3 min

What I remember

Twenty years of the AIDS Candlelight Memorial and Vigil

'WE'VE LOST SO MANY.' The annual vigil is an opportunity to commune with the spirits of our dead, writes James C Johnstone, and to remind ourselves that AIDS is not over. Credit: Wendy D

It’s the Saturday before the AIDS Candlelight Memorial & Vigil. We’ve been in a large, but not too well ventilated room for more than three hours and the glue we’ve been using to affix the hundreds of eight-by-eleven name panels to the banners that will be used at tomorrow’s ceremony is beginning to affect all of us. Somewhere between nauseous and giddy our small group of volunteers continues measuring, stapling, aligning, gluing, then spreading the finished banners in order on the floor. There is not much floor space left.

May 30th will be the 20th year we in Vancouver have observed the Annual International AIDS Candlelight Memorial & Vigil. The first AIDS Candlelight Memorial and Vigil was held in San Francisco in 1983 when the cause of AIDS was unknown and no more than a few thousand AIDS deaths had been recorded. The organizers wished to honour the memory of those lost to this mysterious disease and to demonstrate support for those living with AIDS.

In 1984, AIDS Vancouver staffer Michael Welsh organized the first Vigil for Vancouver. It was held in the little park just north of Holy Rosary Cathedral and drew a couple of hundred gay men and their friends from the West End. Over the next three years the ceremony continued at that venue.

I remember those events well. My first partner, Bob Tivey, had been AIDS Vancouver’s first executive director. Bob and I had been involved in the first group of AIDS Vancouver support group volunteers and knew or had met most of the people whose names were posted on the park’s columns: Gaetan Dugas, Alan Hicox, Cedar Debley, Ray Scott, Roy Lecke, Chris Rasmussen, Mick Harvey Binfet, Randy Plum, Ted McLaren, Murray Macklem, Doug Carson, Jan Owers, Steve Gallacher, Allan Pletcher… As I recall their names their faces rise like ghosts before me. Is it the glue fumes?

Back then, the name lists were all beautifully hand-written in coloured calligraphy. There was an open mic. There were speeches by activists and politicians. The names of the dead were read, and the Vancouver Gay Men’s Chorus sang as we lit our candles and sobbed in each other’s arms.

After the fourth Vancouver vigil, Michael Welsh passed on the organizing torch to a small, but diverse, ad-hoc group of people that included AIDS Vancouver staffers Sean Stephenson and Eddie Matsuda, safe-sex educator Loree Rose (aka the Condom Lady), AIDS Vancouver board member Martin Laba, Vancouver PWA member and AIDS activist Pei Hsien Lim, artist François Vaillant, AIDS Vancouver volunteer Georganne Cathrea and myself.

With this new group came new ideas, a new location-the bandstand at Alexandra Park in the West End-and new traditions. Over the years the organizing committee welcomed new members, sometimes from our original sponsoring organizations: AIDS Vancouver, Vancouver (now BC) PWA, and PWN, but more often than not from among the people who participated in past vigils as speakers.

As AIDS began to impact people from beyond the gay community the yearly ceremony began to draw participants and support from new constituencies. The current sponsoring group includes AIDS service agencies from all over greater Vancouver, as far away as Surrey, but most conspicuously from the aboriginal community and the Downtown Eastside. And every year the list of names grows: George Hepting, Djaef Mahler, Evelyn Hildebrandt, Bramm Bosnack, Geoff Mains, Richard McGinnis, Jerome Nagel, Shawn Feeney, Eric Delaquaise, Lloyd Friesen, Alex Kowalski, Taavi Nurmela, Larry Simmons, Leonard Johnston, Tony Ordano, Tracey Lee Sinclair, Jens Stanley Zokol, Edgar Schoemer, Fred Gilbertson, Alex Archie…

For me, the vigil is a combination of Remembrance Day and pagan Europe’s Samhain festival, the night the spirits of the dead come back to commune with those of us left behind. It is an important yearly tradition, a vital part of my culture. My head swims as we continue to staple and glue in the fume-filled room. We have over 2500 names. On every page I touch I see names of people I knew: old friends, old boyfriends, even previous organizing committee members.

I am glad that we are doing this. We’ve lost so many, so much. AIDS is not over. To forget that is unimaginable. We must remember.

* The 20th Vancouver observance of the International AIDS Candlelight Memorial & Vigil will be held Sun, May 30 at 8 pm at Alexandra Park in the West End. Candles are provided.