Restored Parc de l'Espoir gives LGBTQ2+ Montrealers a place to grieve victims of the AIDS crisis

·3 min read
Rogre LeClerc says the Parc de l'Espoir was the only place members of Montreal's gay community could gather to mourn loved ones who died of HIV/AIDS. (Charles Contant/CBC - image credit)
Rogre LeClerc says the Parc de l'Espoir was the only place members of Montreal's gay community could gather to mourn loved ones who died of HIV/AIDS. (Charles Contant/CBC - image credit)

For gay rights advocate Roger LeClerc, the Parc de l'Espoir has long been a space for his community to grieve.

Located on the corner of Panet Street and Ste-Catherine Street E., the newly renovated park boasts a massive red ribbon at its centre, the universal symbol of support for people living with HIV.

The City of Montreal reopened the public park at the heart of the Village Tuesday, after two years of renovations.

"We celebrate their life, their joy and their pain," LeClerc said at the inauguration. "Our gay community hasn't fully grieved that period, not really."

For more than 20 years, members of the LGBTQ2+ community have gathered at the Parc de l'Espoir to commemorate lives lost to HIV/AIDS.

Its redesign was two years in the making, but the park's creation can be traced to AIDS activism group ACT UP Montreal and other survivors' grassroots initiatives.

Charles Contant/CBC
Charles Contant/CBC

After years of consultations with the community, landscape architects Marc Pageau, Christian Deshaies and Mike Hogins were chosen to design the original park. The Parc de l'Espoir first opened officially in 1997.

LeClerc says he's very happy with the "bright, very large" park that is emblematic of Montreal's expansive LGBTQ2+ community. He said he dreamed of the day the park would no longer be needed to memorialize new AIDS victims.

"In that time, we were going to funerals almost every day," LeClerc said. "It was a terrible period and for me, it was war."

"I always say I'm not proud to be gay, I'm proud to be here and to still be here."

Gay rights activist Michael Hendricks, one of the original members of ACT UP Montreal, says the park became a natural meeting place for protesters at the end of demonstrations in the Village. But over time, Montreal's gay community used it as a space for grieving.

Charles Contant/CBC
Charles Contant/CBC

Throughout the years, people began hanging ribbons on trees in the park, leaving photos and other mementos to commemorate those they lost .

"We were not naive. You couldn't have a normal funeral with a body that was infected with HIV," LeClerc said. "Very few funeral homes would even take the body."

Those who needed a place to grieve peacefully could do so in the park.

In the 1990s, Hendricks was one of the figures who fought for the park to become a memorial site for members of the gay community who died of HIV/AIDS, staving off merchants who wanted to buy the land and politicians who wanted to sell it.

Charles Contant/CBC
Charles Contant/CBC

"It's incredible. We never thought we would ever capture the spirit of the original park," he said. "[Now,] it's even better."

Despite some more trees and the space quadrupling in size, Hendricks says this iteration of the park preserves symbols of the past. Case in point, the sign installed on Oct. 2, 1994, dedicated to Quebecers who succumbed to HIV, is fixed to the ground, even though it's blanketed in rust.

But he and LeClerc hope the park is embraced by the next generation, too.

"I hope the community will take that place for its own," LeClerc said. "Because it's their space."

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