VANCOUVER (NEWS 1130) – From community organizer to city councillor to member of Parliament, Libby Davies has spent a lifetime fighting for Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Now, she is sharing her story in a new book.
Outside In: A Political Memoir begins with her early days with the Downtown Eastside Residents Association, more than 40 years ago. “It was a neighbourhood, it was a community of people,” she says. “It wasn’t just some area that could be wiped out.”
Davies admits she entered politics almost by accident. “It was never some grand design or plan, it was something that really evolved from our organizing and our work in the community,” she says. “[We thought] if our community is not being represented, maybe we should do it, maybe we should run.”
NEWS 1130’s John Ackermann reached Libby Davies by phone earlier this week. Here are some excerpts from that conversation.
You start with kind of a capsule history of the Downtown Eastside, back to the days when it was still called “Skid Road.” How did you come to take up community organizing?
“It was really as a young student. When I was 19 I started working in what was then called ‘Skid Road’ by becoming involved in a program called Opportunities for Youth, which some people might remember. It was like a student summer program. I, and some other students, we set up a low cost food store at the community health clinic on East Cordova Street and then I just kind of hung around. The next summer we did a newspaper called The Downtown East and, at the same time, the Downtown Eastside Residents Association (DERA) was just beginning and I just hung around for more and got really involved and found out that I love doing organizing and fighting for people’s rights.”
Take me back to those days. What was the Downtown Eastside like back then?
“It was a different place. First of all, we didn’t see people as destitute and homeless as we do today People lived in cruddy housing, they lived in the old rooming houses and hotels, what we call the SROs, the single room occupancies, but people could scrape by. There were issues in the neighborhood, mostly it was trying to fight to improve housing. The big issue was people dying in fires and, certainly, your news station covered many of those stories, back in the ’70s, because it was dramatic news, what would happen with people dying in these horrible fires because there were no sprinkler systems. I think the work that we did at DERA, including with Jean Swanson, who’s now, of course, a city councillor so many decades later, was really raising awareness that it was a neighborhood, it was a community of people, and that it wasn’t just down and out alcoholics, it wasn’t just some area that could be wiped out. I think that was a very important legacy for DERA and the work that we did. Eventually, we started running ourselves for City Hall for City Council and thinking, ‘Well, you know, if our community is not being represented, maybe we should do it, maybe we should run.’ There was never some grand design, no plan. It was something that really evolved from our organizing and our work in the community and wanting the Downtown Eastside and Vancouver, as a whole, to improve. And that’s really how we got involved, in those early days.”
And a lot of the same challenges still persist, four decades later. Would you agree?
“It’s very amazing and sad that, in many ways, the same conditions and the same issues are still with us today. It’s somewhat different. There’s now a lot more social housing, there’s a lot more people in good housing, stable, safe, affordable, and appropriate housing on the Downtown Eastside. But there’s still people who are homeless. There are still people who are threatened with eviction. And, of course, the issue of the overdose crisis. The first wave of that was when I was elected as an MP in 1997 and 1998, and the opening of the safe injection site, InSite, in 2003 when we’d not seen that in the ’70s and the ’80s. The drug issue had not really been visible. That’s something that came later. But, certainly, over the 20-plus years, this has been an ongoing issue in terms of continuing to make housing a priority, continuing to respond to the overdose crisis, and now, of course, the emphasis is on trying to create a safe supply. When I first got elected as an MP, the emphasis was on ‘We need to have a safe injection site.’ We’ve gone beyond that and now it’s about trying to create a safe supply so people aren’t literally being poisoned to death in this toxic illegal drug market. Some of the issues are still there and another big one is lack of income for people. There are still people who are living way below the poverty line. I would defy anybody to live like that and be able to have a good quality of life or to make sense of things. That’s certainly a very big issue that needs to be addressed. Not only was it there 40 years ago, but it’s still with us today in terms of income inequality.”
Now you served under, by my count, four NDP leaders and three prime ministers. We’re on the cusp of another election. Do you miss the campaign trail at all? Do you still feel like you left at the right time?
“I felt good about the decision I made in 2015 not to run again. I’ve been elected overall for 31 years both civically and in Ottawa. I’m still engaged politically, that will never leave me. I’m sure I’ll be helping in the upcoming federal election campaign in October. But I was ready to say, ‘Okay I’ve done my job as an MP and it’s time for other people.’ I still continue working on some of the issues I worked on as a member of Parliament for Vancouver East and I’m sure that will continue for a long time. I’ll be involved, but it will just be in a different role in a different way. It’s nice not to have to fly back and forth to Ottawa every week, but I miss my colleagues. There’s lots to keep me busy here in Vancouver.”
Davies closes the book on a hopeful note, outlining what she calls a vision for transformative change.
“There are people who want things to change but don’t always know how to do it,” she says. “What I wanted to write about and the message I wanted to get across, is that people are actively engaged, that’s when change happens. When people feel cynical, when they feel turned off, we go backwards.”