Mike Henry, a harm-reduction trailblazer whose decades of regimented work and advocacy is credited with earning drug users a seat at the table, has died following a battle with cancer. He was 74.
A man who hated memorials, Mr. Henry had two. One was while he was still alive, shortly after his diagnosis in 2014 – a community cookout in the garden next to the supervised-injection site where he worked daily – and one in late October, following his death on Oct. 2, where grown men wept remembering the ways he had changed their lives.
“He never wanted [a memorial] for himself, so it was kind of ironic,” Darwin Fisher, program manager at the Insite supervised-injection site, said with a chuckle. “But of course, I’m sure he would have loved to have known that there was so much love for him. Wherever he was, if he saw that, I think he would have been happy and at peace.”
Mike Henry was born in Trinidad on May 10, 1944, and came to Canada in 1967. A user of illicit drugs, Mr. Henry gravitated toward Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside (DTES), where in the late 1990s he began working at Canada’s first needle exchange alongside John Turvey, another powerful DTES advocate who would go on to receive the Order of British Columbia.
He was an original member of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), a group that continues advocating for drug users’ rights to this day.
VANDU past president Dean Wilson called his old friend “a good warrior who was always there for the cause.
“He should be lauded,” Mr. Wilson said. “A lot of the accomplishments that we attained were because of people like Mike Henry.”
In those days – the early 2000s, when the idea of a state-sanctioned supervised-consumption site still seemed out of reach – Mr. Henry would keep the pressure on Libby Davies, MP for Vancouver East from 1997 to 2015, whom he would bump into often near the intersection of Main and Hastings. She would often hear him before she saw him, she recalled.
“He’d say, ‘Libby, will we ever get the safe injection site?’ ” Ms. Davies wrote in an e-mail, “and I’d always answer emphatically yes, because VANDU was on it.”
When Insite did open, in 2003 – the first public, government-sanctioned supervised-consumption site on the continent – Mr. Henry became one of its first employees. Mr. Fisher said he acted as “kind of a floating social presence,” hosing off the sidewalk, touring new staff around the neighbourhood and hurrying folks along if they moved through the injection space too slowly.
In what’s called the “chill-out room,” where drug users can hang out after injecting and be monitored for adverse effects, Mr. Henry would help serve coffee and food.
Bryan Alleyne, one of his best friends for more than 20 years, recalled that Mr. Henry loved to feed others.
“He loved putting on like a big pot of soup, or a big pot of chili – something that would feed 50 or 60 people – and bringing it to the chill-out room,” Mr. Alleyne said. “No one would ever know where it came from. That’s what he liked doing.”
Friends and colleagues said while Mr. Henry had a warm personality and playfully ribbed colleagues, he had strong leadership skills and a no-nonsense work ethic. He was highly disciplined, never missing a day of work; he made sure others showed up on time; and he insisted on harm-reduction best practices.
Coco Culbertson, who worked alongside Mr. Henry at a needle distribution site in 2002, has no doubt that his work and guidance over the years helped drug users earn respect. He helped pave the way, she said, for drug users to be part of the decision-making process in today’s Vancouver harm-reduction response.
“He had an enormous amount of pride and dignity in his work, and shouldered up those around him who maybe in the moment didn’t see the importance of the role of active users in harm reduction,” she said. “He was a revolutionary in that way.”
Shortly after his lung cancer diagnosis in 2014, Mr. Henry and his friends organized a “living memorial” – his friends because they wanted to celebrate him while he was alive; Mr. Henry because he wanted to feed his friends.
In a small garden next to Insite, they gathered to drum and sing, serve food and share some laughs.
“There was a big salmon cookout, the community got fed,” Mr. Fisher said. “The community was honoured. It was so lovely.”
In his final years, Mr. Henry’s illness worsened, but his work habits did not. He continued showing up at Insite every day.
He was a drug user for nearly all his life, only stopping toward the end because of his cancer treatments.
When he finally moved into hospice care, friends visited him frequently. He lamented that others in the facility weren’t as lucky as he was.
“He pulled me over and said that we needed to do a better job of visiting people in hospice,” Ms. Culbertson said, “because he was the only one there that had all these visitors, and it made him upset and sad for the people dying around him. Because they were alone.”
Mr. Henry died on Oct. 2, and a second memorial took place subsequently in a shared space in the social-housing building in which he had lived. The affair was standing room only.
“There were so many people – people from across the city, some I hadn’t seen in 20 years, sharing stories,” Mr. Fisher said. “He must have known he was loved. But maybe we never do.”
The names of those Mr. Henry leaves behind were not immediately available.