Vancouver's fire department is rushing to remove a colourful mural from its Downtown Eastside station that features a syringe-equipped grim reaper characterizing Canada's poorest neighbourhood as just about the end of the world.
But as a senior fire official on Monday announced a hurried move to get rid of the mural, likely on Tuesday, he said the art made a valid point about the area.
"I don't think anyone would argue with what the mural states - that drugs mean death," Wade Pierlot, assistant chief of operations for the department, told reporters less than 30 minutes after the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and other groups held a news conference to condemn the art, located at the rear of a bay in the station.
When there is no fire engine in the bay, the art - painted by a firefighter in the early 1990s - is visible from outside the station.
"The mural, for us, was never meant to be derogatory to any group or anything. It was more of a statement of fact of where Vancouver fire rescue works," Mr. Pierlot said.
Still, he said the "dark humour" reflected in the art might be offensive to some, so the mural would be quickly removed. "Due to the coverage we're getting here today, I think it will be sooner rather than later," he said.
The mural, in vivid red, yellow, brown and black, shows a grim reaper with a scythe labelled "The Skids," a blade that tapers into a syringe dripping apparent blood, and the slogan: "It's not the end of the world, but we can see it from here."
It is unclear why no one complained about the mural for most of its existence. But earlier this year there were complaints and the mural was concealed, only to be uncovered as part of a general cleanup of the station, prompting the groups to register their displeasure.
"We're concerned, first of all, that the mural could be there for … years without anybody saying, 'Hmm,' " said David Eby, executive director of the B.C. Civil Liberties Association. "This seems problematic to be the first message someone sees when they report for work at the fire hall."
Issues of illegal drug use have a particular resonance in the Downtown Eastside, which has been ravaged by the impact of widespread use of such drugs as heroin, cocaine and crystal meth. A Globe and Mail investigation last year concluded that more than $1.4-billion in public and private money has been spent in the last decade to deal with health, social and justice issues in the area.
Lorna Bird, a member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, who has lost two daughters to drugs, said she was appalled by the possible messages from the mural. "It's disgusting," she said.
Mr. Pierlot said the hall is one of the busiest in North America, handling up to 18 calls a day, most of them medical. He said the mural might be a "coping mechanism" for staff dealing with tough jobs in the area.
But Mr. Eby said if that is the case then fire staff need more services to cope with their "difficult" jobs. Pressed on whether it was appropriate for the association to impinge on the free-speech rights of firefighters, Mr. Eby said he would have no problem with members of the department expressing the sentiment in their own residences. It was problematic, however, for the lurid depiction of the neighbourhood to be expressed in a public building, he said.
"Our concern is this image is actually an image that reflects a discriminatory view of people with addiction issues and of the Downtown Eastside neighbourhood as the skids," he said.
"For this fire department to call the entire community the skids - for this fire department to see its job as being the angel of death, essentially picking up the leftovers - sends a message out to the broader community about who lives in this neighbourhood, about the role of the fire department, about drug users in general, that is discriminatory on many different levels."