Pushing back on Canada’s war on drug users
Every night that Overdose Prevention Ottawa ran its illegal supervised injection site, we opened with a ritual: a moment of silence for everyone we’d lost to the war on drug users and to recognize the shitdisturbers who came before us — those who made our work possible. In his book Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City’s Struggle with Addiction, Travis Lupick tells the story of those organizers and their incredible impact.
Fighting for Space chronicles the lives of several prominent activists from Canada’s “poorest postal code” — Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, or DTES — and traces how they transformed the way that Canadians and our governments think about drugs and addiction.
In the early 1990s, almost by chance, Liz Evans and Mark Townsend started the Portland Hotel Society. It was the “hotel of last resort,” whose residents no other agency could or would house. It flipped the social services model on its head to provide appropriate and peer-driven care.
Around the same time, Bud Osborn and Ann Livingston were organizing drug users to demand better healthcare services. The HIV epidemic had just erupted in Vancouver and, with it, the number of drug overdoses. It was illegal even to distribute clean needles or supplies. When the government refused to act or even listen, the two groups took matters into their own hands.
In early 1996, the group rented a nondescript storefront and opened Back Alley, a supervised injection site (SIS) that was by all considerations illegal. It began as a space to protect DTES residents from police violence, but soon became an SIS run almost entirely by drug users. While the site closed the following year, it charted a path that the group would follow over the next two decades: a radical “nothing about us without us” model of service provision mixed with direct action and protest.
In 1997, the DTES had the highest rate of HIV in the western world. To finally get the government’s and media’s attention, the group chained off the intersection of Hastings and Main, blocking six lanes of traffic. They laid one thousand wooden crosses in the adjacent park, each symbolizing a life lost to heroin and AIDS over the past five years.
The group used that protest, and many others like it, to build power and influence. Through savvy and strategic organizing, they forced the city to declare a public health emergency and motivated people at all levels of government to champion harm reduction.
Fighting for Space is the fascinating, untold story of one of Canada’s most successful social movements in recent decades. When they began, supervised injection sites were unheard of and unimaginable in North America. Yet, they managed to win the support of Vancouver’s mayor and several MLAs and MPs to push for and ultimately found Insite, the continent’s first SIS.
In the ensuing years, they beat amazing odds to win landmark victories and later defend them against right-wing governments, like defending Insite when Stephen Harper’s government tried to shut it down, and securing funding and protection for the continent’s first prescription heroin program.
The group managed both to campaign for massive social change and to do service provision, showing that it’s possible both to meet the needs of your community and avoid becoming part of the bureaucracy. At the heart of their work was a revolutionary vision of building power from the ground up, whether by offering peer-led services for sex workers or through a drug users’ union leading a rally with a hundred-foot-long hypodermic needle.
In 2017, There were more than four thousand overdose-related deaths. In 2018, we’re on track for over seven thousand. Reversing this crisis depends on our ability to learn from the shit-disturbers who came before us, and to force governments to put an end to the war on drug users.
James Hutt is the interim national director, policy and advocacy, for the Canadian Health Coalition, and a writer, organizer, and member of Overdose Prevention Ottawa.