Kelly Pflug-Back

The facts are in: Ontario is officially suffering from an epidemic of opioid overdose deaths, and has been for at least the past 15 years. According to the Prescription for Life report, which was released by the Municipal Drug Strategy Co-ordinator’s Network of Ontario in June of this year, over 5, 000 opioid-related deaths have been recorded in Ontario since 2000– the equivalent of one death every 14 hours.The majority of these deaths were accidental, and and many could have been prevented through improved access to life-saving Naloxone as well as implementing supervised injection sites.

While these numbers are staggering on their own, drug users are too often portrayed as statistics, whose deaths are either forgotten or only recorded as evidence of our broken drug policy system. Every year on June 17th, the COUNTERfit harm reduction program at the South Riverdale Community Health Centre holds a day of remembrance, mourning, and celebration, in honour of the lives and legacies of drug users and activists who fought against the war on drugs who have died in East Toronto. The Toronto Drug Users’ Memorial, a flame-shaped brass statue which stands in the courtyard beside the South Riverdale Community Health Centre, was created as a visual reminder of those lost. The statue was created by activist and street artist Rocky Dobey, and is etched with images of birds in flight, vines, and the COUNTERfit logo. On one side it bears a plaque with the names of 58 East Toronto residents who have died since 1997. “We remember them as neighbours, colleagues, community leaders, friends, sons, daughters, moms, dads, artists, grandmothers and grandfathers, and as people who created much beauty in our lives,” the memorial’s home page states.

This year’s memorial service was held inside the SRCHC on account of rain, although the weather did not deter a large crowd of community members and SRCHC staff from attending and showing their support. People gathered in a meeting room festooned with bouquets of fresh flowers, white candles, and collages of people who have passed away. Speakers took turns sharing stories, poems, and goodbyes dedicated to people they had known and cared for. Afterwards, food was served and live music was performed, with the audience singing along to Amazing Grace, Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah, and Bob Marley’s One Love. The event was full of laughter, tears, hugs, memories, and most of all a feeling of openness, support, and hope for the future.

Losing a loved one (or anyone in your social circle) is never an easy experience. Drug-related deaths, like other causes of mortality that are commonly accidental, can come as a severe shock and leave the deceased’s loved ones without a sense of closure. Drug-related deaths are also often caused by factors that would not be at play if supervised consumption sites were normalized in Canada and drugs were decriminalized and destigmatized. The needless and unjust nature of drug related deaths can add another layer of grief to the devastation people already feel at having lost a loved one.

“Just this past week, we had a service user here pass away,” said Paul Vaughan, a harm reduction worker with COUNTERfit who read some of his poetry during the service. Vaughan explained that the woman, who fatally overdosed, hadn’t known about Naloxone. “Even after all the education, all the outreach that we do, there are still too many people who don’t know about it,” he said, expressing his frustration regarding how many obstacles there are to ensuring proper harm reduction under a policy system that does not prioritize Naloxone access or other life-saving services such as supervised consumption sites.

“Drugs are not going to go away,” he said. “we need to have harm reduction instead of just waging a war on drugs. Drug users have to fight for their freedom every day, and we need to commemorate their fight. We have to remember, because if we forget then it will happen again.”

Patricia Grayston, who said it was her first time attending the memorial, expressed feeling emotionally overwhelmed by the intensity of the event. “I’m a writer, and I can’t even find the words,” she said. “I’ve never had an addiction problem, and I feel really blessed, because it’s not easy. These days there’s just no way of knowing what you’re getting when you buy something. A person could do drugs for the first time and die, because you don’t know what’s in there anymore.”

In a world where people who use illicit drugs are often stereotyped as lacking in moral worth, not contributing to society, and being self-destructive and unlovable, the Toronto Drug User’s Memorial presents a much needed counter-narrative. The event gives friends and family members of the deceased an environment where they can honour the legacy of their loved ones, and remember them as they were: complex, dynamic, valuable people who left a lasting positive impact on their communities, despite the hardships and oppression that they often faced. “After seeing a person being criminalized, being harmed so much by the system, it can mean  so much to their family to come here and see that in their own community, they were loved and revered,” said one speaker.
“Just because someone is using drugs or alcohol, that doesn’t mean that they don’t deserve love,” said Grayson. “And I think you can feel so much love and support, here. It reminds us to never stop trying.”