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In an Empty Park, Mourners Remember Lives Lost in the Downtown Eastside

Oppenheimer Park is locked off behind a high metal fence. That didn’t stop a group of more than 100 from gathering to honour loved ones.

Jen St. Denis 17 Aug

Jen St. Denis is The Tyee’s Downtown Eastside reporter. Find her on Twitter @JenStDen. This reporting beat is made possible by the Local Journalism Initiative.

A beloved older sister. A friend who loved listening to Steve Earle. A quiet brother-in-law who was always reading.

More than 100 people gathered at Oppenheimer Park in the Downtown Eastside Saturday to remember family and friends who died in recent months, when COVID-19 precautions have prevented gatherings to remember lost loved ones.

Many of the lives lost were due to overdoses. While the Downtown Eastside has not experienced a COVID-19 outbreak, overdose deaths have spiked during the pandemic. In May, 171 British Columbians died of overdoses, the highest number ever recorded. In June, 175 people lost their lives.

The memorial in Oppenheimer Park followed a march down East Hastings and Cordova streets organized by the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users. Mourners called for an expansion of safe supply, which ensures users can access prescription drugs that aren’t tainted by dangerous additives.

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‘Safe supply so we won’t die.’ Photo by Maggie MacPherson.

They moved through the streets chanting “Safe supply so we won’t die.”

Oppenheimer Park has been closed off behind a high blue metal fence since the province and city removed a tent city in May. But rally participants slipped through one panel where the bolts had been unscrewed and entered to remember loved ones near the park’s memorial totem pole.

Aiyanas Ormond spoke about Dave Murray who died this spring at age 68 of antibiotic-resistant septicemia. Murray, a participant in the North American Opiate Medication Initiative study — the continent’s first prescription heroin trial — advocated tirelessly for access to safe supply.

Murray was an activist, but a gentle one, remembered for his habit of reading the newspaper every single day and wearing glasses held together by tape.

“As a leader, Dave was… soft-spoken, he led by example,” Ormond said. “He was somebody on the team who made everybody better.”

Laura Shaver spoke about her brother-in-law, Ken Steward, who introduced her to her fiancé.

“You would always see him, and he was reading a book, or he was colouring,” Shaver said. “He was a really sweet guy and he went way too soon.”

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Laura Shaver’s friend Chereece Keewatin was ‘a big, big powerful little woman.’ Photo by Maggie MacPherson.

Shaver also remembered her friend, Chereece Keewatin. Keewatin was a member of the BC Association of People on Opioid Maintenance and a supervisor at an overdose prevention site.

“Chereece died needlessly,” Shaver said. “She was a big, big powerful little woman who, ’til the last day, worked, in a wheelchair, at VANDU.”

Elvis Wilson remembered his friend Dwayne, while Colin Trent-Rosso remembered his cousin Cyril Alec, who died just three days ago.

“He was a pretty innocent guy, a nice guy and I just want to acknowledge, he’s with the angels now,” Trent-Rosso said.

“Sorry about all the friends I lost down here,” Wilson said. “I miss them. Thank you for listening. God bless you all.”

Garth Mullins remembered Wade Crawford, a member of the Six Nations who had taken part in many protests, including the action at Oka, Que., in 1990. Crawford died at age 48 from health complications.*

Laura Pierre spoke about her older sister, Star, who recently died in hospital. Pierre said her younger sister also died several years ago.

“People gave my younger sister the wrong kind of drugs when she was drunk. They gave her heroin instead of rock [cocaine] and that stopped her heart right away,” Pierre said.

“I stand here alone now without either of my sisters because they were drug sick. I hope our times will change, so we can have safe drugs for people, and we don’t have to lose them anymore.”

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Elli Taylor spoke about Duncan Grant, ‘a strong warrior.’ Photo by Maggie MacPherson.

Elli Taylor spoke about Duncan Grant, the son of her friend Erica Grant. Duncan was found dead in April in the London Hotel, the single room occupancy hotel where he lived.

“Duncan was a kind, strong warrior.... He was always at protests, beside his mother, and he did everything he could to make the community a better place,” Taylor said.

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Myles Harpes speaks about his friend, Arthurs Lakis, at a memorial at Oppenheimer Park. Photo by Maggie MacPherson.

Myles Harpes and Brittany Graham spoke about their friend Arthur Lakis.

“He lived down the hall from me and we became fast friends,” said Harpes. “He liked Steve Earle, so we’d get everything ready and... put on Steve Earle and sing to the songs... and pretend we were at a concert.”

Before a moment of silence, Ormond asked participants to speak the names of people they had lost. For a moment, the air was full of a chorus of names.

As police and Vancouver park rangers gathered at the opening in the fence, with some participants reporting officers were not allowing any more people through, Graham said it’s been difficult to move on without a way to remember lost loved ones.

“We haven’t been able to gather this way, we haven’t been able to remember or move forward in our movement,” Graham said.

“It feels horrible that we have to push into this park to use this park to memorialize people that we love, like Arthur.”

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*Story updated on Aug. 17, 2020 at 10 a.m. to include clarifying information about the deceased.  [Tyee]

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