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Philip Owen stands in a back alley in Vancouver's Eastside, Oct. 9, 2002.JOHN LEHMANN

Dean Wilson’s most vivid memory of Philip Owen was from the Christmas morning when Mr. Owen, then mayor of Vancouver, showed up at the door of the sketchy residential hotel in the city’s Downtown Eastside where Mr. Wilson was still fighting an often losing battle with heroin addiction.

The mayor – member of one of Vancouver’s elite families, political representative for decades of the city’s centre-right political party, a man known for his elegant suits and courtly demeanour – knew that Christmas was a hard time for Mr. Wilson.

The two had learned a lot about each other as Mr. Owen and Mr. Wilson, the unlikeliest of allies, both campaigned in the late 1990s and early 2000s for improved treatment of drug users and for Canada’s first supervised-injection site.

So Mr. Owen phoned – “I’ll see you in 15 minutes outside the Sunrise” – and drove down in his station wagon to offer a bit of money for food or whatever Mr. Wilson chose to spend it on. And to let him know someone was thinking of him on Christmas morning.

“We had a beautiful relationship,” remembers the now 65-year-old Mr. Wilson, the former leader of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users who still works on harm reduction for drug users, though he’s wrestled his own heroin use down to less than once a month. “[Mr. Owen] had this attitude that ‘I don’t care if you’re the director of a bank or someone in the alley in the Downtown Eastside, you’re all my constituents.’”

That is the legacy of this extraordinary Vancouver mayor, someone who transcended the person he was perceived to be for decades – a diffident, sometimes not very articulate, standard-issue businessman worried about tax increases, once described as “a nice man who does what he’s told” – to become a fierce champion of better treatment for drug users.

But those who knew him well said he had always been someone to fight for what he thought was the right thing, as he steered the city from 1993 to 2002 through proposals for casinos in Vancouver, a massive boom in condo development downtown, and an escalating drug crisis.

Mr. Owen, the city’s 36th mayor, died on Sept. 30 of complications from Parkinson’s disease. He was 88.

Philip Walter Owen was born in Vancouver on March 11, 1933 to a prominent family, the second of four children of lawyer, later B.C. lieutenant-governor, Walter Owen, and wife, Jean (née Dowler). He went to Prince of Wales secondary school and New York University.

NPA mayoral candidate Sam Sullivan, left, and Mr. Owen during a press conference in Vancouver, Nov. 15, 2005.JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

As a child, he often spent weekends with his grandfather, another Walter Owen, then the warden of Oakalla Prison, in nearby Burnaby. He remembered going around the prison with his grandfather, who would talk to every prisoner and knew them all by name – an approach that Philip emulated when he started visiting the inhabitants of the Downtown Eastside regularly in later life.

After high school, he went to work in retail and became the manager of the Eaton’s department store in West Vancouver’s Park Royal. But, he said in a 1996 interview, he quit after he was told to fire the older two of seven supervisors at the store – men with families to support – which he thought was outrageous.

He then went into business selling textiles and married Brita Busch, a woman he had known since high school. She agreed to marry him when she was 23, because “I knew this was a principled, decent man.”

The family moved to New York from 1966 to 1973, at a time when the city was both glamorous and racked with crime and social unrest.

Returning to Vancouver, he slowly expanded his business ventures, which included Elle Fabrics, into other areas, including a muffler shop in Penticton and a heat-distribution plant in Vancouver, while pursuing hobbies like collecting and restoring vintage cars.

For years Mr. Owen tried and failed to get elected to any kind of political position. He ran for council and lost five times between 1976 and 1985; he also lost a bid to become a Social Credit candidate for his riding in 1983. He was elected as a park-board commissioner in 1978, and he finally made it onto council in 1986.

“He ran again and again because he so loved the city and he wanted to serve it,” his son, Christian Owen, said. “He led as a gentleman and he treated political friend and foe alike – we don’t have that any more.”

Mr. Owen was selected by the civic party he represented, the Non-Partisan Association, to be the mayoral candidate in 1993 after Gordon Campbell left for provincial politics because he was view more positively by the public than another long-serving councillor, who was better known but got more negative reviews.

His first years in office were quiet and political observers sometimes complained about how boring he was. Mr. Owen often let his strong councillors lead the way on the city’s big files, like finance and urban development.

But he showed some of his style early on. The woman who was city manager for much of his time, Judy Rogers, said he insisted on having major public consultations about whether the city should allow a destination casino to be built on its waterfront – something that the NDP provincial government of the day was pushing.

“He always wanted us to give him the facts before he went to the political level,” said Ms. Rogers, now the chair of the Vancouver-Fraser Port Authority.

And he developed a habit of patrolling his city personally. Council meetings were on Tuesdays. “On Mondays, I would get in the car with Philip and he I would drive around to all the critical decision-making points” – every site that was going to be discussed at the next day’s council meeting, Ms. Rogers said.

“If he noticed there was garbage or graffiti around a site, he’d find out who the owner is and call that person. [He would say,] ‘You have to clean this up. This is for Vancouver,’” she said.

And he showed more than once that he could be tough and unyielding, something that surprised those who wrote him off as bumbling and cautious. Mr. Owen angered one of the city’s biggest developers, Peter Wall, by having the city investigate him for installing dark glass on a tower that had been pitched as light. Mr. Wall never forgave him or the party after being forced to replace it.

In Mr. Owen’s earlier years, he took a conservative approach to the city’s growing problems in the Downtown Eastside, which had slowly changed from a somewhat rundown but still lively area filled with heavy-drinking retired loggers, fishermen and construction workers living in residential hotels to the epicentre of a crack-cocaine epidemic that turned Hastings Street into a frantic street market.

Mr. Wilson recalls that Mr. Owen’s earliest idea was to ship drug users to a decommissioned military base near Chilliwack, B.C. The mayor lobbied the justice minister of the day to crack down on drug traffickers. He talked a lot about the problems of “social decay” in the city and voted for more money for police.

Then, as he worked on solutions for the city’s crime problems, he started to change. He went to a meeting organized by the conservative Hoover Institute in San Francisco, where speakers talked about the need for alternatives to the war on drugs. The daughter of a friend died of an overdose in the Downtown Eastside. And he was urged to spend more time talking to people in the Downtown Eastside about realistic solutions – so he did.

Former city councillor and provincial MLA Jenny Kwan, now an MP, said she told him once he needed to go down to Main and Hastings, the city’s busiest spot for street drugs, and talk to people.

He did. “To his credit, he stayed for two hours. He came back a changed man,” said Ms. Kwan, who admired how he went “all in despite the pressure from his colleagues.”

By 1998, he had his staff organizing large public meetings and seminars on alternatives to policing to deal with illegal drug use. By 1999, he was proposing a new “four pillars” plan to deal with drug problems – harm reduction, prevention, treatment and enforcement.

At first, he was cautious about any endorsement of supervised-injection sites, but even without that, his four-pillars plan, which included more support centres for drug users, prompted huge protests among Gastown and Chinatown residents and businesses. A group called the Community Alliance organized street marches to show opposition.

“It took me by surprise how strong he was, how adamant he was that this was going to happen. He had this steely, quiet strength,” said Larry Campbell, the former coroner who succeeded Mr. Owen as mayor.

But Mr. Owen, facing increasing pushback from his own councillors and party, instead gradually swung over to fully supporting the idea of a supervised-injection site. In 2002, his party, uncomfortable with his advocacy and fearing they were headed for defeat because internal polls showed the city swinging to the left after the NDP had been defeated provincially, told him he would have to compete for the mayoral nomination if he wanted a fourth term. Mr. Owen decided not to run, but the conflict became public and he was widely perceived to have been pushed out by the party over his drug policies. His party was almost wiped out in the election that fall.

North America’s first supervised-injection site opened in the fall of 2003, after then-mayor Larry Campbell drove it through the final stages of a process started by Mr. Owen. As of January 2021, there were 37 such sites in Canada, many of them in cities Mr. Owen had visited to talk about how they worked in Vancouver.

After leaving the mayor’s office, Mr. Owen continued to advocate for harm reduction and supervised-injection sites, with his wife, Brita, staunchly supporting him. He travelled all over Canada with Mr. Wilson as part of a series of public events showing filmmaker Nettie Wild’s 2002 documentary Fix: The Story of an Addicted City, about the fight for a supervised injection site. He travelled to conferences in Vienna, Belfast, Lisbon, Paris and Kabul on the topic. He was named to the Order of Canada in 2008, as well as receiving many other awards.

Mr. Owen was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease about 10 years ago but stayed active for many years, until he needed more care and was moved to a private facility.

Following Mr. Owen’s death, many people took to social media to praise him as a mayor whose like hasn’t been seen since: a gentleman who cared passionately about his city.

Mr. Owen leaves Brita, his wife of 63 years; their children, Lise Owen Struthers, Christian Owen and Andrea Owen; eight grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.