On Wednesday April 28th the Surrey Street Council held a “ceremony of stolen lives” for friends, family, and members of the community who, in the words of organizer Isabel Krupp, “died before their time, killed by an unjust system.” Through the evening fifty people came to hold candles, share memories, and, at the end of the night, release paper lanterns to float up, glimmering over the streets and alleys of Whalley.
Surrey Street Council leader and Red Braid member Wanda Stopa opened the evening, saying, “Tonight we are gathering to remember the people who have been stolen from us.” Her opening sentiment echoed the message of the Street Council’s statement announcing the memorial: “Every week we lose another friend, another member of our street family, another fighter. We are in a state of continual mourning as we struggle for collective survival.”
The statement then goes on to count the recent, known deaths: the fact that unhoused people in BC have half the life expectancy of the general population; that the deaths of unhoused people quadrupled in Surrey between 2007 and 2016; that twice as many people died in so-called supportive housing in BC in 2020 than the year before; and that in 2020, an average of 140 people died of drug poisoning every month in British Columbia.
But the Street Council statement does not bemoan conditions and mourn losses alone. The statement concludes:
Our deaths are no accident. The deluge that overwhelms our communities is the consequence of the isolation, violence, and neglect created by the government, social workers and supportive housing providers, police and bylaw officers, the discriminatory health care system, the war on drugs, and gentrification. Our deaths are the direct result of the war on the poor and the ongoing genocide against Indigenous peoples.
We do not accept the deaths of our loved ones as natural or inevitable. They were not lost, but stolen from us. It is time to come together and say no more deaths.
At the open mic, Vanessa Lynn, a member of the Surrey Street Council, said, “I have learned there are a million ways to die. And I know I am standing on hundreds of thousands of skeletons of people gone before me. I know that the killing of our people is not our fault. In the late 1800s it was called ‘social murder’ by Frederic Engels, and it is social murder today. We are living in a death cult. And I choose life.”
Priscilla, a young South Asian woman in the community came forward after Vanessa Lynn and took the mic. She said, “I stand here because of all the people who have made sure I was eating and resting, despite all the drugs I did.” While recognizing the suffering and the stolen lives, Priscilla’s words also gestured back at the gathering of a committed community circled around her under the pop-up tents, with the chill of a light rain tightening their collective shoulders. We are here alive despite the forces that conspire to kill us: we rely on our people, and our people show up for us.
While people gave reminiscences at the mic and gathered food at the BBQ and sat together and ate, I interviewed people to ask why they were there and who they were remembering. These are the voices of some of the people from the Whalley community, remembering some of the thousands stolen from them.
Stephen remembered Eric
Eric died three nights ago. He was a beautiful human being. He was an incredible artist and you’d never know it.
He stayed on the street right at Surrey Central Skytrain Station. It was his spot.
He died from the world he had to live in. He died from his life of alcoholism and exposure.
He wasn’t willing to accept help from this crap system, this pity of pavement.
So he got sucked into addiction.
I’m going to miss him because I love him. He was a fixture in the community and in my life.
George and Wanda remembered Scrapper Bill
Scrapper Bill overdosed last year. People use drugs together with other people and if they get in trouble then there’s someone to help you. But that didn’t happen for Scrapper.
He was found OD’d in his room. Scrapper didn’t use heroin. He was found OD’d in his room in the Gateway mods with a dirty pipe; a pipe with heroin residue in it. If you don’t do heroin that’ll put you down instantly.
It sucks because you have to be careful all the time. We have to look after each other and be careful. It’s too dangerous here.
Jackie remembered her son Tony
I found my son Tony dead in his room in 2016. I didn’t know he was using heroin so it was devastating. And he got the fent off my ex. I told him not to sell to Tony because he had ADHD but he gave it to him anyway. And that’s what killed him.
He was such a good kid. He would have given you the shirt off his back.
Tony’s dad died from China White in ’95 so poison drugs took my son and my son’s dad.
Now the owner of my place sold the house where I live and where my son died so we have to get out. The room where I found Tony is how I’m remembering him. Now I’m not going to have my son’s room anymore. All I have is his ashes.
Bill remembered Scott Gilmore, Brad McDonald, Jesse, and Shopping Cart Kelly
They’re all people I hung out with on the Strip but Scott was down in Vancouver.
They were all good, nice people. We made each other laugh. They were just people I hung out with. My friends.
All of ‘em died from overdose. All of them.
They found Brad down past the university, past 108th. There’s a fence there and it’s all covered in blackberries but part of it is pulled down so you can get in there. Behind the fence there’s an apartment building with no windows in the back, and there’s an overhang where you can sit out of the rain. That’s where Brad died.
Jesse, he died down on the Strip. There were a few people who died in their tents on the Strip.
They all died after the fent came in.
Before fent came in I never overdosed. I never even got sick on heroin. I used to be able to do it for a while and then stop.
When I was a kid I used to hang out with people who were a lot older than me. When I was 14 is when I got introduced to heroin.
Then when my wife and kids died I got a lot more into it.
Then when fentanyl came out it got worse.
Harley, reciting a prayer
Dear lord I come to you as a sick and broken man
I ask you for your will and strength please take us by the hand
Our wounds are deep and will not close, we have no thread to sew it
Each day we weep and no one knows, we’ve got too much pride to show it
We’ve hurt so many people, to be honest we’ve even killed
We’ve drained the contents of our souls and I’m afraid they can’t be filled
With broken thoughts and shattered dreams we kneel before your feet
We lost this fight before the start but we can’t accept defeat
So dear lord I come to you as a sick and broken man, please help us with your guidance, please help us with your plan
See more photos from the Ceremony for Stolen Lives community memorial on the Red Braid Alliance Flickr account.