3 min

The man behind the monument

Ed Lee wins Community Hero of the Year

Credit: David Ellingsen

Ed Lee couldn’t bring himself to visit the AIDS Memorial he fought so hard to build after it finally opened last summer.

In the end, he says, it took more than a month before he finally felt ready to face the wall of lost loved ones he was so instrumental in memorializing.

“It was tough for me to go down there,” he says.

Lee visited the site only once during its construction though he lives just up the street. “It took me a little while to go there because it was very emotional for me,” he continues.

Finally, his partner of 13 years “made me go.”

Lee remembers feeling overwhelmed by the thought that the project was finally complete.

“It took so long to build,” he pauses. “I can’t explain it. It was bizarre.”

In fact, Vancouver’s AIDS Memorial took eight years to complete, mired from the outset in bureaucratic red tape and a lengthy public process sometimes fuelled by homophobia, as its opponents blocked site proposal after site proposal and balked at the idea of publicly acknowledging AIDS.

Eventually, the city’s parks board agreed to the memorial’s current Sunset Beach location, and the process ground forward through a few more years of slow fundraising.

Through it all, Lee never gave up.

Vancouver got its AIDS Memorial in time for Pride last year.

Despite all his hard work and quiet determination, Lee says he was awestruck when he found out he was nominated for Xtra West’s Community Hero of the Year last month.

“It didn’t matter if I won or lost–it was so awesome to be mentioned in the same breath as the other nominees.”

He’s quick to point out that “it wasn’t just me,” and credits the rest of the memorial’s board of directors, the head designer of the project, Bruce Wilson, the volunteers, the builders, the landscapers, the parks board.

“They’ve all been so fabulous. So many people have stuck behind me and really encouraged me to carry on.”

Today, the Vancouver AIDS Memorial faces the ocean just west of the concession stand at Sunset Beach. There are 16 metal panels curved like a ribbon of metal. Names are laser-cut through the metal so viewers can see through each name to the grass behind.

It all started with a conversation that Lee had before 1996 with a local doctor who was chair of the board at AIDS Vancouver and an HIV/AIDS specialist.

“He felt bad that he was forgetting the names of people,” Lee explains. And they decided right there “that we need something to remember the names.”

Toronto already had an AIDS wall. Eight years ago there were community forums and meetings to determine if Vancouver was ready for a similar memorial.

Not many showed up at the first meetings but he had support from several grassroots community organizations. “The BCPWA Society and AIDS Vancouver felt it was a good idea.”

Lee says he had few expectations when he started and never, ever, did he expect the project would take on such mammoth proportions. “It grew and grew,” he recalls.

Back then, he says, he didn’t even consider how long it might take and how much work might be required of him. All he knew was that “it needs to be done.”

But there were times when he remembers thinking he’d never see the Vancouver AIDS Memorial finished.

Lee recalls how discouraged he felt when he saw the quotes for construction and material. “It was sooo much money.”

One thing he says he didn’t fret over was where the memorial should be placed. “I didn’t really care as long as it was built.”

Looking back now, Lee says he’s okay with letting the parks board conduct the decision-making process on the site selection “because it worked out to be the best place.”

“Five to seven million people a year walk the seawall,” Lee points out. He hopes they see the memorial and wonder what it is and go check it out. “Hopefully a conversation will evolve and that’s the whole purpose of it.”

It’s the public education factor that gives Lee the most satisfaction from the project these days. “Just to know that I’m doing something for the community. It reminds people to practice safe sex,” he believes.

“It began as a memorial to remember people who died but grew to be an educational piece.”

Today, Lee says, the wall is “a dynamic resource. The memorial reminds the community to remember what we have lost.”

If he feels any disappointment, it’s that there were not more names submitted. Lee believes there might have been anywhere between 2500-2700 reported deaths from HIV/AIDS in BC by the time he and the other Vancouver AIDS Memorial directors called for nominations. There are currently just over 800 names on the memorial.

It’s not finished yet, Lee points out. “There’s room for 200 more names on two empty panels.”

He pauses to thank his partner Ron Dutton, the community’s archivist, for being a major source of support throughout the lengthy project.

“There were a lot of meetings, fundraisers, handshaking–and a lot of no dinners and no partner,” Lee smiles. “He had to put up with a lot.”