In Search of the Political Fix for Vancouverís Downtown Eastside
September 10, 2004by Christopher DeWolf
It isnít a subtle change by any means. One minute youíre surrounded by
healthy-looking Korean students on Seymour Street, munching on kimbob and
fish cake; a few blocks later, youíre standing across from a skinny junkie
smoking crack cocaine on Hastings Street. This is the Downtown Eastside, a
blatant rejection of the glassy, healthy city Vancouver tries to be. Here, under
the ever-watchful red "W" on top of the abandoned Woodwards department store,
reside more than five thousand drug addicts. They sleep in the residential
hotels that line Hastings Street and hang out on the sidewalks, in the alleys or
in the beautiful Carnegie Centre at the corner of Hastings and Main. The
community centreís library, classrooms, gym and kitchen make it the de facto
heart of the neighbourhood.
Most Canadians probably know of the Downtown Eastside from news items about its
rampant rate of HIV infection or about the infamous disappearance of over five
dozen of its women. Others will have seen Fix: The Story of an Addicted City,
Nettie Wildís fantastic documentary about the fight for a safe injection site on
the Downtown Eastside. The movie introduces us to Dean Wilson, a former IBM
salesman and drug addict who is the president of the Vancouver Area Network of
Drug Users (VANDU); Ann Livingston, VANDUís sharp, confrontational organizer;
and Philip Owen, the then mayor of Vancouver, a straight-edge conservative who
becomes an unlikely proponent of harm reduction.
"The characters were all larger than life," reminisces Wild. She originally set
out to create a fictional story about Vancouverís drug users, but changed her
mind when she wandered into a meeting on the proposed safe injection site.
"Everybody was mad as hell and where thereís action, thereís cinema." She adds,
"The safe injection site isnít what this is all about. Weíre on the cusp of a
ALL PHOTOS BY CHRISTOPHER DEWOLF
Fix dives into the stormy politics of the Downtown Eastside with all the
subtlety of a cannonball. We first meet Livingston as she drives a van full of
addicts dressed as skeletons to a city council meeting, where they confront Owen
and the councillors over the cityís drug woes.
At the heart of matter is the concept of harm reduction. Proponents of this
approach argue that instead of waging a US-style war on drugs, we need to accept
addiction as a health problem and treat it as such. When addicts are forced to
shoot up in squalid alleyways with dirty needles, under constant threat of
arrest, the likelihood of overdosing or contracting a disease skyrockets. This
philosophy of harm reduction informs programs like needle exchanges and safe
injection sites; Vancouver, with rates of addiction and disease among the
highest on the continent, makes for a good place to start.
Walking along Hastings Street, any illusions from reading too much Bukowskióromantic
notions of aimless drifters in cheap hotels with neon signsóare immediately
dispelled by the sunken faces and obvious desperation of the people around you.
"Addiction is one of the ways in which we break," says Wild. "You run into a
whole gambit of people [on the Downtown Eastside]: Itís a catchment for people
who, as a society, we run out of alternatives with what to do." She offers
stories of sons and daughters who came to the neighbourhood looking for a parent
and ended up there themselves, caught in the vacuum of addiction. Nearly a third
of all residents on the Downtown Eastside are aboriginal, having escaped trouble
on reserves only to find even more of it in the city. Many of the areaís women
fall into prostitution, making them vulnerable to predators. Port Coquitlam pig
farmer Robert Pickton is expected to stand trial next year for the grisly murder
and dismemberment of twenty-two Downtown Eastside women; all in all, more than
sixty women have gone missing and are believed to be dead.
Such horror stories regularly make the rounds in the Canadian media, but they
only serve to stigmatize the Downtown Eastside. Itís easy to forget that this is
a real neighbourhood, home to real people. Until she made Fix, says Wild,
she was like most Vancouverites: When she drove through the Downtown Eastside,
she locked her doors and tried not to look at the junkies. "Now I ride my bike
through and people who Iíve never even talked to wave and say hello. Itís a bit
like racism Ö first everyone looks the same, they have unpronounceable names.
Then the wool is lifted. Everyone begins to look distinct and names are easy to
remember. You have to park your assumptions at the door."
In Fix, Livingston, Owen, Wilson and their allies battled right-wing
city councillors, an antagonistic community group and angry Chinatown merchants
to open a place where drug addicts could safely inject their drugs under the
supervision of health care professionals. Owenís support of harm reduction cost
him his job: When his term ended in 2002, his own party turfed him out, throwing
its support behind Jennifer Clarke, a vehement opponent of the safe injection
site. Clarke was crushed in a landslide victory by her opponent, Larry Campbell,
a former police officer and coroner who campaigned in favour of the injection
site. Owen used the money from his farewell party to pay for Fixís
distribution; in September 2003, shortly before the filmís release, North
Americaís first official supervised injection site opened at 139 East Hastings.
The soothingly lit building features a twelve-seat injection room and two always
present nurses; an addiction counsellor and physician are on call at all times.
Still, it isnít enough. When asked about the injection site, Ann Livingston
sighs. "Itís a huge political victory [and] itís really good that the really
messed up people are using it, Ö but it doesnít meet the needs of the
neighbourhood." Although fewer people are seen injecting in public these days,
she says, at least four or five other injection sites would be needed to really
make a dent in the problem. The existing site, meanwhile, is just a three-year
For all its benefits, the safe injection site fails to address the problem of
crack users, who gather in large crowds on the street to smoke. VANDU, with the
support of Mayor Campbell, is pressing hard for a safe inhalation room, but the
response from the police and public has been underwhelming. One promising
development is the establishment this fall of an experimental program that will
distribute prescription heroin to seventy-five people. Such a program would be
effective in reducing crime and putting dealers out of business, says
Livingston, but the fact that it too is only a pilot program frustrates her.
"Unlike researchers, I donít think research makes the government change its
mind. Public pressure does. Itís insane to have pilot programs with all this
squalor in the streets."
Livingston estimates that four to five thousand addicts have died on the
Downtown Eastside over the past ten years. "[Larry Campbell] had to put the toe
tags on those bodies. I hope he wonít forget about that." Wild, for her part,
hopes more cities in North America wise up. "We need to park our abhorrence of
allowing people to use [drugs]," she says. Slowly, it seems, other cities are
coming around. One Montreal politician is hoping to open a safe injection site
in his borough. After all, whatís the alternative? When an addict falls into a
neighbourhood like the Downtown Eastside, what comes afterward?
"They die," says Wild. "There is no afterward." When not wandering our
is the editor of
Urbanphoto.net. The Urban Eye appears every second Friday.
Vancouver area network of drug users