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Drug users memorial unveiled in Toronto's South Riverdale community

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It’s the first public monument in North America to celebrate the lives of people who died as a direct or indirect result of drug use. 

“But the first in our hearts is actually what makes this meaningful,” said Lynne Raskin, executive director, South Riverdale Community Health Centre.

“Celebrating the lives of folks that have been sent to the shadows. Not seen. Implicitly. Explicitly. And a whole bunch of other ways.”

Click here to see more photos from Friday’s event.

Those who work at South Riverdale know people who died because of drug use. Know of people who died because of drug use. Have friends who died because of drug use. Have family who died because of drug use.

“And this means something to us,” said Raskin. 

“To be able to mourn. To be able to grieve. To be able to celebrate. To be able to acknowledge resistance, resilience and huge strength.”

Not only in the people who use drugs. But also in the staff who work with the people who use drugs. The men and women who work in the COUNTERfit Harm Reduction program.

“(Who now) do harm reduction work out of the shadows,” said Jason Altenberg, director of programs and services, South Riverdale Community Health Centre.

“Where we actually do the work to save lives. And stand tall and do it without having to hide.”

And in doing so, honour the 79 names on the memorial. And those who’ve yet to be added.

“We know there are more,” said Raffi Balian, project coordinator, South Riverdale Community Health Centre.

“But there is so much stigmatization of drug users. Sometimes families don’t come and tell us. They don’t want to associate their loved ones with drugs.”

Between 2006 and 2008, there were 2,330 drug-related deaths in Ontario. In 2010, somewhere between 90,000 and 250,000 worldwide.

And those numbers don’t take into account the hundreds of thousands arrested, detained and incarcerated every year.

“The war on drugs is a real war,” said Balian. “But it’s not a war on drugs. It’s a war on drug users.”

A war created by government policies.

“And every politician, policy maker, worker in the drug field, artist, teacher, reporter and police officer perpetuate this war,” he said.

“By their actions or their words.”

The names on the memorial plaque commemorate those who’ve died during this war. A war that’s still not over. A list of names that will continue to grow before the war is ended.

In 2010, when the idea of a drug users memorial was conceived, 16 people died during this war.

“And the staggering number of losses were constantly present with us,” said Kate Kenny, former memorial project coordinator, South Riverdale Community Health Centre.

For Kenny, it was the first time in her life she experienced the deaths of people she knew. But for others, sudden losses were all too common.

By mid-2010, staff met to discuss ways that they could respond to the increased number of deaths. And thus began, the unending meetings and engraving sessions that would take place over the next three years, culminating in the unveiling of the memorial monument on Friday.

The day before International Drug User Memorial Day.

A day when those who died of drug overdoses, hepatitis C, HIV, violence and poverty are remembered.

“I like to think of this monument as storing up enough beauty to keep us hopeful in times of calamity and times of despair,” said Kenny.

“An amazing symbol of strength and courage which will live on for a very long time in this community.”

A monument that must also be seen by everyone outside the community.

“Our community is diverse,” said Robert Mackay, a contributing artist and staff member at South Riverdale Community Health Centre.

“The lives of people in our community include drug use. And the many types of drugs that they use. And the many ways that they use them.”

Symbolized by the copper structure with several drawings by various artists.

“This beautiful memorial shows how much we love where we live,” said MacKay. 

“And the people we’ve loved. And how many we’ve lost. And how they left us. And what kind of people they were by the art etched in it.”

By over 100 drawings imprinted in the copper structure located on the west side of the South Riverdale Community Centre building.

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