Christin Milloy:

Rise up and seize equality

TRANS*Vision Episode 2: Memorial Destroyed by City, Rebuilt


This week on Trans*Vision:
Toronto’s grassroots Trans* Memorial, callously destroyed. Who is responsible?
And, a community in mourning responds, rebuilds, and makes a pledge.

Last week we reported on the creation of a grassroots memorial, a place for the Trans* Community to reflect on those lost each year to murder and suicide… and inspire activism toward a brighter future.

But that memorial, meant to combat the systematic erasure of Trans* lives and experiences, suffered an erasure of its own this week– at the hands of the City of Toronto.

It happened at about 2 PM on Wednesday. Parks and Recreation Staff from the City of Toronto specifically targetting the wall featuring the memorial with their power washers. Washing away the names. Part of an effort to “clean up” the park, for a ceremony renaming it from Cawthra Square Park, to Barbara Hall Park.

A 519 Community Center staff member witnessed this from a second story window. A manager and two staff members from the 519 ran down into the park to try to confront the Parks and Recreation workers. But by then, it was too late.

In response to the incident, the 519 had this to say:

At this time, The 519 does not have an official statement related to City’s decision to wash off the chalk memorial.

We were surprised that the direction was given to do so and we did attempt to stop the park staff once we were made aware.

We are also committed to a community-led process that would see a more permanent memorial established in the park.

Kristyn Wong-Tam, Toronto City Councillor for ward twenty-seven, responded to the destruction of the memorial, at the park renaming ceremony, Wednseday, calling it “accidental.”

Yeah so I learned in a cab ride coming here from City Hall, that there was a Chalk memorial that was placed on one of the historic walls…

…and that the memorial image was the trans symbol, and that ther was some chalk lettering to describe “Rest In Peace” for Veronica Diaz…

…and I understand that there was the removal of the chalk memorial by staff, and that was most inappropriate. I was advised that they didn’t recognize the symbol, per se, but that’s something that we’ll have to come together on.

I also am very interested in working with the community to build a more permanent memorial which I think is very befitting.

CHRISTIN: Alright in the mean time, if the community erects another chalk memorial which they almost certainly will, will you be instructing Parks and Rec not to remove it again?

Well I never instructed them to remove it in the first place…

CHRISTIN: Okay. But can we send a memo to Parks and Rec, asking them not to remove that wall again?

I’ll tell you, we can chalk the roadway right now if you like. This is chalk, and it’s not permanent.

CHRISTIN (chasing city worker in the park): Do you work for Parks and Rec?

Did you guys erase this earlier today?

Did you guys wipe off the wall here with water earlier today?

[inaudible]

No, what was that?

The order to desecrate the memorial apparently came from Ward twenty-seven Parks and Rec Supervisor, Mark Emslie. And while the message from the top is that it was removed by accident, Trans* Community Member Melissa Hudson tells a different story.

I explained this to Mark, from the Parks department today… Then he claimed that he didn’t even know it was a memorial, even though the names were clearly marked R.I.P. So he can’t have it both ways. He knew what he was doing. He knew he was removing a memorial, and I’m just incensed.

I told him that he had no right to remove it, that it was very offensive what he had done, I explained to him that our friend had just died, and that the community was hurting, and what damage he had just done, and umm… instead of accepting responsibility or trying to understand, he wasn’t listening, he was coming back with reasons why what he had done was right. And every one of those reasons was invalid.

CHRISTIN: Do you remember what reasons he gave?

Umm, that we didn’t ask permission. There is no such thing as requiring permission to put a memorial up anywhere in Canada…

That we didn’t… That it looked like graffiti, …and I just found that completely offensive. I don’t know what else to say.

Community members acted quickly to repair the defaced memorial, replacing the symbol for Trans* identity, and re-inscribing the names of dead Trans* people that the City workers tried to wash away.

NICKI WARD: We can’t… It says RIP, that’s pretty much the universal symbol for “Rest in Peace.” And we pointed out to the city people that it said “Rest in Peace,” so, “Rest in Peace” means “Rest in Peace” pretty much everywhere on the planet. Requiem in Pace, if you’re latin.

CHRISTIN: So you think it’s pretty clear they must have understood it was a memorial when they wiped it off.

NICKI WARD: It’s abundantly clear that they understood it was a memorial. “Rest in Peace,” is abundantly clear. The claim that they didn’t recognize the symbol is a smokescreen.

This… What’s not clear about “R.I.P. Veronica…” Hey anybody got yellow there?

I made repeated calls to Mark Emslie’s office this week, but they all went to voicemail. I did get through to his department manager, Ray Stukas, to find out why something like this could be allowed to happen.

CHRISTIN: I’m calling about the power washing that destroyed the Trans memorial in the park on Wednesday

STUKAS: Yeah, I do know a little about this, cause I uh, I’m not sure how I heard. I phoned the park supervisor.

CHRISTIN: That would be Mark Emslie

STUKAS: Yes. Yeah, and he told me, that they had a big open that day and he didn’t recognize the symbol.

CHRISTIN: Does parks and rec for ward 27 do any training on awareness or sensitivity for the Trans community?

STUKAS: You know what, not specifically, we do have training for all our staff about human rights annually. And we cover all the categories covered by the human rights code. So, you know what, I think we will do that, it’s the first time something like this has come up.

CHRISTIN: Gender Identity have been in the code for two years, since 2012.

STUKAS: You know what, we will identify that symbol.

STUKAS: Often we get, honestly, we get a lot of graffiti we don’t necessarily know what it is. Sometimes it’s tagged by gangs or whatever. We certainly do respect and adhere to the human rights code.

CHRISTIN: Is it a policy for parks and rec to remove memorials when they pop up?

STUKAS: No, no, I don’t think so. Because we don’t, we generally consult with the community.

CHRISTIN: We actually heard they were not aware that it was a memorial

STUKAS: Right, that’s what I was told by Mark Emslie

CHRISTIN: Okay, do they know what R.I.P. means?

STUKAS: What is it?

CHRISTIN: Do they know what R.I.P. means?

STUKAS: R.I.P. Rest in peace?

CHRISTIN: Yeah.

STUKAS: I would think so. Was it on the memorial?

CHRISTIN: Yes, there were a number of names of fallen trans people marked off with ‘R.I.P’.

STUKAS: So they had the symbol, names, and R.I.P. Yeah…

CHRISTIN: Alright, are you able to make a commitment that now that the memorial has been recreated by members of the community that it will be safe from future power washing from Parks & Rec?

STUKAS: You know what, I can’t make that commitment now.

The Park renaming was for Barbara Hall, former mayor of Toronto, now Chief Commissioner of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, and a long-time supporter of the Trans* community.

When I came tonight I learned that a memorial that was very very important for the Trans* community had been removed, in the work around the park, and that’s awful. So we need something about that.

What we need to do is acknowledge when we do that, and go back and correct that, and this being a place where we all come, and be inspired and remember, and it’s special for all of us.

With Kristyn Wong-Tam, Barbara Hall and the 519 Community Centre all on record saying they support a permanent memorial, the only question left to answer now is, when will it happen. As usual, the Trans* community is left waiting, with kind words, but no commitment things will actually change.

One of the names added to the memorial this week was Mia Henderson, a twenty-six year old Trans* woman of colour murdered Wednesday in Baltimore, her body dumped in an alley.

Her story made it into the news because her brother, Reggie Bullock, is an NBA Basketball player for the LA Clippers. Following her death, both Bullock and the Washington Post misgendered her on twitter, proving once again that the media and the world at large has much to learn about Trans* people.

That critical lack of awareness and support is what prompted this memorial in the first place. With Parks and Rec Manager Ray Stukas, and Councillor Wong-Tam both unwilling even to commit to issuing a memo asking their staff not to desecrate the memorial again, Trans* community members have vowed to protect it, and have inscribed it this week with a new message. It now reads: YOU WILL NOT ERASE US.

For TRANS*Vision, I’m Christin Milloy.

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Christin Milloy