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Rights + Justice

For Those Lost to the Overdose Crisis, a Toy Tree

Joze Macculloch throws one up on the thin branches for every friend and neighbour gone too soon.

By Christopher Cheung 11 Mar 2019 | TheTyee.ca

Christopher Cheung reports on urban issues for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung.

At the end of each week, Joze Macculloch brings the toys he collects from the streets of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside to a tree in front of 144 E. Hastings and tosses them up into the branches.

If you visit the tree today you’ll see over a hundred toys, each representing a death in the opioid crisis.

“There’s just so many people OD-ing,” said Macculloch, 40. “I thought maybe everyone can go and throw up stuffed animals they like for somebody they lost.”

He follows in the footsteps of other locals who’ve produced art to remember those who’ve died, from works of graffiti to murals, though he’s the only one so far to make use of a street tree.

Macculloch’s always enjoyed art — in Grade 4, he won two school prizes for his work — but the colourful tree, where a Hello Kitty hangs with skeletons and dragons dangle with dolls, is the first project he’s attempted of this scale.

When Macculloch got the idea for the work in January, 112 people in the province had died from overdoses the month before.

It was easy to find 112 toys in the Downtown Eastside. “There’s always lots lying around that people are throwing away,” he said.

Macculloch, who lives in one of the neighbourhood’s many single-room occupancy units, has known a lot of people who’ve died.

One of them is his friend Riley, who helped set up the tree in January, though not from an overdose.

“He helped me tie the toys together, and he just passed away,” said Macculloch. “He was one of the fellows who died in the clothing donation bins.”

Vancouver removed clothing bins from its streets earlier this year after a number of such deaths.

The tree is an instant anomaly to the eyes of passersby, because Macculloch has curated it so thoughtfully.

This is a neighbourhood where objects are never still — shopping carts, luggage in tow, bags of empties over shoulders.

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The tree is near 144 E. Hastings Street. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

Macculloch’s creation wouldn’t be out of place in a gallery, labelled as a mixed-media work of interactive art composed of locally collected found objects.

(Macculloch would call it “anything that I find.”)

The lighter toys include pandas, elephants, cars, dolls, animated characters like Olaf of Frozen, the minions of Despicable Me, and Pokémon like Charmander and Mudkip.

The darker ones include scarecrows and mannequin heads.

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‘At one point, there were 10 Garfields up there.’ Photo by Christopher Cheung.

The open nature of installations like the tree, however, is a challenge that all creators of public art have to deal with.

Macculloch had put up a sign that explained that the tree was a dedication to loved ones lost to overdoses, but it’s no longer there.

Toys have also vanished. Only four of the original batch of 50 that Macculloch put up remain: a wombat, a koala, a lion and a rabbit.

“At one point, there were 10 Garfields up there,” he said.

As the opioid crisis continues, Macculloch plans to keep adding toys to his memorial and hopes others will as well.

Last year, there was an average of 124 suspected overdose deaths a month.

Macculloch, who’s originally from the Okanagan, has lived in the Downtown Eastside for two years and says the neighbourhood “isn’t as bad as everybody seems to think it is.”

“What really gets me is how gracious everybody is,” he said. “People who give out sandwiches always get a big thank you.”

He hopes the tree will bring some light into people’s days — if they look up to see it.

In this neighbourhood folks tend to keep their heads down, watching daily life unfold on the sidewalks around them.

This past Friday, a man saw the tree for the first time when he glimpsed a woman admiring it while smoking a cigarette. He laughed and said he never noticed it before.

He took out his phone to snap a photo. “I’m going to send this to my daughter!” he said.

The woman pointed to Macculloch, who happened to be walking by. “He’s the guy who made this,” she said.

The man hurried over to shake Macculloch’s hand. “It’s beautiful,” he said. “Thank you.”  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Rights + Justice

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