.

The Anti-Vaccination League protests at Toronto City Hall in 1919 during the smallpox outbreak (Fonds 1244, Item 2517/City of Toronto Archives)

The Anti-Vaccination League protests at Toronto City Hall in 1919 during the smallpox outbreak (Fonds 1244, Item 2517/City of Toronto Archives)

“I think these guys were reacting to four years of being told what to do, figuring they had fought the war for liberty and freedom of expression,” MacDougall adds.“They weren’t going to be pushed around by a civic administration over something they perceived might harm their children.”

Hastings, for his part, considered the anti-vaxxers to be “ignoramuses,” according to a newspaper report of the day. Eleven people in the city died of smallpox in the coming months, but the outbreak ended after more than 200,000 were vaccinated. What didn’t end: controversy over vaccines.

There are more than 150 vaccine candidates for COVID-19, and only a handful are likely to make it to the finish line and be approved for use in humans. Despite signs of widespread uncertainty, surveys suggest a majority of Canadians would approve of mandatory vaccination for COVID-19 if a vaccine were proven safe and effective. (Their definitions of safe, of course, likely vary.) Studies show making it mandatory tends to increase uptake, Taylor adds, “but it can also increase resistance with people digging in their heels about not being controlled.”

Already, experts are recommending politicians and health authorities talk about the importance of getting the vaccine—even if it’s more than a year away. But Taylor warns leaders to be careful what they say. “You need to be honest and transparent, but on the other hand, you don’t want to offer false hope or announce things prematurely. We saw that with Trump and hydroxychloroquine”—the anti-malaria drug the U.S. president touted as a possible COVID-19 cure, despite a dearth of scientific evidence to support his claim.

While health authorities can still address long-standing problems like conspiracy theories, there is debate about the best ways to go about it. Dubé, for one, doesn’t believe in “myth busting”—at least not when it entails public health campaigns emphasizing the myth in big bold letters. “If you say ‘vaccines don’t cause autism,’ and then list the reasons why, people forget the explanation because it’s dry and boring,” says the Laval professor. “But they do recall the link between vaccines and autism.” Better, she says, to simply emphasize the facts about a vaccine’s safety and importance, and leave out the myths.

For people who won’t get vaccinated because they doubt the virus is a danger to them personally, Taylor suggests appealing to altruism. In the U.S., that might mean framing vaccination as the patriotic thing to do. In Canada, it could mean urging people to get vaccinated for the sake of their communities. “You’re asking people to do it voluntarily, not for themselves, but their elderly next-door neighbour,” says Dubé. Alternatively, if personal finances are a motivating factor, health officials might focus on the cost of not getting vaccinated—like missing out on paycheques due to illness or quarantine.

Back in Guelph, Ont., Goldenberg added a letter to the reader at the beginning of her book, noting that the volume went to production mid-pandemic and that COVID-19 will be a global test case for public trust in health authorities and government. “We trust vaccines to the extent that we trust the governing bodies that create and distribute them,” she says in an interview. “That’ll be more true with this pandemic.”

Before You Go

Dear sister: 'I wonder if my silence played a hand in your suffering'

'I had been conditioned to believe that racism was no longer real. So my approach to bullying and abuse has been to suck it up,' writes Téa Mutonji in a letter to her sister. 'Now, I wonder if I should have spoken out so that, seven years later, you didn’t experience it too.'

Do you remember that night when you were in Grade 11 and you complained about the racism at our high school? I was living in a rooming house in Scarborough, Ont., 40 minutes away from our home in Oshawa. I didn’t know what to do so I bought The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas, a novel about a Black girl in a predominantly white school.

Another time, you mentioned that you were experiencing symptoms of anxiety, depression and paranoia. “It’s because of the way people look at me,” you said. So, I left Depression & Other Magic Tricks by Sabrina Benaim on your bed. What you described were experiences I shared, but I hadn’t yet begun to unpack them. I didn’t know how to help you.

We’ve had a different set of circumstances—my friends are mostly white and your friends are mostly Black. But racism doesn’t have limits. I thought that since you had friends you could relate to, in terms of race, culture and religion, it would exempt you from the kind of pain I experienced—the effects of racism lingered in my psyche, my sense of self, my desires.

I had been conditioned to believe that racism was no longer real. So my approach to bullying and abuse has been to suck it up. For years, being silent was my form of survival. Now, I wonder if my silence played a hand in your suffering; if I should have spoken out so that, seven years later, you didn’t experience it too. When you and your friends hang out in your room, I hear the way you support each other and use humour to get through your struggles . . . that gives me hope.

Talking with you and watching you reminds me that we, Black people—Black women—aren’t the problem. White supremacy just makes this difficult to believe. It hinders the growth and wellness of our children everywhere. I admire the way you treat your Blackness with compassion, despite feeling targeted. You’re resilient. You don’t back down. You can’t be pushed around. I’m older than you, yet you were the one who taught me that being silent can make me complicit.

Do you know what happens to us when we’ve been programmed to accept the way the world looks at us? Exhaustion. We are taught to suppress our feelings and play the role of the “strong Black girl.” And when we talk about our deteriorating mental health, we are seen as weak; or worse, as people who are piggybacking on ancestral trauma.

READ: Hal Johnson: ‘Yes, there is systemic racism in Canada’

At what point does exhaustion turn into something else—depression, phobia, uncontrollable fear? And how often is that properly diagnosed? I know you don’t have the answers to these questions. I only ask in the hope that these questions will guide you toward aggressive self-care. I don’t mean bubble baths and scented candles; I mean tenderness, rest and community.

Oppression, microaggression, systemic racism and gaslighting can lead to depression, racial PTSD and shame. This is something I’ve only recently learned about. Through this, I’ve had to consider the failure within Black communities in acknowledging our collective mental health crisis. This also means recognizing the role I played in invalidating your struggles. If I ever made you feel like you weren’t deserving of my care, I’m sorry, Nella. The books, the poetry, the movie nights were not enough.

Since I moved back home this spring, I’ve seen that you’ve turned into your own woman—passionate, talented, outspoken. You see that the world is full of potential. You imagine a place where little Black girls have equal opportunities. Through your art, your storytelling and your love for history, you proclaim yourself as worthy. But I want you to know that moving in order to find a more forgiving city isn’t the answer. We, Black women—Black people—don’t need forgiveness. We have nothing to be forgiven for. What we need is each other.

What you’ve experienced here in Oshawa, you might also experience in a more diverse city. The pain you feel, the resentment, the fatigue, those are real and valid responses to the world we live in. It has nothing to do with your Blackness, which is beautiful, bold and magical. So, take your mental health seriously. Be your own advocate. Give yourself permission to get angry and to break down. And if you find yourself in a tiny apartment in downtown Toronto, afraid of the world around, call me. I promise that this time, I’ll know what to do.


This article appears in print in the August 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “Dear sister…” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

The piece is part of Maclean’s Before You Go series, which collects unique, heartfelt letters from Canadians taking the time to say “Thanks, I love you” to special people in their lives—because we shouldn’t have to wait until it’s too late to tell our loved ones how we really feel. Read more essays here. If you would like to see your own letters or reflections published, send us an email here. For more details about submitting your own, click here.

Life

When we're allowed to hug again

Most of us have maintained the distance in service of saving others from COVID-19, depriving ourselves for months from the physical acts of love. These photos capture the emotional moments of reunion.

Identical twins Maigan van der Giessen (right) and Lana Gilday in Edmonton on June 19, 2020 (Photograph by Amber Bracken)

Identical twins Maigan van der Giessen (right) and Lana Gilday in Edmonton on June 19, 2020 (Photograph by Amber Bracken)

As the pandemic raged on, our worlds fell silent. Stores, gyms and workplaces shuttered, forcing people to retreat into their homes. The days blended into weeks, which blended into months; the only constants were the daily sunrises and sunsets, reminders that the Earth was indeed still spinning. Pleasantries among coworkers were exchanged exclusively through online chats. Birthday candles were blown out in solitude. Our families, often just a short car ride away, remained out of reach.

Most of us have maintained the distance in service of saving others, depriving ourselves from the physical acts of love—a hug, a kiss or a lingering embrace. Couples kept apart by state borders ached for the day they could be arm in arm again, and siblings, such as identical twins Maigan van der Giessen and Lana Gilday, patiently waited for lockdown restrictions to ease.

“Since conception, [my sister] has been cradling me in her arms in some way,” Gilday says.

Twinhood comes with an innate need for physical closeness that van der Giessen and Gilday maintained their whole lives—they did everything together when they were kids, they attended the same university, and now they live a short, three-minute walk away from one another in Edmonton. It’s no wonder then, that after their first hug in nearly 100 days, the twins felt a relief that seemed almost magical.

Nova Scotia photographer Steve Wadden was eager to capture the first 60 seconds of his family’s reunion after 60 days apart. The kids, William, 4, and Joseph, 10, stayed up late making “welcome nanny and grampy” signs. “There was so much anticipation,” Wadden says. When the moment came, he was overwhelmed with emotion: “My dad cried, my mom cried, and I was crying behind the camera.”

READ: Dating during the coronavirus

Others around the world felt that same rush of affection even if closeness meant being separated by plastic film—Dolores Reyes Fernández was overjoyed to hug her father in a Barcelona, Spain, nursing home, and Olivia Grant, from Wantagh, N.Y., rested her head in the nook of her grandmother’s shoulder, as if the plastic wasn’t even there.

Amid the dark clouds of the virus is the omnipresent love between parents and children, brothers and sisters, boyfriends, girlfriends and old friends. Love is the reason we retreated into our homes when the pandemic began. It’s also why we’ll emerge. After all, the promise of holding our loved ones again is a moment filled with magic.


This article appears in print in the August 2020 issue of Maclean’s magazine with the headline, “The great embrace.” Subscribe to the monthly print magazine here.

Opinion

There won't be a seasonal second wave of coronavirus, there will be a behavioural one

Tim Sly: To anyone enthusiastically lugging a two-four of lager toward a beach party, the message is probably being missed—this is not the 'end' of anything

Timothy Sly is an epidemiologist and professor at the school of Public Health at Ryerson University. In 2003, he was involved in the management of SARS in Toronto. 

Your favourite restaurant patio, bar and campsite may be available as part of the phase three of the coronavirus re-opening in this country, but I ask: Is it time? Are we lifting restrictions with too much haste? The camping analogy is apt: A bone-dry forest floor; strict prohibition of camp fires, smoking, and matches has eliminated all sources of ignition. Have we won that battle? Not on your life! Ninety-five percent of that forest is ready to burst into flame in an instant, should some careless camper or transient trucker drop a single match. 

The absence of cases is an accomplishment but it’s not a glimpse of light at the end of a grim pandemic tunnel. It’s barely more than a return to the vulnerable position we were in before the first cases arrived on our shores. More than 95 per cent of Canadian population is completely susceptible to the virus, and that virus is still circulating—not just in major urban areas.

I was speaking with folks at a radio station in Saskatchewan a short while back. They were clearly pleased at having the lowest number of cases of any of the border provinces, and were anxious to get back to “normal”.  Within days, four cases were reported, not in a larger city, but in the tiny northern community of La Loche (population 2,300). After 10 days, 38 clinical cases were reported with probably many more asymptomatic infections, and 6 deaths. Like I said, it takes one match

MORE: Coronavirus in Canada: These charts show how our fight to ‘flatten the curve’ is going

Kingston was among the few cities in Ontario that had experienced no deaths and only 63 cases since January, with only two cases reported in all of May. But early in June soon after certain businesses were allowed to open, 25 cases appeared, all traced to a hair and nail salon.

To anyone enthusiastically lugging that two-four of lager toward a beach party, the message is probably being missed: this is not the “end” of anything. Cases can be expected to erupt about a week after any public event exactly as it has in vast areas of the southern United States. The more people attend, sans distancing, sans mask, the more we can expect a proportion of those revellers to experience symptoms a week later, and a smaller proportion to be admitted into hospital a week after that. A few will die after 20 days of being hooked up—unconscious—to a ventilator, and those that do make it out alive may have to endure kidney disease, lung damage, or neurological issues indefinitely.      

As I write this, the recently-opened-up United States has just shattered its single-day record for new recorded cases—more than 76,000, according to a New York Times database. The previous daily record—65,000 cases—was announced the day before. Florida alone confirmed 15,000 cases in one day, clearly a long way from anything resembling a controlled, ordered resumption of normal life. Helen Branswell, senior science writer for Canadian Press calls this a “raging dumpster fire”. By comparison, Canada looks almost unblemished, but we are still in 21st position out of the World’s 215 countries in terms of having 234 deaths per million in population, considerably higher than Germany with 105 deaths per million. Oh, and the States? Tenth position with 431 deaths per million. 

MORE: The unmasking of Donald Trump

Clearly, the Canadian population needs to be let out for fresh air, social interaction and gainful employment, lest all manner of sinister maladies—physical, social and psychological—beset us. But how do we manage this while keeping the transmission low? As stay-at-home restrictions are lifted, professional and social interactions will inevitably present more opportunities for spread of COVID-19.

The rules have to be logical, sensible, and adapted to the time and location. The risks of resuming bar service in Manitoba or New Brunswick may be associated with somewhat less urgency and anxiety than the equivalent réouverture in downtown Montréal. But the key to avoiding the disaster, disease,and death should be increased caution and enhanced protection. Wearing of masks and social distancing is now more important than ever. Re-opening must be done slowly, carefully and prudently. 

We know that none of the interventions are 100 per cent effective, but masks do protect. Recently, 139 clients were unknowingly exposed to two symptomatic, virus-positive hair stylists in Springfield, Missouri. Both the stylists and the clients wore face masks following community and company policy, and this is probably the reason no symptomatic secondary cases were reported. Among the 67 clients actually tested for the virus, all test results were negative.

This brings us to the subject of testing. Whether in aircraft, schools or beauty shops, what’s the one element that would help everyone relax?  Surely it’s the knowledge that everyone on board, in the shop or classroom has had a negative viral test in the last few days. Weekly testing of all hospital staff, taxi drivers, nursing home staff and any population where community-based infections are continuing to take place has long been recognized as the way to bring outbreaks to an end, an approach endorsed by epidemiologist Julian Peto at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. And this may now possible, thanks to Constance Cepko and colleagues at Harvard Medical School who have developed the reverse-transcriptase loop-mediated isothermal amplification (RT-LAMP for short). Until now, molecular tests for detecting COVID-19 virus mostly employed real-time polymerase chain reaction (RT-PCR) methods that required trained analysts, complex instrumentation, and more than eight hours to process (longer with remote locations). 

RT-LAMP is a fast, low-tech test that can be completed without expertise, expensive reagents or complex instrumentations, and it can be done at the clinic or point of care where it is administered in an hour or less. It carries a high degree of specificity (99.5 per cent ) and sensitivity (91.4 per cent), meets WHO requirements, and has been given the green light by the U.S. FDA. The U.K. has just approved population-wide trial, testing the entire city of Southampton using this method. Importantly, the effectiveness of LAMP methodology in the detection the RNA of COVID-19 at significantly low levels has now been confirmed. Such rapid and robust assays for field diagnosis of COVID-19 may well be the way to come to grips with the pandemic.

The U.S., South Korea, Israel, and Spain are facing resurgence and reversal of lockdown, while the U.K. appears to have avoided it thus far. We are almost guaranteed to see some increase in cases once folk return to pools, patios, parties, and other people. There is no evidence of a seasonal second wave; it’s more likely to be a behavioural second wave, driven by desperation to get back to the BBQ and the beer tent.