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2021, a look back at the past 12 months on the Semiahmoo Peninsula

The ongoing pandemic and severe weather among the top news items of 2021

It may all seem a bit of a blur for Semiahmoo Peninsula residents reeling from close to two years of pandemic restrictions.

But, while many events – and even more non-events – from 2020 and 2021 seem to run together in our memories, 2021 had its share of memorable news moments.

COVID-19 vaccination was a big story in early 2021 as the Peninsula geared up for mass injections for the general public, following the prioritizing of seniors and frontline healthcare workers in late 2020 and the early weeks of the new year.

On Feb. 22, Surrey council authorized mass vaccination sites to be operated by Fraser Health at four recreation centres in the city, including the South Surrey Recreation and Arts Centre.

These were in addition to three testing and vaccination sites already being used by Fraser Health, including one adjacent to the South Surrey Park and Ride, and local pharmacies, which were also being authorized to provide vaccinations.

Fraser Health calculated it would need to deliver 37,500 doses each day between April and November, with a ‘soft launch’ planned for March. Of 1.8 million people eligible for vaccination in the jurisdiction, it estimated, 31 per cent were in the Surrey and White Rock area.

At White Rock council’s March 29 meeting, Carol Wiebe, executive director for Fraser Health’s White Rock and South Surrey and Delta Health Services, and Peace Arch and Delta hospitals, reported on how vaccination objectives were being met in the Peninsula area.

At that point, appointments were open in the area for seniors 73 years of age or older, Indigenous individuals 55 and older and Indigenous Elders, with clinically extremely vulnerable patients, as well as front-line workers, manufacturers and businesses “struggling with COVID outbreaks” receiving priority.

Community Home Health and help support programs had immunized most of their home-bound clients, Wiebe reported, and all long term-care and assisted-living patients and staff had received their first and second vaccines.

Nine months later, just before Christmas, White Rock and Surrey residents were among 91.8 per cent of eligible people 12 and older in B.C. who had received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine; the 88.9 per cent who had received their second dose and the 16 per cent who had already received a third dose.

But cases, including the Omicron variant, were increasing, with 298 cases reported in Surrey for the week of Dec. 12-18.

And Fraser Health announced it was reopening three Surrey-area mass vaccination sites in January – including South Surrey Recreation and Arts Centre – to support access to booster shots, announced on Oct. 26 as being available to all 18 and over since that date.

A single mother of three – whose “brutal life” had resulted in her moving seven times in three months between transition homes and friends’ houses – was overcome with emotion as she was shown the rental home newly renovated for her, on May. 31.

Some 40 friends and volunteers lined a stretch of 17A Avenue as a cargo van obstructing the home was removed, showing Rachelle Seidel the results of an intense seven-day project organized by the LifeApp charity, a Langley-based organization that co-ordinates home makeovers for people who need it the most.

The volunteers, some logging 15-hour days, had renovated every part of the house, from the exterior to the garage (transformed to a workout space) and the open- concept dining room, kitchen and living room.

Lifelong friend Naomi Kragh said Seidel richly deserved the home makeover.

“She’s the kind of person who runs around like crazy doing everything for everyone else,” she said. “She’s had brutal circumstance, thing after thing after thing. She just deserves a break.”

A month-long White Rock council experiment in making Marine Drive a one-way street for most of West Beach and East Beach ended on July 4.

The measure had been intended to help waterfront restaurants recoup business losses due to the reduced seating capacity imposed by provincial health authorities as a means of preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Council, which had heard an impassioned plea on behalf of the businesses from BIA executive director Alex Nixon, decided on May 10 to try the eastbound one-way so that the northern sidewalk area could expand to allow more temporary patios and increased foot traffic.

City staff, however, warned that while – in chief administrative officer Guillermo Ferrero’s words – “anything is possible,” they had concerns about lack of access for emergency vehicles and also the diversion of westbound traffic to primarily residential streets.

The measure was adopted on May 31, with the proviso that it would end when provincial health authorities once again allowed full-capacity indoor dining.

Almost as soon as the measure was adopted there was a barrage of opposition – some from hillside residents worried about increased traffic volume past their homes, some from businesses that claimed that it actually reduced foot traffic and benefited only a few restaurants.

A return to full-capacity dining at the beginning of July, at the discretion of restaurants, effectively spelled the end of the contentious issue.

Fortunately, no-one was hurt in a dramatic fire that erupted at a construction site near 192 Street and 32 Avenue in South Surrey on July 29.

Massive flames shot into the air after a construction crew hit a gas main shortly before 9 a.m.

By 2 p.m., FortisBC reported, crews were still working to bring the gas under control, although the fire was expected to subside within the hour since the gas flow had been shut off.

Americans flocked to the Canadian border at the Peace Arch and Douglas crossings after Canada lifted restrictions at midnight, Aug. 8, welcoming back fully vaccinated American citizens and permanent residents.

Non-essential U.S. travellers who had a full course of a Health Canada-approved COVID-19 vaccine were once again allowed on Canadian soil. For eligibility, they had to live in the U.S., had to have allowed at least 14 days to pass since their last vaccine dose and be able to show proof of a negative molecular test for COVID-19 that was no more than 72 hours old.

Unrestricted travel of Canadians into the U.S. took longer. Shortly after midnight on Nov. 8, non-essential travel by Canadians into the U.S was re-instated, provided that visitors could prove that they were fully vaccinated.

Blaine merchants did not get an immediate boost in trade, however – Canadian restrictions still required that nationals provide a negative PCR COVID-19 test, up to 72 hours after it was taken, before being re-admitted into Canada, which continued to discourage cross-border travel.

It wasn’t until Nov. 30 that Canada lifted the negative PCR test requirement for returning Canadians, provided they had visited the U.S. for less than 72 hours. However, that rule was reinstated on Dec. 21, with a new surge in cases fueled by the highly transmissible Omicron variant.

Semiahmoo First Nation Chief Harley Chappell said he wanted Canada’s first National Truth and Reconciliation Day on Sept. 30 to be marked by an “orange sea” of support on White Rock’s waterfront.

He got his wish as thousands – most of them wearing orange shirts – turned out to a ceremony at Grand Chief Bernard Robert Charles Plaza on East Beach, and joined an impromptu march to the Spirit Stage at Semiahmoo Park to accommodate the swelling crowd.

Mostly Peninsula residents – of all ages and heritages – they were signalling their support of Indigenous people, including residential school survivors, youth and elders.

It was the community’s grassroots response to greater awareness of the residential school tragedy – stemming from the discovery in May of the unmarked graves of some 215 children at the site of the Kamloops Indian Residential School which had operated from 1890 to 1969.

The discovery of evidence of the long-rumoured deaths of Indigenous children placed in the residential school system had rocked the nation and created impetus for further examination of residential school sites across the country.

Since May, more than 1,300 unmarked graves have been discovered at four sites in Western Canada (out of 139 across the country). The issue shed light on a policy in which more than 150,000 Indigenous children were taken from their homes between 1883 and 1997 and placed in distant boarding schools where they were forced into manual labour, religious instruction and cultural assimilation, while subjected to unhealthy living conditions and malnutrition.

“I’m shaking in my heart,” a tearful Chappell said. “Seeing you here today – driving down the road and seeing all these orange shirts coming here, feeling the love and support.”

In early October, staff and patrons of iconic Marine Drive restaurant Charlie Don’t Surf were mourning the passing of owner John Carroll after what the restaurant’s Facebook page described as a hard-fought battle with COVID-19.

“We lost a mentor and the world lost a White Rock legend,” the Facebook post stated, noting his passing on Thursday, Oct. 7.

Described in comments as “sassy,” “hard-working,” “a character” and “a very kind and inspiring man with a big heart,” Carroll was remembered as a self-made man who came to Canada as an immigrant from his native Britain.

He started Charlie Don’t Surf in 1985, but had interests in – and provided valuable feedback to – multiple area businesses.

Cyclone-like weather that hit Semiahmoo Bay in late October resulted in a U.S. boat being washed up on White Rock’s East Beach.

The unoccupied sailboat, registered in Washington State, washed up on the beach around midday Oct. 25 after repeatedly crashing into the rocky foreshore.

Initial response came from White Rock RCMP, but later the City of White Rock and the Coast Guard joined forces to remove it from the shore and have it towed away the following day for salvage.

The severe rainfall and flooding that struck the eastern Fraser Valley on Sunday Nov. 14 impacted at least two local groups that found themselves stranded in Hope for several days due to mudslides and highway closures.

But both benefited from the hospitality of Hope residents who rallied to provide shelter, food and blankets even while dealing with their own emergencies.

Semiahmoo Minor Hockey’s U15 A2 team – and parents – were stuck in Hope for almost two days after playing in a tournament in Kelowna. Ultimately, through a parent’s aviation-industry connections, the group was able to charter a helicopter to get them home.

South Surrey musician and impresario, and Order of Canada recipient, George Zukerman and two thirds of his Young Beethoven touring chamber group (who had played a concert engagement in Kelowna on Nov. 14) were also stuck in Hope for some three days before roads reopened and they were able to return.

Meanwhile Peninsula businesses and the South Surrey and White Rock Chamber of Commerce stepped up to provide non-perishable food items, meals and other donations to flood victims.

The sold-out Diwali Dinner Celebration held Nov. 22 at Vikram Vij’s My Shanti Restaurant at Morgan Crossing filled five boxes with non-perishable foods donated by patrons, in an initiative set up by the chamber, the event’s co-sponsor.

Meanwhile, Ryan Moreno, the CEO of the Joseph Richard Group (JRG), was collecting food items and cash donations through the group’s The Henry Public House in Cloverdale, and also making meals for victims and volunteers in Chilliwack and Abbotsford.

For a while it appeared there would be no seasonal Christmas lighting display at the White Rock waterfront for 2021.

In 2019, the White Rock Lights Society was formed to present what was then called the White Rock Festival of Lights at the waterfront, adjacent to the pier and White Rock Museum and Archives – with an ambitious plan to expand lighting displays, year by year, to help make the city a regional destination each winter.

But momentum for the event was seriously impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Renamed White Rock Lights in 2020 (after provincial health authorities were reluctant to approve a ‘festival’ that would attract large crowds) the event’s future also came into question in early 2021 due to a dispute between the city and the society (and its president and founder Gary Gumley) over alleged damages to Memorial Park lighting poles from 2020 decorations.

The conflict stalled fundraising efforts for the display and eventually reached an impasse which resulted in resignations from the society’s board of directors.

Ultimately, the city stepped in to take over the display as a Class A (city-funded) event.

Christened Bright Walk in White Rock, the new event, including a Christmas tree, an illuminated light tunnel and a snowman family photo opportunity, was officially launched Dec. 10 and is set to run until Feb. 15.

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