Troy Media publisher Doug Firby and Travel editor Lisa Monforton are part of a group of Canadians who call themselves ConnecTour. Starting in May in British Columbia and ending in October in Newfoundland, they hope to make an 8,000-km bicycle journey across the country, discovering how the COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped our lives and our sense of community. Watch for their reports on Troy Media. More information on the cycling tour is available at ConnecTour.ca. To help them meet their goal, click here.
COVID-19 seemed like the least of his worries when Robb Syre moved from Vancouver to Banff in 2020 to work at a tattoo shop founded by his best friend Ronnie Giesbrecht and an associate, Leighton Gall.
“Honestly, at first I thought it (COVID) was total bullshit. It was just the flu, rebranded.”
But then, life took a sudden, tragic turn. Giesbrecht, Syre’s best friend for a quarter of a century, contracted a severe case of the virus. Within five days, he was dead.
Giesbrecht was just one of a number of casualties in Banff, where the transient service industry has provided fertile ground for spreading the virus.
The Banff and Lake Louise health region had the highest provincial rate of COVID-19 for its population size in April. The town imposed strict measures, including a mandate to wear masks outdoors, and the rate of infections has steadily declined. By late June, the health region recorded no active COVID-19 cases.
Because it relies heavily on tourism, the pandemic has hit the town particularly hard. The June day that ConnecTour stopped in town was exceptionally quiet, with just a handful of visitors walking down Banff Avenue and no other customers at the outdoor patio where the ConnecTour team stopped for a break.
“I’m so confused by this,” says Syre over a beer.
In spite of his declared indifference, he admits he’s had his first vaccination shot. Although Syre’s Facebook page still says, “I don’t care if you’ve had your vaccine,” he admits his feelings about the pandemic have changed since he lost Giesbrecht.
Syre, 48, grew up in Kelowna, where he discovered his interest in tattooing as a career. He says he decided to pursue it at age 15 when he got his first tattoo and discovered his mother hated it.
“It really pissed my mom off,” he says. That was exactly the reaction he was looking for.
He began to hang around a local tattoo shop, asking the owner to take him on as an apprentice.
“He was a grouchy old biker guy,” says Syre. “He kept telling me, ‘Get outta here.’” But Syre persisted and the owner eventually taught him the basics of the craft, which Syre has practised for 28 years.
“It’s got a cloud of entitlement hanging over it,” he says. “It’s a really different place now – a lot of crime and a lot of drugs.”
He and Giesbrecht hatched the plan to move to Banff from Vancouver in 2020. He says they’d sit together after work each day and chat about the business before finally deciding to take the leap.
Syre loves the Alberta mountain tourist town but finds it expensive to live in. A closet-sized room in a shared apartment costs him $1,200 a month.
“I have to work damn hard to live here,” he says. Days typically stretch into 10 hours, with endless tourist tattoos for what Syre calls the Pinterest crowd – “wildflowers and grizzly bears,” themes that bore him so much he half-jokingly says he can do them while looking out the window.
Like the grouchy old biker, Syre too is passing his craft on to the next generation, in this case to Dallis Lorin, who has lived in Banff all her life.
“She’s going to be a good artist one day,” he says.
He’s enjoying the laid-back vibe in Banff, the friendly locals and the powerful sense of community. But he doesn’t see himself staying more than a couple of seasons. The town will always remind him of his lost friend.
“He was awesome,” Syre says of Giesbrecht. “He would do anything for anybody, anytime.”
After a six-day break, the ConnecTour team has left Calgary and is in eastern Alberta. You can track their daily route here.
Veteran political commentator Doug Firby is president of Troy Media Digital Solutions and publisher of Troy Media. For interview requests, click here.
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