The Toronto AIDS Memorial, designed by Patrick Fahn, is located in Barbara Hall Park (formerly Cawthra Square Park), on Church Street above Wellesley, next to The 519 Church Street Community Centre in the heart of Toronto’s gay community.

Michael Lynch (1944-1991) – a poet, journalist, professor of English at the University of Toronto and a man who was active in groups such as Gay Fathers of Toronto and the Toronto Centre for Lesbian and Gay Studies – had the idea to create an AIDS Memorial in Toronto. On Lesbian and Gay Pride Day in 1988 a temporary Memorial in Cawthra Square Park displayed about 200 names. I well remember that temporary Memorial and how moving it was that year.

A committee from the Community Centre, with one member of Toronto City Council added, began deliberations in 1988 and proposed that a permanent AIDS Memorial be created. Patrick Fahn won the competition for the design of the Memorial, and it was completed and dedicated during Pride Week 1993.

Once the permanent Memorial was built, the task of collecting names, arranging for engraving, and upkeep of the Memorial pillars, plaques and lighting, was delegated to The 519 Community Centre by the Committee. Since there are a limited number of panels, the font size was reduced in 1996, and older plaques are re-engraved periodically to create room.

Within a garden, 14 triangular precast concrete pillars, each 2.25 meters high, are placed 1.6 meters apart in a long, very gently rising arc, paralleled by a narrow stone path. A low triangular concrete podium is placed in front of the garden.

As planted trees and shrubs have grown, the Memorial pillars and path have become an increasingly private space. The pillars represent a connection between earth and the spiritual realm. At the foot of each pillar a Precambrian crystalline boulder is placed. Signifying steadfastness in the face of tragedy, the boulders complement the message of hope represented by the pillars.

Engraved on stainless-steel plaques affixed to the pillars are the names of those who have died from AIDS in a given year. There are currently 2700 names in total. Every year during Pride Toronto, names of persons who have died from AIDS that year are read out in a short ceremony, and have their names added to the plaque for that year. If new information comes in, names are also added to the plaques for earlier years. Requests for names to be engraved are accepted from spouses, friends and family members. Each year during June’s Pride Week, a committee representing AIDS Service Organizations presents the AIDS Candlelight Vigil.

AIDS Candlelight Vigil at the AIDS Memorial

The AIDS Memorial has a processional feel. Memorial ceremonies for individuals are held there, and flowers and keepsakes are left to be collected or cleaned up.

In 1995 this poem, by Shoshanna Jey Addley, was appended to the first pillar of the Memorial (photo below). It reads:

Circles of Stone:
To Those Unnamed

We stand at this place; among earth and stone, branch and birch-
In darkness and in light, through sun and storm, rain and trees,
          leaves and breezes: Life and Death
Our strength, though withered and sapped, regenerates here.

Each name on each standing stone remarks thousand fold
          upon those unremarked from sea to sea; pole to pole.
The earth would quake with the strength of our memories
          flood with the loss of our tears, and in tandem; We exist.

How tall these stones have to grow?
How wide? How all-encompassing, how awesome?
To announce this radical interruption of humanity.
These standing stones might sprout like high rises,
          watered by lovers left behind.
Further stones planted, the last meets the first; A circle is formed.
Its volume gains inhabitants. Admitting entrance without discrimination.

The world mourns while we embrace the lives and the times,
Whether a name is engraved in steel or sand, in heart or in mind;
In flesh or in form; we will remember.
And mark the day we have no further need for such
Circles of Stone.
The first pillar of the Memorial, containing the poems “Cry” and “Circles of Stone”
Fourteen pillars in a gentle arc comprise the Memorial
A flower in winter for remembrance
Memorial stone of Dr. Edward Kamski
Lives lost in 1993, one of the worst years of the crisis
Currently the last pillar of the Memorial
The deaths in the last few years are very few and far between, and there are no plaques beyond 2021

For me, a visit to the AIDS Memorial is a sombre, sobering experience, and causes me to remember times past. So very many young men lost in their prime; a whole generation wiped out. At least their names and lives will be forever remembered in this dignified Memorial.

Creating Memory by John Warkentin