With a lifetime agitating for social change—as an activist, city councillor, and member of Parliament representing Vancouver East—Libby Davies has more than a few good stories to share.
In 1989, for example, she stood on the beach at Spanish Banks and spotted the USS Independence anchored in the water before her. The massive aircraft carrier had nuclear weapons onboard, and Davies wanted to call attention to their presence in Vancouver.
“The famous Greenpeace zodiacs ferried about twenty swimmers to the middle of the Burrard Inlet, and we jumped into the very cold water and began our swim,” she writes in Outside In: A Political Memoir. “The uppermost deck, an overhang where aircraft could land, was a giant shadow that blocked the sky. Every time I lifted my head for a breath I could hear the insults the sailors hurled at us from above.”
The book, scheduled for release on Tuesday (May 7), stands as a master class in activism and an invaluable guide to navigating the crossroads of advocacy, politics, and public policy.
“They so often collide and are misunderstood,” Davies tells the Straight at a café on East Hastings Street. “It’s like ships passing in the night. And so I wanted the book to be about activism, but also about how you make the political world…more accessible to people. How you bring about change, how you work on difficult issues that are not considered mainstream, and how you make progress.”
She emphasizes that activists can compromise on policy without compromising their principles.
“If we don’t use every opportunity and every tool we have to make the system work for us, we’re actually giving up our power,” Davies adds. “It’s all about how you can move forward with your agenda by understanding the environment you are in and sometimes making those difficult choices.”
Outside In also includes peeks behind the curtain in Ottawa, where, Davies reveals, life was not always glamorous and, at first, quite intimidating.
“My room on the second floor came unfurnished,” she writes about her first address in the nation’s capital. “I had a mattress on the floor, a pair of sheets from Zellers, and no personal effects. That reflected my state of mind; I was feeling lost, with serious doubts about being in Ottawa as an MP.
“And so began my new job,” she continues in the book. “I felt lonely and sad but seized with the issue of stopping the criminalization of people who use drugs, which underlay the startling number of drug overdoses and the intolerably high rates of HIV infection.”
The year that Davies was first elected as an MP, 1997, those twin health crises killed hundreds of her constituents. How to get the federal government’s attention was a learning experience for the federal rookie, Davies recounts.
“The very first day, when I was walking down the hall from the House of Commons to the Senate to hear the speech from the throne, [I was] thinking, ‘What the fuck am I doing here?’” she tells the Straight. “If I was going to get anywhere, I had to make allies, I had to win people over, and I had to figure out how the heck it worked.”
Davies says she’s learned many lessons from both sides of the negotiating table.
“It’s about the relationship,” she emphasizes. “Getting your foot in the door and finding how you can work with someone to begin that process of education, understanding, and getting change on the inside through that relationship.”
Davies also warns activists about a few mistakes she’s observed over the years.
“Sometimes people will dump all this stuff on you and they won’t actually ask you to do anything,” she says. “I wanted to reach across the table, shake them, and say, ‘Look, you’re doing it all wrong!’ And sometimes I actually did.”
Davies says she is still applying these lessons to work that remains unfinished today. On sex-workers’ rights, for example—a topic that receives quite a bit of space in Outside In—Davies says reforms must reflect the insight of those affected by the policies in question.
“Listen to the people who have experience and who know what change needs to happen,” she says. “Things changed in the late 1990s and early 2000s on the drug issue because VANDU [Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users] was formed and because VANDU became a powerful voice. It was the voice of drug users themselves who battled and broke down the horrible stereotypes, demonization, and vilification of people who used drugs.
“Any legislative change [on sex work] should not happen without the meaningful consultation and input of sex-worker organizations and individuals,” Davies continues. “Otherwise we’re going to keep getting it wrong.”
Outside In is a loving tribute to Davies's late partner, Bruce Eriksen, to whom she gives credit for her early forays into social justice. Davies also shares fond memories of her current partner Kim Elliott and of close friends such as Jean Swanson, Bud Osborn, and Jack Layton, among many others. With sharp insight, she recounts adventures fighting for affordable housing in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, coming out as Canada’s first openly gay female MP, landing in hot water for supporting Palestinians, and navigating sexism on the Hill.
The year Davies retired from federal politics, 2015, the NDP saw its presence in Parlaiment reduced from 103 seats to 44. Davies points to the party’s campaign position on cannabis as indicative of how the loss occurred. While Justin Trudeau’s Liberals promised full legalization and regulation, the NDP settled on decriminalization, a policy that only goes halfway to legalization, falling short of the sort of real action that it became clear the electorate desired.
“We acted cautiously and too late,” Davies writes in Outside In. “The same with climate change, and natural resource management, including pipelines. We started on the right path and then somewhere along the way let ourselves limp along—becoming cautious and careful when people wanted boldness. As often happens in federal politics, we became focused on ‘managing’ what was perceived as a difficult issue…rather than simply doing the right thing.”
“It felt like we’d lost our way,” Davies adds today. “We’d lost that kind of organic, gut connection with people.”
She says the NDP is rebuilding, and returning to its roots. “It’s about organizing,” she explains. “It can’t just be about an electoral machine. You can’t just connect with people and say, ‘We need money’. It has to be about this history that we have as organizers, as a movement.”
Libby Davies is scheduled to speak in Vancouver as part of a book launch for Outside In on May 22 at 7 p.m. at the Djavad Mowafaghian Cinema at the SFU Goldcorp Centre for the Arts (149 West Hastings Street). The event is free but advanced registration is required.