British Columbia

This cherry tree site is the first-known AIDS memorial in Vancouver

Nearly 35 years later, three of the four cherry trees planted are still standing.

Nearly 35 years later, 3 of the 4 cherry four trees planted are still standing

In 1985, the group of people who created it decided the memorial's location would not be revealed to protect it from vandalism. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

On Oct. 20, 1985, a dozen men gathered near Vancouver's Stanley Park. It was pouring rain. The men, joined by some friends and family, dug four holes, planting each one with a cherry tree. 

The trees represented four B.C. men who died of AIDS. A spokesman for the group asked that the memorial's location not be revealed to protect it from vandalism.

Nearly 35 years later, three of the cherry four trees are still standing. The site, at Devonian Harbour Park, remains the first-known AIDS memorial in Vancouver and one of the oldest in North America.

But for years, it was forgotten.

The site was rediscovered in 2012, during research for a campaign to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the non-profit AIDS Vancouver. 

In 2018, a commemorative plaque was unveiled and the Vancouver Park Board dedicated the site.

Michael Welsh, a nurse and former AIDS Vancouver volunteer, attended the tree planting in 1985.

"A lot of this history, because it's over 35 years, is a little bit lost in the mists of time," he told CBC's On The Coast.

"I'm just glad that this space has been recovered and reclaimed in some respects because it does help remember those people that died so early and so young."

This plaque was added to the site in 2018. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

'Gone but never forgotten'

Welsh said the memorial was meant to remember four friends he had lost in the early days of the AIDS epidemic.

At that time, the cause of the virus, which attacks the immune system, was not yet known. But it appeared to mainly affect gay men, drawing public stigma and earning the nickname "gay plague."

The four men commemorated were identified only by their first names: James, Ivan, Gino and Randy.

"This experience was outing on two levels — outing as a gay man and outing as a person with AIDS," Welsh said. "That was very traumatic for some people. Even today, I want to respect some people's privacy in that respect."

Welsh had, for years, forgotten the site's location. He left AIDS Vancouver in 1989, after six years advocating for victims, to distance himself from the disease.

"It was just too too intense, too personal and I needed to to back away from it totally."

Michael Welsh has worked as a nurse at St. Paul's Hospital since 1981 and says he saw first-hand the effects of AIDS in the '80s. (Maggie MacPherson/CBC)

He reconnected with the site in the lead-up to the non-profit's 30th anniversary. On a recent summer July day, he touched one of the trees's branches, its leaves browned but its trunk sturdy.

In the spring, the petals will reawaken with bursts of pink. Welsh said the cherry blossoms were chosen for their beautiful, ethereal quality.

He walked to the nearby plaque and read it aloud.

"The first fallen pink petals were followed by too many," he said, "gone but never forgotten."

Listen to the full interview with Michael Welsh:

With files from Polly Leger

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