'They were my loved ones': Activists mark 2,224 lives lost to opioid crisis

There were echoes in Oppenheimer Park of an similar protest held 20 years earlier, when the Downtown Eastside grieved those lost to heroin and AIDS.

Organizers call for decriminalization of all drugs during protest in Oppenheimer Park

CeeJai Julian finds herself at a memorial for overdose victims, 20 years after she attended one where she made crosses for the same cause. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

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: 

In July of 1997, protesters pierced Oppenheimer Park with 1,000 crosses in a campaign to stop needless HIV and drug overdose deaths on the Downtown Eastside 1:03

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. 

Over 2,200 wooden posts were laid down at Oppenheimer Park to represent those who died in B.C. over the last three years to an overdose. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

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.

Dozens held hands during a Coast Salish chant presented by an elder at Oppenheimer Park. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)
Gathered around the wooden posts, dozens remembered victims of the overdose crisis. (Tina Lovgreen/CBC)

About the Author

Tina Lovgreen

Video Journalist

Tina is a Video Journalist with CBC Vancouver. Send her an email at tina.lovgreen@cbc.ca