Skip to main content

They were artists and architects, nurses and caregivers. Their lives took them all around Canada and the world, until a pandemic took those lives away. These are their stories

Nurse Sandy Cairns, shown as a young woman in the family photo at middle, died at age 80 of COVID-19. Other victims included Craig Welch, Tsugio and Fumiko Ito and Claude Gagnon, left, and Arlene Reid and Bob Dillon, right.All photos courtesy of families, Dalhousie University/Courtesy of the families

As of this week, it has been six months since the first known case of COVID-19 surfaced in Canada. In this time, at least 110,329 people have contracted the virus and 8,852 have died. But numbers alone cannot truly capture the scope of the loss to families and communities across this country and beyond. Those who have died were predominantly our elders. They were artists, scientists, architects and health care workers, each with unique gifts, passions and life experiences. Here are some of their stories.

Henri P. Labelle, architect, 91

Henri P. Labelle was one of Montreal's most eminent architects.

When Henri P. Labelle was in hospital with the flu this past February, his daughter-in-law printed out the building plan for Montreal’s Jewish General.

He pored over the designs with a professional eye. Though growing frail in his 10th decade, he had been one of the city’s most prominent architects. In the evenings, he would set aside his dinner tray, put on his glasses and tuck into the reams of paper as if they were dessert.

Not that Mr. Labelle was one to spurn an actual dessert. There were always two tubs of chocolate ice cream in the freezer at his retirement home, so he would never run out, his granddaughter Matilde Thériault said.

But then, Mr. Labelle had perhaps softened with age. A hard-driving businessman, he had a career that closely traced the dramatic upheaval in Quebec society known as the Quiet Revolution.

His father, Henri S. Labelle, was also an architect, whose commissions tended toward Catholic churches and corporate work for anglophone companies.

When the younger Henri joined the company in the 1950s, they “benefited from the excitement” of the era, according to the province’s Ministry of Culture, by building an Expo pavilion, a flashy metro station and some of the new secular high schools known as polyvalentes. Modern Quebec was off and running; so was Henri P.‘s career.

While staying in a rehabilitation facility after his discharge from hospital this winter, Mr. Labelle tested positive for COVID-19 and was sent back to the Jewish General. This time, he knew the building’s blueprint inside and out. But soon, he started showing symptoms of the virus.

He died on April 25.

–Eric Andrew-Gee

Sandy Cairns, nurse, 80

Sandra (Sandy) Cairns, shown with her family, died at the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver, one of B.C.'s earliest hot spots for COVID-19.

Sandra (Sandy) Cairns may have looked like “just a little bitty 100-pound nurse,” but, as quickly became clear to anyone who met her, she was much tougher than she appeared. “She was just this little spitfire,” said her daughter-in-law, Anita Coueffin-Cairns. “She was quite a woman.”

Born in New Westminster, B.C., on May 11, 1939, Sandy was the third of four daughters. Her mother was a ballerina, and her father, Bobby Bourne, would go on to be a director of the BC Lions. She was already working as a nurse when she met her future husband, Dr. John Allen Cairns, and they moved together to Boston, where Ms. Cairns studied surgical nursing while he became a corneal surgeon. By the time they moved to Barcelona before their first son’s birth in 1963, Ms. Cairns had taught herself Spanish. They later returned to Canada, and had twin boys.

Ms. Coueffin-Cairns says her mother-in-law’s life was peppered with interesting moments, whether sitting next to Freddie Mercury at the ballet in London, “hobnobbing with Van Halen before they become famous” or hanging around with the founders of Greenpeace and joining some of the group’s early operations.

In the 1980s, she began a lengthy career with the Vancouver Police Department, working as a civilian nurse in the city’s Downtown Eastside. While the work could be challenging, Ms. Coueffin-Cairns says Sandy was unperturbed by what could be a very rough environment. “She always loved helping people,” Ms. Coueffin-Cairns said. “That’s what she always wanted to do.”

Ms. Cairns died at the Lynn Valley Care Centre in North Vancouver on March 19.

–Jana G. Pruden

Claude Gagnon, artist, 75

Claude Gagnon, shown in a self-portrait, filled a 19th-century barn in Rougemont, Que., with her works of art.

It was painted purple outside. And inside were a small swimming pool, wrought-iron banisters and mosaics, canvases and murals. It was the great life project of Claude Gagnon, a painter, sculptor and mosaic artist. She and her late husband, Normand Choquette, had refurbished a 19th-century barn in Rougemont, east of Montreal, and for months she worked 10-hour days filling it with exuberant creations inspired by artists such as Antoni Gaudi and Salvador Dali.

“She had a vision, nothing could stop her,” said her son Jean-Sébastien Choquette.

One of seven children of a carpenter and a seamstress from Saint-Hyacinthe, Ms. Gagnon showed a creative side early, crafting Halloween costumes for her siblings, said Doris, a sister. Doris recalled that Ms. Gagnon and her future husband also opened a small, 40-seat theatre in their hometown.

Ms. Gagnon later moved to Montreal and attended the National Theatre School. She joined the arts scene of 1960s Montreal, working as a costume designer and meeting the likes of actress Carole Laure, theatre director Jean Duceppe and comedian Yvon Deschamps, who gave her the nickname “la Claude.”

She and her husband, a show producer, bought the barn in 1990. In the following decades, it became a venue holding arts classes, concerts, exhibits. After her husband’s death in 2015, poor health forced her to sell the barn to a retired couple who promised to preserve the artwork.

She died at Centre d’hébergement Rousselot in Montreal on April 20.

–Tu Thanh Ha

Arlene Reid, personal support worker, 51

Arlene Reid, shown on a Jamaican vacation, was a personal support worker in Brampton, Ont.

With five kids and three jobs, Arlene Reid, a personal support worker from Brampton, Ont., understood the meaning of hustle better than most. Weeks before she died of COVID-19 on April 27 at a daughter’s home in Toronto, Ms. Reid was juggling shifts in home care, long-term care and at a retirement home.

“She was a motherly figure for anyone she came across,” said another daughter, Shay-Ann Bryden.

Ms. Reid grew up in Yallahs, Jamaica. She spent her teenage years looking after her aging great-grandparents, an experience that led to two decades caring for the elderly as a personal support worker. She was gentle and took her time feeding and bathing her clients, running their errands and keeping them company. After one resident broke his hip, Ms. Reid visited him in hospital every day after her shifts until he was discharged.

When her children were in high school, Take Our Kids to Work Day served as a revelation for them. “Seeing how her clients reacted to her made me appreciate all the times when she was missing,” said her daughter Adriana Townsend. “I understood why she took her job so seriously. Those people needed her.”

Ms. Reid would head to work in the early morning, return home around 3 p.m., see her kids, cook dinner, nap and head back out for her night shifts, calling her family from her commute.

“She wanted everyone to be together all the time,” said her daughter Antoniette Bryden. “In Canada and in Jamaica, she’s the centre – the rock on both sides.”

To unwind, Ms. Reid vacationed in Jamaica. In Toronto, she liked Dutch Dreams, a nostalgic ice-cream parlour with lineups snaking out the door in summer. Every Mother’s Day, she’d request the lobster in black-bean sauce at Hong Shing, a Chinese restaurant downtown. Often, she would sing in her car, posting the karaoke sessions on Facebook.

“It’s her radiant vibration,” Ms. Townsend said. “She’s such a beautiful human being.”

–Zosia Bielski

Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, temporary foreign worker, 31

Bonifacio Eugenio Romero of Mexico is the first known temporary foreign worker in Canada to die of COVID-19.

Bonifacio Eugenio Romero was a “man of values:” humble, responsible, empathetic and generous, according to his wife of three years, Juana Vazquez.

Mr. Eugenio Romero, from Puebla, Mexico, was a temporary foreign worker at Woodside Greenhouses in Kingsville, Ont. Through United Food and Commercial Workers union spokesperson Santiago Escobar, Ms. Vazquez said that despite her husband’s “humble” background, he did not think twice about participating in the work program in Canada – he wanted to provide for his family.

He was beloved by his family and the people in his hometown. The community’s respect for him was apparent when, approximately two weeks ago, he was honoured in a large tribute held in Puebla. Ms. Vazquez said the “beautiful farewell” was well attended despite the continuing restrictions of the pandemic.

Mr. Eugenio Romero was the first known temporary worker in Canada to die of COVID-19.

He died at Erie Shores HealthCare on May 30, leaving behind Ms. Vazquez and the rest of his family in Mexico.

Meredith Wilson-Smith

Tsugio Ito, farmer, woodworker, 97

Tsugio Ito hugs granddaughter Sarah.

To say that Tsugio Ito was a man of few words is to understate the matter considerably. His daughter, CBC broadcaster Mary Ito, says she could count the words he would utter in a month. When he spoke at all, it was a major event, and even then, he spoke with economy. “It’s okay” when he was served a meal would mean he thought it was delicious. “It’s okay” when he was offered some sort of help would mean, I’m fine, don’t bug me.

But his was not a surly silence. He just didn’t like calling attention to himself. At family gatherings, he would sit apart but listen closely to every word. When someone said something funny, he would laugh – silently, of course.

Known as Joe, Mr. Ito was raised on a strawberry farm in Mission, B.C., up the Fraser River from Vancouver. The family lost the farm when the government rounded up thousands of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Mr. Ito picked sugar beets at a work camp in Alberta.

He moved to Japan after the war to be an interpreter for British forces, returning to Canada in 1958 with his Japanese wife, Fumiko. They settled on a mushroom farm in Gormley, Ont., then moved to Toronto, where he worked making wood cabinets for television sets.

Mr. Ito died on April 29, nine days after Fumiko, who also succumbed to the disease.

–Marcus Gee

Fumiko Ito, homemaker, garment worker, 92

Fumiko Ito poses for a picture with grandson Mark.

The daughter of a dentist, Ms. Ito grew up in Kure, just outside Hiroshima. She was in a shelter when the atomic bomb exploded and saw the mushroom cloud when she emerged. Her family survived the war with the help of relatives who had a farm and gave them food.

Her marriage to Tsugio Ito was arranged by a matchmaker. After the birth of a daughter, Kyoko, she left her home and family behind and took a month-long sea journey to Canada with her husband to start a new life.

Ms. Ito embraced her new country. Unlike her taciturn husband, she was chatty and sociable. She made many friends from many places over her years of taking English classes. Through Ukrainian and Polish friends, she even learned to make perogies.

She worked styling hair, sorting letters for the post office and doing piece work for garment makers on Toronto’s Spadina Avenue. She enjoyed playing the piano, sewing and cooking for her family, which grew to include four grandchildren and a great-grandchild. She made them sushi and, in the cold months, steaming meals of sukiyaki.

Though she had survived the Depression and war, she rarely complained, following the Japanese motto: Fall seven times, get up eight.

In an article she wrote for a newspaper, she expressed her gratitude to her adopted country. When she died on April 20, at the age of 92, a week after being diagnosed, her last word was arigato: thank you.

–Marcus Gee

Rogelio Munoz Santos, temporary foreign worker, 24

Rogelio Munoz Santos worked at an Ontario farm to suport his family in Mexico.

Rogelio Munoz Santos was only in his mid-20s when he came to Canada from Chiapas, Mexico, to work.

His goal was to financially support his family, according to Santiago Escobar, a spokesperson for the United Food and Commercial Workers union.

He entered the country in March as a tourist without a work permit – his roommate in Leamington, Ont., stated that a recruiter had arranged for him to work at Greenhill Produce in the Chatham-Kent region.

After falling ill, Mr. Munoz Santos died at Windsor Regional Hospital on June 5, less than one week after the death of fellow migrant worker Bonifacio Eugenio Romero. His was the second COVID-19-related death of an Ontario farm worker. Mr. Munoz Santos is the youngest known person to die in the Windsor region after being diagnosed with the novel coronavirus.

In June, a GoFundMe campaign with the objective of raising $10,000 to repatriate Mr. Munoz Santos’s body to Mexico surpassed $15,000 by the campaign’s close. A post by campaign organizers described Mr. Munoz Santos as “a hard-working, honest and loving boy, whose only dream was to support his parents in getting out of debt.”

Meredith Wilson-Smith

Ron O’Dor, squid biologist, 75

Ron O’Dor of Dalhousie University was remembered by scientists around the world for his interdisciplinary approach to marine biology.

It was on a family trip to California that seven-year-old Ron O’Dor, born in Kansas City, Mo., and raised in the dusty Midwest, fell in love with the sea.

It sparked a curiosity about the ocean that would last the rest of his life.

Mr. O’Dor would become one of the world’s leading experts on the secret life of squid, and helped build a network of underwater sensors that shed light on the mysteries of where fish travel and why some marine stocks are disappearing.

“He always remembered how fascinated he was with the ocean the first time he saw it,” said Janet O’Dor, his wife of 52 years, who met him at a physical-chemistry class when they were students at Berkeley.

The influential Dalhousie University biologist, who died May 11 of complications from COVID-19 and Alzheimer’s disease at the Northwood nursing home in Halifax, was known for his resourceful mind. His colleagues honoured him with the “MacGyver Award,” for filling his lab with repurposed scientific equipment cobbled together with wire and plumbing bits.

When he died, condolences came from scientists around the world, remembering his warm sense of humour and innovative, interdisciplinary approach to marine biology, back when it was a freewheeling area of study. He embraced big ideas and cutting-edge technologies, while treating his students with kindness and humanity.

Mr. O’Dor loved a good pun, and a crowd. Even as Alzheimer’s stole his ability to participate, he still liked to watch the weekly trivia and bingo games at the nursing home, just to be around people.

During his working years, research trips often became family vacations. He would take his wife and two sons along as he carted underwater equipment from airport to airport, visiting marine labs around the Mediterranean, Azores and elsewhere.

“He had fun,” Ms. O’Dor said. “Science is supposed to be fun.”

–Greg Mercer

Doreen Gauvreau, store clerk, 81

Doreen Gauvreau got the nickname 'Deen' for a job decades ago in the Royal Canadian Air Force.Handout

Doreen Gauvreau liked to bake, but not cook. She was a talented crafter and a sewer, always hunting for new projects and honing new skills. She loved crime shows and mystery novels. The senior citizen used a Nintendo Wii for exercise, a Kobo for reading and an iPad for FaceTime and puzzles. She loved Elvis.

Ms. Gauvreau died of COVID-19 on April 6, a month shy of her 82nd birthday. She had moved into Calgary’s McKenzie Towne Continuing Care Centre in November, joining her husband, Sylvio, and her brother-in-law, both of whom contracted the respiratory illness as an outbreak swept the facility. Her husband survived; her brother-in-law died six weeks after being infected, but because officials deemed him recovered, his death is not considered a COVID-19 fatality.

“Her love of having all her kids and grandkids at one particular event and us spending time with each other – she was really keen on that,” said Renée LaBoucane, one of Ms. Gauvreau’s daughters. “She enjoyed her grandkids and great-grandkids.”

Ms. Gauvreau, who picked up the nickname “Dean” while working in air-traffic control for the Royal Canadian Air Force decades ago, had five children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren. She adored babies and had friends that spanned generations. Ms. Gauvreau was born in Luseland, Sask., a rural town about 210 kilometres west of Saskatoon. She and her husband of 61 years raised their family in Fort St. John, B.C.

“She was an extreme worrier,” Ms. LaBoucane said of her mother. “But definitely she wanted to have fun and enjoyed being around people.”

–Carrie Tait

Craig Welch, animator, 71

Craig Welch won acclaim for his animation work with the National Film Board.

Animation production suited Craig Welch’s solitary nature, and he made his mark with three acclaimed films under the auspices of the National Film Board. He was honoured with prizes at festivals around the world. “[Animation] was a way of being involved in cinema without the large-scale social and financial commitments that live-action film required,” said his friend Randall Finnerty, a technical-animation specialist who met Mr. Welch at the NFB, and kept in touch after Mr. Welch left animation in 2004. “The NFB was a great environment for him because it is the type of place that gives animators the breathing room to simply work on their own.”

Mr. Finnerty said Mr. Welch was appealingly quiet. “A turn of phrase or little metaphor would sum up everything that he wanted to say. He would think a long time before he spoke, but when he spoke, it counted.”

As did his animation. “Craig’s films left a major mark and are benchmarks of genius and ingenuity in the NFB’s catalogue,” Michael Fukushima, the Montreal-based studio head and animation-studio executive producer, said in a statement.

Before arriving at the board, the Windsor, Ont., native produced his 1988 film, Disconnected, about a day in the life of a floating head, while studying animation at Sheridan College in Oakville. At the board, he crafted No Problem in 1992, and the surreal How Wings Are Attached to the Backs of Angels, released in 1996, which Mr. Fukushima described as a “slightly macabre jewel.” Mr. Welch’s final film was Welcome to Kentucky, released in 2004. That year, Mr. Welch left animation for a life as a painter in Montreal, where he lived. Mr. Finnerty said his friend preferred the canvas to keeping up with the digital revolution changing animation.

Mr. Welch was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease three years ago, and spent his last year in a long-term care residence in the city, where there was a screening of his films in March. “It kind of made him a little celebrity in the residence,” Mr. Finnerty said.

In mid-May, Mr. Welch developed COVID-19 symptoms, and he died on May 18 as a result of the virus.

–Ian Bailey

Joe Adamson, retired English professor, 69

Retired professor Joe Adamson travelled the world with his wife. He died of COVID-19 complications in Portugal.

Joe Adamson had a list of prepared questions for his first date with Sue Trerise. By then, he had already been married twice and was a professor of English and comparative literature at McMaster University. Did she know who Northrop Frye was? Prof. Adamson loved the literary critic with a wide-ranging intellect.

The second of seven children who grew up in the Ottawa area, he was always obsessive about his interests. As a teenager, he fell in love with Frank Sinatra and memorized every detail of Old Blue Eyes’s discography. He would record tennis matches to study for his games with “the boys” at the Rosedale Tennis Club in Hamilton. He once spent an entire road trip to Montreal arguing about the German philosopher Schopenhauer. He would spend hours a day reading, and was known to get cranky if he didn’t have time with books.

But he was hardly a dour academic. His booming laugh would have colleagues coming down the hall to his office door to see what was so funny. It was an unselfconscious laugh that, as one friend who taught at McMaster said, rose straight up from his feet.

After he and Ms. Trerise married – yes, she knew who Northrop Frye was – Prof. Adamson decided to retire in order to travel more. It was her passion, but he came to love it. They took trips to Italy, Scotland and Australia, among other destinations.

He died in Faro, Portugal, on April 3 at the age of 69 due to complications from COVID-19.

–Dave McGinn

Bob Dillon, handball champion, 80

Bob Dillon of Montreal wears a Mohawk flag T-shirt. His mother was a residential-school survivor.

At their YMCA in Montreal’s Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood, Bob Dillon and his friends had a favourite game: tie a $20 bill to a string and watch people fumble to snatch the cash. These were adult men, acting “like a bunch of kids,” said his daughter Cassie-Jean Dillon.

A prankster all his life, Mr. Dillon could befriend anyone, despite a youth filled with distrust.

Mr. Dillon was Mohawk and his mother, Anne Dillon, was a survivor brutalized in the residential-school system. The experience left her son wary of authority: He dropped out before high school and robbed banks with friends, spending his 20s in and out of prison. “It was never a Brady Bunch moment,” his daughter said.

In the prison yard at Kingston Penitentiary, Mr. Dillon picked up the intense game of handball. He went on to win the Canadian doubles championship in the sport in 1979. Through handball, he befriended business owners in Montreal’s garment industry and began building cutting tables and garment racks. His daughter, as a teen, accompanied him to clothing factories. “My dad would be flirting with the ladies in the front and would let me go up and down the rows of clothes and pick whatever I wanted,” she said.

Mr. Dillon also gained a reputation as a generous boss with his warehouse employees: The work hours were light, the meal breaks and parties frequent. “He was never really good at running a business,” said his son Charlie Dillon. “He was too nice a guy.”

His charity extended into his final years, when he would regularly order pizza for residents at Henri Bradet Residential Centre, the Montreal nursing home where he had lived since 2016 with dementia, and where he died of COVID-19 on May 16.

–Zosia Bielski