Vaccination Street

[Note: this post has been modified in minor ways to clarify points and correct typos.]

Vaccination Street

This was me at St. Joseph’s Health Centre in Toronto on Thursday, having just been vaccinated against Covid-19. I expected it would be a day of celebration: I was the last adult in my household to receive a vaccination, qualifying as an essential caregiver under Phase 2 of the province’s vaccine rollout, and had been watching both the province and country’s vaccination rate tick steadily upward.

I was wrong.

Hours after I received my shot (Pfizer), Unity Health announced it would be shuttering its vaccination clinics at both St. Joe’s and St. Michael’s Hospital due to a shortage of vaccines. This news came a day after three other Toronto-based health networks — Scarborough Health Network (which runs community and hospital clinics in the city’s east end), East Toronto Health Partners (which supports clients in the city’s densely populated Thorncliffe Park community) and University Health Network (whose affiliations include Toronto General, Toronto Western and Princess Margaret Cancer Centre) — closed their vaccination clinics to some or all new registrations and, in some cases, began cancelling previously booked appointments.

On Wednesday, Toronto reported 1322 new cases of Covid-19. On Thursday the number was 1254, and on Friday it rose another 1527 cases. On Friday the Province of Ontario reported 4,812 new cases. These are record numbers for both the City and Province, and represent highs not previously seen at any time during this pandemic.

How did it come to this?

For weeks Ontario Premier Doug Ford and federal representatives (including Federal Procurement Minister Anita Anand and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau) have traded barbs and blame regarding vaccine supply. These accusations reached a fever pitch this past week, while caseloads in Ontario skyrocketed. Ford has blamed the federal government for its failure to provide a steady supply of vaccines, while the federal government has blamed the province for its failure to deploy all the vaccines allocated to it. Unsurprisingly in this ideological age, public perspectives on who deserves the most blame align tightly with political orientation: the left-wing perspective is that Ford has sacrificed the most vulnerable of Ontarians upon the altar of capitalism, while conservative-minded commenters attack Trudeau for failing to secure borders and bowing to the World Health Organization’s compromised authority.

Me, I blame them both.

How the Federal Government Failed Canadians

Canada’s federal government is famously terrible at procurement. Canada’s problems with procurement have persisted and arguably worsened over the last two decades. They are widespread, ranging from failures in procurement for military equipment, infrastructure, even personal protective equipment during the pandemic. Analyses of the federal government’s procurement failures typically point the needle midway between ineptitude and corruption, a classically Canadian equivocation geared to ensuring that little will change.

Some commentators have excused Prime Minister Trudeau on this very basis, pointing out (correctly) that the federal Conservative government under Brian Mulroney began privatizing vaccine manufacturing capacity in the 1980s, adding that for the last two decades what little remains of drug manufacturing capacity in Canada has been controlled by multinational drug companies. Two subsequent pandemics (SARS in 2003 and the H1N1 influenza outbreak in 2009) did not, despite warnings, motivate the federal government to regain domestic control over the country’s drug supply. That the loss of domestic drug manufacturing capacity and attendant drug supply problems have persisted and continued to worsen under Conservative (Mulroney, Harper) as well as Liberal (Chrétien, Martin, Trudeau) leaderships means that while Trudeau’s failure to procure a stable supply of Covid-19 vaccines may have a historical context, it cannot be blamed only on decisions made by another party’s prime minister decades ago. Notably, by the time the pandemic began, Trudeau had been elected to serve a second term as Prime Minister and was in the fifth year of his party’s mandate.

It is my view that the federal government’s failures in Covid-19 pandemic management and oversight are rooted in a combination of inexperience, overconfidence, ineptitude and gutlessness. Inexperience is understandable — it has been a century since the last truly global pandemic — and missteps were inevitable. Shifts in federal messaging as the pandemic has proceeded (regarding border closings, quarantine rules, mask mandates, etc.) are also reasonable and inevitable.

Overconfidence in the federal government’s response is more of a problem, as overpromising and then under-delivering on vaccine supply promises has simultaneously worsened conditions on the ground and eroded public trust. In December of 2020, Bloomberg Media reported that “Canada has reserved more vaccine doses per person than anywhere,” adding that the country had raised eyebrows internationally by reserving enough does to fully inoculate 154 million people, or four times Canada’s total population. Noted in passing was Canada’s “lack of local manufacturing capacity,” a problem that has since become the punchline in the subsequent months of vaccine shortages. By February, Canada’s vaccine shortages had become international news. In the same month, the Canadian government drew international criticism for being the only G7 nation to draw vaccines from COVAX, an agency set up to fund vaccines for poorer countries. Unsurprisingly, vaccine shortages have hampered the provinces’ efforts to plan and deploy vaccine rollout. Also unsurprisingly, they have eroded public trust. Public opinion polls have found public confidence in the federal government’s handling of the pandemic to have slipped greatly a year into the pandemic, linked mainly to perceptions of delay and ineptitude in federal response.

Why has Canada experienced so many vaccine shortages? Because — oops — while its procurement teams managed to negotiate boastfully large quantities of vaccines, the contracts do not appear to have included strong benchmarks for their actual delivery. This is an amateur error, at best, and its consequences have been embarrassing and costly. When vaccine manufacturers have run into production issues, they appear reliably to have prioritized other commitments to other countries. Canada has been punted unceremoniously down the line.

Ineptitude at the beginning of in an unprecedented crisis is connected to inexperience. But more than a year into the pandemic, ineptitude is no longer so forgivable. Fourteen months into the pandemic, Canada’s border with the US remains more-or-less closed, but international flights continue to leave and enter Canada every day, bringing devastating variants into a country poorly equipped to withstand them. The federal government has received sharp criticism for its failure to screen residents adequately upon arrival and to ensure people quarantine after arrival as required, and has been slow to implement new measures (which, like Covid quarantine hotels, were then criticised, perhaps perversely, for being heavy-handed).

As for gutlessness, well. Perhaps ‘gutless’ is too strong a word. And to be fair to the Canadian government, global relations, even at their best, involve a delicate dance of diplomacy and consequence. And Canada has, for better or for worse, taken its lead from the W*rld H**lth Organization, which has its own delicate dance of diplomacy and consequence to choreograph. But from the beginning, even when evidence was pouring in that the Ch*n*s* government had concealed the spread of Covid-19 within its own borders, threatening and disciplining even its own medical experts who raised the alarm and resulting in the virus’s spread to other countries, Canada downplayed criticism of the country, refused to close borders or test passengers, and shipped PPE to Ch*n*a — the world’s largest manufacturer of PPE — weeks before our own country faced a critical shortage of this urgently needed equipment.

The W/H/O has, to its credit, sought to encourage Ch*n* to contribute to global efforts to fight Covid-19, and has worked with Ch*n* to uncover the virus’s epidemiological origins. This is not a simple task, particularly in an environment of epochal tensions among global powers and superpowers, and the W/H/O has undoubtedly been hamstrung by its fully understandable wish not to destabilize any of the existing im/balances. The W/H/O’s mandate is to improve global health and wellbeing and respond to health emergencies, and it has tried, admirably under the circumstances, to do so. But countries like Canada could have done a far better job of supporting the W/H/O’s efforts by, say, holding the Ch*n*s* government at least somewhat accountable.

Canada’s own position is made difficult, of course, by the imprisonment of two Canadians in Ch*n*, currently on trial under circumstances reflecting a power struggle between Ch*n* and the US. It is also complicated by a surge of Anti-Asian racism and violence during the pandemic. But it seems to me that the federal government could have done a better job of juggling these considerations in ways that would have better protected the public or at least reduced Canadians’ exposure to Covid-19 and its variants. Other countries, including New Zealand, Australia and Japan, have managed this juggling act without, for the most part, inflaming international tensions.

How the Federal Government Saved Canadians

Having criticised the federal government for failures that will inevitably, alongside others, come up in the public inquiry that will also inevitably (Canadians having an endless appetite for inquiries and commissions whose earnest, evidenced, balanced and usually excellent recommendations are quickly forgotten) follow the pandemic, I think it is also fair to praise it for an action responsible for as many as 2.3 million vaccinations (and counting), including up to 900,000 in Ontario to date: its unpanicked response to reports of rare blood clots in people who have received the AstraZeneca vaccine.

When some other countries paused or completely halted distribution of the AstraZeneca vaccine following reports of a link between AastraZeneca and blood clots, Canada’s health agency reviewed the data and adjusted its recommendations (currently, Canadians aged 55 and older remain eligible to receive AstraZeneca, and other vaccines are recommended for younger people), but did not pause its approval of AstraZeneca. This is because the risk of developing blood clots after receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine are exceedingly low (about 1 in 250,000 to 1 in 500,000), significantly lower than the rate of blood clots among the general population and vastly lower than the blood clot rate among people diagnosed with Covid-19 (1 in 100 among people diagnosed, and 1 in 20 among people hospitalized with Covid-19).

This move, which seems balanced and responsible in light of what is currently known about Covid-19 and its risks, has undoubtedly saved Canadian lives. It is precisely the kind of leadership we should be seeing from the federal government. Canadians are owed a lot more of it.

A ‘Folks’-Filled Diatribe of Deflection: How the Ontario Government Blew Vaccine Rollout

At this point it is hard to know even where to begin with Ontario’s provincial government. And I will begin by saying that for months I thought Premier Doug Ford was not doing an abysmal job. At the very least, for some months I did not think a different leadership under a different party would have been likely to do better.

Now I think it would be difficult for any premier to have done worse. And the worst thing that can be said is that Premier Ford genuinely seems to have been trying his best. But a pandemic is not just something you can wing, and I think Ford is genuinely out of his depth.

The carnage in long-term care facilities was predictable and inexcusable. That the Ontario government’s management of long-term care homes has been a disaster at least since the 1980s (under a succession of Liberal, NDP and Conservative governments) does not change the reality that things have gotten steadily worse, and that conditions reached genocidal levels during the first and second waves of the Covid-19 pandemic. Privatization, profiteering, relentless cost-cutting, limited inspections, poor working conditions (low pay, inadequate training, part-time-only positions lacking benefits) for staff leading to high turnover, warehousing of care recipients (including many crowded four to a room) and culpable indifference to suffering have resulted in 3,766 deaths in long term care homes (almost all among residents but 11 among staff) and almost 22,000 cases in total. Notably, long term care homes run by private corporations had more breakouts and higher death rates than in municipally-run facilities.

Despite claims by the provincial government that it was implementing protocols and investing in staff and equipment to protect long term care residents and staff, it became clear in the second wave of the pandemic that little had changed from the first. Long term care residents continued to get sick and die in disturbing numbers until late February of 2021, by which time — in what is arguably the province’s single success in its vaccine deployment — most residents and the majority of staff had been vaccinated. It also became clear that long term care residents, quarantined, isolated from family, restricted to their rooms and sometimes even their beds, denied access to amenities, resources and even routine medical care, were suffering the effects of a year of neglect. This is a travesty for which public authorities and long term care operators must be held accountable.

The much ballyhooed rollout of vaccines in Ontario has been a bust in important and costly ways. When retired General Rick Hillier was brought on board in November of 2020 to oversee the Province’s vaccine task force, like many Ontarians I was delighted. Hillier had a reputation for military excellence as Canada’s Chief of Defence Staff, and military leaders are by definition expert at deployment. But during Hillier’s tenure the Province never developed a detailed implementation plan, and not long into the new year (a few weeks after Hillier apologised for pausing vaccine rollout over the Christmas holiday, calling the interruption “a mistake”) the task force seemed increasingly rudderless. Hillier left the task force in March, amid fanfare from the Premier, but was quietly replaced a few weeks later by ORNGE CEO (and former fellow soldier) Dr. Homer Tien.

I do not know what went on inside the Province’s vaccine task force during Hillier’s tenure, and I do not know why he left. But contrary to claims by both Hillier and Premier Ford, the job of overseeing the task force was far from complete, and it was a very strange time to exit a contract. Hillier’s terse statements in announcing his departure (and his cagey refusal of requests that he remain on board) seemed strikingly at odds with his usual plain-spoken demeanor. If it made sense, as the Premier suggested, to bring on new staff for Phase 2 (which at the time of Hillier’s departure was a back-of-the-envelope shambles), then it would have made equal sense to also replace the Province’s Chief Medical Officer of Health Dr. David Williams, whose rambling, unfocused statements on the pandemic during daily pressers have hardly inspired confidence in his presumably prodigious abilities. I have a feeling much more will eventually come to light about task force functionality and Hillier’s reasons for leaving, and will be very interested to see what is revealed (because of course there will be a public inquiry into Ontario’s pandemic response).

Two weeks before vaccine rollout was anticipated to move on to populations beyond residents and staff in long term care facilities and front line health care workers — and after having promised for months that a single provincial portal would open, through which Ontarians could confirm their eligibility and register for vaccine appointments — the Province dropped this burden in regional health units’ laps. In mid-March a provincial portal did become operational, but even a month after opening for registration, the provincial portal has no way to register most categories of people eligible for vaccines.

In response to complaints that obtaining a vaccine appointment was confusing and difficult, at a press conference on 13 April 2021, Premier Ford said, “I have to tell you that 2.8 million people didn’t find it confusing,” adding, “It’s very, very simple.” At this same presser, Ford announced — surprise — that people aged 18 to 49 in ‘hot spot’ areas would be eligible to receive vaccines, and invited them to register via the Provincial system, although as of today it remains impossible to do so (and in any event, most of the mass vaccination clinics where these populations could have been vaccinated have closed due to a lack of supply). The Province has now added a note to the portal instructing people in this demographic to wait for “community partners and public health units” to advertise “mobile and pop-up clinics,” and instructed, “Do not book through the provincial booking system.”

This seems pretty confusing to me.

For most supposedly eligible conditions, the provincial portal returns the response “You might be able to book COVID-19 vaccine appointments through the City of Toronto Health Unit general phone line.” For other categories of eligibility, the provincial portal directs the visitor, helpfully, to the VaccineTO website — which then directs the visitor, equally helpfully, back to the provincial portal. For educators, whom Ford announced would be eligible for vaccination starting Monday 12 April 2021, the portal states “You can book COVID-19 vaccine appointments through City of Toronto Health Unit if you directly support students with complex special education needs in an elementary or secondary school in Ontario.” Toronto, for its part, directs eligible educators back to the provincial vaccine information line. A visitor to the provincial portal clicking “other groups” (a catch-all for an increasingly wide variety of eligible groups) is told “This booking tool does not currently offer online booking for some priority groups who are eligible for a vaccination. ”

It’s not just confusing: it’s like a Magic 8 Ball.

[The future is murky.]

On Thursday, just hours after I had gotten my own vaccination there, when St. Joe’s announced it was shutting down its clinic due to a shortage of vaccines, the provincial cabinet met to discuss further public restrictions the government could enact to slow the accelerating spread of Covid-19. The new restrictions, announced Friday, include an extension of the existing stay-at-home order until May, and the closure of outdoor playgrounds and basketball courts (although no cases of Covid appear, ever, to have been linked to parks or playgrounds), and give police the power to stop and question anybody outside their home. [Update: while I was writing this post, the Province reversed its closure of public playgrounds, meaning, hopefully, that no little children will be fined $750 for using a slide.]

Parents have reportedly already ripped caution tape from swings and teeter-totters, and police forces across the province have lined up to indicate that they will not stop people for being outside. There is little public support for the new restrictions, and a growing sense of what might as well be called what it is — fury — at the province’s failure to manage the pandemic before caseloads got out of control and hospitals so overwhelmed they may need to implement triage protocols.

Throughout the pandemic, outbreaks in congregate residential environments (like long term care homes), workplaces and high-density residential neighbourhoods have driven caseloads in Ontario. Cases have been diagnosed disproportionately in racialized and poor communities because front-line and essential workers — in shipping, delivery services, retail, personal support work and manufacturing — come disproportionately from these communities. The province’s response to calls to prioritize vaccines to these groups has been almost staggeringly slow. Despite outbreaks at construction sites, the province was slow to shutter non-essential construction, and even with the additional 17 April 2021 restrictions, it is not clear which construction sites, if any, are affected. Despite having had the technological capacity to do so since early in the second wave, the Province has implemented almost no asymptomatic testing at higher-risk work sites. Despite well-evidenced requests, the province has implemented no paid sick leave program which would have enabled ill people to stay home from work rather than hide symptoms in order to avoid going unpaid.

In short, the province has failed to anticipate the predictable surge in cases associated with the (inevitable) third wave, and, beyond its successful vaccination program in long term care settings, has directed few resources to other locations and populations disproportionately affected by outbreaks. It appears to have learned little from the first two waves. The province’s responses and implementation of its own policies have been reactive and often frankly inept. Despite claims it listens to advice from medical experts, the province appears not to have grasped the enormity of the situation until it was too late to stop an overwhelming surge in caseloads.

And then we come to the vaccine gap, and here is where the story gets circular. Progressives have blamed Ford for what they claim is a growing ‘vaccine gap in Ontario, claiming that hundreds of thousands, even millions of doses are “sitting in freezers.” The federal government has taken up this charge, offering yesterday, in a tactical gesture of political theatre, to deploy the Canadian Red Cross help to assist with vaccination in Ontario. The provincial government’s position, in response, is that all the vaccines delivered to Ontario have already been allocated.

Who has a more convincing story? On this one I’m with Ford, at least right now. I’ve been watching this Covid-19 Vaccine Tracker website since it first began keeping track of vaccine deployment data in Canada. Over many weeks, I’ve watched the doses of vaccines given (shots into arms) ramp steadily upward, while doses delivered from the federal government have varied depending on available supply. In other words, Ontario’s capacity to deploy vaccines has increased steadily, while federal supply has remained somewhat inconsistent. On any given day, between 70 and 80% of vaccines delivered have been injected into people’s arms. It is not physically possible to have deployed 100% of vaccines delivered at any time, unless the supply has stopped entirely (which it has done on a number of occasions), and given that vaccine appointments are made days or sometimes week(s) ahead, doses need to be available for those appointments. Accordingly, given the information currently available, I am more inclined to believe that my local hospital, St. Joe’s, has been forced to close its excellent and busy vaccination clinic to new registrations not because the Province is hoarding doses of Pfizer in the basement of Queen’s Park but because the federal government isn’t able to supply enough to keep the clinic going.

This is a shitty situation, especially at a time when it should be possible to celebrate the pace of vaccination. Despite culpable screw-ups from both the federal and provincial government, 23% of Canadians have received at least one vaccine dose, and the pace of vaccinations is increasing steadily. The successful pace of vaccinations is owed not to the federal or provincial government, however, but rather to regional health authorities, Local Health Integration Networks, hospitals, community health agencies, municipalities, community centers, faith communities, and pharmacies which have stood and delivered doses, and also to Ontarians who have braved the complicated, changing, and sometimes contradictory registration systems long enough to obtain appointments for themselves, their families, and neighbours.

How did I manage to get all three adults in my household vaccinated? Let me tell you. In March a family friend passed on the rumour that people living in the community aged 80 or more would soon be eligible to book a vaccine appointment. After confirming that this was indeed the case, I spent about 20 exhausting and frustrating hours trying to book an appointment for our vulnerable elder. This culminated in a night spent sitting at the dining table with multiple browsers open on both my laptop and phone, clicking and waiting and refreshing and clicking, and closing tabs when the registration system simply froze me out, and waiting and clicking and waiting some more. And then, when the system let me in, clicking on telephone poles and bridges and tires to prove to a captcha that I was not a robot, and then, rapid fire, entering personal information only to have multiple appointment spots disappear while I was typing. I secured an appointment only after what felt like inordinate and unreasonable effort that depended on expert familiarity with institutional websites and their quirks.

When the province extended vaccine rollout to Ontarians aged 55 to 79, making this cohort eligible to receive the AstraZeneca vaccine at participating pharmacies, I spent an evening finding out which pharmacies were indeed participating (at the time there was not a centralized list, although one did appear later) and navigating their widely varying systems. Some had pre-registration forms, while others would only accept phone calls. I registered my husband at as many local and local-ish pharmacies as I could, and waited. Some pharmacies never responded (a pharmacy assistant at our local Shoppers later told me their system had gone down entirely), but Rexall did (Rexall’s Covid vaccination system, at least in my experience, seems excellent, and if you are eligible to receive a vaccine through the pharmacy roll-out, I recommend it highly), and about a week later my husband (who does essential work and has health risks) was vaccinated. Phew!

The vaccine rollout at pharmacies has probably been the most streamlined part of the whole deployment in Ontario. Some of my friends may not wish to hear this, but it seems to me this is a case of the private sector being more nimble than government. I do not always think this is the case (see the discussion about the carnage in privatized long term care homes, above), but it is instructive here. Local pharmacies also have the advantage of being, well, local, and most pharmacists are known or at least familiar to their customers.

Depressingly, however, some of Ontario’s ‘vaccine gap’ may reflect doses of AstraZeneca sitting in pharmacy fridges, unused because some eligible-but-entitled people think they are too good for a budget vaccine whose efficacy rate at preventing symptomatic illness is lower than ‘high end’ Pfizer (at about 95%) and Moderna (over 90%). When I’ve talked to people or overheard casual conversations about vaccines, too many people have said they are holding out for one of the ‘good’ vaccines. This is the case even though AZ is about 100% efficacious in preventing serious illness and death — the principal purpose of the vaccines — and in this sense is as ‘good’ as Pfizer and Moderna, and may be more effective against variants than Moderna (findings on efficacy against variants are very preliminary at the moment, and in all likelihood most vaccines will end up being tweaked). It is also my impressionistic prediction that AZ may end up being the sleeper hero in vaccine deployment, because it is inexpensive to produce, requires no special storage beyond ordinary refrigeration, and works. Its efficacy is also reported to increase with a longer wait (12 weeks) between the first and second doses, which seems to make it a perfect fit for Canada’s get-at-least-a-first-dose-in-as-many-arms-as-possible approach to vaccinations.]

When I booked my own vaccine appointment at St. Joe’s, I had no idea this was going to end up being the day the clinic would close to new bookings. I assumed my vaccine was going to be part of the ongoing chain of successful vaccinations that will beat down this pandemic.

On the morning of my appointment I biked down to St. Joe’s in the chilly April air, locked up beside the vaccination clinic, donned my mask, and went in. Five minutes later a needle was in my arm. Everyone at the clinic was friendly and helpful, and the feeling in the air was the same as at a polling station on voting day: a sense that everyone present was there to do something that will serve not only personal interest but also the civic good.

Let more civic good be done.

The Longest Way

On the wall of my senior high school Calculus classroom was a poster of a girl sitting on a curb with her belongings and a cat. The accompanying text read, “I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way.” I took Calculus in my final term of high school — why I am not sure, as around that time I was accepted into the undergraduate program in Geography at Queen’s, for which Calculus was not a requirement (although it did come in handy in a geomorphology course precisely once) — and, rather than focus on derivatives and asymptotes, spent much of the term looking up at that poster, which might as well have been a picture of me.

“I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m on my way” is the refrain of a once-popular World War I song composed by songwriter George Fairman (1881-1962). A very similar phrase had appeared earlier in Incidentals, a 1900/1904 volume of essays and aphorisms published by American writer Carl Sandburg (in Sandburg’s book, the line actually reads “I’m an idealist. I don’t know where I’m going but I’m on the way.” Interestingly, in 1999 or so Dionne Warwick recorded a song with Burt Bacharach (lyrics reportedly written by Hal David) called “On My Way,” which opens with “I don’t know where I’m going / But I’m on my way.” The repeated use of this phrase — including its attribution, variously, to Carl Sandburg and (probably erroneously but who knows?) to Carl Sagan, and its appearance on the poster hanging on the wall of my high school Calculus classroom — suggests it has enduring resonance (or alternatively, perhaps, that songwriters are as prone to borrowing as regular litigation over rights suggests they may be).

The poster and the phrase printed on it resonated strongly with me, and for years afterward I thought about it often. About fifteen years ago I began searching peripatetically online for the poster or even an image of it, without luck until a couple of years ago when I came across it listed in the holdings of the Oakland Museum of California. I now have a copy of the poster framed on my office wall, a constant companion and friend.

I was born on a Thursday, and always felt the old sing-song line “Thursday’s child has far to go” described me utterly.

I have always been preoccupied with location and spatiality. Always. My earliest memories are directly spatialized, and, well, I was always going to be a geographer, always was a geographer, long before I ever learned the word, or knew a geographer was a thing one could ‘be’ or geography a thing one could ‘do.’

For me geography has never been primarily about maps, or globes, or the memorized names of rivers or Gross Domestic Product of various countries. It seems to me that colouring in maps (the longstanding ritual of elementary school geography classes) is one of the least interesting ways to learn about place and space — although having kids create maps, including maps of the imagination, is a highly valuable and worthwhile activity. Place is an idea and an experience long before it is an encoded set of categories. The capacity to orient — in space, across time, toward the self and others, toward ideas, around representations and meanings of place — is in some ways ingrained but needs also to be cultivated, learned, developed, expanded, explored.

The pandemic has constrained spatial movement in many ways: travel is largely curtailed and many regions have undergone weeks- or months-long shutdowns geared toward limiting the spread of the Covid-19 virus and its variants. But it has also created compensating opportunities for people to practice more local forms of exploration. Biking, for example, has become so popular in many cities (including Toronto) that bike shops are sold out of stock and parts are back-ordered for months. Walking has also surged in popularity, and sidewalks, parks and hiking trails are busy with forest bathers, joggers making up for lost time at the gym, families out for strolls, and psychogeographers letting the landscape take them where it will.

When I was young we lived adjacent to a wide, deep southern Ontario ravine with an old meandering creek flowing along the bottom of it. In my teens I walked down into the ravine at least once or twice a week and then eventually almost daily, regardless of the weather, or season, or time of day. I did so in part because it was the only place I could be alone with my thoughts, and also because something in the ravine — particularly when the wind was high or the cold very still or when the spring peepers were trilling their secretive songs — pulled me down into it. Over the course of several years I came to know a mile-long stretch of it intimately: every bend of the creek and slope of the ravine, the shape of its oxbows, the ebb and flow of its gravel bars, the flotsam that accumulated in logjams, the habits of fish and heron, the way the trees swayed in windstorms, the smell of cedar thickets, the pressure of ice against the edges of the swamps. Over the decades I have returned to Duffins Creek semi-regularly, first with my father and then with my daughter and sometimes alone, and while the creek bed has shifted, trees have fallen and regrown, and although development and a paved recreational trail have altered the watershed and floodplain in some places, leaving other parts of the ravine to grow wilder than ever, I can still navigate the ravine nearly with my eyes closed.

In an era characterized by global movement (and often displacement), it is a privilege to be able to remain in a place long enough to get to know it intimately. People who live in a community but never walk its streets or visit its parks do not really come to inhabit a place, regardless how long they live there. In some ways my childhood and adolescence were very constrained, but access to Duffins Creek (the grammarian in me will always call it ‘Duffin’ or ‘Duffin’s’ Creek) was my passport not only to multisensory, fully embodied experiences of a particular place, but also to insights into the way landscapes function more generally. In high school I was fortunate to take a physical geography course with a superb teacher who took our class down to Duffin creek to measure its processes and flows. At the time it seemed a revelation to realize I already knew so many things about how the creek worked, and that our quantitative and qualitative observations (velocity across the profile of the stream bed, turbidity, what we would find in suspension in the water column, etc.) would line up so utterly with my embodied experiences of the creek. It is not an exaggeration to say that this field trip was life-changing for me. Perhaps above all it affirmed my sense that experiences matter, including embodied and even inchoate ones, and underscored my emerging views about the importance of paying attention to the connections between things that can be measured and the things that can only be sensed or felt. In short, this trip turned me into a confirmed phenomenologist. [It should also have turned me into a geomorphologist, but sadly did not, although as an undergraduate student I think I took every geomorphology course offered, and have taught physical geography courses on and off for years.]

After spending graduate school largely in transit between cities, houses and apartments, I was fortunate to move into the community where I still live, eighteen years later (and where my husband has lived for more than thirty years following a childhood of continental displacements). In the early years of our marriage, when our house still needed furnishing and when people still put amazing sorts of architectural salvage and other interesting things out to the curb, we would head out every garbage night, usually on foot or bike, to see what the neighbourhood had on offer. On these excursions we rarely went far, but found many things worth bringing home: beautiful old (and sometimes contemporary) furniture, elaborate old windows, sometimes with leaded panes or stained glass, thick wood planks of the sort now described as ‘barn board,’ a lovely 1920s bed frame that eventually became the centrepiece of our guest bedroom, a huge box filled with crystal goblets, a large, brand new Portmeirion Botanic Garden serving dish I still use for special occasions, a garden bench, planters, plant stands, tools, books. In a dumpster parked in front of a house being gutted to the studs I once found an old washboard and kitchen scale. We even co-wrote an essay about our garbage gleanings published in GreenTOpia: Towards a Sustainable Toronto (Coach House Books, 2007) and excerpted in a now-defunct local weekly.

The most important thing about our garbage excursions wasn’t the things we found, however. It was the opportunity to encounter our neighbourhood in all its moods, at all hours and in all seasons, and to move freely through all of them. Late one summer night we rode out, the moon floating high in the trees, a wind soughing in their branches, warm air on our skin, and in that instant I felt more alive than I have ever felt.

Early yesterday morning I went out walking with my like-minded neighbour, an artist who walks out nearly every morning but always makes sure to head out on garbage day. It was my first intentional garbage walk in years. We left just before sunup, while the waning Worm Moon still floated in the southern sky. We covered about four kilometres of terrain, although as the crow flies we were never more than about a kilometre from home. When we set off we did not have a specific plan, although we thought we might keep an eye out for architectural salvage and other bits and bobs worth hauling home. In the end we did not bring anything back other than a couple of books from free libraries (including, for me, a first edition of Matt Cohen’s Night Flights (Doubleday, 1978)), but we traversed every block in our immediate neighbourhood, considering objects set out at curbside, talking about our favourite houses (usually the ones with some mystery to them), and discussing what we know of their pasts, and exclaiming over the ‘coming soon’ sign posted in front of a long-abandoned house three blocks away, and considering whether chairs, planters and other objects were worth hauling home. The streets were quiet, so we jaywalked at whim, gawking at everything we wanted to see, and enjoyed our freedom of movement in a city largely shut down by the pandemic.

Last week, on my birthday, after many years as a cyclist and pedestrian, I obtained my G1 driver’s license, the first step toward becoming a licensed driver in Ontario. I actually know how to drive and am not bad at it, but have never completed all the steps to becoming fully licensed. We are planning quite a bit of travel after the pandemic is over, within Canada, to Israel, Europe (for me and our daughter) and possibly (for my husband) India, and this seems like a good time to obtain a license. In my experience driving attenuates the visceral experience of both movement and place, but it seems to me there will be compensations. Even with greater mobility, most of my trip plans are likely to remain local. There are quite a few country roads I’d like to drive, for example, and little towns I’d like to visit or revisit. There are rivers and lakes we plan to kayak and camp beside. There are a couple of abandoned farms I’d like to visit, to poke around in their overgrown apple orchards, and then, on the way home, stop in at every roadside antique shop along the way.

But I’ll still be happy to walk out late at night or early in the morning to scope out the neighbourhood for interesting things to salvage.

Not Quite Still Life

Working with words means one spends quite a lot of time turning them over and moving them around, fitting and refitting them together like stones in a wall. Thinking is a cerebral, iterative process that lends itself, oddly enough, to physical motion. Years ago in grad school, I used to write for an hour early in the morning before showering, and tease out ideas while shampooing my hair. While biking downtown to teach, I map out lectures between traffic lights, sometimes becoming so preoccupied that I’ll forget to turn down Yonge toward campus. I’ve done a lot of writing on trains, and out in the woods, and down along the lake. If I am not moving while writing, ideally there will be other things in motion: a river eddying around rocks, trees twisting in a wind, snow falling fast and slantwise.

A pandemic is a study in stasis, and after a year spent working from home there have had to be accommodations. After months spent livestreaming lectures from my office I’ve abandoned that space, opening up my laptop in the living room, or in the sitting room on the third floor, or even at an old secretary desk in the spare bedroom. In each room I’ll work for a while before getting up to check the fridge, or look out a window, or check the mail. A neighbour comes out of her house. The recycling bins need bringing back in. Hoisted by cherry pickers, city crews are trimming street trees. A cat wants out. A cat wants in.

In the house, winter light illuminates the undersides of things, and so I get up to look. This wooden shelf, hung in a corner by the bay window, glows between snow squalls in the pewter afternoon light. There is a story to every piece here. The shelf itself I found discarded at curbside around the corner five or six years ago. It is handmade, probably a project piece made from instructions in a DIY magazine published not long after the War. The sage-coloured candlesticks, jam pot, carved wooden bird and vases are from my mother.

I bought the two leather-bound books on the middle shelf for a dollar each at an Eastern Ontario yard sale many years ago: one (published in 1829), is a life of Alexander the Great; the other (dated a decade later) a life of Peter the Great (the volume on Alexander the Great has a folio-sized fold-out map of the Middle East and Central Asia). I found the brass owl and squirrel figurine on the shelf at Value Village. The two books lying on their sides are fascinating. The first, John Ruskin‘s Ethics of the Dust: Ten lectures to Little Housewives on the Elements of Crystallization, is a Socratic-voiced manual of geology, minerology … and metaphysics. Ruskin was a leading Victorian thinker who was influenced by Darwin and very much interested in education (including the education of women) and independent thought. The other volume, The Blind Farmer and his Children, is a nineteenth century ‘improving’ novel originally published in 1817 (my copy “awarded to William Meikle as a prize for regular attendance,” by teacher Agnes Morrison on 27 June 1872). Ethics of the Dust was a gift from my mother; I found The Blind Farmer and His Children among her books after she died. The green china deer came from the Leslieville Flea; the double-decker bus from an eastern Ontario flea market.

On the bottom shelf are my Mother West Wind books from childhood, some little books I like to look at (The Observer’s Book of Furniture, The Observer’s Book of Architecture, two ‘Mr. Cuthbert’s’ gardening guides from the early 1950s, and A Flower Fairy Alphabet.), and a small green pitcher I spotted on the shelf a year ago at Value Village and left there, regretting the decision as soon as we left the store. A week later it was still there, and came home with me.

I look upon these treasures, illuminated in the pewter light. The snow squall ends, the light shifts. It’s time to return to work.

Year (II) of the Plague

One year ago: wow. One year ago: eep.

One year ago I had lists.

Lists of things to store up ahead of the approaching pandemic. Groceries: of course. Beans are a staple food in our household, so of course canned and dried beans. Canned beans, tinned tomatoes, cat food, boxed soup, soup stock, salt, pasta, condiments, pizza sauce, tinned fruit, flour. Batteries. Toiletries and tampons. No toilet paper, because one package of Costco toilet paper lasts for months. Or so I thought: by May we were queuing at Costco for more.

People kept talking about hand sanitizer, which I loathe, but added it to the list nonetheless. Shoppers Drug Mart had packages of scented travel-sized hand sanitizer, so I bought bunches of those, and some tall dispensers of unscented sanitizer. By early March hand sanitizer was impossible to buy, except online from opportunistic price gougers who were eventually shut down. A year later, we have mostly used up the cute little travel sanitizers shoved into every jacket pocket, but the tall dispensers still stand sentry in our front hall, nearly unused because the first thing we do upon returning home is wash our hands with soap and water.

Seeds. Seeds and potting soil. Seeds and potting soil, because I garden, and because of the likelihood shutdowns and supply chain issues would affect nurseries and garden centres. Answer: they did, but only because many people suddenly became back-to-the-land apocalypse preppers and the demand for seeds and bedding plants reportedly exploded in 2020. Corner groceries and flower shops sold bedding plants by the trayful at the beginning of May, and garden centres opened almost as usual a week or two later. My seed potatoes arrived without issue, and I was able to buy the usual amount of seaweed meal from Urban Harvest. Sadly, my favourite plant sale was cancelled, but overall it was a good year for growing, and I spent much of the summer communing with bees and tending to the secret garden on the top deck of our home. Almost all of those seeds, though, are still in their packets, because as things turned out I had no spare time to grow seedlings from scratch.

I also maintained a list of the kinds of nonessentials that are nonetheless worthwhile to have when things become difficult. Summer shoes for my daughter, whose feet — stretching a half size every season — have long since outgrown mine. Easter presents to be hidden away in a closet. Books: oh, so many books, because even with a house filled with books one needs more. Chocolate. Cheetos. Luxury soaps. Lovely scarves.

Another new kayak, which, thanks to severe shortages in sporting goods, was paid for by the sale of two older kayaks that no longer suited our purposes. Sadly, our fleet made it out on the lake only once during the summer.

We did not buy gym equipment, although now I wish we had. Gyms were permitted to open in August, and I went three times a week until shortly before they were forced to close again. And while I support most of the policy decisions to close nonessential businesses as the second wave surged in our region, I think gyms, like other health-related personal service establishments, could have been kept open, subject to strict protocols. My gym, the West End YMCA, had stringent safety protocols and to my knowledge no cases of Covid were transmitted among GTA YMCA members or staff.

The pandemic hit Canada with a bang in March. A week before things began shutting down, we moved my elderly mother-in-law into our home. This move had been planned since shortly before the beginning of the year, but its urgency accelerated as the global case count began to rise. We spent the first two months of the year packing up her condo, and then several stressful weeks preparing it for sale, hoping to beat the shutdowns. In the end the listing agent advised us to wait, and we did, wondering when — or if — we would be able to sell the unit. Remarkably, when the embargo on open houses was lifted and the condo was listed for sale, it sold very quickly (although not as quickly as it would have prior to the pandemic) thanks to pent-up demand from buyers sidelined by the shutdown.

In late March both my husband and I became sick with something that, on the balance of probabilities, we thought might be Covid-19. I developed a terrible headache, and experienced a cough and lung congestion–ordinary cold symptoms, and not concerns on their own. What did worry me was pain in the lower lobes of both lungs, and shortness of breath, which I had never experienced before. We did not qualify for testing during those anxious early months when everything Covid-related — masks, personal protective equipment, hospital capacity, and of course tests — was in short supply. In the summer my doctor swabbed my cheek for research attempting to estimate how much of the population had developed Covid antibodies, but neither she nor I were able to access results due to the double-blind nature of the study. So we have no real idea whether what we had were mild cases of Covid or simply an unusual cold. And as the months have passed, we’ve concluded it doesn’t matter whether we had Covid or not: the safety protocols remain the same, and emerging variants may reduce the protective effect of past exposure.

And then the rest of the year went by in a whirlwind of at-home learning and then in-person schooling followed by another school closure, online teaching (a dismal way to run undergraduate courses that normally would proceed through urban exploration fieldwork), caregiving urgencies, and business responsibilities that kept us from ever being able to lock down. At the end of October we took in a cat belonging to friends who needed to cross the border and who are now stuck in the US. After the provincial stay-at-home order was issued in December, I had fantasies of spending the winter locked down at home, baking sourdough bread and inventing new recipes for canned beans while we waited for vaccine distribution to ramp up.

No such luck. Although I do manage to make sourdough bread once or twice a month.

Here we are, about to enter our second Year of the Plague. Our region appears to be emerging from the second wave, but there are concerns highly contagious Covid variants will propel us directly into a third wave amid efforts to reopen nonessential businesses and restart in-person learning even though vaccinations continue to lag due to supply issues.

This year, once again, I have lists.

But this year my lists inventory the things I miss.

Value Village. Book stores. The annual University of Toronto book sales. The Marshalls-Winners-Homesense retail trifecta. Teaching in-person courses. Literary events. Brunches, dinner parties and tea gatherings. Biking downtown on an elective trip. Brushing past strangers on the subway. Awkward social hugs. People holding doors for one another. Casual conversations about the weather. Sending our kid off to camp. Sending our kid off to school. Taking her to swim meets. taking her anywhere at all. Picking up building materials and being able to choose our own 2x4s. Dressing up. Sitting on a restaurant patio or — sigh — inside. Not wearing a mask. Sitting in a move theatre. Visiting my best friend and joyriding all over Northumberland County. Not thinking about Covid.

[In the picture are our Plague Doctor and Plague Nurse, keeping watch over the household.]

New Year, More Bookshelves

We live in a big, oldish (1910-1912) Edwardian Classic home in Toronto’s Junction area. Like many homes of its era, the house was built with generous brick bays on the first and second floors, offset from the central front gable in order to accommodate an interior plan defined by a side hall and staircase opening upon wide, comfortable rooms..

Here is a picture of our house, taken in about 1917 on the occasion of what looks like a wedding.

I love this picture because it captures the generosity of the house, especially its wide, double-story verandah wide enough to hang festive bunting from and sturdy enough to accommodate an extended family for a special occasion.

Fast-forward a century or so, and here’s a picture of the house taken shortly after dawn on Christmas morning.

Obviously, a few things have changed. Long gone is the elegant fascia board at the gable, and the graceful curve of the veranda. At some point, likely in the 1950s, they were replaced with an atrocious boarded contraption meant to look modern, which clashed terribly with the rather traditional brick and bays. Nearly a decade ago we rebuilt the front porch post-and-beam style, and, a few years later, the second story balcony, restoring consistency to the front of the house although not quite resurrecting its Edwardian flair.

Inside, the house has changed quite greatly from its original configuration. Like many homes of this size, our house was divided into apartments during the middle decades of the twentieth century. Even earlier it had, we have been told, housed several generations of at least one extended family. In 1982 (I know this from a cache of receipts for building materials we found under the veranda!) a previous owner made structural changes to the interior that profoundly and in my view unnecessarily altered the flow and function of the rooms. These changes make me grit my teeth even to inventory.

Edwardian Classics were typically built with a long side hall and staircase, with the kitchen behind them, and a front room and dining room running the full length of the house, connected by an open archway or wide pocket doors. On the second floor there are typically three, sometimes four bedrooms, a bathroom, and a small room often used as a sewing room at the top of the stairs. On the third floor are ordinarily two attic bedrooms. Commonly added on to the rear of these homes, likely a few years after they were built, are two-story frame structures serving a variety of purposes–storage rooms, sleeping porches, pantries, washrooms–with the upper level typically a fully-windowed sunroom. [The old sunroom in our house is now my office.]

The biggest change made to our house during that perplexing 1982 renovation was a basement stairwell hacked through the middle of the house, right into the archway that had once linked the front parlour and dining room. This atrocity had a functional purpose: to make the then-newly finished basement legally accessible to be used as bedroom space for a ground floor apartment. But it had several deleterious effects. First, an existing external basement access at the back of the house (houses of this era often had a set of exterior stairs to the basement, possibly so coal could be delivered) was closed off and built over. Second, a perfectly serviceable existing interior basement stairwell was, completely ridiculously, closed off to the ground floor (it remains accessible from the outside via a side door that is not original to the house). Third, the house’s natural front-to-back airflow was disrupted by all this boxing up and cutting off. And finally, the new basement stairwell, while functional, created a large boxed-in void in the middle of the ground floor. Functional for apartments, but architecturally terrible.

As our family and its needs have expanded–one child, one elderly person requiring full-time care, two work-at-home offices, space for a small business and an art studio–we’ve stopped renting out space and come to occupy the entire house. But the problem of the awful basement staircase persisted … until a few days ago, when I was (after 18 years spent wondering about it) motivated to take a crowbar to a curiously sloped stretch of drywall lining the basement stairs.

Behind that stretch of drywall was … nothing! Nothing at all but space, cobwebs, a 1975 penny, and a skittering of decades-old mouse droppings.

A perfect space, it seemed to me, for shelving that might, at the very least, humanize the scale of the basement stairwell.

In the garage we have a stack of beautiful old boards, milled from huge trees a century ago, and over the Christmas holiday we built in a set of shelving the full length of the basement stairwell. Here it is upon completion (I’ve since added more art and have plans to paint when hardware stores open again).

I love how the shelving adds functionality and a sense of proportion to the basement staircase.

I should add that this was not our first bookcases-in-underused-spaces project of the year: in November, I built a set of bookcases into a space behind the knee wall under the eaves on the third floor. Here it is in all its glory.