"It's a heritage bridge. It's very beautiful," McCamus says. "People asked, `Why change it, why alter it so dramatically for such a small minority? You're going to make it ugly and take away the view.' ... The way we got around that was to say, `You're right. The bridge is a piece of public art.'"
The city of Toronto sponsored a competition to design a barrier that wouldn't be an eyesore. The winner was an architecture professor from the University of Waterloo, Dereck Revington, who intends his luminous veil not only to be a life-saving measure, but also to be one of North America's largest pieces of public art. At the least, he impressed his colleagues, winning a 1999 Canadian Architect Award of Excellence for the design.
The city of Toronto originally agreed to pay $2.5 million for the barrier, with the group led by Birney and McCamus raising the rest. They struck a deal with an advertising company, which agreed to pay $3.5 million in exchange for the right to place two electronic billboards on the bridge. Environmentalists and historic preservationists objected and the deal fell through.
Finally, last year, about 500 letters and 2,000 faxes to the City Council paid off. The city agreed to foot the whole bill.
Still, there are critics. One columnist for the Ontario edition of the National Post, a daily newspaper, this year compared the suicide barrier to "affixing an `Eat at Joe's' sign atop the Eiffel Tower."
"The ugly fence now being erected is not a luminous veil, it is a `delusional veil,' supported by members of the not-in-my-backyard generation," groused the columnist. "Indeed the whole project reeks of hypocrisy, given those who are hell-bent on taking their own lives will undoubtedly find other bridges (incredibly, Toronto has dozens of the things) or maybe even employ other life-ending methods. Go figure."
But Birney stands firm in his conviction.
"I think the families of the mentally ill can go home at night and rest content, knowing that their children are safe from that bridge," he says. "It was something that had to be done, and we did it. We didn't choose to be the guardians of that bridge. But there was no one else there."