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cityscape

A Memorial In South Riverdale Brings Drug Use Out Of The Shadows

A new monument honours 79 locals who died because of drug use.

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Community members take in a newly unveiled memorial for drug users beside South Riverdale Community Health Centre.

On Friday afternoon, local artist Rocky Dobey unveiled a gleaming, eight-foot copper memorial beside South Riverdale Community Health Centre on Queen Street East—a fitting location for a monument designed to draw stigmas about drug use out of the shadows.

Three years ago, the COUNTERfit harm reduction program at South Riverdale CHC brought together Dobey and about 100 local community members to conceive, design, and build what they believe to be North America’s first permanent memorial for people who use drugs. According to the centre’s executive director, Lynne Raskin, it was a response to numerous drug-related deaths in the commmunity. “We lost 16 precious, precious people…and the staggering number of loses were constantly with us,” Raskin told several dozen people gathered to witness the unveiling.

“This project aims to make visible and speakable the lives of those we’ve lost, by countering the silence, and countering the denial,” she said.

Dobey, who led the design and construction of the memorial, told us that the relatively soft copper surface is an invitation for people to inscribe their own messages and drawings. “If you look at the bricks of old buildings, you can sometimes see messages and tributes inscribed in them. I wanted to have that same feeling here, because this is a living memorial,” he said.

Dobey collected the monument’s drawings and messages from local participants, all of whom were paid for their contributions. He said his most difficult work was hand stamping the names of 79 deceased community members onto a plaque on one side of the structure. “I could do about 10 names at a time, and then I couldn’t do any more,” said Dobey, who has created several art pieces dedicated to drug users. “It’s emotionally hard—these are people, not names.”

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Warren Kenny is one one those honoured on the memorial. He passed away last year at age 27, hours after a birthday celebration with friends. His mother Marlene and cousin Kate attended the unveiling ceremony and spoke with us about Warren. “It’s hard to resolve your grief when the death is so preventable,” said Marlene. “I am happy and overwhelmed to be here—it brings all the memories back when I can talk about him.”

Marlene told us Warren lived on the streets and was in and out of jail for crimes related to his drug use. He became very ill after mixing drugs at his party. “He asked his friends not to call 911 so he wouldn’t have to spend his birthday in jail,” Marlene said. Warren passed away later that night.

“These are the institutions we need to reach: the police, the hospitals, the prison system, the politicians,” Marlene said. Of people who share her son’s experiences, she added, “Even if they are in contact with family, when they’re out there, they are nobodies.”

Jason Altenberg, the director of programs and services at South Riverdale CHC, told us that his centre has created several harm-reduction programs, which focus on healthier outcomes for drug users instead of simply advocating abstinence. “We spend a lot of time asking people in our community what they need,” Altenberg said. He noted that treating people whose drug use exposes them to illnesses like Hepatitis C is far more difficult because of punitive measures in the criminal justice system. “As long we criminalize behaviours that impact on someone’s health, we will always have more complex issues to overcome,” said Altenberg.

Raffi Balian, coordinator of harm reduction programming at South Riverdale CHC, was much more blunt in his message to the crowd Friday morning: “It’s not a war on drugs, it’s a war on drug users,” he said. He, too, addressed on the significance of a monument for drug users on a main street in Toronto. “The memorial is here—ignorance is no longer an excuse.”

Photos by Ryan Hayes.

CORRECTION: July 23, 2013, 11:30 AM This post originally misquoted Warren Kenny’s mother, Marlene. She said her son feared spending his birthday in jail, not the hospital. Also, a quote by Marlene was wrongly attributed to Kate, Kenny’s cousin.

Comments

  • Guest

    Not to sound offensive (and if it does, oh well), but why have they built a statue to “honour” people who’ve died of drugs? Is that really a cause to build a monument?

    I understand the part about potentially dissuading drug users (as per the last paragraph), but this doesn’t seem to be the best way to go about it. What’s it say to people who don’t understand the point?

    “Hey, if I die from drugs, I’m gonna get a statue in my honour… rad!”

    • Bill

      Yup, you certainly don’t get the point all right.

    • realpigasus

      No, It says “learn the point”.

    • Sherry Vanstone

      No, the point is that there are people out there who have enough empathy and compassion to spread around- even to people who have lifestyles that may be different from our own. Some people are able to love others even if they don’t understand their set of circumstances.

  • sean

    “…a monument designed to draw stigmas about drug use out of the shadows.”
    We’re not talking some casual pot use here, folks. Hardcore drugs SHOULD have a stigma to them, it means the person is an addict and badly in need of help. But hey man, it’s cool.

    • dsmithhfx

      Be sure and let our mayor know your feelings about that.

    • Bill

      do people even read the whole article before commenting?

    • rich1299

      Its the stigma that keeps people from seeking help for their addiction problems especially if they have mental health problems in addition which is pretty common. No one ever wants to be addicted but various drugs do help people cope with the horrors of their life for the short term without actually fixing the original problems and at a terrible price. Studies have found that the vast majority of people became addicted to opiates in an effort to cope with abuse or trauma in their lives, it was around 80% or so but I forget the exact number. The article I learned that from only reviewed studies on people addicted to opiates but I would assume the number is similar for other types of drugs. A genetic susceptibility to addiction has also been found. addiction is a health problem, it makes about as much sense to stigmatize people with addiction problems as it does to stigmatize people with diabetes.

      Stigma makes people’s health worse, not better. Portugal has decriminalized all drugs and nowadays only treats addiction as a health problem, not a criminal one. Since they’ve made that change drug usage has dropped in all categories and far more people are entering rehab. It wasn’t just losing the threat of jail time that made the difference but their focus on it as a health problem only which helped reduce the stigma against people with addiction problems so such people are more comfortable seeking help.

      The old saying “the dead do not detox” is very true and also the reason why safe injection sites are so important. If it were easy for people to get and stay sober no one would have an addiction problem but the reality is it take a very long time for recovery. Quitting using and the physical withdrawal is actually the easy part though its extremely unpleasant when you don’t have the strength to be able to get out of bed to vomit or crap. Staying sober is the hardest part since the original reason the person developed an addiction still exists and secondary withdrawal involves a deep dark depression and anxiety plus intense physical cravings to use again. Physical cravings aren’t just a desire to use again though that too can be an overwhelmingly powerful force, but physical cravings are a person’s brain cells “freaking out” because they no longer have access to the chemical they came to rely upon.

      Serious addiction problems also change a person’s brain structure making staying sober all that much more difficult. Its why meds like methadone and suboxone are so important, at least for people addicted to opiates, since it helps stabilize their brains while they make the needed changes in their life to address the resons they became addicted in the first place. That part alone can take a very long time but is most critical since without making those chanegs and addressing the original problems relapse is much more likely.

      Stigma works against all the most important aspects of recovery. Its doubtful as well that stigma would keep people from becoming addicted since no one wants to be addicted or believes they will become addicted, at least until it is too late.

    • OgtheDim

      “”…a monument designed to draw stigmas about drug use out of the shadows.”"

      You do know sean that you were drawn out of the shadows there on a stigma you have…right?

  • larry

    the so-called ‘friends’ who wouldn’t call 911 so Warren wouldn’t spend his birthday in jail are direct contributors to the addiction that killed him.

    • KRoberts

      That’s how Jimi Hendrix died, and I suspect Cory Monteith as well – some “friends” they are, leaving them to die…

  • rich1299

    Being on a busy main street I doubt that would be an issue, plus I’m sure its secured to its base. I’m more concerned some assholes will scrawl hateful messages on it since it is designed for people to be able to do etch messages on it

  • Greg

    Isn’t South Riverdale Community Health Centre in Leslieville, not Riverdale?

  • Dan Bigg

    Silence = Death

  • zamarax

    What a crock of shit this is, I hope it get’s stolen so that every stigma lives up to it’s name.

    • dsmithhfx

      You’re an asshole.

      • zamarax

        oh right, I’m an ‘asshole’ for calling it like it is. if there was some positive stigma behind this I’m sure we’d all be cheering – druggies deserve what they get.

        • tyrannosaurus_rek

          dsmithhfx called it like it is: you’re an asshole.

          • zamarax

            …right, I’m an asshole because I’m against a memorial that supports life failures that made that choice on their own? you need to give your head a shake – while I know you’ll probably never admit it I bet you were one of those G20 protesters claiming ‘we are the 99%’…you want to know where your money is going? supporting those drug fiends.

          • vampchick21

            Did a drug addict and a protestor gang together to kick your puppy? Why the hate and anger here? Or is that just your general demenor?

          • zamarax

            nope – but a female druggie did a B&E at my location, caught her and had to fend her off while she had a knife – that’s my point, why are we memorializing these fuck heads?

          • vampchick21

            Because they are human beings with serious issues who need assistance. This statue is not to memorialize them in the manner of say, a statue to a sports hero, this statue AS CLEARLY STATED IN THE DAMN ARTICLE is to bring to the forefront the issues of drug use, addiction, mental illness and other factors that lead people down that path.

            Or you can continue to tar them all with the same brush, stereotype them as sub-human criminals and monsters not worth spitting on. Whatever rocks your boat.

          • OgtheDim

            This is a memorial to need. To people who screwed up or were screwed up. But who were, ultimately, still people. Sisters, brothers, friends, daughters, sons, grandfathers, grandmothers, moms, dads, cousins.

            They are still people.

            You might want to deny their humanity but obviously others don’t.

            Deal with the fact that your own issues have screwed you up on this for all of us to see.

          • OgtheDim

            So EVERYBODY who is an addict made that choice on their own?

            You really have no clue about addiction, do you?

          • vampchick21

            Oh, but you see! A mean druggie girl tried to rob him once! So they are all worthless pieces of shit! :( (are you seeing the same parallel I am here?)

          • OgtheDim

            Well I do think he’s addicted to his anger.

          • zamarax

            correct, they made the choice – your going on like I have no idea but little do you know I was raised in a household full of addiction…I could have easily gone down the same path as I always had plenty of drugs and alcohol freely available all over the house but I chose NOT to do it. It is 100% a choice the person has and is control of, my opinion has little to do with hate and a lot to do with personal experience.

          • OgtheDim

            If you believe that all addicts make that choice, that is your issue, and ultimately your choice to believe that. Many, if not most people, disagree.

            BUT, calling the whole thing bull shit is your problem. You own your anger. And, yeah, its going to get you called an asshole.

            Deal with your own choice to be addicted to your anger.

          • zamarax

            how is voicing my opinion now an addiction to some said ‘anger’ that I allegedly have?

          • vampchick21

            You are hardly the only person who has managed to grow up in an environment where drugs and alcohol were issues and easily available and managed to avoid the pitfalls. I did to. The difference? I’m not a smug asshole about it. I don’t hate people who tumbled into the rabbit hole. I don’t dismiss an entire group of people as sub-human and worthless.

            Empathy and human compassion. It’s a good thing.

          • zamarax

            I will not be emphatic to those that refuse to put in the work.

            ‘oh I have problems, I do drugs, no one understands’…blah blah blah – the world is full of problems – you have to learn how to handle life.

            The options are there for these people, they don’t want to take them? fine, but they certainly don’t deserve a memorial for it.

          • vampchick21

            You’re a thickheaded little idiot. Any further discussion is clearly pointless with you. you have chosen to tar them all with the same negative brush. You are not worth my time.

          • zamarax

            oh right, now it’s a personal attack because I have a vastly different opinion then you?

            how about a memorial for blood sucking vamps?

            xo

          • vampchick21

            Go to Romania, you’ll find it.

          • zamarax

            I think they are called Gypsies out there…ohh snap!

          • vampchick21

            Vlad Tepis actually. But whatever.

          • zamarax

            Oh I like it when you talk dirty.

          • vampchick21

            Now you’re just a creep. Bye.

          • zamarax

            oh right, now I’m a creep vs an asshole? well at least I’m grown up and not a pretend vampire ;-)

          • vampchick21

            Sigh. I’m not a pretend vampire or a real one. Nor am I 21. You are, however, both a creep and an asshole. Now can you PLEASE find someone else to annoy? I’m getting really bored of this.

          • Punned_It

            Well said Vampchick. I think Zamarax has anger issues with his parents and is using every addict as a scapegoat for their neglect. He could probably use some serious help himself. Sad.

          • vampchick21

            I think you’re right.

          • zamarax

            it has zero to do with my parents, in fact, it really doesn’t have much to do with druggies except for the fact that this memorial and article is directed at that, it HAS to do with that fact that we are memorializing and almost sensationalizing people that are delinquent in society, continue to be that way and commit illegal activities regularly.

        • vampchick21

          You’re such a pleasant ray of sunshine! So refrreshing! May I call on you next time I need a smile or a hug? So nice to see such a positive person around!

        • Punned_It

          Zamarax, I feel sorry for you – far more than I do for the folks whose names are on this monument. They had friends and family who loved and cared for them unconditionally. Your posts portray you as someone unable to understand or even feel that type of love, let alone compassion or respect for another human being.

          People make bad choices and mistakes. That’s how we learn. Sometimes those mistakes are very costly and sometimes people lose their lives because of them. Often, a little help from another human being at the right time makes a big difference.

          Some kids take up skiing. When they start it’s fun – hanging with their friends, a few laughs, a few thrills. Over the years, some give it up, some stay at that level and some take it farther. They try more dangerous runs, more difficult tricks, they may compete, or take a helicopter into the Rockies. Some of these people will break arms or legs. Some will get spinal injuries. Some will die.

          If a skier is badly injured, they get immediate care and both emotional and financial support. No one stands around pointing fingers and telling them it’s their own fault because they chose a dangerous sport. No one lectures them that they should have just quit before they got hurt. No one calls them names or tells them they got what they deserved.

          • zamarax

            ahha, that’s the funniest thing I’ve read on here of all time – you can not logically compare a skier to a druggie, almost the whole concept of being a druggie involves illegal activity – by your own logic why not a memorial for jay walkers that get struck and killed by vehicles, how about murderers and rapist? pedophiles? I mean they are all humans too right? How about a memorial for every action good or bad?…get real.

          • Punned_It

            All I’m saying is that it’s a life choice that has potential consequences for health.

            Drugs have not always been illegal, nor are they illegal everywhere. For example, in Portugal they no longer consider drug use illegal. They treat it as a medical issue. As the stigma is removed, people are going into rehab programs, usage is dropping and so are deaths.

  • zamarax

    Bull Fucking Shit.

    • vampchick21

      Jim Morrison.

    • Punned_It

      Samuel Taylor Coleridge
      Sigmund Freud (cocaine)
      Andy Warhol
      Miles Davis (heroin)
      Lewis Carroll
      Edith Piaf
      Billy Holiday
      Charles Dickens
      Florence Nightingale
      Rush Limbaugh
      Elvis Presley

      • zamarax

        oh don’t worry, the list goes on and on – and they all deserved what they got.

        • vampchick21

          You are a hateful, mean, awful, nasty wizard.

        • Punned_It

          Well, they say the hardest thing to open is a closed mind. Obviously that’s what we’re dealing with here, so Zamarax, I hope you get what you deserve. Good luck.

          • zamarax

            totally, and I am – came from a childhood on social assistance due to parents that couldn’t get it together – I’ve moved well beyond that to a well established career.

          • dsmithhfx

            Being a troll is now a “career”?

          • zamarax

            let’s not forget that VampChick21 came at me first with the comments.

        • Punned_It

          They did. Many of them became rich, and have been honored for their accomplishments and contributions to society. I doubt that you will fall into that group.

          • zamarax

            great – now let’s get back to the point – why a memorial for continuing to do drugs?

            look – if you rehab yourself and become a wonderful person that gives back, awesome, shit I would even pitch in for a medal for you as a stark reminder of where you came from, however I will not at all support a memorial to those that continue to do this – you get the logical here right? I mean geez, let’s memorialize serial rapist…why not right?

          • Punned_It

            The monument is for those who didn’t get help and died because of it. For whatever reason, the help they needed was not available to them. There are very few rehab spaces, and you are far more likely to land in jail than in care. It does not glorify drug use – no one is suggesting these people are heroes. It is a sad reminder that our society has a long way to go in dealing with drugs and addictions.