Fighting for Space: Travis Lupick and Ann Livingston on Drug Users' Struggles in Vancouver

Vancouver Public Library. January 11, 2018

Event report by Jeff Shantz

Travis Lupick, a journalist with the Georgia Straight, has written a number of important pieces on the opioid crisis in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES). Recently he released his book Fighting for Space, which chronicles grassroots struggles of drug users in Vancouver to support and defend themselves and fight for their needs over the course of decades. On January 11, 2018, he was joined by Ann Livingston, a founding member of VANDU (Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users), a key figure in the book, and in the struggle, for a book launch.  

Lupick started by saying he decided to write the book to discuss today’s opioid crisis by looking back at an earlier crisis in the 1990s. He wanted to see what lessons could be learned from then and applied today.

He began the talk with a picture of Liz Evans who quit her job at Vancouver General Hospital at 25 over frustrations with the treatment of people dealing with mental health issues. She ended up running a hotel in the DTES in the 1980S, with her partner Mark Townsend, at a time when the drug problem was growing and the HIV and AIDS crises were growing in Vancouver. The hotel was the Portland. It would become a center of anti-poverty organizing. The presenters recount that the Portland was really as peoples’ place. People were welcomed there when they were not welcomed elsewhere.

Ann Livingston showed up around the same time. There was a squat at a furniture store where people were using heroin. Ann and her kids went to clean it up for the people there so the place was a little more comfortable. Bud Osborne arrived around the same time. There were others showing up in the DTES who were ready to break the rules.

VANDU started in 1997. They had already started a safe injection site before then on the 300 block of Powell—the Back Alley. VANDU was the first drug users union in North America. At the time there was little acknowledgement that IV drug users deserved compassion and justice. There was nowhere where people could keep a place if they had an addiction. People were kicked out of residences if they had an overdose. Liz insisted that people could stay at the hotel under these conditions.

The first VANDU meeting was in Oppenheimer Park. It drew more people than expected. The first meeting was in a park because no one would give them a space. They were not welcome anywhere. That is a problem that people still face today in Surrey, for example, where drug users have to fight for space. VANDU and Portland were the first time people had been welcomed because of who they were. Camaraderie, membership, belonging—this is what people lacked and what VANDU offered.

They received a government community grant designed to see if community groups could provide services better, less costly, than hospitals. They could. The approach w as grounded in the idea of what makes people healthy (rather than how to “treat” illness). People are colleagues not patients.

The presentation made clear that direct action was key. They did not ask for permission. They took it. There were actions in city council chambers. They tried to show how many people were dying as a result of government policies.

Liz and Mark eventually decided, after some coaxing, that they could have an injection site. They did it in guerilla style at a hair salon. It was the same space, the same room, in which InSite would open and operate.  They confronted Mayor Larry Campbell with it—pushing for a formally supported site. But the initial site was, again, taken, not given. The presentation stressed that they were rule breakers who forced politicians to act (even against their own inclinations, prejudices, and political wishes).

The real problem, then as now, was government policy that kept people from getting what they needed—not drug using itself. People did not have access to clean needles, for example. Clean needles went for $5 on the streets. Dirty ones went for $1.   


The presenters point out that there was a large heroin scene in Vancouver in the 1940s. It is an ongoing part of the city and should be recognized as such.

In the 1990s crisis, 400 people were dying each year of overdoses. In 2018 the city is on pace for 1800 deaths.

The overdose prevention site (OPS) today was started by peers as well, including Ann Livingston and Sarah Blyth. And the government is still taking too long and delaying supports. The founders had already been outside in tents with the street market so that was how they started. There are people working at the OPS site in the alley who  are sleeping in the alley.

Today’s crisis is a matter of economics and white collar crime, what Edwin Sutherland called chiselling. As Ann Livingston pointed out, heroin production used to require acres of poppies to produce a table sized amount. Now, with fentanyl, much more can be produced with much less. And with fentanyl it is used more times a day, more frequently. It was suggested that this may be six or more times a day rather than two or three.

Ann Livingston suggested that the obstacle then is the same as the obstacle now. If people have no welfare support and no health care they are at risk. She insists that people not use alone. Eighty percent who die are men—alone in their rooms. SROs, public and private, have the same rules—No guests. That puts people at risk.

The current opioid crisis is driven by growing economic inequality. It has been part of economic crisis in a neoliberal context since the crisis of 2008. And it is tougher for people to get welfare now and welfare provides much less than even a generation ago. In British Columbia it explicitly says in welfare law that addiction is not a disability. It is recognized in Ontario after a court case there was won. In Ann Livingston’s view the welfare legislation in British Columbia is illegal.

When welfare is cut one’s MSP (medicals services premium) gets cut off. People cannot get methadone because they are cut off MSP.

Policing Kills: For Lives Not Laws

The presentation made very clear—a key point that was stressed—that police are still a massive problem and play an active part in people dying needlessly. They are still a major threat.

Now governments are proposing manslaughter charges for people who sell fentanyl. This is a disastrous policy based only on revenge. It will lead to more people dying. People will not call for help because they do not want to be charged. Most of those arrested and charged will be low level and peer dealers—not major dealers anyway. This is all merely a way for police to increase their already boated budgets and resources at a time when crime rates are dropping consistently.

The presenters pointed out that the OPS tents are illegal and violate federal drug laws. No one knew how far they could push it before they got in legal trouble. Stealing electricity from a building next door, for example.

Finally the government let them move indoors. Then-Health Minister Terry Lake visited the OPS and told Lupick that he woke up at 4 AM thinking about Ann and Sarah. Fifteen sites were opened in British Columbia a week later. It is the fastest any government in Canada has moved on the issue.

Bureaucrats always think what they cannot do. Drug users think what they can do. VANDU started by trying to find out what people wanted to do and what they needed. Ann Livingston says basic organizing is to go to people and ask what their concerns are. What do they need? What do they want to do?

Many who use drugs believe what is said about them. They internalize stigma. Criminalization and policing only plays into that and increases that. It tells the public drug users are deviant, bad, undeserving.

Heroin needs to be available in prescriptions. Ann Livingston says, half jokingly, that we need to grow lots of poppies.

The government could make it easier for people to get methadone than it is to get fentanyl at the corner. They could start up some of the vending machines to get things to people.

An Activated Community

The DTES is what some urbanists call an activated community. There is street life, a bustle. Ann Livingston says we need clean alleys. We need parkettes. We can make the alleys nice. There could be activities. There could be yoga. The OPS site does things to make the alley nice.

What helps to build community? For Ann Livingston, as for many of us, the answer is that, still, we need a space! A place where people can meet each other, do things together, figure out what we can do together. Spaces is the main thing people need. Travis Lupick concludes by saying that the book leaves out a struggle for a community center—a long, drawn out struggle. They  were going to occupy a space for one.

I have long argued that this must be a priority for Surrey and for a social justice center that would be a real social justice center. Places are needed—more and more places.