2021 Western North American Heat Wave

“I felt weak and I wanted to go home.”

Kristen De Jager

Langley, Canada
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Kristen De Jager as told to Ashlee Levy
Edited by Sean Holman

Kristen is an English and journalism student at the University of Victoria. Over the past four years, she has split her time between Victoria, British Columbia and her childhood home in Langley, BC. Growing up as a middle child, Kristen’s parents described her as “a menace to society and her family.” She often found herself in trouble for her unique approaches to problem-solving, including when she stole her kindergarten teacher’s keys in hopes of unlocking her own house.

An interest in culture writing led Kristen to pursue journalism. She hoped to cover movies and TV shows. However, after attending university, she pivoted to environmental journalism. Kristen experienced this change of heart after being exposed to new perspectives at university and experiencing the effects of climate change first hand. She has since covered stories about wildfire prevention on Vancouver Island and the effects of the November 2021 flooding on UVic students.

During the 2021 heat wave, Kristen was living with her parents, younger brother, and two dogs in Langley after she returned home from university due to the pandemic. At the time, she was working as a sales associate at Big Box Outlet.

Kirsten, a student at the University of Victoria, double majoring in English and journalism. (CDP Photo/Ashlee Levy)

I hated the shifts during the heat wave where I had to stock shelves. There was one shift where I was assigned to stock all the Bublys. Not even the big boxes of Bubbly. Individual cans. I was moving so slowly, which was frustrating because I’m usually the fastest worker. That’s something I prided myself on. I felt weak and I wanted to go home. I was just so done with life.

It’s great to sweat when you’re at hot yoga, in a dance class, or when you’re really working out. But sweating just because it’s hot outside and you’re working a regular shift, it just feels wrong. It feels like you’re not getting paid enough.

I’m not really a person who enjoys heat in general. That was really hard to adjust to because no matter how much clothes you’re taking off in a heat wave, you’re still going to feel extremely hot.

I remember feeling so stupid. I’m from a country that’s so hot. It’s in the Global South. It feels like it should be in my genetics to like the heat and accept it. For the first time in my life, I was adequately hydrated because I didn’t want to die of heat exhaustion.

I remember being at work one day and having to close the store because the store didn’t have adequate air conditioning, which is ironic because we sold air conditioners. So many stores in the area had already closed. I remember staring at the thermometer and literally just waiting for it to hit a certain amount in order for all of us to go home.

I just hung out with my little brother. Because he had recently gone through an accident, he was my family’s main concern. The May before the heat wave, he fell off the back of a truck onto his head, so he had a brain injury. I would just talk to him, gossip with him, tell him what’s going on in the world.

He’s always been a kid that has been really sensitive to temperature changes. I can remember when he was younger, he got a milkshake on a hot day. He threw it all up, but not because he was lactose intolerant. It was because it was such a change in temperature. He cannot handle temperature changes at his healthiest, so at his weakest, he was very vulnerable.

During the heat wave, he got sick and he was confined to his room. We only had one air conditioner, so my brother got it because he needed it the most. I always had to make sure that his room was super cold. We had to make sure that he was hydrating on time and eating. And also just continuously taking his temperature.  He got really pale, but he was a green, a sickly colour. He fainted twice.

It was really scary for my family, taking care of him in that vulnerable state. Anything that changed for him, it could be life or death. It was like we were experiencing the thought of losing him again. I’ve always been closer to my brother than I think is normal for siblings who have a 4 year age gap. To see someone who is, not just my family member, but also one of my best friends go through that and not being able to help him or protect him because it’s literally the fucking heat that’s impacting him, was really hard.

I grew up in a household that was very conservative, to the point where my dad is one of those people that believes climate change is because this is how the world naturally evolves. He doesn’t think it’s being accelerated at all, which is extremely frustrating to me now. Being a child, growing up in that environment, who are you going to believe? Your parents. So I had a lot of their influences in that, up until I came to UVic.

It was like the dominoes were all set up for me, and the heat dome was the one that just pushed them down. I think it definitely confirmed things for me in a way. The heatwave just didn’t feel normal. It wasn’t a normal summer. It wasn’t an enjoyable summer. Seeing all these people dying because of it, but my family members still being like, “No. This is pretty normal,” was very frustrating.

It was easier for me to stay quiet back then than it would be for me to stay quiet now. Back then, I was still a learner. Now I feel like I have more of a stake in it as a person who is interested in being a voice. It got me thinking and more interested in climate journalism.

I’m always expecting there to be something else around the corner. This last summer, there was no heat wave, and I was so shocked. Right now, we’re in October. It’s 2022. And it’s hot as balls outside. It just made me believe the heat wave continues on and on. I also remember how during the heat wave, there was a lot of fires, which impacted interior BC, and then floods.

I’m only 20, and the world is changing in such a bad way in terms of the climate. To see my community that I used to believe was untouchable, to see it break in that way, was scary.

This story was originally published in the Royal British Columbia Museum, on January 11, 2023.

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