Raising a glass to 102 great years of great-auntie Ann


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I hate to brag, but here I am in Vancouver, sipping sangria in a hip and happening sidewalk café while soaking up the West Coast sunshine on a gorgeous late-summer day.

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I hate to brag, but here I am in Vancouver, sipping sangria in a hip and happening sidewalk café while soaking up the West Coast sunshine on a gorgeous late-summer day.

Out of journalistic fairness, I should confess that technically speaking, as I write these words I am, in fact, sitting in front of my home computer pounding out today’s column before heading to the airport to catch an early morning flight to the city where I grew up.

But that is not today’s point. No, today’s point is that, by the time you read these words — barring a last-minute cancellation — I will be in Vancouver sitting in a sidewalk café, staring at the mountains and thinking about my beloved B.C. Lions.


Doug will be in Vancouver sitting in a sidewalk café, staring at the mountains and thinking about his beloved B.C. Lions.

So, fingers crossed, I am here for the first time since the (bad word) pandemic pulled the rug out from under the world. For the record, I am here to celebrate an incredible family milestone — it was 102 years ago this week, on Aug. 16, 1920, that my great-auntie Ann was born.

Two years ago, all of our relatives — my family in Winnipeg and others scattered around Canada, the U.S. and Scotland — had planned to gather in Vancouver to celebrate my great aunt’s 100th birthday in person, but the world’s latest pandemic made that journey impossible.

Unable to celebrate in person, my extended family stole a page from all those charitable organizations that went online after their in-person galas were cancelled, and cobbled together a virtual celebration.

Around the world, our relatives filmed video segments, which they emailed to my brother on the West Coast, and he cobbled them into a tear-inducing, remarkably long video to share with this fiercely intelligent, elegant woman who has been a second mother to me and my siblings throughout our time on this planet.

In the segment my family filmed in my backyard, I played the role of the cheesy host, welcoming everyone to great-auntie Ann’s first-ever virtual birthday and introducing my son, Liam, who fired up his bagpipes in honour of the family’s Scottish heritage and played two of Ann’s favourites — an ear-splitting jig and a heart-rending version of Scotland the Brave.

Virtual celebrations are perhaps the best — and safest — option for getting together when you can’t actually get together, but nothing was going to stop us from toasting my great aunt in person this month. You will not be surprised to hear that she has seen some amazing things in her more than 10 decades of life.

In 1920, on the day she was born, the world was finally pulling itself out of the last great pandemic, the so-called “Spanish flu,” a virus that appeared during the First World War and infected about one-third of the planet’s population.

That pandemic, caused by the H1N1 influenza A virus, killed an estimated 20 to 50 million victims worldwide, including about 55,000 across Canada and at least 1,200 in Winnipeg, which had a population of roughly 180,000 at the time.

But those aren’t the numbers I want to talk about today. I’d rather share some uplifting numbers about people who, like my great-auntie Ann, have managed to live to the age of 100 and beyond.

According to new figures released by Statistics Canada in May, the number of Canadians living to 100 or older reached a record high in 2021. Remarkably, the number of Canadians reaching that milestone has increased from just 1,065 in 1971 to 9,545 in the 2021 census. And the vast majority of this country’s centenarians — 7,715 — are women.

The nice thing is that these numbers can’t be explained away by simple population growth. According to StatsCan, in 1971, just 4.9 people out of every 100,000 Canadians were 100 or older; in 2021, that figure was 25.8 per 100,000.

Experts on aging say Canadians are living much longer now thanks to improved drug therapies and vaccines, coupled with a more active lifestyle. My great-auntie Ann would more likely credit sheer stubbornness, and just possibly a wee dram of whisky on special occasions.

Whatever the reason, we are grateful that, on Tuesday, a large group of relatives on the West Coast got together at a fancy restaurant overlooking the city for a long-overdue celebratory dinner wherein we were able to tell a remarkable woman — the living link to our family’s past — how much she means to us.

You may not realize this, but 1920 was one of the most eventful years of the 20th century. That was the year the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was finally ratified, giving women the right to vote. It was also the year modern mass media was born, when the first commercially licensed radio station — KDKA in Pittsburgh — began broadcasting live results of the presidential election, causing the popularity of the “talking box” to explode.

Not to mention Amelia Earhart taking her first airplane ride (she was a passenger); and eight plucky men from Winnipeg — the Winnipeg Falcons, all but one of Icelandic descent — captured the gold medal at the first-ever Olympic hockey championship in Belgium.

As much as I love hockey, for me 1920 means something a little more personal, and seeing my great aunt in person on her 102nd birthday was easily the brightest part of the last few years — and not just because there were so many candles on her cake.


Doug Speirs

Doug Speirs

Doug has held almost every job at the newspaper — reporter, city editor, night editor, tour guide, hand model — and his colleagues are confident he’ll eventually find something he is good at.

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