THUNDER BAY – A local group has outlined a vision to transform part of the Kam River Heritage Park into a memorial garden that would provide a space to honour those lost to accidental drug overdose.
The group, calling itself the Gone Too Soon bereavement group and consisting mostly of mothers of local overdose victims, brought its case for a memorial garden at the South End park to city council on Monday.
The group, which includes Carolyn Karle, Debbie Reed, and Karen Krzyzewski, have used their experiences of loss to advocate for more mental health and addictions supports and an end to stigma.
They envision the space being planted and landscaped to create a space of remembrance for the growing number of residents who have lost someone to Thunder Bay’s worsening overdose crisis.
The group said they already gather there to honour loved ones and engage with the vulnerable population in the area, and called for its rehabilitation. Tributes left at the park have been respected with no damage done other than from weather, they noted.
“Many individuals suffering a loss related to substance use, often experience feelings of stigma. These feelings can be isolating for the person grieving if they encounter a sense of stigma related to the death,” they wrote in a brief provided to council. “We propose this site will be a place of mutual understanding and acceptance.”
The space, which sits at the foot of Donald Street by the northern entrance to the park, features a circular garden that’s not currently planted by the city, and a memorial tree planted in 2017. It has been the site for past International Overdose Awareness Day events.
“What we’re trying to do is change the spot – it’s behind a bench, nobody even knows it’s there,” Karen Krzyzewski of the Gone Too Soon group. “By creating a beautiful setting, it will create more awareness of the overdose crisis looming in our city, [and] all cities.”
The group suggests replanting the garden and adding features including a weeping willow or birch tree, boulders or benches, a plaque, and something to hang ribbons from, like the public art at the butterfly garden at Boulevard Lake.
Redeveloping the park also represents a chance for “engagement with the vulnerable populations that currently use the park and the opportunity to involve the wider community that has been affected by the opioid crisis in Thunder Bay,” the group stated.
Staff from the city’s parks and open spaces department said they support the proposal.
“When we met and discussed with the group, I think we both agreed this underutilized space could be transformed into something that’s highly prominent,” said supervisor Werner Schwar. “It’s an opportunity to involve some of the vulnerable population in our city around that area and help to create a space… that helps recognize this issue in the city.
“We think it’s really an opportunity to be more than just a garden at face value, but to symbolize a lot more for the community.”
The idea drew widespread support from councillors, with Coun. Andrew Foulds calling it a "no-brainer."
City staff said they'll continue meeting with the Gone Too Soon group to refine concepts for the project, and intend to conduct initial public engagement before the end of this year, before returning to council with a more specific proposal.