A raging wildfire that nearly devoured an Alberta town, a growing opioid crisis that’s killed hundreds and the heartbreaking plight of refugees fleeing the horrific civil war in Syria were among the biggest Canadian news stories this year.
The Fort McMurray wildfire forced nearly 90,000 people to flee Canada’s oilsands region while destroying thousands of homes captivated audiences around the world and prompted an outpouring of support from across the country was named the top news story of 2016 by The Canadian Press.
And while the U.S. election and Donald Trump grabbed the most headlines, stories involving First Nations, overdose deaths linked to the powerful opioid fentanyl and a suspected terrorist sympathizer killed by police in Ontario resonated with Canadian audiences.
As 2016 comes to a close here is a look back at five of Canada’s biggest news stories of the year:
Fort McMurray nearly burns to the ground
WATCH ABOVE: Fort McMurray wildfire rebuild could take years
The ferocious wildfire, dubbed “the beast,” began May 1 on the outskirts of Fort McMurray, Alta., before the flames began to spread into the city.
Terrifying video taken by residents fleeing their neigbourhoods showed walls of flame and ash raining down on Highway 63 – the main route out of town.
Miraculously no one died as a direct result of the fire, but some 2,400 homes and buildings were destroyed. The Insurance Bureau of Canada called the wildfire the costliest insured natural disaster in Canadian history with an estimated $3.77 billion in damage claims.
The fire also gave rise to acts of heroism as firefighters and first responders worked around the clock during the blaze. Fire Chief Darby Allen, who became the public face in the battle against the beast, announced he would retire in February.
“I hope we can find a place to have a little bit of a celebration and remember all the good things that were done,” Allen told The Canadian Press.
Opioid crisis devastates communities across the country
The scourge of powerful opioids continued to take the lives of Canadians in 2016, reaching epidemic proportions in the provinces of British Columbia and Alberta.
The B.C. Coroners Service says overdose deaths from illicit drugs reached 755 by the end of November, a more than 70 per cent jump over the number of fatalities recorded during the same time period last year.
The deadly opioid fentanyl — believed to be 100 times more toxic than morphine — was detected in 374 of the cases, or about 60 per cent of the deaths. Earlier this year, health officials in the province declared a public health emergency over the rise in overdoses.
Meanwhile, 338 Albertans died from opioid-related overdoses between January and Oct. 27 this year, with fentanyl linked to 193 of those deaths.
Health officials and first responders have also sounded the alarm over the emergence of the deadly drug carfentanil which has been linked to deaths in B.C. and Alberta and has been detected in street drugs in Ontario.
“2016 is like no other year in Canadian drug history and there’s no turning back,” said Michael Parkinson, a drug strategy specialist with the Waterloo Regional Crime Prevention Council in Ontario. “It’s probably never been a more dangerous time in Canadian history to be using illicit substances.”
The federal government announced earlier this month it will ease regulations around supervised injection sites while also cracking down on illegal fentanyl shipments to combat the crisis.
Syrian refugees welcomed across Canada
Some 35,000 Syrian refugees have made Canada their home with stories of children attending their first day of classes and some adults heading out to work.
“I don’t want to lose sight of the fact that Canada’s engagement must not stop at resettlement,” Prime Minister Justin Trudeau told a UN conference in September. “Now is the time for each of us to consider what more we can contribute. So, in Canada, we’re looking at our options.”
However, it hasn’t been an easy path for many new arrivals.
A months-long study from the Senate released earlier this month found only half of adult Syrian refugees – roughly 9,000 — have found work, with language training proving to be a major hurdle. And federal funding for many refugees runs out after a year, leaving those still requiring assistance to turn to provincial governments.
The Liberal government has dedicated $900 million to language training for all newcomers, with $30 million set aside specifically for the influx of Syrian refugees. In November, Ottawa added another $18 million and 7,000 seats for language training in an effort to help the Syrians in Canada get a leg up.
Aaron Driver killed in Ontario
Aaron Driver died in an encounter with RCMP on Aug. 10 after making a martyrdom video that suggested he was planning to detonate a homemade bomb in a Canadian urban centre during morning or afternoon rush hour.
Police said Driver had come out his sister’s home in the town, 35 kilometres west of London, with a backpack and got into the rear seat of a waiting taxi. RCMP officers blocked the vehicle from leaving the area and began to move in. Driver then detonated an improvised explosive device and was shot by police.
Canadian authorities were tipped off about Driver’s activities by the FBI and confronted him hours later. A video of a masked Driver railing against western “enemies of Islam” and warning that the only solution would be the “spilling of your blood.”
The case raised questions about the use of so-called peace bonds as Driver had been under a court order not to associate with terrorist organizations, use a computer or cellphone. However, it was not enough to stop him from making bombs and planning a terror attack.
First Nations stories make headlines
While 2016 began amid promises from the Trudeau government of a renewed “nation-to-nation relationship,” a decision to approve two pipelines and the lack of improvement of living conditions on some reserves has strained relations between Ottawa and indigenous leaders.
First Nations communities also experienced unimaginable tragedy this year as several young people took their own lives in Saskatchewan and dozens attempted suicide in Attawapiskat in Ontario. In August, Trudeau announced the federal government will provide $69 million over the next three years for indigenous mental health services.
Tragically Hip front man Gord Downie, whose spirited fight against terminal brain cancer captured Canadian audiences, spoke out on issues affecting indigenous communities during The Hip’s “Man Machine Poem” tour this summer. Downie also revealed his solo multimedia project Secret Path that recounts the life of 12-year-old Chanie Wenjack, who died in 1966 after running away from a residential school.
A long-awaited inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women was also announced earlier this year. The inquiry has five commissioners who in the new year will hear testimony from families of missing and murdered indigenous women and others in order to examine the systemic causes of violence against indigenous women and girls in Canada, and make recommendations about how to prevent violence.
— With files from Adam Miller, Amy Minsky and The Canadian Press