In 1997, activists planted 1,000 crosses in Oppenheimer Park to represent the lives of drug users who died during the preceding four years. Two decades later, on February 21, 2017, many of the same people tied 922 wooden feathers from trees in the same park. They symbolize the 922 drug users who died in B.C. during the single year of 2016.
Donald MacPherson was there that day 20 years ago and again today.
“If we don’t change our bloody drug laws, with this kind of body count, we are seriously fucked,” he told the Straight as he walked with hundreds of other demonstrators down East Hastings Street. “I’ve been through this before and it was horrendous. This is twice as bad. Have we learned anything? It appears not.”
MacPherson worked for the City of Vancouver as its drug-policy coordinator from 2000 to 2009. Today he's the director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition. He called the so-called war on drugs a failure and said Canada needs to begin talking about legalizing hard drugs, including heroin.
"We are asking for one thing," he said. "Explore alternatives. Actually look at the evidence."
Dean Wilson similarly played a seminal role in Vancouver’s response to the drug-overdose epidemic of the 1990s. He was a president of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) who is also credited as a cofounder of North America’s first supervised-injection facility, Insite.
“If we had kept counting crosses, we would be up to about 7,000,” he said in Oppenheimer Park. (Wilson was right. From 1990 to the end of January 2017, the number of people in B.C. who died of an illicit-drug overdose is 7,594, according to B.C. Coroners Service data compiled by the Straight.)
"It's hard to take," he added. "I've been through a lot of things but I have never seen so many people die like they are now. In the 20 years that I have been doing this work, I have never seen so many people die."
Wilson and every person the Straight spoke with at the demonstration said there is but one solution to the arrival of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that last year was associated with 60 percent of fatal overdoses in B.C.: legalize and regulate narcotics.
The national day of action saw people march in seven cities across Canada. It was organized by the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs (CAPUD).
"If there was one thing we could change, it would be access to clean, safe opioids, to eliminate the fentanyl supply," said CAPUD president Jordan Westfall. "That would be pivotal. It is the missing piece of the overdose response."
The morning of the demonstration, Vancouver mayor Gregor Robertson signed a proclamation in support of the protestors, including their demand for legal access to heroin.
"The systemic barriers to treatment and the criminalization of people who are suffering from addiction are worsening the overdose epidemic," it reads. "The City of Vancouver supports the local demands of the Life Won't Wait National Day of Action to end the overdose epidemic, including programs to provide injectable opioid treatments."
Federal politicians have similarly called for a national debate on the legalization of heroin.
On February 8, the Straight reported that Dr. Hedy Fry, the Liberal MP for Vancouver Centre, said it's time Canada begin that discussion.
“This is the discourse that we must have now,” Fry said. “Nobody is ramming anything down anybody’s throats. I’m not saying, ‘Let’s legalize.’ But I am saying, ‘It’s time we discussed this, openly and publicly.’”
The previous month, the Straight reported that Don Davies, the NDP MP for Vancouver Kingsway and Opposition health critic, similarly said he wants an open debate about legalizing hard drugs in response to the fentanyl crisis.
“I think we are at the point, as a country, where we can start opening a dialogue about finding a better method of distributing drugs, legally, to those who are addicted to them so that we can avoid the unnecessary death, destruction, and crime that is so clearly associated with the current model [prohibition],” Davies said. “I am in favour of starting that dialogue.”
Jennifer Breakspear is executive director of the Portland Hotel Society, which operates Vancouver's supervised-injection facility, Insite, and 15 supportive-housing sites in the Downtown Eastside. Back in Oppenheimer Park, she said she was encouraged by a unified call for action, and hopes the government hears it.
"It's great to see a show of strength from within the community and to see people really galvanizing around this message," Breakspear said. "That we need safe access to clean opioids so that people are not dying on our streets and in our buildings every day."
In a voicemail message, B.C. health minister Terry Lake acknowledged demands for greater access to prescription heroin, which has been offered to a select group of patients at one Downtown Eastside clinic since November 2014.
“We have those programs on a limited basis,” he said. “If there are opportunities to expand those programs, we will look for those opportunities. But it is never as simple as just opening up more space. We have to look at what that means in terms of costs and, of course, making sure it is appropriate for people.”