Curtis Brick dies in the sun at East Vancouver park
I know the exact spot in Grandview Park where Curtis Brick died. I've stood there many times watching my son play in the kids water park on Commercial Drive by Britannia Community Centre. Curtis lay right in that spot in the park for eight hours on July 29 - "the hottest day on record" in Vancouver, B.C., Canada.
I first met Curtis on Commercial Drive around 2006. He was sitting with some friends on the sidewalk near Spartacus Gym on Grant Street and our eyes met while I unlocked my bike. We chatted for about 10 minutes and I gave him a granola bar. He told me people used to give food to artists like him, and after that day, we always said hi.
It sickens me to think of him laying there, suffering.
Now people are talking about why no one helped Curtis. Was it racism? (Curtis was Aboriginal.) Or was it because nobody realized he needed help? We often see people laying in the park and rarely see a reason to disturb them.
According to news sources, local man Eric Schweig saw Curtis laying on the ground around 9 a.m. Schweig left the neighbourhood and returned at about 4 p.m. to find Curtis was still there - and by then, he was twitching and convulsing.
"His skin was like a furnace," Schweig told CTV News. "He was baking in the sun."
Schweig and Jennifer from the Vancouver Aboriginal Transformative Justice Services Society (VATJSS) put cool, wet blankets on Curtis while they waited for emergency crews. Witnesses say fire crews made racist comments and ambulance crews treated Curtis roughly. Vancouver Firefighters and the B.C. Ambulance Service deny it and they are launching reviews of what happened. Curtis was taken to hospital and pronounced dead around midnight.
Some people believe Curtis was treated with less care because he is Aboriginal. And of course we have to ask how Curtis ended up in that situation in the first place. What kinds of systemic racism led Curtis down a path of life that ended in the park that day?
The Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs is calling for a coroners inquest and the Indigenous Action Movement held a memorial rally at Grandview Park on Aug. 19.
"My brother wasn't a piece of garbage you just walk by on the street," Brick's sister Karen Bullshields said, reports News 1130 online. "My brother was a family man, he was a hard worker. He fell on hard times as so many people do."
Christine Smith-Parnell is the executive director of VATJSS and she published a press release on the death of Curtis.
Smith-Parnell said at the rally: "We're grateful that the aboriginal community would stand up in the park and say that's not acceptable that one of their own would sit and die in a very busy park and nobody would do nothing." (reports ctv.ca)
The Georgia Strait published photos of the memorial. Seeing the photos confirmed it was the man I knew from Commercial Drive.
Why did so many people walk past Curtis laying on the ground? Was it racism? Or was it the fact that many people in Vancouver have grown accustomed to seeing people sleeping outside? (And how we can grow accustomed to that is a whole other story...)
Veteran journalist Gary Mason tackled this question in his Globe and Mail editorial "Uproar over homeless man's death is hypocritical."
Mason points out that people ignored Curtis while he was alive. Only now, after his death, are we showing concern for him. "Before, he was someone we stepped over on the way to work."
Mason gives his opinion on why people ignored Curtis - and I've heard a few other people with this view: "There are homeless people sleeping in parks all over the city. How do we know any of them are dead or alive? How do we know they aren't dying before us? Are we to call 911 every time we see a homeless person sleeping on a bench?"
"How was anyone supposed to know Mr. Brick had been lying in the park for six hours or longer? People in that park that day came and went. I doubt any of the parents using the water park were there for more than 30 minutes. They had no idea how long the man seemingly asleep on the grass had been there... how is the average person supposed to tell the difference between someone sleeping it off and someone quietly dying?"
I agree with Gary Mason that it can be really hard to tell if someone is "just sleeping" or in distress. Is there more we can do to recognize when to call for help? What can we look for? What should we do? Who should we call? And what can we do to stop such a tragedy from happening again?
I think people ignored Curtis simply because they didn't realize he needed help. But whatever the reason, it's too late for Curtis, who was only 46.
Rest in Peace Curtis. Condolences to your family, friends, and community. xoxo