In 1997, when harm reduction was a new and misunderstood idea, he met Ann Livingston, a community organizer and mother on welfare with a disabled son. He was 49 and she was seven years younger. Ms. Livingston was part of a small group of activists who had opened an illegal supervised injection site, having read about such facilities in Spain and Switzerland. “It was called the Back Alley, and we cobbled together three tiny grants to rent a storefront and build some booths and provide clean needles, ” she recalled. “The cops visited regularly to check that no drugs were sold.“The walls of the facility were covered with poems by addicts, using the felt pens provided and someone got the idea of inviting Bud Osborn, the neighbourhood poet, to copy them down before the walls were repainted.”
The two had a decade-long relationship and became an effective duo in advocating for harm reduction. They founded the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU), which now has 2,500 members.
HIV and hepatitis C infections were then raging in the neighbourhood, due to the large number of intravenous drug users sharing needles, and this became Mr. Osborn’s chief concern when he was appointed to the Vancouver Richmond Health Board in 1998. He pushed hard – sometimes presenting his motions in poem form – for the board to declare a public-health emergency.
He wanted sites such as Back Alley made legal, and went to Ottawa to lobby. He also made the case for supervised injection sites to Mayor Philip Owen, whom he managed to meet by going to his church in affluent Shaughnessy.
“There were at least 200 people dying annually on the Downtown Eastside and this went on year after year,” Ms. Livingston recalls. Mr. Osborn and Ms. Livingston organized the installation in 1997 of 1,000 white-painted crosses in Oppenheimer Park to remember those who had died. Mr. Osborn read an inspirational poem 1,000 Crosses in Oppenheimer Park. A few years later, in 2000, they repeated the event with 2,000 crosses.
“Those were critical steps in getting governments to respond,” recalled Donald MacPherson, director of the Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, a friend of Mr. Osborn. “This was before social media – the 1,000 crosses, and 2,000 crosses. Those were significant events in the life of the city. The banner they unfurled said ‘The killing fields – federal action now.’”
With the election as mayor of former coroner Larry Campbell in 2002, the campaign for Insite picked up speed.
Ultimately, Coastal Health, the regional health authority, applied to open the facility. “Health Canada designated it as a research project; it was Health Minister Anne McLellan who approved $2-million for research,” Mr. MacPherson said.
“Bud inspired them and he pushed them; he was not to be taken lightly. He was very much about citizenship for all. He was reacting to a notion that some people didn’t count. He was trying to bring people into citizenship. That is why Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users was very important.”
After the 2003 opening of Insite, which, naturally, he celebrated by writing a poem, Mr. Osborn turned his energies to opposing gentrification of the grimy neighbourhood where he had found a reason to live. He organized against the redevelopment of the old Woodward’s building at West Cordova and Hastings Streets into expensive apartments. And he picketed last year when the upscale Asian restaurant Pidgin opened near his home. He knew there would be no room for his people in a gentrified high-rent Downtown Eastside.
Bud Osborn leaves his sister Leslie; son, Aeron; and two grandchildren he never met.
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