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Jack Knox: 25 stories Victorians will remember from 2016

The world offered plenty of reasons to be frightened in 2016. Trump. Brexit. Zika. The AR-15. Creepy clowns.

The world offered plenty of reasons to be frightened in 2016. Trump. Brexit. Zika. The AR-15. Creepy clowns. Still, there were reasons to celebrate: the African Ebola outbreak was contained, global literacy rates hit a new high and the Toronto Maple Leafs finished dead last in the NHL (this last one might reflect a personal bias).

We grew to expect the unexpected. Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize. “Post-truth” became the word of the year. Fort McMurray went up in flames. So did your Samsung Galaxy Note 7 phone.

Other events seemed all too predictable: the world’s failure to deal with the horror of Aleppo, the latest string of terrorist attacks (Istanbul, Nice, Lahore, Brussels, Berlin …) and the latest mass shootings in the U.S. (including the slaughter of 50 in a Florida gay bar).

Here on Fantasy Island it felt a long way away from the grimness of the globe — not that we didn’t have our own reasons for sorrow.

Here, in no particular order, are some of the stories — some significant, some definitely not — that Times Colonist readers will remember from 2016.


1. Trumpism

Well, the good news is the rest of the world has forgotten about Rob Ford.

The bad news: President Donald Trump. (Or is that Trumputin?)

No, Trump isn’t a local story, but the rise of Trumpism — the triumph of gullibility and fact-free wishful thinking — is.

The spread of fake news — of agenda-driven, uncurated, unverified, unchallenged inaccuracies — has become a cancer wherever Facebook’s algorithms deliver it. So has the instant outrage of those who believe anything that Twitter dumps in their lap.

When the Toronto Star began fact-checking Trump’s campaign statements, it found 560 — almost 20 a day — that were flat-out wrong. America’s murder rate is not at its highest in 45 years, it’s at its lowest. There is no evidence of large-scale voter fraud. Trump might deny it, but he did indeed ask supporters to check out a Miss Universe sex tape that does not, in fact, exist.

The other side could be guilty, too. A video of three young thugs attacking an older black man was used as proof of the rise of emboldened racism in Trump’s post-election America. In truth the video, which has been viewed millions of times, was shot on Vancouver Island, in Courtenay, in 2009.


2. Tent City

The activists and ideologues like to paint the tent-city saga as a triumph in that it forced the provincial government to pay attention to Victoria homelessness and find shelter for hundreds of people.

That it did. But over time the encampment also became synonymous with theft, violence, open drug abuse, squalor and entrenched, incorrigible anti-social behaviour, alienating many Victorians. The least sympathetic face of poverty became the dominant one, and all of the city’s poor suffered in consequence.

Our Place cited disillusionment over tent city when reporting a $250,000 drop in donations. A week before Christmas the Salvation Army had raised only $90,000 of its $250,000 goal and the Mustard Seed had collected just $262,000 toward its food budget, $210,000 behind where it was at the same point in 2015.

The tent city on the courthouse lawn — provincial government property — sprang up in the fall of 2015. Victoria police wanted to shut it down then, but were thwarted by the province, which argued that residents had no place to go. B.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Christopher Hinkson also took that position in March when turning down the province’s application for an injunction to dismantle tent city. But in July, as stories of crime and violence grew and even the previously supportive Christ Church Cathedral pulled its backing, Hinkson ruled tent city must go.

By that time the province had spent $1.7 million on three shelters, including one in the mothballed juvie jail in View Royal, and paid $24 million for housing in the old Central Care Home on Johnson, the Super 8 hotel (the old Ingraham) on Douglas and the Mount Edwards Court Care Home on Vancouver Street.

The last of the tent-city campers left in mid-August. A playground is being built in its place.


3. Sarah Beckett

Maybe it was because she was a 32-year-old devoted mother of two little boys. Maybe it was because she was a fun-loving, likable local girl, a Spectrum grad. Maybe it was because she was an 11-year Mountie who died at 3:30 a.m. while keeping the rest of us safe in our beds.

Whatever the reason, the death of Const. Sarah Beckett, killed when her marked police car was broadsided by a pickup truck on Goldstream Avenue at Peatt Road in Langford on April 5, triggered an outpouring of emotion. Hundreds left bouquets outside the West Shore RCMP detachment. Thousands watched the grim pageantry of the procession to the funeral at Colwood’s Q Centre, the hearse preceded by a riderless horse with Beckett’s high brown boots placed backward in the stirrups. The entire city grieved for a woman few actually knew.

Beckett was the first female B.C. police officer to die on duty, and the first Vancouver Island officer killed since 1991.

Kenneth Jacob Fenton, 28, is charged with impaired driving causing death, dangerous driving causing death, flight from police causing death, driving with blood alcohol over .08 and refusing to provide a blood sample to police. His case is next due in court Jan. 5.


4. Syrian refugees

Here’s a reason to hold our heads high: When others turned small, selfish and fearful, Canadians opened their arms to Syrian refugees.

From November 2015 through the beginning of this month, 37,400 of them arrived in Canada (where they were often surprised/alarmed to be embraced/selfied by Justin Trudeau). That includes 400 who landed on Vancouver Island, of whom 300 are in Greater Victoria.

Most were sponsored at least in part by the federal government, but 13,500 were supported privately by grassroots local groups, some of them faith-based, others just good-hearted neighbours wanting to help. History won’t forget that.


5. Unreal estate

As Vancouver’s real estate market exploded (at least until the province imposed a 15 per cent foreign buyers’ tax) the shock waves spread to Victoria.

We heard stories like the one of the guy who sold his 2,000-square-foot Yaletown townhouse for $3.5 million, then paid $2.5 million ($600,000 over asking) for a home in Uplands. In November, the benchmark price for a single-family home in the Victoria core hit $753,800 in November, up 24 per cent in a year. A Metchosin estate listed for $28.8 million. Christie’s International declared Victoria the third-hottest luxury market in the world.

Great news if you were looking to cash out and retire up-Island, but rotten for would-be first-time homebuyers trying to jump onto the merry-go-round.


6. Fentanyl

It was a long time before those in power reacted to the opioid crisis on our streets. Perhaps that’s because the street is where so many addicts live and — seemingly — are expected to die. Even now, individual overdose deaths rarely make the news unless they happen to people from a “good” background.

Fentanyl has our attention now. Everyone knows what naloxone is. The province just opened two “overdose prevention rooms” in Victoria.

Still, its toll continues unabated: 120 people died from illicit-drug overdoses on Vancouver Island in the first 10 months of 2016, twice as many as in all of last year.

In November, 1.5 kilograms of fentanyl, enough to cause 725,000 overdoses, was intercepted as it came to Victoria from China.


7. The Royals

Alas, when Victoria’s hockey team dropped its home opener to the Cougars on Sept. 23, we lost our chance to greet Kate, William and the regal rugrats with a scandalous-sounding “Royals beat Prince George” headline.

That minor disappointment aside, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s week-long visit went swimmingly. From the moment the royals landed at Victoria airport (where Kate, with baby Charlotte in her arms, the cameras rolling and the Trudeaus waiting at the bottom of the staircase, somehow managed to descend from the RCAF Airbus in stiletto heels without taking a header) they didn’t put a foot wrong.

Even the most miserable, pucker-butted, raisin-hearted anti-monarchists (not that I mean that in a negative way) had a ton of fun as the young couple, using Government House as a base, pinballed around B.C. and Yukon for events focused heavily on indigenous communities, youth, the military and the disadvantaged. No one was happier than Tourism Victoria as the international media followed the Cambridges around the capital, where they were greeted by 25,000 people on the legislature lawn.


8. Tragically Hip

Not everyone understood the wave of emotion that swept across Canada when the Tragically Hip took to the stage one last time on Aug. 20. It was like the band and its music: Forget explanations, either you get it or you don’t.

After singer Gord Downie’s diagnosis of terminal brain cancer was made public, and after the band decided to make one last tour, the CBC considered the band’s final concert — in its hometown of Kingston, Ont. — important enough to broadcast nationally.

The first stop on that 10-city tour was July 22 in Victoria — where middle-aged would-be concert-goers learned what teenage music fans have known for years: The ticket-buying system is stacked. CBC’s Marketplace reported that two-thirds of the tour tickets were bought by brokers and bots — automated software — within moments of going on sale.


9. Cannabis capital

This was the year pot shops spread like a rumour.

At last count, the city of Victoria had 35 (nudge-nudge) medical-marijuana retailers (that’s four for every Tim Hortons) making it the cannabis capital of Canada. (Insert your own Harold Head West Coast Stereotype punchline here.)

The law was wildly inconsistent in its approach to such operations in 2016. Victoria, where a bylaw took effect in September, has tried to control them through regulation. Other municipalities, such as Esquimalt, have just said no to dispensaries. The Mounties raided shops in Campbell River, Port Alberni and Nanaimo, the latter being home to Tilray, a government-approved, industrial-scale pot grower that was undercut by the storefronts.

But with Canada inching toward the legalization of recreational medical marijuana, the Wild West days might come to an end in 2017. A federal task force is proposing a regulated regime that would allow sales to those over the age of 18.


10. Frank Elsner

What is it with VicPD and its police chiefs?

Frank Elsner, the third chief in eight years to be investigated for improper conduct, has been off the job since this time last year, when he stepped aside after B.C.’s Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner launched an inquiry into his behaviour.

This followed an internal Victoria Police Board probe (one that chairwomen Barb Desjardins and Lisa Helps initially denied took place) in which Elsner was quietly reprimanded for exchanging inappropriate Twitter messages with the wife of one of his officers.

In April, Elsner was suspended with pay (his salary is $206,000 a year) as the OPCC launched yet another investigation, this one into allegations that the chief had tried to improperly influence the first two investigations (you following this?).

An RCMP inspector, acting for the OPCC, is to report by Jan. 26 not only on the first two investigations, but also on four female employees’ allegations of workplace harassment. Elsner went to court to block the OPCC’s investigation of the Twitter matter, arguing that the police board process was sufficient. The judge (the same one who dealt with Victoria’s tent city) has yet to rule.


11. Peak Malahat

Driving out of Victoria on a Friday night sucked this summer. So did getting back to town on a Sunday. The narrow funnel of the Malahat was finally choked to capacity as traffic flowed (oozed?) into and out of Victoria’s western approaches. There’s no solution in sight as growth in the burgeoning West Shore adds more vehicles to the Trans-Canada Highway. At least work on the mythical $85-million McKenzie interchange has begun — though for the next two years it will only add to the misery.

Still, many of the politicians in Greater Victoria’s 13 municipalities balk at the idea of forming a regional transportation authority. Turf protection seems a higher priority than moving people.


12. The bomb plot, Part II

Three years after being arrested for plotting to explode pressure-cooker bombs outside the legislative buildings on Canada Day 2013, John Nuttall and Amanda Korody returned to Victoria in August, freed by a judge who ruled the RCMP went overboard in drawing the couple into the scheme.

That might be a just decision, but Victorians are left knowing that while the pair might have been entrapped, they were still willing to carry out a terrorist attack in the capital.

The Crown has applied for a peace bond that, at least for now, bars them from the legislature, CFB Esquimalt and any synagogue or Jewish school, and prohibits them from having weapons. The peace bond will be the subject of a court hearing Jan. 5.


13. Shotgun marriage for sewage treatment

It took a couple of decades, but with half a billion bucks worth of government grants hanging in the balance and no end to Greater Victoria’s longest-running soap opera in sight, the provincial government finally lost patience and decided to help* the capital region’s 13,456 local politicians find a sewage-treatment solution (*in the same way that Iraq decided to “help” Kuwait in 1990).

The process was wrested from Victoria-area councillors and handed to an expert panel, which quickly dismissed a proposed two-plant solution that — based on politics, not sound engineering or economics — might have cost an extra $250 million. Instead, the panel persuaded* the CRD to approve construction of a single $765-million regional sewage treatment plant at McLoughlin Point by 2020 — basically the same plan deep-sixed by Esquimalt’s opposition two years ago (*see Iraq, above).

If the plan proceeds (we just learned that Esquimalt council might get another kick at the can) the estimated annual costs for homeowners in the seven affected municipalities are: Oak Bay, $344; Saanich, $208; Victoria, $296; Esquimalt, $258; View Royal, $248; Colwood, $146; and Langford, $239.


14. Kinder Morgan

Heads up: Here comes the biggest story of 2017.

Or: Victorians have taken to the streets to protest everything from old-growth logging to the UVic bunnycide and the consumption of pork. You think they’re going to roll over for increased tanker traffic off their doorstep?

Justin Trudeau (who suddenly sounds like Stephen Harper to some) might have just OK’d the expansion of the Trans Mountain pipeline from Alberta to Burnaby, but everyone expects a long struggle — in and out of the courtroom — before it gets built.

For Vancouver Islanders the issue isn’t so much the pipeline as the safety of the tankers that will carry the diluted bitumen through Juan de Fuca Strait. The pipeline, scheduled to open in 2019, would allow the number of tankers filling up in Burnaby to jump to 34 a month from five.

Almost lost in the all the fuss over Kinder Morgan was Trudeau’s decision to put one final bullet in the proposed Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta to Kitimat. He also reversed Harper’s decision to allow tankers in northern B.C. waters.


15. The Rio Olympics

The Olympic family? Sure, as in the Waltons meet the Sopranos.

If wholesome 16-year-old Penny Oleksiak’s four medals in the pool made her Canada’s favourite little sister, and sprinters Andre De Grasse and Usain Bolt enjoyed a bromance on the track, then U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte’s fake mugging story left him looking like an entitled frat boy, and state-sponsored doping exposed Mother Russia as a cynical cheat.

For Vancouver Island, the medals belonged to the women. Victorians Patricia Obee and Lindsay Jennerich rowed to silver, while Hilary Caldwell swam to bronze and the Langford-based women’s sevens rugby team took an emotional third.

At the Paralympics, Parksville wheelchair racer Michelle Stilwell collected two more golds — along with some grousing from political opponents who wanted more focus on her job as B.C.’s social development minister.


16. Sooke shooting

Is this Sooke or Surrey? A June 14 drive-by shooting on Ella Road left two men wounded — one seriously — and resulted in a manhunt that had the West Shore on edge for five days.

After rousting two men in the Highlands and chasing them to Thetis Lake and, finally, back to Sooke, the RCMP needed a police dog to help persuade the pair to emerge from the crawl space of a Kirby Road home.

Joshua Lafleur, 25, and Damien Medwedrich, 21, are charged with two counts of attempted murder. Dustin David Brown, taken into custody earlier, was similarly charged.

Police were investigating connections between the shooting and Vancouver Island drug-trafficking gangs.


17. Trudeau in Tofino

Is he prime minister of Canada or lead singer of the Red Hot Chili Peppers?

Every time we looked up this summer, there was a shirtless Justin Trudeau causing the Internet to go is-it-just-me-or-is-it-hot-in-here wobbly at the knees. OK, it only happened twice, including the day the surfboard-toting PM accidentally photobombed a wedding on a Tofino beach while on vacation, but it seemed like a lot.

In related news, the Men of the Times Colonist Newsroom calendar wasn’t as big a seller as we might have hoped.


18. Victoria becomes hip

For real. Vogue magazine and the Toronto Star said so, which means it must be true.

In the surprised/impressed tone of someone who just found an old high school teacher dancing naked at Burning Man, the two publications painted us as Hipster Heaven, gushing about our locavore foodie scene, craft beer and the 900 high-tech companies operating out of funky old brick buildings downtown.

Guess this means I should ditch the fanny pack/fleece vest/black socks/brown sandals look, and instead grow a civil war beard and a man bun, start swilling kombucha out of a Mason jar, and eat deconstructed mac and cheese.


19. Up in flames

It was the most spectacular blaze in years: On May 22 a massive fire destroyed a townhouse complex being built on Cedar Hill Road in Saanich. Two weeks later, 57-year-old Steven Pickering was charged with arson in that incident and an April 9 one in which a fire was set inside the Saanich Home Depot during store hours. No one was hurt in either case, but the combined loss was pegged at $7 million to $10 million. Pickering remains free while awaiting trial.

Another suspicious fire, this one at the Traveller’s Inn on Victoria’s Queens Avenue, left 60 people homeless in March. In November, dozens were displaced by a fire at the Evergreen Terrace complex, better known to some by its old name, Blanshard Court.


20. The Bengal Lounge

Jeez, you would have thought the Empress was killing an actual tiger, not just a bar named after one.

When the legendary watering hole closed as part of the landmark hotel’s renovation, martini-clutching patrons reacted as though the capital’s Queen Victoria statue had been replaced with one of Melania Trump. The fuss dwarfed the rest of a makeover priced at $30 million to $50 million.

As for the tiger pelt that adorned the wall above the Bengal Lounge fireplace, it mysteriously disappeared during the renovations and has yet to return.


21. Hockey heartbreaker

Two-10ths of a second. That’s how close the Victoria Royals came to beating the Kelowna Rockets in the deciding game seven of their Western Hockey League playoff series.

Instead, Kelowna tied it up, and then — as seemed inevitable — won in overtime. On the list of Last-Minute Defeats for the Ages, this one ranked with Apollo Creed in Rocky II, the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX and the B.C. New Democrats in 2013.

Of the 7,000 people in the Save-on-Foods arena crowd, no one took the loss harder than diehard Royals fan Jennifer Dyck. She and boyfriend Christian Brix of Kelowna had settled the question of where to live by agreeing that it would be in the city of whoever’s team went furthest in the playoffs.


22. Bunny airlift

It cost the Transportation Ministry $20,000 to trap more than 100 bunnies from the median at the Helmcken Road interchange on the Trans-Canada Highway, and it cost volunteers a similar amount of (fundraised) money to truck and fly the critters to the Retired Rabbits Sanctuary in Texas.

Which brings a few thoughts to mind: A) this is why people in poor countries want to kill us in our sleep, B) if you’re really worried about saving animals, our orcas are in crisis and C) there are still bunnies at the Helmcken interchange.


23. Why shower at sea when you can wash up on shore?

Vancouver has Bard on the Beach. Victoria had barges on the beach — two of ‘em — after a March 2 storm separated them from their tugboat.

One was removed a day later, but it took two weeks to refloat the second, which looked like something out of a Mad Max movie as it wallowed off Dallas Road, laden with scrap and construction debris.

Every so often we get reminded that we live in a marine environment where things can go sideways — as happened in May when a barge went down in Esquimalt Harbour, and in October when the tug Nathan E. Stewart sank off Bella Bella. This did little to allay the fears of those worried about tankers from the proposed Kinder Morgan expansion.


24. Pokémon Go

This summer’s out-of-nowhere craze (2016’s answer to the Ice Bucket Challenge) lured pasty white video gamers out of their basements and into the light, where they burst into flames when exposed to the sun.

Alas, the location-based augmented-reality game (translation: you had to get off the couch) also dragged players to places they were unwelcome, such as the Hells Angels clubhouse in Coquitlam, the Pentagon and Arlington cemetery.

In Victoria, all they had to worry about was perishing in an embarrassing fashion as, with heads buried in their mobile devices, they shuffled zombie-like through Beacon Hill Park (flowers? what flowers?) and into traffic.


25. Snake in a drain

Speaking of pasty white creatures lured from dark places: Victoria workers were surprised when a video inspection of a storm sewer pipe revealed a five-foot corn snake blocking the drain at Quadra Street and Balmoral Road, which was hardly creepy at all. (Somewhere, a little girl screamed in terror. Wait, no, it was me.)

City crews blocked its escape with sandbags and tried to draw it out using dead mice as bait, but the snake still managed to elude capture for eight days (three more than the Sooke shooting suspects).

Once apprehended, it was adopted out to an unidentified new owner who appointed it White House strategist.