Jack Knox selects the 25 top stories of 2014

Jack Knox mugshot genericEbola. Syria. Hong Kong. Gaza. Pakistan. Russia welcomed the world to Sochi, then took on Ukraine. Malaysian flight 370 disappeared. So did 276 Nigerian schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram. ISIL (or is that ISIS?) emerged as al-Qaida version 2.1.

Closer to home, Americans rioted over a police shooting in Ferguson, but we mourned three murdered Mounties in Moncton. Pharrell Williams made us Happy but Robin Williams made us sad. Jian Ghomeshi inherited Rob Ford’s title of Most Appalling Canadian.

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All of this was recorded on the cutting-edge-today, obsolete-tomorrow devices (“An iPhone 4? What am I, Amish?”) that became our fifth limbs this year. (Even your mother was taking duck-lip selfies and trying to make like Ellen at the Oscars.)

Here, not necessarily in order of importance, are some of the stories Times Colonist readers will remember from 2014.

1. Terror in Ottawa

It wasn’t, as was first feared, Canada’s 9/11. Rather than being a well-planned attack by foreign terrorists, the Oct. 22 ambush killing of Cpl. Nathan Cirillo at the National War Memorial was the act of a “self-radicalized” mentally ill man with a history of street crime. It echoed the description of Victoria-raised John Nuttall, who will go on trial next year charged with plotting to set off bombs outside the legislature on Canada Day, 2013. Combined with the killing of a uniformed soldier by a pro-ISIL Quebec man Oct. 20, it forced Canadians to re-imagine the face of terrorism here.

In a surreal scene in which Parliament’s Centre Block echoed with gunfire, the Ottawa killer, Michael Zihaf-Bibeau, was shot dead by sergeant-at-arms Kevin Vickers. The latter is the brother of John Vickers, organizer of Greater Victoria’s Amalgamation Yes campaign.

Had Zihaf-Bibeau planned his attack just five days earlier, his target could have been one of several CFB Esquimalt sailors then on ceremonial sentry duty at the Ottawa war memorial.

2. The teachers strike

In the end it was starvation, not legislation, that sent B.C.’s striking public school teachers back to work, ending the latest battle in the 100 Years War between their union and the provincial government.

After five weeks on the picket line — two in June, three in September — 41,000 B.C. Teachers Federation members couldn’t afford to reject a negotiated (!) agreement that didn’t really give them what they wanted. The contentious issue of class size and composition is still working its way through the courts (while the question of Jim Iker’s haircut has gone to binding arbitration).

The six-year contract runs through 2019, an eternity in a school system with more disputes than the Jerry Springer Show.

While the teachers grew poorer during September, 230,000 families were able to apply to the province for $40-a-day payments for students under age 13 — a total of $530 per kid.

3. Baby Iver

The stories that touch us most are those of life and death.

When Victoria’s Iver Benson was born in February, it was in the most tragic and miraculous of circumstances.

His mother, 32-year-old Robyn Benson, was five months pregnant when she suffered a brain hemorrhage Dec. 28, 2013. She was declared brain dead but, in a case that was the first of its kind in Canada, was kept on life support to allow her unborn child to survive.

Iver arrived by caesarean section Feb. 8, 12 weeks early and weighing just two pounds, 13 ounces. Robyn died a day later.

By the time dad Dylan Benson brought Iver home in May, the community had raised $200,000 for the boy’s care and education.

Father and son had their first outing on Mother’s Day, getting flowers for Dylan’s mother and grandmother and visiting Robyn’s family.

Dylan says he would like to thank everyone for their support, and reports that Iver is a healthy little boy.

4. Nanaimo mill shooting

Vancouver Island had its own out-of-nowhere horror April 30, a lone gunman shooting one man in the parking lot of Western Forest Products’ downtown Nanaimo sawmill, then three more in the mill’s office. Forklift operator and union official Michael Lunn and supervisor Fred McEachern were both shot dead on site, while supervisor Earl Kelly and vice-president Tony Sudar were wounded.

Former millworker Kevin Douglas Addison, 47, was charged with two counts of first-degree murder and two counts of attempted murder. A preliminary hearing is scheduled for March.

The Red Shirt Foundation, dedicated to solving issues of workplace violence, was established in memory of Lunn, who was known for always wearing a red T-shirt.

In October, WFP announced the mill would close permanently this year.

5. The November Revolution

Incumbent politicians are usually harder to unseat than the last drunk at closing time. This November, local voters toppled two of the biggest: Dean Fortin was the first sitting Victoria mayor to be defeated since David Turner in 1993, while Frank Leonard was the first Saanich leader to lose since 1977.

The latter result was particularly surprising. The seemingly unassailable Leonard, mayor since 1996, lost to Richard Atwell, a political newcomer unknown for anything except his opposition to the capital region’s sewage-treatment plans. Leonard, always careful to consult residents before making a major decision, might have paid the price for going in the opposite direction when it came to the amalgamation issue, reluctantly offering voters only a convoluted ballot question that did little but tick them off.

Atwell began his reign by engineering the ouster of the municipality’s top administrator, a move that will cost taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars and earned him the wrath of the rest of council. Hey Saanich, you wanted change, you got it.

6. Gracepoint

Look Ma, we’re on TV! From late January through late May, the 10-part remake of the British murder drama Broadchurch was taped in Victoria. It was a mutual love affair as familiar-from-your-screen faces like David Tennant, Anna Gunn, Nick Nolte and Michael Pena made themselves at home. Oak Bay doubled as small-town ’Merica, Island View Beach doubled as coastal California and even the Times Colonist doubled as a U.S. newsroom, though some of us weren’t captured by the cameras, having been declared TUFT (Too Ugly for Television).

7. The A-word, finally

Parochial politicians did their best to prevent the voters from getting to say whether they wanted an amalgamation study. And it speaks volumes that when public pressure (thanks to Amalgamation Yes) finally did force eight of our 13 councils to put a question on November’s ballots, they couldn’t come up with straightforward, common wording. (What do you expect when they can’t even plow the same roads when it snows?)

Never mind the wording. As Victoria victor Lisa Helps noted, we all knew the real question: Do you want to explore the amalgamation idea further? When 75 per cent of us voted yes, it felt like a dam had burst.

8. View Towers fire

The spectacular fire that struck downtown’s View Towers apartment building May 15 was bad enough. What was worse for 70 displaced tenants was being refused re-entry, if not to their own homes, then at least to one of the dozens of empty apartments in the 350-unit highrise. Anti-proverty advocates and politicians raised the spectre of “renovictions” — low-income tenants being ousted to make way for upgraded, pricier suites — to no avail. The Residential Tenancy Branch turned down a request to investigate,

Eight people, including seven police officers who rushed in to clear the building, were treated in hospital for smoke inhalation after the fire.

9. Ghomeshi

Hip. Smart. The coolest kid at the CBC. Victorians gave Jian Ghomeshi the full-on rock star treatment at a sold-out appearance at the Royal Theatre last year. You would no more suspect the radio host of predatory sexual behaviour than you would, um, Bill Cosby.

When the 47-year-old was fired in October, many fans knee-jerked to his defence — then backtracked as, one after another, nine women stepped forward with claims of sexual or physical abuse. In November, Ghomeshi was charged with four counts of sexual assault and one of overcoming resistance by choking. His next court appearance is Jan. 8.

10. The never-ending stories

What dominated the news in 2014? The same stuff that dominated it in 2013, and 2012, and 2011….

10a Sewage

It’s a $783-million topic that either makes your eyes glaze over or your head explode.

The biggest capital spending project in our history stalled, jeopardizing $500 million in provincial and federal contributions, because the 457 municipalities here in Dysfunction-by-the-Water proved once again that they couldn’t co-ordinate a three-car funeral procession without losing the stiff.

After Esquimalt (civic motto: Live Free or Die) balked at having a treatment plant forced upon it, the CRD board decided to look for “sub-regional” solutions (translation: all the cooks follow a different recipe) with the goal of having a new plan by March 2015. Esquimalt, Langford, Colwood, View Royal and the Songhees First Nation grouped together, while Victoria is looking at building its own system or joining Oak Bay and Saanich.

10b Blue Bridge blues

Might as well call it the Dean Fortin Memorial Monument, because it cost Victoria’s mayor his job. The price tag on the Johnson Street Bridge jumped from the $77 million approved by council in 2010 to $93 million this year, and some say the final price could top $100 million. The city is in mediation with the builders and designers over who will pay. Problems with Chinese-fabricated steel could add months to the project, now expected to open in 2016.

10c B.C. Ferries

Slowly starving inside its government-issue straitjacket, the corporation cut service, raised fares and even, in desperation, floated the idea of killing the Nanaimo-Horseshoe Bay run (an idea immediately quashed by the province, proving once again that B.C. Ferries is independent in name only).

The bottom line: most similar “lifeline” ferry systems — whether in Alaska, Washington, Scotland or Sweden — enjoy far higher government subsidy rates than does B.C. Ferries. Until the politicians change that, the ferry system will wallow.

10d Pipelines

The Harper government greenlighted the Northern Gateway pipeline in June. This wasn’t totally shocking, given that a) the natural resources minister dismissed pipeline opponents as “extremists,” b) Revenue Canada was sent chasing after environmental charities, c) the government rewrote the Environmental Assessment Act, Navigable Waters Protection Act and Fisheries Act to smooth the way, d) Ottawa had CSIS and the RCMP spy on pipeline opponents and e) the government had already spent tens of millions on infrastructure — including meteorological aids supertankers need to navigate their way out of Kitimat — for a pipeline it had yet to approve. No guarantee Northern Gateway will ever get built, though.

Later in the year, the focus changed to the Kinder Morgan pipeline proposal, which would increase oil tanker traffic off Victoria.

10e Fractured policing

We went backward when it came to integrating (never mind amalgamating) Greater Victoria’s police services.

The highly successful Regional Crime Unit, which targeted prolific offenders, fell apart because of squabbling over funding. The dive team also went under, as it were.

In November, the provincial government introduced legislation that would force municipalities to take part in integrated police units fighting cross-border crime. Really, should it take handcuffs to make them work shoulder to shoulder?

10f Oh deer

Victoria’s urban deer continue to roam as freely as sacred cows, raiding your garden, breaking golf course etiquette, hogging the comfy chairs at Starbucks. Told of Bambi’s effect on Government House roses, Prince Andrew apparently suggested gardeners there do what they do at Balmoral Castle: lure the deer with a truckload of feed, then shoot ’em.

Oak Bay plans to cull 25 of the animals on its own, which might reduce numbers as long as the municipality builds a Berlin Wall-style deer fence along its entire border with Victoria and Saanich.

11. Health firings

In 2012, seven Health Ministry researchers were fired and a contractor lost his job over a “privacy breach” that was never really explained.

This year the province backtracked: Three wrongful-dismissal cases and three union grievances were settled. Among those getting an apology was View Royal councillor Ron Mattson. Premier Christy Clark also apologized to the family of another of the fired researchers, Roderick MacIsaac, a UVic co-op student who committed suicide after being let go just short of earning his doctorate. Legal action on behalf of two others continues.

In late December, a government-appointed investigator concluded the firing process was flawed, but didn’t say whether the firings were justified.

The Times Colonist’s Cindy Harnett deserves credit for refusing to let this story go.

12. Temporary foreign workers

When Canadian staff at three Victoria McDonald’s restaurants complained about losing hours to foreigners, federal cabinet minister Jason Kenney was quick to wade in and plug the holes in a program whose leaks had been making him angry. Foreigners are only supposed to be hired when no Canadian is available, but many were filling entry-level service-industry jobs all over the country. Foreign workers themselves were found to be susceptible to mistreatment during their two-year stays in Canada.

After Ottawa sanctioned the three Victoria restaurants in April, McDonald’s seized them from their owner. Across Canada, applications to use temporary foreign workers fell 75 per cent after Ottawa tightened the rules in June.

13. Ice bucket challenge

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is a disease so terrible that people don’t even want to think about it. Charitable donors would prefer to give to a cause that promises a happy ending.

So, imagine you’re a fundraiser for ALS Canada, banging your head against the wall as you try to figure out how to squeeze a few nickels out of the public. Golf tourney? 5K run? Bake sale?

Suddenly, out of nowhere, comes the global social media phenomenon called the ice bucket challenge, everyone from Saanich’s Leonard to Sidney Crosby, Bill Gates and Kim Kardashian pouring freezing water over their heads. By summer’s end, $16 million — more than twice ALS Canada’s annual budget — had been donated by 260,000 Canadians.

Hmmm, that 260,000 number sounds low. Imagine if everyone who took part actually made a donation, too.

14. The Ebolapocalypse

Prudence is one thing. Paranoia is another. Finding the line between them isn’t easy.

Victoria hospitals rolled out an Ebola contingency plan. Airport health officials peered suspiciously at anyone arriving with a fever (a 69-year-old Victoria man who hadn’t been within 6,800 kilometres of the Ebola zone got hauled off to hospital after landing in Montreal with a garden-variety flu). You dug a backyard bunker and shot the neighbours, just to be safe.

Despite — or perhaps because of — our fears, Ebola has yet to afflict a single Canadian. Meanwhile, 48,000 of us will die of heart disease this year. Ebola won’t kill you. Eating cheeseburgers in front of the TV will kill you.

15. Mothballing juvie

It was just 12 years ago that Victoria’s cramped Pembroke Street juvie jail was replaced by a spanking new $14-million youth detention centre — which the province is now closing due to the low number of incarcerated kids. That means any local minor who get locked up must be shipped to Burnaby, far from family. Likewise, there’s nowhere to hold jailed women on Vancouver Island; local police departments refuse to keep them in their cells, which are just meant to be temporary holding tanks.

Call it a byproduct of the lowest crime rate since 1969.

16. Protecteur fire

Quick action by the crew prevented loss of life when fire struck HMCS Protecteur 630 kilometres off Hawaii in February, but the crippled ship was doomed. It was towed home, arriving at CFB Esquimalt in May.

The loss of Protecteur and the retirement of Canada’s only other replenishment vessel, HMCS Provider, highlighted how thin the navy is. With no replacement replenishment ship due to be built for several years, Canada is looking at leasing one from an ally. (Uncle Sam’s Used Oilers? Good luck; that worked so well when we bought the second-hand subs off the British.)

17. Where there’s smoke...

Who would have thought dope would be legal in Washington and Alaska before B.C.? Across the strait from Victoria (you can see the smoke on a clear day) Port Angeles’ first licensed recreational marijuana shop opened in November.

In Canada, meanwhile, the feds tried to get a leash on their medical marijuana program by shifting to a model that would see all pot sold by large-scale commercial growers. While a yet-to-be-resolved lawsuit has allowed some users to continue to grow their own, would-be commercial licensees — including one that has built a block-like building in a field beside the Pat Bay Highway in Central Saanich — have sprouted like seedlings in spring. Tilray’s $20-million, 60,000-square-foot Duke Point operation began production in April.

18. Where there’s no smoke...

Meanwhile, the Capital Regional District expanded its outdoor tobacco ban to include playgrounds and parks (including those in the boonies) and extended the smoke-free buffer zone around doorways, windows and air intakes to seven metres from three. Effectively, the law means smokers are restricted to the middle of the Johnson Street Bridge, from 3 a.m. to 5 a.m., and only when it’s raining.

No word on whether an exemption will allow addicts to light up in Victoria’s planned safe-injection sites.

19. The city that time forgot

To borrow a bumper sticker from Hawaii: Slow down, this ain’t the mainland.

In Japan, they just introduced a train that goes 500 km/h. In much of B.C., they raised the highway speed limit to 120. In Victoria, city council cut it to 40 — which is still 30 klicks faster than the Colwood Crawl.

20. Big Benn

Summer Olympic heroes? Vancouver Island breeds ’em like UVic bunnies: Simon Whitfield, Silken Laumann, Ryan Cochrane, Adam Kreek ....

Winter Olympics? Not so much — until the Saanich Peninsula’s Jamie Benn popped the only goal in a 1-0 victory over the U.S., propelling Canada to the Sochi Games men’s hockey final, which we also won, just as God intended.

(As a side note, Victoria did adopt another Winter Olympian this year: Jon Montgomery, who won a 2010 gold medal in skeleton/beer-guzzling, moved here after hosting the latest season of The Amazing Race Canada).

21. HitchBOT

In the best tourism season since 2008, our most celebrated visitor was a robot that hitchhiked 6,000 kilometres from Halifax to Victoria.

Feted like a member of the royal family upon arrival, HitchBOT wore owl earrings from the Pauquachin nation, red spinner feathers from the Songhees nation and a tiara from the Empress hotel by the time he (she? it?) reached Mile Zero.

HitchBOT, the brainchild of Ontario researchers studying the relationship between people and technology, took 19 rides and 21 days to get here.

22. The oldest Canadian

Even by Victoria standards, Merle Barwis was old. In fact, when she died in Langford on Nov. 22, just one month and one day shy of her 114th birthday, she was the oldest person in Canada, having been born during the reign of Queen Victoria.

Barwis was 112 when she learned she was the most senior Canadian. Asked at that time if she wanted a visit from the prime minister, she demurred: “I don’t want anything to do with Trudeau.”

Her family remembered her as a loving-but-not-flowery woman who enjoyed mowing the grass of her Sooke property well into her 90s, pausing halfway through the job to enjoy a cold beer.

23. The Biggish One

Remember the magnitude-6.6 earthquake that rattled Vancouver Island in April?

Probably not, even though the temblor, located off the northwest coast of the Island, shook Victorians off their couches and could be felt as far away as Prince George and Kelowna.

We get one of these shakers every so often, loosening our bowels and tightening our resolve to prepare for The Big One. Then we drift back into complacency.

24. Attack of the Drones

Yes, drones. Transport Canada reported 15 cases in which the increasingly popular unmanned aerial vehicles came dangerously close to airplanes in B.C. this year — but we were more alarmed by stories of the gizmos hovering, like oversized robotic mosquitoes, outside the top-floor windows of young women in Victoria. Creepy.

25. Lucy the Emu

For five days in March, freedom-loving Islanders cheered silently as an emu named Lucy eluded capture after bolting from his (yes, Lucy is a boy) Nanaimo-area home — a man-sized flightless bird who took flight nonetheless. The authorities tried to corral him, but for the longest time the only thing caught was the public’s imagination as Lucy’s folk hero status grew.

The emutable truth is we all harbour a little Lucy in our hearts. As safe and secure as it may be, some days life feels like a velvet coffin. When Lucy went on the loose, we lived through him vicariously.

Run, Lucy, run.

jknox@timescolonist.com

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