3 min

AIDS Memorial is a go

Panels scheduled to be installed this spring

Credit: David Ellingsen

“It’s finally happening,” Ed Lee laughs exuberantly. “Isn’t that exciting? It’s been a long time coming-Hello!”

After eight years of planning, persevering and pushing through obstacles, construction is finally about to begin on Vancouver’s AIDS Memorial. And the project chair can barely contain his excitement.

“It’s great!” Lee enthuses. “We’re just waiting for the weather to cooperate.”

As soon as the ground at Second Beach is dry enough, crews can plant the panel footings in the ground, he says. Then all they’ll have to do is lower the panels into place. And the panels, all 20 of them, are being cut right now by a company in North Vancouver, he notes.

“Everything is pretty much in place,” confirms Susan Gordon, a spokesperson for the parks board. As soon as the ground is dry for two weeks, construction on the memorial can begin.

Normally, the parks board tries to limit construction during the rainy season because the trucks tend to rip up the ground and make a mess. But the AIDS Memorial has already waited so long, Gordon says, that the parks board gave it the nod.

The AIDS Memorial has been a promise on the horizon since 1996, when its creators first pitched the idea to the city and its parks board. What ensued was a long, drawn-out battle over where to build the memorial. Once everyone finally agreed on Second Beach, the fundraising machine grumbled slowly into gear.

Then in 2002 more controversy struck: as the memorial committee inched towards its financial goals, it released its nomination forms to add people’s names to the panels. The forms sent a ripple of anger through the gay community, as people struggled to meet their stringent demands for death certificates and the like. The committee eventually backed down and simplified the forms and their requirements.

Now, Lee says, the committee has 800 names to carve into the memorial. It also has all the money it needs to begin construction, having slowly but surely raised $250,000 over the years.

Lee can’t say when exactly construction is likely to begin but it could be as soon as the end of February if the weather gets dry.

And that’s “fantastic news” to Rick Barnes. Barnes, who has worked with a number of AIDS organizations over the years and now works with AIDS Vancouver Island, contributed seven names to the memorial. One of them was his partner, Steven Hennessy.

“I couldn’t be happier that they’re getting the memorial started,” Barnes says. “It’s this huge, emotional thing.”

Barnes doesn’t know what the committee is planning for the opening ceremony, but there’s a song he’d really like to hear in honour of Steven and everyone else’s lost loved ones. It’s called something like “To see you smile just once again,” he says, his voice catching.

“It says we’re still together, that you brought so much joy, that you’re still with me.”

The memorial “is going to be quite an emotional place,” Barnes predicts. “It will be a place where we can get together and remember those who have left.”

And it will be both a private and public place, he notes. Public in the sense that it will be an educational tool to show the youth who “never experienced the horror that we went through in the ’80s” that AIDS still exists and still affects people.

At the same time, the memorial will offer a private place for people to remember and honour their loved ones-and draw strength to continue the fight against HIV/AIDS.

“It will be our place,” Barnes says.

And the location couldn’t be better. “[Steven and I] had so many great times there,” he smiles, “being ourselves, being free to be gay.”

Barnes still remembers the night he and his partner returned to the West End after several years away. They headed right down to Second Beach, he says-and Steven “was home. He was back in the community he knew. And I was home.”

Lee deserves the community’s appreciation for the effort he’s put into making this memorial a reality, Barnes says. “Ed Lee has managed to steer this project and deal with all these problems. The proof is in the pudding: he’s there now.

“We need that kind of leadership in our communities,” Barnes adds.

Lee says it’s the people who contributed names to the memorial who kept him going these last eight years. “Whenever we talked about the AIDS Memorial, I met people who said, ‘thank you so much for doing this.’ These people just spurred me on and said you need to do it.

“Plus I’m a little bit of a stubborn person,” he smiles. “I like to see things through.”