Nearly a year after leaving federal politics, Libby Davies is in a reflective mood. The former NDP MP and city councillor told the Georgia Straight by phone that she’s been thinking a great deal about the intersection of electoral politics and social movements. She’s also completed the first draft of a book—part memoir and part issue-based analysis of the political process.
“We live in such a cynical world where people feel disempowered and turned off and that they have no voice,” Davies said. “I really want to use my experience to help people get to a place where they feel that it’s not only possible but it’s exciting and creative and full of good outcomes when you do engage politically and when you do get involved.”
In particular, she wants to reach young people getting involved in activism, so they can learn how to engage with governments to achieve results. She advised anyone interested in pushing for change to find a group or an alliance of people they can work with—and accept that they will encounter egotistical people along the way.
“Sometimes, it’s very demoralizing,” Davies acknowledged. “I always want to say ‘Give space to people.’ There are people around you who have the answers.”
Davies first came to public attention as a young organizer with the Downtown Eastside Residents’ Association in the 1970s, and only later gained a profile in electoral politics after being elected to city council in 1982. She said that one of her great mentors was her former husband, Bruce Eriksen, a fearless organizer on behalf of tenants living in the city’s poorest neighbourhood.
“He had his life threatened,” Davies revealed. “He was told to get out of town by the police. He came back and said, ‘Well, fuck you. Fuck everybody.’ He was truly an incredible man.”
Another inspirational figure was Bud Osborn, a poet and community advocate who helped convince Vancouverites that drug addiction is a health issue. Davies said that as an MP, she would come back from Ottawa thinking that it was a “crazy place” full of personal ambition.
“Then I would get to Main and Hastings,” she said. “And Bud and I would sit down and talk for hours. It would completely motivate me again, compel me…because he was such a powerful force.”
The hardest issue she ever dealt with was the sex trade. Davies came out very early in favour of decriminalization, which made her a target of abolitionists, who accused her of aiding and abetting exploitation. She recalled being screamed at by members of the public when she and other Coalition of Progressive Electors councillors stood firm against then mayor Mike Harcourt’s support for a law banning communicating in public to sell sexual services.
Later, it became clear that a serial killer was on the loose, preying on Downtown Eastside sex workers. Research by SFU criminologist John Lowman, a vehement critic of federal prostitution laws, documented a sharp rise in the number of sex workers being murdered in B.C. in the years following the imposition of tougher legislation.
“Lowman is one of my heroes,” Davies said. “That man is amazing. I’ve followed him faithfully over the years. He spoke at parliamentary committees.”
She also said she’s been inspired by Katrina Pacey, executive director of Pivot Legal Society, which represented sex workers before the Supreme Court of Canada.
“I got to know a few sex workers—some of them fairly well—and we would have long discussions,” Davies recalled. “It was that grounding about what is really going on, what is really people’s experience, that keeps you moving where you need to go.”
Libby Davies will discuss her political career at 7 p.m. next Wednesday (September 21) at SFU Woodward’s in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts.