A decision by the Vancouver Parks Board to accept an $800,000 donation from the federal government to revamp a Stanley Park playground in memory of victims of the Air India bombing has some Vancouverites questioning why the same location wasn’t suitable for the AIDS Memorial.
The Parks Board voted, Jun 26, in favour of a city staff recommendation to accept the grant from Ottawa to redevelop the Ceperley playground area in tribute to the 239 Air India victims. Public consultations about the plan are scheduled for August and September.
The AIDS Memorial Committee first requested an AIDS Memorial be built in Ceperley Park in October 1996. The Parks Board approved the request on Nov 4 that year. But by Nov 8, after a local television news poll suggested the majority of Vancouverites were against building the AIDS Memorial in Stanley Park, the Parks Board reversed its position, announcing it would develop an expanded formal public process for vetting memorial sites.
After reviewing the details of the Park Board’s Air India plan, former AIDS Memorial Society chair Ed Lee says he is satisfied there is no double standard. “It’s not a memorial, they’re just going to have a playground there. They’re donating equipment and so on to refurbish the old Ceperley Park where the old fire engine is, so it’s a children’s playground and that’s fine,” says Lee.
He adds the move is simply an improvement to the city and a unique way of paying tribute to a group of people.
“Right after we built the AIDS Memorial, the Parks Board said that there would be no more memorials anywhere, especially Stanley Park. We were lucky,” he continues. “When anything goes in Stanley Park, there’s some sort of a controversy. It’s our beloved Stanley Park. We don’t want anything to go into it.”
With the final two panels added to the AIDS Memorial installation at Sunset Beach earlier this year, current memorial society chair Jeremy Dyson says he has no complaints. “The AIDS Memorial is on Parks Board land. It’s a terrific location… It’s probably more accessible than Ceperley Park,” he says.
But Vancouver Parks Board Commissioner Spencer Herbert says he’s been hearing from constituents about the issue, some of whom are outraged. “I have received e-mails saying this is a double standard,” he says. Herbert adds that he is especially troubled by some messages regarding the Air India victims that verge on racism, and that claim Ceperley “is not their park.”
“I hope that kind of attack doesn’t come from the queer community,” cautions Herbert, adding it is similar to the us-versus-them response to the AIDS Memorial in 1996.
“From what I understand, I think there was a bunch of homophobia going on with the AIDS memorial proposal,” says Herbert. “I think the board buckled to that pressure. I have spoken with people who were on the board at the time who said [approval for an AIDS memorial at Ceperley Park] should have gone through but with an election coming up, it didn’t.” That civic election took place eight days after the Parks Board reversed its decision in 1996.
“I would like to see an Air India tribute in Ceperley Park, just as I would have liked to have seen the AIDS Memorial there,” says Herbert. He agrees with Lee that there are some significant differences between the Air India tribute proposal and the AIDS Memorial and hopes rejuvenating the playground will bring people together. He adds that there will be no list of the names of the Air India passengers and that the playground improvements will focus on life.
Given the feedback he has received so far, Herbert predicts there could, “to a smaller extent,” be a replay of the controversy over the AIDS memorial. But he suspects the federal money promised for the project could help the Parks Board move forward quite quickly. “It’s not every day we get close to $1 million from the federal government… for a playground area,” he says. Overall Herbert is hoping the public, particularly the queer community, will support the Ceperley playground improvements dedicated to those who perished in the Air India tragedy.
“In the wider political context, I think it’s important we take on terrorism,” says Herbert. “I think queer people understand terrorism and oppression. I’m sure there were queer people who went down [on the Air India flight] too. It’s about peace, reconciliation, life, and supporting people to be out and fearless.”