(The Canadian Press)

(The Canadian Press)

Front-line workers named Canada’s Newsmaker of the Year by editors

Health workers held the hands of the dying when their loved ones couldn’t be there

Shortly after COVID-19 reached Canada, the meaning of “essential work” began to crystalize as people like nurses and grocery store clerks remained on the job at great risk to themselves and their families.

Health workers held the hands of the dying when their loved ones couldn’t be there, while others provided access to vital goods and kept supplies moving across borders that were otherwise closed.

In a landslide vote, front-line workers have been named the 2020 Newsmaker of the Year in a survey of news editors across the country by The Canadian Press.

“The front-line workers risked their lives from the start, not knowing what we know now about COVID,” said Jodi Isenberg, the Toronto Star’s senior editor, Life and Entertainment, in casting her ballot.

WATCH: ‘Feels like a dream came true,’ says health-care worker receiving first COVID vaccine

“They gave up more than anyone in this fight, left their families, sometimes were the last face someone at death’s door would see. They deserve all the praise we can bestow on them.”

“Most of us did our part by staying home; these front-line workers did their parts by stepping up,” said Dawn Walton, CTV Calgary managing editor.

Historically, the Newsmaker of the Year has most often been a politician or an athlete. But with COVID-19 dominating the news cycle, front-line workers were followed in votes this year by three public health leaders: Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer; Dr. Horacio Arruda, Quebec’s director of public health; and Dr. Bonnie Henry, B.C.’s provincial health officer.

The pandemic highlighted not only the essential role of front-line workers but also some of the gaps in support for them. From staffing shortages in long-term care homes that amplified the devastation of the disease to pushes for national sick pay and child-care programs, COVID-19 has been a catalyst for change.

Paul Meinema, national president at United Food and Commercial Workers Canada, said its members, from grocery store workers to food processors, have spent much of the pandemic worried about their safety.

They’ve always played an essential role but have never had such public acknowledgment of their value, he said.

“Many people went to the grocery store each week and never really considered the person who was putting the food on the shelf and checking them out or making sure there was fresh meat and produce on the counter,” Meinema said.

“COVID has exposed the importance of this work.”

That work has been recognized through temporary measures like pandemic pay that the union believes should be made permanent.

“I think it raised awareness in society generally and I think we’re hopeful for a continued societal change recognizing the importance of these jobs,’” Meinema said.

The pandemic has also highlighted some behind-the-scenes workers who have often gone unnoticed.

Enzo Caprio, who oversees 15 testing labs in the Montreal and Abitibi-Temiscamingue areas as clinical administrative director for the Optilab-McGill University Health Centre, said the pandemic has shone new light on his staff.

“I think people are starting to realize how critical it is what we do,” he said.

While some essential workers felt a reprieve as case counts slowed during the summer, Caprio said that never happened in the labs, where testing continued at a rapid pace.

In a matter of months, the labs underwent transformations that would normally take years to increase their COVID-19 testing capacity. They’ve completed 430,000 tests since March, he said.

“Since March, I myself have been doing 13 hours every day. My staff has not stopped,” he said. “They have voluntarily done this because they understand how important it is what we do.”

Sophie Gabiniewicz, a registered nurse in the intensive care unit at St. Paul’s Hospital in Vancouver, said it has been one of the hardest years in her 25 year career.

The public recognition of the risks and sacrifices taken by health workers has been a boost, beginning with the nightly clanging of pots and pans that has united isolated households in gratitude.

“I could hear the roar come through as a wave one day as I was coming into work and thought, Wow that’s for me. They’re doing that for me,” she said.

“It gave me a really happy nice shiver tingle.”

Although the vaccine represents hope on the horizon, many of the same workers are now in the thick of a second wave.

“I just hope that people are still thinking about us,” said Gabiniewicz. “We’re going to get through this all together.”

The clang of pots and pans at 7 p.m. each night may have died down but Canadians’ gratitude for essential workers has not.

“In an absolutely terrible year, the public was reminded how our everyday heroes are not professional athletes, musicians or even politicians, they are our front-line workers,” wrote James Miller, managing editor of the Penticton Herald.

“It was remarkable how they put their lives on the line daily.”

Tim Switzer, managing editor of the Regina Leader-Post, similarly noted that while other officials often became the public faces of the COVID-19 fight, it has been the front-line workers fighting on the ground who have made the difference.

“If there is anything good to come out of a pandemic — and that’s a big if — maybe it will be that everyone takes many of those workers less for granted.

Amy Smart, The Canadian Press

Like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Want to support local journalism? Make a donation here.

Best of 2020

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Logging Camp Nine on Great Central Lake overlooks a large forest fire across the lake in this historical photo from May 1943. Camp Nine was bustling, with residences for logging camp staff, a rail line and rail cars visible. This is one of 24,000 photos contained in the Alberni Valley Museum’s digital archives, available for public viewing at https://portalberni.pastperfectonline.com. (PHOTO PN12220 COURTESY ALBERNI VALLEY MUSEUM)
LOOK BACK: Great Central Lake’s sawmill

Take a peek at Alberni Valley history with the Alberni Vally Museum

Alberni Valley Bulldogs’ goalie Luke Pearson stopped all 22 shots the Cowichan Capitals sent his way to collect a 5–0 shutout in B.C. Hockey League action, Saturday, April 10, 2021. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)
BCHL: Pearson earns shutout in Bulldogs’ win over Cowichan Capitals

Alberni Valley will face Victoria Grizzlies Sunday, April 11 at 3 p.m.

A 3.0-magnitude earthquake occurred off Ucluelet just after 12:30 a.m. on April 10 and was reportedly felt as far south as Oregon. (Map via United States Geological Survey)
Quake off Ucluelet reportedly felt as far south as Oregon

Magnitude 1.5 earthquake also reported off Vancouver Island’s west coast hours earlier

Princess Elizabeth and her new husband, Prince Philip—behind the wheel—visited the Alberni Valley on the princess's inaugural visit to Canada. A photographer with Charnell Studios in Port Alberni captured the young newlyweds along the parade route on Oct. 25, 1951, months before Princess Elizabeth became Queen. Prince Philip died April 9, 2021, just shy of his 100th birthday. This photo is one of 24,000 in the Alberni Valley Museum's online archives, available for public viewing at https://portalberni.pastperfectonline.com. (PHOTO PN 13605 COURTESY OF ALBERNI VALLEY MUSEUM)
LOOK BACK: Prince Philip and his new bride visit Port Alberni

A special look back with the Alberni Valley Museum to honour the life of Prince Philip

John Ambrose Seward, 33, is described as Indigenous and five-foot-eight with short black hair and brown eyes. (Police handout)
John Ambrose Seward, 33, is described as Indigenous and five-foot-eight with short black hair and brown eyes. (Police handout)
High-risk sex offender banned from central Island, living in Vancouver: police

John Ambrose Seward, 33, has been released from prison under a number of conditions

B.C. Health Minister Adrian Dix and Premier John Horgan describe vaccine rollout at the legislature, March 29, 2021. (B.C. government)
1,262 more COVID-19 infections in B.C. Friday, 9,574 active cases

Province’s mass vaccination reaches one million people

People walk past the Olympic rings in Whistler, B.C., Friday, May 15, 2020. Whistler which is a travel destination for tourists around the world is seeing the effects of travel bans due to COVID-19. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
Adults living, working in Whistler, B.C., eligible for COVID-19 vaccine on Monday

The move comes as the province deals with a rush of COVID-19 and variant cases in the community

RCMP crest. (Black Press Media files)
UPDATE: RCMP investigating after child, 6, dies at motel in Duncan, B.C.

The BC Coroners Service is conducting its own investigation into the circumstances around the child’s death

RCMP display some of the fish seized from three suspects who pleaded guilty to violating the Fisheries Act in 2019, in this undated handout photo. THE CANADIAN PRESS/HO - RCMP
3 banned from fishing, holding licences after overfishing violations near Vancouver Island

Mounties seized the group’s 30-foot fishing vessel and all equipment on board at the time

B.C. Premier John Horgan responds to questions during a postelection news conference in Vancouver, on Sunday, October 25, 2020. British Columbia’s opposition Liberals and Greens acknowledge the COVID-19 pandemic has presented huge challenges for Horgan’s government, but they say Monday’s throne speech must outline a coherent plan for the province’s economic, health, social and environmental future. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck
Horgan’s NDP to bring in throne speech in B.C., Opposition wants coherent plan

Farnworth said the budget will include details of government investment in communities and infrastructure

FILE - An arena worker removes the net from the ice after the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames NHL hockey game was postponed due to a positive COVID-19 test result, in Vancouver, British Columbia, in this Wednesday, March 31, 2021, file photo. As vaccinations ramp up past a pace of 3 million a day in the U.S, the NHL is in a tougher spot than the other three major North American professional sports leagues because seven of 31 teams are based on Canada. (Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press via AP, File)
Vancouver Canucks scheduled to practice Sunday, resume games April 16 after COVID outbreak

Canucks outbreak delayed the team’s season by eight games

Cannabis bought in British Columbia (Ashley Wadhwani/Black Press Media)
Is it time to start thinking about greener ways to package cannabis?

Packaging suppliers are still figuring eco-friendly and affordable packaging options that fit the mandates of Cannabis Regulations

Most Read