Fighting for Space: Carnegie launch

Last Saturday was a pretty fantastic day at the Carnegie. I was worried that we would be short-staffed due to illness, but turns out that we had an extra person (which never happens!). There was some positive energy happening, with a free lunch on the street, a party in the Carnegie alley with a live punk band celebrating the re-opening of a safe injection site, and overall there were no dramatic security incidents, just some minor distractions like bed bug sightings, which we dealt with swiftly! The big excitement for me was Travis Lupick’s book reading.

I had my morning coffee break with an old timer named Cary who reminisced about the winter of 1957 back east when a record snowfall (7 feet in 12 hours) locked down his town for 3 weeks! Apparently the snow removal team had to have two guys walking in front of the truck with long poles, trying to determine if there were cars below the surface.

Cary also told me that as a child in northern Quebec his grandma would make him and his siblings have a bath in luke-warm water with a few dashes of baby oil. They were instructed to only dry off their feet, and just drip dry. The baby oil would create a layer between the cold and their bodies, and actually kept them warmer!  He explained how, even as a grown man he would do it and all his buddies working outside couldn’t understand why he didn’t need to wear more layers. All the same, he was quite pleased to be living in mild Vancouver even though he had slipped down the entrance stairs and had his arm in a sling. He was simply grateful that the injury wasn’t worse. Such a cool guy!

I then helped prepare for the annual Carnegie Kids Christmas party in the theatre. It’s usually the Carnegie Centre members bringing their grand-children and low-income families, with a turn out of about 65 people. The team organizes cookie decorating, Christmas crafts, hot chocolate, Santa photos, a magician and loads of presents. I pulled in a Children’s librarian to pitch the services of VPL and giveaway books, since it’s so rare that we get kids in the Carnegie (which is generally for the best, considering the location) and we offer no Storytimes or Babytimes. Fortunately the new branch up the street is a collaboration with the YWCA and offers the full suite of family programming.

The afternoon was the main highlight for the library. Travis Lupick had just launched his new book Fighting for Space: how a group of drug users transformed one city’s struggle with addiction.  I sent him a congratulatory email and suggested a reading, which he was happy to do for the Carnegie library considering that some of the scenes he refers to happened in the building! I think the programmers at Central library were a little irritated that we got first dibs on hosting Lupick at such short notice, but an additional reading was arranged for the new year and they’ll have more lead-up time for promotion. Plus, I had had a few brief interactions with Lupick over the last two years finding a reference for a quote and some random material from the Downtown Eastside special collection.


I was really happy to host the event as I think Lupick is a journalist of quality, who has a sense of integrity and seems motivated by social justice. I’ve been following his reportage on Vancouver’s overdose crisis and the fentanyl / carfentanil contamination very closely, especially when everything seemed to blow up the end of 2016 and during the harsh winter we had last year. The intention of his reporting never seemed to be about pursuing the sensational news break but rather exposing the reality of a real crisis at-hand and giving voice to unsung community heroes… most of which are women (ie. Liz Evans, Ann Livingston, Sarah Blyth).


The event itself was very casual with thoughtful questions from the audience, and had a turn-out of 35 seated guests, and many drifting in and out. Lupick had done a test-run the night before and felt that straight-up reading was a tad boring, so he incorporated a power-point with historical photos, and short video interviews at the Pop-up safe injection site with Blyth and Livingston.

Throughout his presentation, I really liked how Travis narrated and wove together the history of Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users (VANDU) and Portland Hotel Society, leading into the situation today, even incorporating statistics to create perspective. He never inserted himself or his personal story into the presentation, and it wasn’t until an audience member (nearing the end of the event) directly asked how he became so involved that we learned that he lived in the area and that his assignments with the Georgia Straight seemed to become increasingly focused on this crisis, so he became absorbed with it.

Travis and Ann

The theme of Lupick’s talk was “rule breakers” since all the key players had to essentially reject the mainstream approach and break free to develop a more humane path. Whether it was creating a safe house for those with mental health issues and drug users to live and not be afraid of eviction, or protesting the lack of response to overdose deaths by planting white crosses on the lawn of City Hall, or setting up an illegal alley tent for safe injection, there had to be protest and organizing for the law-makers to understand the severity.

I found it fascinating to learn that Liz Evans was only 25 when she quit her job at the hospital, disgusted by the way the mentally ill were treated, and began her role as caretaker of the Portland Hotel, re-writing the rules. It was also revealed that Ann Livingston’s mom, a straight-laced respectable woman by society’s standards living in Victoria, was essentially running an illegal abortion centre in their home, and counselling at-risk women. Livingston is regarded as a co-founder of VANDU, but explains that she is technically an honorary member since the President must always be a drug-user or someone in recovery. Back in the 90’s VANDU was also sick of how expensive clean needles were ($2 for a used one, $5 for a clean one) and primarily due to their protests were able to reduce the death count by half for almost a decade.

The whole presentation was interesting, yet heart-breaking. I’m proud that individuals in Vancouver have become ground-breakers in the face of this overdose crisis, but it’s just so crushing to think of all the people who have died. Just last week there was a memorial for a lovely Carnegie volunteer named Terry… such a gentle guy with a bright smile that will be deeply missed. As well, a fatality in the Centre itself. A young woman with family connections to two of my patrons. I can’t imagine how some of the local people cope. It’s natural to want to hold on to someone’s memory, but when there are so many deaths the only way to function seems to be to move on.

At the end of the event Lupick explained that the Pop-up safe injection sites and places like Insite are still simply the band-aid, the finger plugging the hole in the leak. A system of prevention, care, recovery needs to be ramped-up. The statistics show primarily young men dying, and among the Aboriginal community a higher rate of women passing away. There are some seriously condemning social reasons as to why, and I’m hopeful that this book will shake up more people, especially politicians to respond with compassion.

Working outside the law

Lupick photo – nurses join Blyth & Livingston in the alley to start supporting their “illegal” safe injection site Dec. 2016


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