photos: Photo courtesy of Arsenal Pulp Press.

Fighting for space

Q&A: Award-winning journalist Travis Lupick talks about his new book documenting the last 20 years of Vancouver's drug crisis

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This month, award-winning Vancouver journalist Travis Lupick released his debut book, Fighting for Space: How a Group of Drug Users Transformed One City’s Struggle with Addiction.

Reporting from the Downtown Eastside, Lupick tells the story of a group of addicts and advocates who fought to change the way Vancouver responded to the drug epidemic of the ’90s and early 2000s.

Beginning in the ’90s and ending in 2016, his book tells their story and offers insights into harm reduction and solutions at a time when Vancouver and the rest of North America are in the midst of another drug crisis.

Lupick has worked for a decade as a staff reporter and editor for The Georgia Straight, and has written about drug addiction, harm reduction, and mental health for publications like the Toronto Star, The Walrus, and Al Jazeera,

Megaphone chatted with the seasoned writer about what he hopes policy makers will learn from his book, his work as a reporter, and the inspiring characters he’s met along the way.

Megaphone: What motivated you to write Fighting for Space?

Travis Lupick: The idea kind of took shape through 2014. That year the Portland Hotel Society management team found itself in a bit of a scandal and was eventually forced to step down. The same year Bud Osburn, one of the Downtown Eastside’s lead activists for many years, passed away and a good friend of his, Libby Davies, who was a Downtown Eastside activist, and an ally in Ottawa, resigned from politics after 17 years. So there was sort of a lot of natural endings to a few different stories that all happened that year, and then that got me thinking that maybe it was time to put the story down.

M: How did your years of reporting for the Georgia Straight shape the approach you to took to researching and writing the book?

TL: It’s written in the same style that I write for the Georgia Straight newspaper. It’s straight forward reporting, there’s more of my voice in there than I would include in an article for the Straight. But I tried to tell the story in an unbiased way. That being said, it is very much the story of the activists, it doesn’t try to tell the entire story of the Downtown Eastside. It’s the activist’s story, and it does focus on a few main characters.

M: Who are those main characters?

TL: The main characters are Liz Evans, who founded the Portland Hotel Society in 1991, and her partner Mark Townsend, and Ann Livingston and Bud Osborn, who together co-founded the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, as well as Dean Wilson, who kind of took up the cause of VANDU a little while later. So those are the five main characters, but I very much describe the book as a story of two women, Liz Evans and Ann Livingston, they’re sort of my co-leads.

M: What was it about Liz and Ann that made you want to tell their stories?

TL: Something that really captured me about both of them is how amazingly selfless both of them have been. Both of these women have literally dedicated their entire lives to helping people who are really, extremely marginalized, and not just helping them directly, but also changing the laws and the systems that marginalize those groups. They just, I’m totally in awe of both of them to be honest.

The more I learned about them the more impressed I became. It really is their entire lives that they’ve dedicated to what they’ve done in the Downtown Eastside.

M: What do you hope people will learn from the book?

TL: The book concludes in [December 2016], but it’s very much set against the backdrop of the current overdose epidemic. What I hope people take from it are the lessons that Vancouver learned from its first overdose epidemic of the ’90s and early 2000s. All of North America is kind of in the grips of this opioid and fentanyl epidemic now and Vancouver has been through something similar before and we did learn a lot, and we applied a lot of those lessons. So I hope that other cities and other jurisdictions across North America, especially in the United States, can learn from the Vancouver story.

M: Something you cover in the book is the federal government’s refusal to budge from its stance on ending prohibition. What do you think needs to be done for federal buy-in?

TL: Sadly, what I think might have to happen before the prime minister seriously begins to consider an end to prohibition is for as many people to die in Ontario, in Toronto, in Ottawa, as of that in Vancouver and B.C. I don’t think that federal politicians on the other side of the country fully appreciate the scale of the overdose epidemic that Vancouver has been dealing with for four or five years now. But that epidemic has been moving east, and is I think, really about to hit Ontario—Toronto and Ottawa, and all those places, later this year and next.

Maybe when they see the number of deaths that B.C. has seen, they’ll begin to take what B.C. politicians are already seriously addressing, and that’s an end to the war on drugs and an end to prohibition.

M: With the new provincial NDP government, are you hopeful for more provincial progress on these issues?

TL: Not necessarily. I’m taking a wait and see approach to the new NDP government in B.C. I wouldn’t describe myself generally as a fan of the former B.C. Liberal government, but they did a lot for harm reduction before most other governments in North America did. It wasn’t enough, but I still think it’s deserving of praise. The NDP might go just as far, or they might go even further, but it’s been a long time since they’ve been in power, attitudes, and science have changed a lot since they were last in office. I think we’re going to have to wait and see what they do.

M: What misperceptions do you hope this book will help clear up?

TL: The first I think is that addiction is the fault of the drug user. In Canada in 2017, everybody says that they agree that addiction is a health-care issue and should be treated as such, but their actions don’t actually follow through on that. It’s something that I think we’ve repeated so many times that we’ve convinced ourselves that we believe it and are acting that way but we’re not. We still criminalize addiction with laws and actions that hurt drug users more than the drugs themselves hurt them. I hope that the book can break that belief, and get people to reassess how we treat addiction as a disease in the way we truly follow through on it.

M: Are you optimistic about an end or improvement to the current drug crisis?

TL: No, I think it’s getting worse. If you look at areas of the United States that are ahead in the overdose epidemic, ahead of most jurisdictions in Canada, and you adjust overdose deaths per population you can see that it’s likely going to get worse in Canada and worse in most areas of the United States. And with policy makers at the federal level in both countries refusing to even discuss, or even think about the idea, the solutions that need to happen to reverse the skyrocketing numbers of overdose deaths. With them not willing to do that, and with the problem about to get worse, in my opinion, I’m not the most optimistic about the next couple of years.


This is an updated version to reflect some spelling and factual corrections. We regret the error.

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