When celebrated Cree artist Jerry Whitehead first came to Vancouver in 1987 from his home in Saskatchewan, the Downtown Eastside was a different place.
“I celebrated New Years of ‘87 at the Grand Union. I partied all up and down this street,” he said with a laugh. “It wasn’t like this at all. It was all different. The only people you had to worry about were drunk people, there were no drugs like there are now.”
Whitehead said he noticed harder drugs reach the streets in the 1990s, and problems escalated from there.
“It’s a rough cycle and something that is going to take a while to get rid of,” he said.
That’s why he’s hopeful a new mural he painted with two other Indigenous artists will be a site of meaning and beauty for residents of the Downtown Eastside. Located in the gated area of Hastings Urban Farm, between Abbott and Carrall streets, the work honours the victims of the city’s opioid crisis.
It took two weeks to create. The memorial mural, featuring a thunderbird and star blanket, with West Coast and East Coast designs, opened in ceremony Friday night.
Whitehead said the wall of colour will brighten a lot of people’s lives.
“That’s all we need sometimes, something bright to look at [in] the morning and stay with us through the day,” he said. He waved and smiled back to people walking by and shouting out their approval of the piece.
“There’s no one to care if you do not care, Bud Osborn 1947-2014” is written across the bright wall. The text was done by Devon Brown and honours Osborn, a Downtown Eastside resident and revered poet.
The mural was made possible by Culture Saves Lives, Vancouver Mural Festival, Portland Hotel Society, City of Vancouver, Interurban Gallery and the Downtown Eastside Centre for the Arts.
Patrick Smith, director of Aboriginal health for the Portland Hotel Society, better known as PHS Community Services Society, played a role in choosing the artists and design for the mural.
“We met to design and discuss what would be the most appropriate for the community,” he said. “We wanted a big piece to represent the nations from the West and East Coast.”
The bottom part of the bright mural is a space for community participation. People are welcome to write the names of those they’ve lost over the years in the crisis and to make the mural a collaborative project.
“The star blanket in the middle represents Tracey Morrison, my friend,” Smith said. “I don’t use the word friend easily. Everybody knew her.”
Harm reduction activist Tracey Morrison passed away in mid-July, leaving a gaping hole in the heart of the community she loved.
Smith said he remembers how Morrison could smooth talk on the street and in a board room. She would change the consciousness of any room she was in. “She had that spirit,” he said.
Whitehead worked on the piece with Sharifah Marsden, with whom he has collaborated on several pieces, and her partner Corey Larocque.
Calling Whitehead a mentor, Marsden has worked with him on seven murals across the city and praised his natural ability to see the big picture of a large project and bring separate pieces together with grace.
“He’s good at the overall layout and how to make it all blend and transition smoothly,” she said, noting the project had taken two long and hot weeks of hard work, right through the long weekend. “I had the star blanket sketched out and Jerry helped with the transition areas and making it all balanced and belonging.”
Marsden is an Anishinaabe artist from the Mississaugas of Scugog Island First Nation and has lived on unceded Coast Salish territories for the past 15 years. She always wanted to paint the city and paint the world.
“Murals transform a space and uplift people,” she said. “It’s simple, but it’s real.”
Marsden said that each artist had personal reasons for participating in the project. She has family and community members dealing with addictions.
She also recognized the mural as an extension of the community’s living space.
“The public will continue to add names, pictures and words for loved ones,” she said. “It’s going to keep evolving.”
Larocque, who designed the thunderbird, called the memorial a way to address a negative issue in a positive light. Larocque is Cree, Gitxsan and Haida and apprenticed under Beau Dick, a world-famous master carver, Kwakwaka’wakw hereditary chief and Indigenous activist who passed away in March.
Larocque was adopted into a family in Alert Bay, which is where the crest of the thunderbird comes from, he said. He dedicated the thunderbird to a well-loved chief who passed away from a fentanyl overdose.
He said his death was one of many in the community that happened too soon.
“It’s slowly becoming illegal to be poor,” Larocque said. “People perceive Vancouver and Canada to be this welcoming place, but it’s welcoming if you’ve got the money or come from a certain place. This crisis shows how broken the system is.”
Larocque said if any other demographic was “dying by the thousands,” other than Indigenous communities, survivors of colonization and the street, government and the public would have a different reaction. Larocque said he has witnessed at least five people die on the street, just within the few blocks of the neighbourhood.
“People died right here where we stand,” Larocque said.
The thunderbird represents the spiritual crossing and the transition into the spirit world, he said.
All three artists, Whitehead, Marsden and Larocque, were honoured in an urban-style blanketing ceremony on Friday night, Smith explained. The ceremony was meant to recognize the artists’ efforts, but it was also an opportunity to speak about the crisis and recommit to finding solutions, Smith said.
The wall is a place to mourn, honour and remember. But it is also a gift for those who call the street home and those that fight to make it a more beautiful place.
“It’s like their blanket or rug, hanging in their living room,” Whitehead said. “Everybody knows everybody here. It might look rough to visitors, but it’s a normal community.”
Read more: Municipal Politics, Media
Tyee Commenting Guidelines
Comments that violate guidelines risk being deleted, and violations may result in a temporary or permanent user ban. Maintain the spirit of good conversation to stay in the discussion.
*Please note The Tyee is not a forum for spreading misinformation about COVID-19, denying its existence or minimizing its risk to public health.