In the late summer of 1997, a poster with a message aimed at drug users appeared on electrical poles around the Downtown Eastside.
“Meeting in the park,” one read. “Discussion items: police conduct, violence and safety, ‘Is this your home?,’ washroom facilities, neighbourhood relations....Let’s talk about a community approach.”
It was a revolutionary idea, that people who use drugs should gather and organize around shared challenges and interests.
On September 9, 1997, a few dozen people took note and met at the east end of Oppenheimer Park.
Donald MacPherson was there that day. He was working at the Carnegie Community Centre at the time and the plight of drug users who congregated on the corner of Main Street and East Hastings had caught his attention.
"There was a big drug scene in the park in those days," he recounts in a telephone interview. "The two scenes were the park and Main and Hastings. And there [on September 9] was this wacky meeting with drug users, drug dealers, rice-wine drinkers, and residents from the painted houses on Jackson Avenue there."
At the front of the meeting was Bud Obsorn, a poet and budding activist who had just secured a seat on the Vancouver-Richmond Health Board (which later became Vancouver Coastal Health). Beside him was Ann Livingston, a single mother on welfare who had recently made a name for herself in the Downtown Eastside fighting for basic rights for drug users.
“Ann was a contender and then, with Bud—the pair of them working together, they were very powerful," MacPherson tells the Straight. “They brought a flip chart to the park and Ann was taking notes. Minutes for this meeting, as wacky as it was.”
Livingston had tried to organize drug users before. In 1994, a group she was involved with called the Innovative Empowerment Society broke off into another group called IV Feed. In 1995, it opened an illegal injection site on Powell Street called Back Alley. It was the first time that anyone in Vancouver had said that drug users should have a place they called their own (and another story in itself.) But it didn't last long.
With this group that had collected in Oppenheimer Park, Livingston was making a second go of it.
It was largely a response to drug-overdose deaths as well as an explosion of HIV/AIDS, hepatitis C, and other infectious diseases that were spreading unchecked at the time. In 1991, there were 117 fatal overdoses in B.C. Then 162 in 1992 and then 354 the year after that. In 1998, the peak of the drug crisis of the '90s, 400 people died of an overdose.
Livingston says that the idea in the park that day was to gather the people who were most affected by these problems—people addicted to drugs—and ask them what they wanted to do about it.
"The technique was to say, ‘What are your issues?’ " she recounts. "The second step was, ‘Why do you have those issues?’ The third step: ‘What action are we going to take?’"
As Osborn led the discussion, Livingston frantically recorded attendees' input on large flip-chart paper.
“The perception on the street was that nobody cared if they died, and it was probably accurate," Livingston says. "Nobody had ever asked their opinion. And so I was hanging on their every word, taking notes, and doing it in such a way that they could see."
They decided to form an organization, or a union, of sorts. The group didn't take the name it holds today until a year later, but that September 9 meeting in Oppenheimer was the formation of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users.
VANDU, as it's more commonly known, celebrates its 20th anniversary this week.
After B.C. entered its second overdose epidemic, in 2011, the group of drug users became an integral part of the response. It's hosted community training sessions and helped distribute naloxone, the so-called overdose antidote that reverses the effects of opioids like heroin and fentanyl. It also operates an overdose-prevention site where people bring drugs to inject under the supervision of VANDU staff. VANDU alley patrols walk the Downtown Eastside and offer people clean supplies and a show of support. Behind all of that, the organization has pushed city officials and politicians to recognize what's become a guiding VANDU mantra: "Nothing about us without us."
Where can users go?
The week following the Oppenheimer meeting, Livingston put up a second set of posters.
“Where can users go?” one of them read. “How do users feel about having no place to go, nowhere to wash, inadequate detox, constant police harassment and no one who cares?”
By this time, Osborn (who passed away in 2014) had convinced a pastor named Randy Barnetson to let the group meet at his second-floor space on the 100 block of East Hastings Street: the Foursquare Church, better known as the Street Church or Hot Dog Church. (“We’ve given out over a million hotdogs," Barnetson says.)
In October 1997, Libby Davies had just been elected as the NDP MP to represent Vancouver East, a position she held until 2015. In a telephone interview, she recounts her first meeting at the church.
"It’s a long flight of stairs up to that room," she begins. "It was very dark, it was extremely crowded. There were people sitting on the floor. There were flip-chart pages all along the walls, because Ann Livingston always used to write down what people said."
Davies was greeted with skepticism. "Oh, a politician," she remembers a member of the audience said as Osborn introduced her.
"But I told them that I was there because I was their member of Parliament," Davies continues. "That they were my constituents, and I was hugely concerned about what was going on with the overdoses and the criminalization of users, and that I was there to help them."
She recalls how the group slowly began to realize what it was.
“Because it was membership based, like a union, where they have membership meetings and it is the members who vote, who decide…that engaged people," Davies says. "Suddenly you'd unleashed an incredible power that people didn’t necessarily believe they had."
At those meetings at the Street Church, the tangible goal that emerged was a supervised-injection site. Because they used drugs, VANDU's members had been pushed into the alleys, forced to share needles and inject with dirty water collected from puddles. They wanted a space of their own; a place where they could use drugs relatively safely and without fear of harassment by police.
"Libby, it's never going to happen," she remembers them telling her.
But the group realized they had a representative in Ottawa. A few years later, on December 5, 2001, a relatively new but fiery VANDU member named Dean Wilson spoke to the federal government directly.
"It's time to act," he said before a parliamentary committee. "It is no longer time to hide behind reports and more research. We've lost 3,000 people since 1993. That also means 3,000 mothers and fathers and probably untold thousands of brothers and sisters who probably still look at a picture every goddamn morning.
"I'm going to end my speech because I'm swelling up with the rage of the Downtown Eastside right now," Wilson continued. "But it is time to act with safe injection sites."
In 2003, Vancouver did open a supervised-injection site, Insite, which was the first sanctioned facility like it anywhere in North America. Insite was one of many victories for VANDU those years.
One year earlier, the Portland Hotel Society (PHS), with which VANDU has always had a rocky but productive alliance, had convinced Vancouver's health authority to employ VANDU members at its Washington Needle Depot. That was the first time that drug users as a category of people were given jobs in a health-care system.
VANDU successfully pushed the government to drop harmful one-for-one requirements on needle exchange. It created subgroups that focused on issues like methadone and hepatitis C and coordinated with care providers to have a say in programming. It worked with a young lawyer named John Richardson and helped him form a separate group called Pivot Legal Society, which went on to win major cases against the Vancouver Police Department.
When the City of Vancouver drafted its renowned "four pillars" drug strategy—for the first time formalizing harm-reduction as part of a government response to addiction—VANDU members were a part of that process and had real input in the document. In the mid-2000s, VANDU began receiving invitations from drug users struggling with similar problems in other cities and, slowly, user unions began to form across North America.
Twenty years later
Today Melissa Eror is a soft-spoken grandmother who lives on Vancouver Island. Back in 1997, she was who the group of users who met in Oppenheimer Park elected as their first president. Eror didn't hold the position long. She grew disenchanted with activism, she concedes. But she says she knew that they were involved in something special, right from the day of that very first meeting.
“They’ve had their issues but they’ve done some real good," Eror tells the Straight. "They’ve kept their issues in the public eye and they’ve helped direct policy.”
"I knew it wouldn’t be just a flash in the pan," she adds.
MacPherson, who went on become drug-policy coordinator for the City of Vancouver and later establish the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, says VANDU arose in response to a need and made considerable contributions to how Vancouver addressed those problems.
“They’ve been an amazingly solid, persistent, and creative, constructive force," he says.
“Those were extraordinary times," MacPherson adds in reference to the rise in overdose deaths that occurred in the '90s. "Just like now is an extraordinary time. And they're back at it."More