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Under Mayor Philip Owen, Vancouver pioneered a new approach to drug users' in the city, which led to North America's first safe injection site.JOHN LEHMANN/The Globe and Mail

Philip Owen, the former Vancouver mayor from a patrician family who became a fierce champion for the Downtown Eastside and for a harm-reduction approach to drug addiction, has died. He was 88.

Mr. Owen had struggled with Parkinson’s disease for many years and died Thursday of complications from the illness, his family confirmed in a news release.

Mr. Owen presided over a rapidly changing Vancouver when he was mayor from 1993 to 2002. The city boomed with condos in the post-Expo years but also saw an explosion of poverty and drug deaths in the Downtown Eastside, as well as a series of murders of women that were eventually traced to Robert Pickton.

Mr. Owen, a representative of the city’s centre-right Non-Partisan Association (NPA) party for years, originally took a law-and-order approach to the issue. But after a friend’s daughter died of an overdose in the Downtown Eastside and he spent more time talking to people in the neighbourhood, he changed his views.

Under Mr. Owen, Vancouver pioneered a “four pillars” approach – harm reduction, prevention, treatment and enforcement – that ultimately led to the creation of North America’s first supervised injection site by the mayor who succeeded him, Larry Campbell.

That championing of that new approach for an area that some dismissed as an unredeemable ghetto created friction in his party and sometimes with his social set. Mr. Owen, the son of a prominent lawyer who became a B.C. lieutenant-governor, grew up in Shaughnessy, Vancouver’s old-money neighbourhood.

“He led as a gentleman and he treated political friend and foe alike. But people who underestimated him did so at their peril,” said his son, Christian.

Mr. Owen’s dismayed political party told him he would need to compete for the mayoral nomination for a fourth term, a move that alienated him and many others and led to the party’s resounding defeat after he said he wouldn’t run again.

That high-profile campaign and battle was an anomaly for Mr. Owen, an otherwise low-key leader who often let others on his team take the lead and who would go for after-hours drives on city streets to check on new developments or problems.

“He had a steady hand on the helm. Vancouver was very well-run and he was a collaborative leader,” said Sam Sullivan, who was initially recruited to city council by Mr. Owen and later served as mayor of Vancouver from 2006 to 2009.

Mr. Owen ran for park-board commissioner many times before first being elected to the board in 1978. He lost twice in his efforts to join council before being elected in 1986. And he was chosen by the NPA as mayor in 1993 over another long-time councillor.

People who worked with him when he was developing and championing drug policy said he was unusually open to listening – and, once he made up his mind to do something, dedicated to getting action.

“He talked to everybody to get agreements,” said Don MacPherson, who was appointed during Mr. Owen’s time to head up drug-policy efforts. “He was a very strategic politician and very committed to moving things forward.”

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