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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.

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