(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

Pharmacist Barbara Violo arranges all the empty vials of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccines that she has provided to customers at the Junction Chemist which is an independent pharmacy during the COVID-19 pandemic in Toronto, on Monday, April 19, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
B.C.’s 1st vaccine-induced blood clot case detected in Interior Health

Interior Health also recorded 52 new cases of COVID-19

Details will be made available in the next few days. (File photo)
UPDATED: Community vaccine program to open in Golden

The clinic will be held from Saturday, May 8 until Sunday, May 16.

Stuart Ashley Jones, 56, was at Grand Forks provincial court for sentencing on May 5, 2021. Photo: Laurie Tritschler
Grand Forks man shot by police during massive flood sentenced to house arrest

Stuart Ashley Jones was shot by a Grand Forks Mountie after ramming two police cruisers in May 2018

BC CDC data showing the geographic distribution of cases in the province. (BC CDC photo)
16 new cases of COVID-19 in Golden area

It’s the highest amount reported in a single week by the BC CDC

Dr. Trina Larsen Soles and the Physicians of Golden. (Claire Palmer photo)
Dr. Larsen Soles: leading Golden’s charge against the COVID

Larsen Soles has been the face behind the Physicians Facebook updates

Protesters attempt to stop clear-cutting of old-growth trees in Fairy Creek near Port Renfrew. (Will O’Connell photo)
VIDEO: Workers, activists clash at site of Vancouver Island logging operation

Forest license holders asking for independent investigation into incident

The Primary Urgent Care Centre on Martin Street officially opened on March 31, 2021. (Brennan Phillips)
Okanagan-Similkameen Regional Hospital District reverses funding decision on care centre

Approval now granted to fund $1 million for Urgent and Primary Care Centre in Penticton

Motorists breaking travel rules can be fined $230 for failing to follow instructions or $575 if the reason for travel violates the essential travel health order, at this Highway 3 check area near Manning Park. Photo RCMP
RCMP begin checking drivers on BC highways

Four check points are set up Thursday May 6 around the province

Starting Tuesday, May 11, B.C. adults born in 1981 and earlier will be able to register for a vaccine dose. (Haley Ritchie/Black Press Media)
BC adults 40+ eligible to book COVID-19 vaccinations next week

Starting Tuesday, people born in 1981 and earlier will be able to schedule their inoculation against the virus

Kelowna City Hall. (Michael Rodriguez - Capital News)
New temporary outdoor shelter in Kelowna opens

The new area on Richter Street and Weddell Place replaces the Baillie Avenue site

Parks Canada and Tla-o-qui-aht Tribal Parks dig the washed up Princess M out from sand along the south shore of the Pacific Rim National Park Reserve. (Nora O’Malley photo)
Rescue attempt costs man his boat off Pacific Rim National Park Reserve

Coast Guard response questioned after volunteer responder’s speedboat capsizes in heavy swells

Al Kowalko shows off the province’s first electric school bus, running kids to three elementary and two secondary schools on the West Shore. (Zoe Ducklow/News Staff)
B.C.’s first electric school bus making the rounds in Victoria suburbs

No emissions, no fuel costs and less maintenance will offset the $750K upfront expense

Road sign on Highway 1 west of Hope warns drivers of COVID-19 essential travel road checks on the highways into the B.C. Interior. (Jessica Peters/Chilliwack Progress)
B.C. residents want travel checks at Alberta border, MLA says

Police road checks in place at highways out of Vancouver area

Victoria police say the photo they circulated of an alleged cat thief was actually a woman taking her own cat to the vet. (Black Press Media File Photo)
Photo of suspected cat thief released by Victoria police actually just woman with her pet

Police learned the she didn’t steal Penelope the cat, and was actually taking her cat to the vet

Most Read