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Family mourns New West woman who died in heat dome, one year ago

619 British Columbians lost their lives in last summer's extreme heat wave. Tracey McKinlay was one of them.

She had a big smile, a wicked sense of humour and the kindest of hearts, and she has two sisters who miss her every day.

Tracey McKinlay was 61 years old when she died on June 28, 2021, in her New Westminster apartment. She was one of 619 British Columbians — at least 28 of those in New Westminster — who lost their lives to the heat dome that caused record-breaking temperatures in many parts of the province between June 25 and July 1 last summer.

McKinlay’s sister, Jeanne Hansen, has set up a campaign called Tracey’s Legacy. It’s designed to raise awareness of the dangers of heat before the next major heat event happens and to provide practical assistance for vulnerable people when it does.

Hansen doesn’t want other families to have to live what hers went through last summer.

June 2021: New Westminster temperatures pass 40 C

It was the last week in June 2021. The temperature in New Westminster had topped 40 C for a few days, and it didn’t cool down much at night.

Hansen and her other sister, Jane Armstrong, were both away when the heat started to rise.

But Armstrong got home to New Westminster before the peak of the heat — and, of course, she called to check on their third sister. McKinlay, who had schizophrenia, had an apartment in an independent-living building in uptown New Westminster.

Armstrong has since moved to the Island but, at the time, she lived in nearby Glenbrooke North. She didn’t think of her sister being in danger at home; mainly, she was worried about McKinlay’s love of long walks. She warned her not to go walking in the heat but suggested she head over to nearby Royal City Centre and sit in the air conditioning for awhile.

“We all live with regrets,” Armstrong said, her voice catching. “Twenty-twenty hindsight, I should have gone to her apartment, regardless of if she said she was OK. I regret that I never went and got her and brought her back to our house. …

“Had I gone back to her apartment and brought her back to my house, she could be alive today.”

Hansen, too, lives with wondering what would have happened if she’d headed from Langley to New West to see her sister in person, or if she’d pushed harder for answers when she called McKinlay each day to make sure she was OK.

“Her answer was always she’s fine, she’s good. I don’t think she had the capacity to understand what was actually happening to her, as many didn’t,” Hansen said.

McKinlay, like many others who died in the heat dome, was particularly vulnerable. She’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 19, and the medication she’d taken in the decades since the diagnosis had taken its toll on her kidneys. In the extreme heat, she suffered renal failure and died at home alone.

BC Coroners Service report: Who was more at risk of heat dome death

The BC Coroners Service report on the heat dome deaths in B.C., released on June 7, found that heat-related deaths were higher among those with chronic diseases such as schizophrenia, substance use disorder, epilepsy, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression, asthma, mood and anxiety disorders, and diabetes.

Two-thirds of those who died were 70 years or older; 56% lived alone.

Both Hansen and Armstrong note the heat dome was unprecedented for the Lower Mainland, and no one truly understood the potential consequences — especially for those in vulnerable populations.

“Nobody had really any idea how dangerous it was,” Armstrong said. “We had no idea that she could potentially die from this, or that anybody could.”

Now the sisters want to drive the message home before the next heat wave: Take the time to check in on the vulnerable people in your life.

“A phone call isn’t sufficient,” Hansen said. “If you know your friend, neighbour, family member, loved one, is vulnerable, elderly, has health issues, you need to physically go to them.”

Had they gone to check on their sister in person, she said, they might have realized that the building she lived in, like many other older buildings, didn’t really cool down at night.

“It was stifling. It was like a convection oven,” Hansen said.

And she pointed out that temperatures don’t have to be as extreme as last year’s to still be dangerous.

“It doesn’t have to be a heat wave for people to pass from the heat,” she said.

Keeping people cool in the next heat wave

When it comes to keeping people cool, simple actions can go a long way.

Tracey’s Legacy is collecting donations of items people can spare to pass on to those living in non-air-conditioned buildings: fans, portable air-conditioning units, spray bottles, misters.

They’re also reaching out to non-profit and privately run housing complexes to help provide information and raise awareness about the need to create cooling spaces within residential buildings. Hansen points out that having on-site cooling spaces in lobbies or parking garages would help those who aren’t mobile enough to get to city-run cooling centres — or who, like McKinlay, might not know about those centres in the first place.

Individual residents might also not know how a few simple actions — such as taking cool baths or showers or wearing a wet shirt — can help to keep their temperature regulated; getting that kind of information out is part of what the sisters want to do through Tracey’s Legacy.

Hansen wants the campaign to also become a resource for those who want to want to help but who might not be sure how. One idea? Organize people in your apartment building to knock on doors and provide information to residents in advance of the next heat wave, then check on them when it hits.

Hansen wants to make sure every building housing an older or vulnerable population has a system in place to check on everyone who lives there.

“The people in Tracey’s building took that on, and they were awesome. Everybody was looking out for everybody else,” Hansen said. “They just needed a little more information.”

Looking out for each other is a communal effort, Armstrong pointed out.

“That’s our message: you’ve got to watch out for your people, your family, your neighbours,” she said.

“Get to know your neighbours and your people, particularly older people, vulnerable people with mental health issues that can’t necessarily think through what might happen to them.”

Tracey's Legacy remembers a 'gentle, kind soul'

Helping people look out for each other seems fitting, given who McKinlay was.

Hansen tells the story of how her sister went to the bank every day to withdraw $5. The family knew she did it, but they didn’t know why. They just put it down to being one of McKinlay’s little quirks — until after she died, when they learned that McKinlay had been looking out for one particular man who lived on the streets uptown.

“We discovered that the five dollars she took out every day was given to that homeless man so that he had a meal,” Hansen said.

Since McKinlay’s death, her family has heard story after story from her neighbours of the times when McKinlay would lend a hand or give her own possessions away.

“If she found out it was your birthday, she’d go back down to her apartment, then come back up and give you a gift,” Hansen said — even if it was one of her own framed family photos.

Armstrong said residents of McKinlay’s apartment have told them over and over how much people liked Tracey and how much she would be missed.

“She was just a gentle, kind soul,” Armstrong said. “She made people laugh with her witty and dry humour. She was just kind to them.”

Hansen is quick to recall her sister’s joy in life and the way she revelled in being part of family trips and gatherings.

“She had a wicked sense of humour. Sometimes she’d just come up with things that would make you laugh,” Hansen said. “She was a freakin’ awesome sister. She had her issues. She dealt with her life. It wasn’t an easy life for her, but she was a fantastic soul.”

Who's to blame for B.C. heat-dome deaths? Family won't point fingers

Neither Hansen nor Armstrong wants to point fingers and lay blame for their sister’s death.

Though Armstrong admits it’s hard not to second-guess herself and the actions she didn’t take before McKinlay died, she’s also trying to take the advice of the police officers who came to her workplace to tell her about her sister’s death last summer.

“They were very kind. They just said, ‘Don’t go there, don’t question yourself. Everybody, when something really bad happens, they always doubt and question themselves about what they could have done differently,’” Armstrong said.

“I try really hard to take their advice. Certainly, I feel guilty, but I’m also trying to be gentle with myself. …

“Honestly, had I known my sister could potentially die, I would have done something differently. I had no idea that was a real thing that could happen.”

Both sisters acknowledge there’s plenty of systemic responsibility to go around for the 619 families who lost loved ones last summer.

“I keep getting asked, who is to blame?” Hansen said. “Is it the government, is it the coroner’s office, is it ambulances, is it the building? The blame is either everyone or no one. We all take responsibility for it, or we let it go.”

Armstrong said nobody — including those in charge — really understood the consequences of the heat dome because it was so unprecedented.

“Now we know better. Now we know that this type of thing does actually happen in British Columbia,” she said. “Now it’s what can we do to protect and equip people to get through the next one, because it’s going to happen.”

As far as who’s at fault for her sister’s death?

“I don’t blame anybody, other than the whole world,” she said, with a half-laugh. “I don’t blame anybody in particular, other than this world is pretty broken in a lot of ways.”

Heat dome just one symptom of climate change

Armstrong said the 619 British Columbians’ deaths can be laid at the feet of climate change.

“The heat dome is just a symptom of the problem. Helping people stay alive during this summer’s heat dome when it comes, by getting them the fans and the cooling systems — that is great, but it still means treating the symptom. It’s not going to the root of the problem,” she said.

As she sees it, the solutions are both personal and political. At a personal level, she said, more people need to make the decision to live in ways that have a smaller impact on the environment. And, at a political level, governments need to act to put the brakes on the corporate decisions that are destroying the planet as we know it.

“The bigger picture is we need to do more, and quicker, to get our governments doing something, seriously and quickly, about mitigating climate change,” she said.

Armstrong, who cites her faith as part of where she finds her strength, quotes from the serenity prayer: “Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.”

 “I guess I’m asking for wisdom, praying for collective wisdom in the world, that we would make wise choices about changing the things we can,” she said. “The immediate helping people that are going to face the hot summer, the small individual people; and then globally, what are we going to do as a country, as a world, to reverse the decades of really bad choices that a lot of the economy is based on?

“We need to get back to less harmful ways of living life, and hopefully the Earth will respond in a positive manner.”

How to help: Donate fans, cash to help seniors and vulnerable residents

To help out with Tracey’s Legacy, email or visit the Tracey's Legacy Facebook page.

You can also donate fans, spray bottles or cash towards the cause by donating to a local effort being spearheaded by New Westminster-Burnaby MP Peter Julian and Burnaby-Deer Lake MLA Anne Kang. Drop off at:

  • MP Peter Julian’s office, 110-888 Carnarvon St., New West
  • Seniors Services Society, 750 Carnarvon St., New West
  • South Burnaby Neighbourhood House, 4460 Beresford St., Burnaby
  • North Burnaby Neighbourhood House, 4908 Hastings St., Burnaby
  • Burnaby Community Services, 2055 Rosser Ave., Burnaby
  • MLA Anne Kang’s office, 105-6411 Nelson Ave., Burnaby

You can find a full report on B.C.'s heat dome deaths in the report from the BC Coroners Service review panel.

Follow Julie MacLellan on Twitter @juliemaclellan.
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