In July 1997, activists with the Portland Hotel Society (PHS) and the group that would soon become the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) gathered in Oppenheimer Park one afternoon and hammered 1,000 crosses into the ground there.
In the preceding five years, the number of fatal overdoses in B.C. had climbed from 117 in 1991 to 301 in 1996. The rows of crosses created a powerful visual that put the issue of overdose deaths on the government’s agenda for action.
Twenty years later, in 2017, B.C. is projected to see more than 1,500 people die of a drug overdose.
And so this Friday (September 29), activists will return to Oppenheimer Park and build another cemetery there to symbolize so many more people that Vancouver has lost to its second and ongoing overdose epidemic.
Nesa Tousi is an organizer with Collective Resistance to Injustice (CRI), a relatively new group of Vancouver activists, frontline workers, and substance users who are pushing for a more urgent response to overdose deaths.
“The demonstration, we’re treating it somewhat like a funeral,” Tousi said in a telephone interview. “We’re asking folks to come together, witness some of the speakers that we’ve organized, participate in a march, and then have a healing ceremony at the end.”
Tousi told the Straight the event was planned with the help of a number of community groups, including VANDU, the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society (WAHRS), Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs (CAPUD), Culture Saves Lives, and the Overdose Prevention Society. (September 29 happens to fall in the same month that VANDU marks its 20-year anniversary.)
She said that although activists planted 1,000 crosses in 1997, this year the number will be 2,224 because that’s how many people in B.C. have died of an overdose during the past three years.
Tousi noted they’ve also decided to change the symbol that they’re using. Activists, people who have lost a loved one, and anyone who wishes to take part will plant straight wooden stakes into the ground of Oppenheimer Park Instead of crosses.
“Considering the social and political climate that we live in today, and the knowledge that we’ve acquired through the work of Indigenous communities, and our understanding of the dynamics between the church and Indigenous communities, we’ve opted not to use crosses to represent the folks who have passed,” she explained. “It’s a very colonial type of symbol.”
Collective Resistance to Injustice has also launched a fundraising drive in relation to the event. It’s taking donations via a GoFundMe page. Tousi said money collected there will be used to take the stakes demonstration across Canada, to the nation’s capital.
“Our vision and intention is to connect with communities along the route so that we can collect letters from them or different symbols from them and the ways they’ve been impacted in their communities,” she said. “By bringing it to Ottawa, we’re going to try to connect with the broader impacts of the opioid overdose epidemic.”
The memorial and demonstration is scheduled to take place on September 29 beginning at 11 a.m. in Oppenheimer Park (Powell Street and Jackson Avenue). From there, a march will proceed to CRAB Park.