Overdose deaths in the Downtown Eastside had reached epidemic levels when activist and poet Bud Osborn flew to Ottawa with MP Libby Davies to advocate for a supervised injection site.
After meeting with then health minister Allan Rock, Osborn returned to tell community members and drug users about his discussion.
“This was a huge shift for people who were despised to hear that one of their own had done this, was in Ottawa and that the MP was there,” recalled Ann Livingston, who worked with Osborn to found the Vancouver Area Network of Drug users.
“They were relegated to humanness, which they did not have,” she told the Straight by phone. “They were not viewed as human beings.”
Osborn, who died Tuesday (May 6) after being hospitalized for pneumonia and a heart condition, also pushed for the Vancouver/Richmond Health Board to declare a public health emergency in 1997, a move that helped pave the way for the establishment of Insite.
“We saw a real change in the policy around needle exchange, and we saw the persistent discussion for injection sites as being the only way around this horrible problem with overdose and the spread of bloodborne pathogens,” said Livingston.
Davies, a close friend of the poet who worked with him for 20 years, said Osborn has been “a hero in the Downtown Eastside”.
“He’s inspired so many people, not just in the Downtown Eastside, but across the city and even across the country with his incredible advocacy and passion, and leadership on stopping the war on drugs, and speaking out for people who’ve been so marginalized and criminalized,” Davies told the Straight by phone from Ottawa.
She views Osborn’s contributions as central to the establishment of Insite, through both the role he played on the health board, and in the way he helped drug users to organize and to find their voice.
“I don’t have a shadow of a doubt that if he hadn’t been there, it wouldn’t have happened,” she stated.
He also had a way with words that allowed him to reach people from all walks of life, the Vancouver East MP recalled.
“He was the kind of guy, he could talk to lawyers and judges and politicians and bureaucrats, and scientists and business people…or just the ordinary person on the street,” she stated. “He could communicate with people and get them to understand what was going on, and he always spoke the truth, always. He never shied away from it.”
Downtown Eastside activist Jean Swanson knew Osborn for about 15 to 20 years. She credits his work in helping to pave the way for Insite with saving “hundreds of lives, if not thousands”.
He was also a vocal opponent of gentrification in the neighbourhood, and frequently spoke about how the Downtown Eastside is “a caring community, where people look out for each other”, Swanson noted.
“He came from…to hear him talk, a really horrible background,” she said. “And then when he moved here he found a community, and he always said that this was his home, and he wanted to live in the Downtown Eastside.”
Swanson noted that community members were stopping by the Carnegie Centre this morning to talk about Osborn and the impact that he had on the neighbourhood.
“He was always really nice to people,” she recalled. “To absolutely everybody, no matter what their station in life.”
Osborn was the unofficial poet laureate of the Downtown Eastside, and was often seen reciting his work at community rallies and events. He also led writing workshops at the Portland Hotel, and helped others to publish books of their own.
In the years of skyrocketing overdose deaths, Osborn spent his days attending meetings, and his evenings reciting his work at poetry readings, according to Livingston.
“The overdose numbers were very, very high,” she noted. “They impacted him in a very real way. These were his friends, these were people he knew.”
Davies recalled how crowds would often go silent when Osborn read his poetry.
“He was a great voice for the Downtown Eastside and he said the words sometimes people couldn’t express themselves,” she recalled.
“And I’ve been in many meetings where Bud was reading a poem or speaking, and people were just spellbound, because they knew that what he was saying is what they wanted to say, and maybe couldn’t quite articulate it. But he also helped people articulate their own voice, and that was very important. He gave a lot of people the courage to speak out.”
Swanson said she has been carrying around Raise Shit!, a book that Osborn co-edited, with her all day, reading excerpts that the activist wrote. One poem in particular, she noted, has resonated.
“We have become a community of prophets in the Downtown Eastside, rebuking the system and speaking hope and possibility into situations of apparent impossibility,” she recited. “To raise shit is to actively resist, and we resist with our presence, with our words, with our love, with our courage.
“Speaking hope and possibility into situations of apparent impossibility,” she added, “that’s what he did."