Montreal wind warning winds power outages 2021 year in review Montreal Quebec

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2021: Cautious optimism, setbacks and so much goddamn fierté

A year of political campaigning, pandemic life, scientific progress and social injustice that both flashed by in a blur and dragged on for an eternity.

Year Two of a global pandemic can certainly warp our sense of time and space. 2021 both flashed by in a blur and dragged on for an eternity. It’s impossible to highlight everything that made the news, but I can always try.

We started the year in Quebec with COVID curfews and government theatrics, with the Legault administration unwilling to acknowledge that most outbreaks were taking place in schools and work sites. A full year later, in some ways it still feels like we’re at square one. Without massive contact tracing, no easy access to rapid tests, no proper safeguards like ventilation and portable air filters in schools, we’re just bracing and hoping for the best as outbreaks and hospitalizations continue to increase and the government continues to sidestep accountability. Thank God for science at least.

How vaccines shaped 2021

Justin Trudeau vaccinated
Justin Trudeau

2021 was undoubtedly the year of vaccines. COVID vaccines finally allowed hope and light at the end of this pandemic tunnel, but also vaccine hesitancy and vaccine conspiracy theorists that keep prolonging this mess, and vaccine inequity pointing an accusatory light on humanity’s inability to work together and provide access to life-saving science for everyone. 

Another bright light: the WHO approval of the first malaria vaccine. Malaria kills nearly 650,000 people every year — more than half of them children under five — and remains one of the leading causes of death in low-income countries. Science was killing it in 2021. Too bad so many people were busy looking at YouTube videos for their medical information. 

Here at home, the initial vaccination rollout and the Clic Santé platform were two things the Quebec government did extremely well. Unfortunately, when it came to ventilation in schools, speeding up the booster shot, the use of N95 masks and using the rapid tests that had been supplied by the feds and had been sitting in warehouses for months, they failed spectacularly. Somehow, despite these failings, Legault’s popularity has barely suffered, proving populism can be more blinding than a solar eclipse. 

BLM, Indigenous genocide, domestic violence, social inequality

Mamadi Fara Camara on Tout le monde en parle 2021
Mamadi Fara Camara on Tout le monde en parle

In the States, in what the L.A. Times called “the stupidest year in U.S. history,” voters finally sent Donald Trump packing, but not before he managed to kill off as many people as his bumbling incompetency and callous indifference could, by severely downplaying the pandemic and inciting hate. No sooner had I happily unfollowed him on Twitter than his hapless supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in a violent and deadly insurrection. If it weren’t for the U.S.’s disturbing backwards slide when it comes to women’s reproductive rights, I could afford to ignore our neighbour to the south for a little bit. 

2021 was, in many ways, the continuation of the Black Lives Matter movement. George Floyd finally got some posthumous justice with Derek Chauvin’s conviction. Here at home the year started with Mamadi Camara’s wrongful arrest by the Montreal police and ended with the violent arrest of Black teens in Quebec City that led to the suspension of five police officers, highlighting how racial profiling continues to affect visible minorities in profound and discriminatory ways. 

2021 was the year that shook Canada to its core, as the true horror of residential schools was revealed. In Quebec, a horrified province watched Joyce Echaquan’s plea for respect and medical help, but still it wasn’t enough to convince a government that was too busy focusing on an exaggerated censorship crisis and protecting our freedom of speech from “woke radicals” that systemic racism exists. In Montreal, the tragic deaths of Raphaël André, the Innu man found in a Parc Avenue port-a-potty, and of Elisapie Pootoogook, an Inuk woman found dead at a construction site near Cabot Square, brought to the forefront the issue of homelessness, which has only been exasperated by the pandemic. 

2021 was also a pandemic of violence within a pandemic. This year saw femicides and violence against women surge in Quebec. At last count, 18 Quebec women have been murdered at the hands of men who claimed they loved them, their deaths leaving behind countless victims and families shattered with grief.  

Political campaigns and elections

Valérie Plante Montreal Mayor 2021 election
Montreal Mayor Valérie Plante

On the Montreal municipal scene, incumbent mayor Valérie Plante won a second mandate, despite Denis Coderre’s best undermining efforts and Balarama Holness challenging them both by bringing some interesting new ideas to the table. Quebec municipal elections also saw more women, more diversity, more young people being elected (Longueuil mayor Catherine Fournier was my political highlight), always a good thing for representation, inclusivity and social cohesion.

In federal politics, we spent an eye-watering $600-million on a pandemic election only to come full circle again and wake up to a virtually unchanged political landscape with Justin Trudeau once again at the helm with his second minority government. Thanks for the bill, Justin. 

In provincial politics, we’re still a year away from an election, but Premier Legault and the CAQ have already entered full campaign mode, not missing an opportunity during pressers or via the premier’s Twitter account to tout their achievements and priorities. 

Fatigue is the palpable emotion of 2021

2020 was a horrifying year as COVID raged and killed millions around the world. But, as the stop-and-go frenetic traffic of 2021 comes to an end, we find ourselves exhausted. Fatigue is the palpable emotion we feel. We are tired. Tired of COVID. Tired of thinking about COVID. Tired of fearing COVID. Tired of staying away from our families, friends and loved ones because of COVID. Tired of putting life plans on hold. Tired of masks and hand sanitizers and Zoom meetings and daily government updates and their daily excuses.

Tired of a provincial government that governs by public opinion polls and weekly injections of “fierté” that’s supposed to somehow make up for science denial and severe healthcare shortages. Tired of the physical and mental isolation. Tired of being skittish about dating or travelling or just breathing fresh air without someone’s cough sending my mind careening with scary “what if?” thoughts. Tired of the collective grief and the collective holding of our breaths. Tired of just being tired. Like the Ever Given, the container ship ungracefully and awkwardly wedged in the Suez Canal for weeks, we all feel… stuck. 

But there is hope. Vaccines and antivirals seem to point to COVID becoming endemic at some point in the future, and while it’s still too soon to say with any certainty, Omicron seems to be a much less deadly variant — at least for the vaccinated. There are reasons for optimism despite another difficult and unpredictable year. 

Sampling joy when you can

Old Montreal winter 2021
Old Montreal in winter (@adamoconsequat | Instagram)

Earlier this month, before it all went to shit again with Omicron coming out of left field, I had the opportunity to spend some time in West Palm Beach. A friend of mine was kind enough to issue an invite and I took her up on it. Close to two years of a global pandemic has taught me to be extremely vigilant with COVID safety precautions, but also to jump on life-affirming and joyful opportunities if they come my way. Life is too short and COVID has instructed me on how to plan for never knowing what’s around the bend. 

I’m a solitary person by nature. I love human interaction and revel in good conversation but also enjoy my own company. I suspect that so much of this COVID-imposed isolation and working from home with minimal human contact has made me lean into that predisposition even more. 

I spent hours walking the gorgeous sandy beach, listening to the roar of the waves, following the tides and the swells of the water rush up on shore and just as quickly recede. I walked back and forth for miles picking up seashells, holding them in my hand, my pockets getting heavier with every mile. Most mornings, I barely saw another soul, which made the beach both solitary and extraordinarily peaceful. Most of all, safe. 

COVID felt like a faraway dream there. Even if I knew that Florida was in the grips of Omicron, just as much as Quebec was back home, I allowed myself some distance. I wasn’t in denial of the virus; I simply enjoyed a tiny respite from it for a glorious hot minute. 

Mostly what I did on those walks was watch the shorebirds. The beach was right next to the John D. MacArthur Beach State Park and above and around the sand dunes and the mangroves, visitors can easily catch a glimpse of herons, brown pelicans, terns, sandpipers and gulls. But it’s the sandpipers I became obsessed with, following them around and watching their every move.

Sandpipers are small shorebirds that congregate near the water’s edge, on beaches and tidal mud flats, poking around in the wet sand for food — sand crabs, insects and marine worms. They usually hop around in small flocks, scurrying on tiny legs just ahead of the surging waves. Their typical feeding behaviour is to rush onto wet sand as waves recede to probe for food, fleeing as the waves crash down and the surf rolls toward them. This perpetual wave chase, while nothing more than a survival mechanism for them, is one of the cutest things you’ll ever see. I became mesmerized by their little choreographed dance. 

In and out of the waves, they would scurry, quickly picking away at the wet sand for any food they could find, and then quickly scurry away as the water rushed at them. When the wave receded, they would enjoy what they could, and when the wave approached, they would run for cover and out of danger. I thought to myself, “We need to be like the sandpipers.”

Be like the sandpipers

Sandpipers, West Palm Beach, Florida, 2021.

Until we get this thing under control, we need to stay safe. Our mental and physical health relies on making good decisions for ourselves and those we love. Get vaccinated, get your booster, don’t take reckless chances with your life and the lives of others, isolate and get tested if you’re not feeling well, follow public health guidelines. Double mask if you’re in questionable surroundings. 

But, also, don’t forget to live. Soak up any joy that comes your way. Smile at the unexpected opportunities to savour life. Go outside, breathe fresh air as much as you can, even the kind that’s so cold it stops you in your tracks. Find ways to allow your body to move, your brain to think, your heart and soul to be inspired and happy. 

We have had the most trying two years, but hang in there just a little bit longer. Rejoice in being here to see another year come around. Good stuff is on its way. Stay safe and stay laser-focused on everything and anything that makes you grateful to be alive. Go with the flow and don’t let fatigue allow bad decisions or dangerous, fatalistic “we’re all going to get it” behaviour. 

Move with the ebb and flow of things that are out of your control, but control what you can. Outrun the bad, don’t drown under the weight of your grief, get out of its way. But, when the moment is good, strike, soak it up, lap it up, inhale the good stuff. Be like the sandpipers. ■

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.