Drug User Memorial Day - July 2012

Last Friday, July 20, 2012, we joined together for Drug User Memorial Day at Cathcart Park in the Byward Market. Events included a speaker's circle, a smudge ceremony, beautiful drumming and singing from Ottawa's Aboriginal Elders and a luncheon at St. Bridgid's. The event was organized by the Sandy Hill Community Health Centre & the Drug User's Advocacy League (DUAL) with support from a collection of community organizers, the Youth Services Bureau (YSB) and the AIDS Committee of Ottawa (ACO).

We connected through the sharing of stories of people who passed without ceremony or memorial as a result of their drug use, and the context in which they were forced to use. We remembered people who, despite their experiences of exclusion, violence, oppression, trauma and marginalization, were still able to smile from the fringes. People who lightened our hearts with their living spirits and old souls.

We joined in a wide circle of memories, tears, laughter and connection. I have been to far too many Anglo-Christian funerals for people very close to me who have died in and against their drug use. They usually leave me feeling stilted and a little vacant. This Drug User Memorial, my first here in Ottawa, was very different. It was deep, and lovely and rich and the tall skies and deep voices allowed our imaginations to freely and collectively remember and pay respects to those who have passed, and to those who may still come to live.

This Drug User Memorial event reminded me, yet again, of the simple power of the collective.

People who use drugs don't need to die of suicide because they feel alone in this world.

People who use drugs don't need to get HIV or Hepatitis C because they don't have abundant, no-questions-asked access to clean consumption spaces and equipment.

People who use drugs don't need to exist on the periphery of a society - one that is so deep in its own self-medication with gambling, shopping, money and power - because members of that society are blind to the real stories of violence, abuse, marginalization and dis-empowerment of people who use.

People who use drugs don't need to engage in the types of crimes that bring incarceration because they have been cut off from 'straight' economic participation. In fact, they don't need to be incarcerated at all and weren't until a little over 100 years ago.

Many people who use drugs must do these things because we live in a world that is generally complicit in the exclusion of others on ideological grounds. People reject notions of 'safe consumption' because it makes them uncomfortable. People don't like to see clusters of people hanging around social service agencies because it awakens them to the reality that poverty in Canada not only exists, but is reinforced over generations and is a major locus of addiction. People don't like to talk about drugs because they would prefer they didn't exist. That is, until they realize how much we stand to lose - as a collective - in this deeply absurd War on Drugs.

All of this, naturally, is avoidable if more members of our community saw themselves as just that: part of something bigger than themselves. Part of something that matters to people who use in a drug, legal and public health policy framework that does little to help people deal with their addictions but does very much to further deepen the profoundly damaging experience of addiction.

A simple memorial, with a simple song, on a simple day with people from all corners of this town helped remind me that it's the simple things that will help us address addiction as part of our collective: clean spaces and equipment to use, a helping hand, a person to talk to and some way to keep postitive and busy from one day to the next.

If you'd like to know more about how to get involved, please consider attending next year's Drug User Memorial Day, Hepatitis C Awareness Day this coming Friday at St. Brigids (St. Patrick and Cumberland), Prisoner's Justice Day at Dalhousie Park on August 10th or Overdose Awareness Day at Sandy Hill Community Health Centre on August 31.

If you're looking for something even more simple, pick up the phone and call someone you know who might need an ear in their experience of addiction. It will matter more than you think.