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Mural in Canada fire hall prompts calls for sensitivity training

The painting depicts the grim reaper wielding a scythe with a drug syringe tip

By Tamsyn Burgmann
The Canadian Press

VANCOUVER, Canada — A mural depicting the grim reaper wielding a scythe with a drug syringe tip has prompted civil liberties advocates to urge staff at the Vancouver fire hall where it’s mounted to get sensitivity training — a call the firefighters say is unnecessary.

The controversial painting is visible only through the windows of the Downtown Eastside fire department, which serves a neighbourhood known for its large drug-using population and safe-injection site.

The blade of the scythe displays the department’s nickname during the time it was painted, ''Skids,’' and a motto below states: ''It’s not the end of the world. But we can see it from here.’'

The mural has been up for 15 years but thanks to new media attention, the fire hall is promising to soon take it down.

But the B.C. Civil Liberties Association says the process has taken much longer than it should have and can’t just be shrugged away.

When association members were alerted to the mural last month, they asked for it to be taken off. The mural was promptly covered up, and remained so throughout the Winter Olympics.

Nearly seven weeks later, association executive director David Eby was aghast to spot it in full view once more.

''Public institutions need to provide services without discrimination, and our concern is that this image is actually an image that reflects a discriminatory view of people with addiction issues,’' he told reporters Monday, across the street from the hall.

''The best argument you can make for this mural is that it’s black humour.’'

David Dennis, president of the Frank Paul Society, an organization dedicated to uncovering racist attitudes towards marginalized people, joined in the association’s condemnation of a workplace that didn’t see a problem with the mural’s image.

''Unless the fire department is a political institution, it should tell us which community it represents or which comic book that it’s providing political satire to,’' he said.

But metres away at the criticized department, officials said the firefighters who work each and every day with the high-risk population are already well-educated and sensitive to the issues.

''I think as educators we could probably do some of the educating,’' responded assistant chief of operations Wade Pierlot.

''Ask (local citizens) who their friends are, who they can depend on when things get a little dark in their lives and I think a lot of times they’ll tell you it is the firefighters in this area.’'

The mural may be stripped from the wall as soon as Tuesday, Pierlot said, explaining it was only uncovered in recent days because the hall was getting its annual cleaning done.

''That mural for us was never meant to be derogatory to any group, it was more a statement of fact of where Vancouver fire and rescue works,’' Pierlot said, adding he doesn’t have a personal problem with it.

''I don’t think that anyone would argue with what that mural states, that drugs mean death.’'

And he believes the firefighters at the Downtown Eastside hall try hard to get to know people’s names, their problems and circumstances, he said.

Last month alone, they responded to 550 mostly medical distress calls — an average of 18 per day — making it one of North America’s busiest fire departments, he said. Crews who work there change halls every two years to relieve them from the job’s high pressures, he added, noting they can’t even wear their uniforms home because of the environment they work in and substances they come into contact with.

But Pierlot agreed that if even one person took offence to the mural, it should be removed.

Eby said it’s not good enough to just take the mural down.

''The worst outcome would be if the mural was just taken down and everybody forgot about this,’' Eby said. ''Clearly there’s a cultural issue that needs to be addressed and I hope the chief ... recognized that and is moving to address it.’'

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