'They were my loved ones': Activists mark 2,224 lives lost to opioid crisis
Organizers call for decriminalization of all drugs during protest in Oppenheimer Park
In July of 1997, at the height of the AIDS epidemic in Vancouver, activists pushed 1,000 crosses into the ground to represent those lost to overdoses and HIV.
Twenty years later, activists were back at Oppenheimer Park on Friday for a similar commemoration. This time, they were honouring the thousands of victims of B.C.'s ongoing opioid crisis.
CeeJai Julian attended both ceremonies in the Downtown Eastside, and she told CBC News the same grief and sense of abandonment she felt in the 90s persists today.
"They were loved ones, they were my loved ones, they were family members. There was no detox beds for them," Julian said of the recent overdose deaths.
"What's happening is there isn't enough beds."
That same sentiment was echoed by activists in 1997, too.
Watch the CBC's story from July 1997:
There was one obvious difference between the two ceremonies.
"We're not using crosses, we're using stakes this time," said Jordan Westfall, president of the Canadian Association of People Who Use Drugs.
The cross, he said, is a painful symbol to some because it carries a colonial legacy, but the goal is similar.
Dozens came to paint the wooden posts — 2,224 of them to be exact — for each person who has died of an overdose in the past three years in B.C.
The stakes, along with hand-written messages, will be collected, placed in a coffin, sent to Ottawa and presented to Parliament.
The protest two decades ago was eventually followed by the opening of the safe injection site Insite, and there have been recent advances made in terms of Naloxone kits becoming more readily available.
But activists say much more needs to change to stem the recent tide of deaths.
"Drugs need to be decriminalized so the people using them have access points to healthcare, to social fabric, to their families, so they're not criminals and can come out of the shadows," said Westfall.
Among the long list of requests from activists is safe access to drugs like heroin and methadone.
"Otherwise, right now, our drug market is tainted with fentanyl. It's unpredictable and a lot of people are dying because of it," said Westfall.