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Insite’s unlikely father: Philip Owen, conservative Vancouver mayor

He was the most unlikely champion of the hardened drug addict. A wealthy blue blood and conservative-minded politician who was rarely seen out of uniform: navy blazer, silk tie, crisp white shirt.

But it was Philip Owen, the long-serving Vancouver mayor, son of Walter, one-time lieutenant-governor of B.C., who many were crediting for the birth of the supervised injection site at the centre of Friday's landmark ruling by the Supreme Court of Canada.

"Without Philip Owen, Insite doesn't happen," said Senator Larry Campbell, who was Vancouver mayor when the controversial clinic was opened in 2003.

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Rarely has a judicial decision affecting such a tiny sliver of the population been so anxiously anticipated in a province. And when the top court came down on the side of Insite, it was mostly greeted with applause throughout the city in which it operates.

The fact is, the benefits of Insite have been evident for some time. Even many of the clinic's most ardent critics have had to concede that it has done far more good than harm. The incidence of HIV infections caused by sharing contaminated needles has plunged in the city's Downtown Eastside. So have deaths caused by overdose.

Over the course of the clinic's existence, facts on the ground trumped ideology. And while institutions such as the RCMP could never warm to the idea of assisting junkies with their addiction, others whose first inclination was to reject the project's counter-intuitive underpinnings eventually had to agree it worked.

Far from being an embarrassment, Insite became a source of pride for many who live here.

It wasn't always that way.

When the ruling came down shortly before 7 a.m. (PDT), Philip Owen was standing inside Insite's offices with other supporters of the project. And when cheers went up in celebration of the decision, no one was clapping louder than Mr. Owen himself.

"It was a huge relief," Mr. Owen said on Friday. "I was nervous the last few days about what was going to happen. But it's turned out to be a great day for the city, the province, the country and probably all of North America, because a lot of people were waiting for this ruling."

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Mr. Owen was in his second term as mayor in the mid-1990s when officials in the Downtown Eastside approached him with a warning: crack cocaine was coming, and when it arrived, it was going to detonate a huge public health problem in the area. It did.

Suddenly, hundreds were dying from overdoses. Mr. Owen, as bland and non-controversial a politician as they came, realized this was the biggest public policy crisis he had ever faced. Health officials were advocating a controversial harm-reduction strategy being pioneered in European countries such as Switzerland.

But Mr. Owen knew it would be a hard sell to his right-wing, Non-Partisan Association party colleagues on council.

The mayor organized meetings with groups of the most hardened addicts in the downtown core. The media weren't invited, nor did most reporters who covered city hall even know the lunches were happening.

"I went in there and said, 'I'm your mayor and I'm here to help,'" Mr. Owen recalled. "I'd like to hear your stories. Tell me about your drug use. Tell me about your family. Do you have a place to sleep? And as I listened, I was just blown away as they chatted about their personal lives. That was it for me. That got me going."

Out of these meetings, Mr. Owen emerged as a vocal proponent of the four pillars anti-drug strategy – prevention, treatment/rehabilitation, enforcement and harm reduction – which was the basis of Insite. The mayor's NPA colleagues were horrified by their leader's unexpected conversion on the road to Main and Hastings.

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Before the 2002 election, the NPA made the mayor, who had served three terms, battle for the mayoralty nomination. He lost to Jennifer Clarke, who would be destroyed in the election by former coroner Larry Campbell, the real-life inspiration for the central character in the Canadian TV drama Da Vinci's Inquest.

Insite cost Mr. Owen his job. And Mr. Campbell would end up receiving much of the credit when the clinic began handing out its first clean needles a year later. But the Liberal senator was always quick to acknowledge who deserved most of the praise.

"Mayor Owen had done much of the work," said Mr. Campbell. "He's the big reason Insite happened. And he paid a huge price for it politically. I imagine he's a pretty happy fellow today and he deserves to be."

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About the Author
National affairs columnist

Gary Mason began his journalism career in British Columbia in 1981, working as a summer intern for Canadian Press. More

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