Secret Souls, Public Dreams

The Parade of Lost Souls has been a yearly fixture in my neighbourhood since the mid-90’s. Public Dreams Society created an event that mixed Mexican Day of the Dead traditions with Celtic Samhain rituals, throwing in Hallowe’en costumes and a circus aesthetic for good measure. In the beginning, it was almost a neighbourhood secret, with artists and queers, students and stilt walkers proclaiming our difference from the rest of the city. In those days, the Drive was the also the home of Vancouver’s Fringe Festival and the Illuminares Lantern Festival (another Public Dreams project). Commercial Drive felt like the seat of countercultural expression, even as we realized that we were really just the harbingers of gentrification. Still, it was exciting to wind our way around the neighbourhood, with decked out houses and alleyways, knowing that new ways of making art (and old ways rediscovered) were being worked out in front of us.

The Parade grew each year, becoming so big that it made the major news reports and more and more people from around Greater Vancouver came to participate. Eventually, the costs for permits, clean up and policing grew to over $100,000.00, while government funding was cut by an estimated 90%. This led to the cancellation of last year’s parade. For a good discussion of the issues around funding cuts to the arts in BC, go here. (Funding cuts to social programs were also deep and devastating.)

This year, Public Dreams revived the parade, in a smaller form that reminds me of its roots. Calling the scaled-down celebration the Secret Souls Walk, Public Dreams didn’t release the route until the day the walk happened, though the accompanying Carnival was advertised earlier.

I was lucky enough to win passes to the preparation workshops for the Walk and was able to attend one of the shrine-making workshops. I decided to make a shrine in honour of my grandparents, as my Grandma died only a few months ago and my Grandpa died the year before.

I’m not an artist. Even my stick figures are almost unidentifiable. So, when I thought about what I wanted to do for my shrine, I just printed out lovely photos of each of my grandparents and hoped that I would find some inspiration at Public Dreams’ studio. I needn’t have worried. The Public Dreams space is like a five-year-old’s ideal craft area. There are materials everywhere, in every shade and texture. Even someone as artistically challenged as I am can fake it there. They’ve also got an amazingly talented cadre of staff and volunteers. The workshops this year were sadly under-attended. If you ever get the chance to go to one, for any of their events, jump at it. Really.


My grandparents met during the Second World War, in England, where my grandfather was stationed and my grandmother was working as a nurse. She was Irish, he was Canadian. He married her and brought her back to Canada. It sounds simple, but it wasn’t. Whose story is? Theirs included a vow to marry a girl spotted through a restaurant window; an injured soldier’s plea to Vincent Massey to allow his Irish Catholic wife to have their child on her home soil, even though the Irish Sea was closed to passage; and a train journey across a continent with a baby born Canadian in Ireland. All stories for another time.

I thought about these things while making my shrine, but what concerned me most was trying to represent them correctly. I played with the idea of making fishing rods and rosaries, cups of tea and cribbage boards, but I knew that no one would know what they were but me. In the end, I tried to make it simple. Two of the strongest themes in their lives were their shared Irish heritage and their devout Catholicism. My grandfather had been raised Anglican, but converted wholeheartedly later in life and church was a constant in their lives.

So, I decided to make a shamrock and a cross, on a background of Kelly green. Not even I could go wrong with that. I cobbled together a structure made of milk cartons and construction paper, pasting their photos at the back with more construction paper for frames. I painted the rest green, made a sort of purple star as a base for the candle holders and hot-glued cord on either side to represent a shamrock and a cross. I made candle holders out of plastic roses and leaves and finished the thing with a strip of crimson netting. I think it turned out all right, mostly because Bridie and Fred were so beautiful in their youth.

I brought the shrine, along with a small Mexican-themed one that I’d made, to the starting point of the Secret Souls walk on Saturday. One of the volunteers at the shrine station told me later that everyone who came by wanted to know about my grandparents and their story. I really want to thank Public Dreams for the opportunity; it’s a very meaningful process and it’s wonderfully healing to honour one’s dead.

My partner and I went on the walk together, which wound through the alleyways above McSpadden Park. There was a carnival atmosphere present, as there has been during past walks, but it was more subdued. We had to go looking for smaller spectacles, rather than being hurtled past larger ones. I really liked this aspect of Secret Souls. Some of the highlights for me: Thriller zombies at Templeton & East 3rd, the court of Queen Victoria, the still, pale ghosts in the alley and the music of various performers wafting across the neighbourhood.

My only complaint is that the steep alleyways aren’t very accessible and I hope that the organizers take this into account for next year. Everyone should have the opportunity to celebrate the death and renewal of the year and the self.

I’ll end with a few pictures. It was impossible to capture everything that was going on, but these will give you a taste. If you like what you see, please consider a donation to Public Dreams, so they can continue producing such beautiful events.