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Interview: Libby Davies on 40 Years in Politics

Libby Davies comes to SFU Woodward’s this Wednesday, Sept 21 for Libby Davies: Reflections of a Life in Politics. The former MP will be in conversation with Am Johal and Jackie wong as they delve into her four decades of experience in politics.

An active member in the East Vancouver political scene since she was 19 years old, Davies got her start when she became involved with the Downtown Eastside Residents Association (DERA) in the early ‘70s. Over the span of forty years, Davies has gone from community organizing in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) to six terms in Parliament representing the Vancouver East riding.

Davies sat down with SFU’s Vancity Office of Community Engagement to talk about her upcoming event.

What can people expect to hear about on the 21st?

All the dark dirty secrets of politics. [laughing] Well, you know, I just want to be very frank about what political life is about, because what I’ve learned over 40 years is that, “politics,” “big politics,” can be very intimidating for people, and when people are engaged in social change, transformative change, social justice, they often sort of see this big wall of “government” or “the legislature” or “Parliament” or “politicians”.

Over the years, [I’ve] always wanted it to be part of my work to help break down some of those walls and barriers and to show people that if they use their voice, there is incredible opportunity to influence the political agenda and change what goes on. I’ve always worked partly in social movements and electoral politics, so I feel like I’ve kind of been a go-between, between these two worlds that often don’t connect.

In light of those barriers and that disconnect you’re talking about, how did you get involved and what made you decide to go into politics?

Well for me, it all really by accident. [laughing] You know, one thing leading to another. I think some people very much plan their path and the way they’re gonna go. You know, I’m a dropout from UBC — I barely lasted a year. I came to the Downtown Eastside and I was 20 years old, actually I was 19. The Downtown Eastside Residents Association was just beginning, a year later [in] 1973. So, I was just seized with what was going on. For me, it was really an organic process of being a community organizer in this neighbourhood, living in the neighbourhood, getting really pissed off about what was going on at City Hall, and then one day thinking, “Why the hell shouldn’t we run?” So we did. We started running and losing, running and losing.

I never planned to be an elected representative — I never thought of that in my whole life — but it just kind of happened. I stuck around City Hall for a while, five terms.

I don’t think people realize that either, how much this neighbourhood has permeated all political discussion in this city. People run for office on where they stand on issues in this neighbourhood — they live or die by it, they win or lose.”

And then, actually I came back to the Downtown Eastside and worked on a health plan with a whole bunch of local folks. Then there was a lot of buzz going on about the federal election and the NDP had lost Vancouver East, which has pretty well always been NDP, except in one time that I can remember, when it also went Liberal, ‘cause I was at DERA then. And so, the NDP had done very badly in that previous election, and there was this sort of idea that you know someone like me should run and win back the seat. But it wasn’t just about, “Oh, I gotta run and win.” What really propelled me to run [was] I was so angry that social housing had been cut off by the federal government — this was under a Liberal government [in] 1995. They ended social housing. And I had been on city council when federal dollars had flowed into this neighbourhood, and the city had provided land, long-term leases, all the social housing down here — the older housing anyway. It was really federal mortgages and civic land. And it was like incredible and co-ops developed, and social housing, and senior housing and special needs housing. And then it all ended.

Libby Davies, Bruce Erickson and Vancouver Centre MLA Emery Barnes touring Skid Row pubs in Downtown Eastside (Hastings Street) Ovaltine Cafe is in the background. Deni Eagland / Vancouver Sun. # 73-3911 [PNG Merlin Archive] [PNG Merlin Archive]

I was so angry that, basically, Paul Martin had balanced his books. This was the year [of the] big deficit. He basically balanced the books on the backs of poor people They stripped away all the social programs, the social transfers. Anger is a very powerful motivation. When people get angry about something and they get pissed off and want to change something, it moves people. That’s why I ran actually, it was because of housing, and I maybe was a bit naive. But I felt like I had to go to Ottawa and raise hell about housing and try to get it back on the political agenda.

I started working with lots of people, not just in this neighbourhood, but across the country. We did eventually make headway, but we’re still striving — as you know — to establish a true national housing program. Canada used to have good programs, but now they’re all these kind of bits and pieces. You never know when the funding is going to come or go. So that is actually what propelled me, [it] was this feeling that we had to do something at the federal level about the way the federal government of the day had abandoned Canada’s very successful housing programs. And then, you know, I kind of stuck around for a while and did other stuff too. [laughing]

[Running for office] really wasn’t planned. It was really more of an organic thing and I think that happens for many activists. Something sparks you, you get engaged, you kind of look at a bigger picture. These are very important things, right? And you start giving an analysis of what really is going on around you. And so, you evolve — your political awareness, your maturity, your interaction with people. That’s what happened for me. I don’t have any training. I have a lot of experience, and I never discount that. In certain populations, that experience is so incredible and it often gets dismissed as not important. Sometimes it’s more important — that experience that people have that they can share. Sometimes people don’t even know what they know. I felt like that for a long time. I never studied anything theoretically, and I never really knew what I knew.

Is there anything in particular that you’re hoping to share with the audience, or that you’re hoping Jackie and Am will ask you?

No, not particularly. I’m just really interested to respond to what people are interested in. What I do find, is coming back to this question, that people feel so turned off by the political scene, sometimes because of what the media do. The media create this environment, you know, where all politics is bad, they’re all corrupt, they’re this or that. And people think, “I don’t want to go near that” or maybe they had a bad experience. And I’m not saying that it’s all good. Just like anywhere, there’s good people and bad people, people who are in it for their own agenda, or whatever. It’s all of that.

I [want to] help people understand the way the political process works — how does change happen? What do we learn? What do we need to do to work with each other? I’m very interested in that myself. I’m still learning. I’m interested in how other people are experiencing that as well. I feel, particularly on the left, that we have a lot to learn. I feel often the right wing is very disciplined in what they do. And when they get elected, they’re much more connected to their base. We’re sort of loosely termed on the left. We’re kind of all over the place, and we end up fighting with each other. I’ve seen so much of that and I always think “Oh god, why are we doing this?”, how do we get past that? How do we learn what our commonalities are, even though we have differences. Because that’s where the strength is – it’s when those voices come together.

“The role I’ve enjoyed the most is working with people and being that advocate. It wasn’t really the Ottawa scene, it was really what was happening here that always drove me forward and kept me motivated and real.”

You’ve been involved in politics in Vancouver on almost every level. Looking back, was there a specific role or position that you really felt strongly about, or that you enjoyed the most?

I think it’s always been the element of advocate — understanding what I could do to be an ally because I was on the “inside.” And again, figuring out how to open that up for people so that their agenda could be heard and come forward. Ottawa is a very interesting place, and it’s really easy to kind of get sucked into all the politics there, and it’s all gossip. You know, it’s all about who’s doing what to whom, and who resigned, and who had a scandal. For me, I was always interested in that stuff, but it was really about the issues and it was really the issues particularly in this community that I felt like I had to carry forward. Literally, from the day I got elected, one of the first events I attended when I was elected before I got to Ottawa was an event in Oppenheimer Park where 1,000 crosses were put up in the park to represent the number of people who died of overdoses, and it was a very powerful moment. So I went to Ottawa seized with this feeling that I had to do something, that we had to stop this criminal justice approach and criminalization [of drug users] and we had to have a health-based approach. And now everyone goes, “oh yeah, right,” but back then it was very controversial. Most politicians were like, “Lock ‘em up! Throw away the key! More tougher laws. Throw them in prison,” and you know, “this is illegal.”

img_0157For me, the role I’ve enjoyed the most is working with people and being that advocate. It wasn’t really the Ottawa scene, it was really what was happening here that always drove me forward and kept me motivated and real. Ottawa is a very unreal bubble. It is all this intrigue, and strategy, and all the columnists who were chattering — I mean, who gives a shit? I learned very quickly that once you’ve left Ottawa that nobody really gives a shit. People care about what’s going on right around them. I always felt fortunate that I had really good people locally that I could work with that kept me really grounded and I think that was very, very important. I don’t think that I would’ve lasted as long, I don’t think I would have found it as good to work, and I think worst of all, it would have been awful if I ever felt cynical. And I’m an optimist by nature, but I always felt very hopeful and optimistic about what we were doing, because we did bring about change.

I remember meeting with VANDU members on East Hastings, a couple blocks up the street [from here] and I remember people saying, “we’ll never get a safe injection site, they’ll never allow it to happen.” And it was like, “yes it will [happen] if we keep working on it — it can happen, and it will.” And, of course it did. And that’s just one example. So, I’ve always really enjoyed that part of our work.

Speaking locally, and this is a very large question, but we were just curious about how the political landscape of Vancouver-East and the Downtown Eastside has changed over your forty years in politics.

Wow. So when I first started working in this neighbourhood, it wasn’t called the Downtown Eastside — it was called Skid Road, and it was never seen as a neighbourhood. It was kind of an invisible area. It was considered to be part of the central business district if you looked at any City of Vancouver map. Sometimes it might have had Gastown, or Chinatown, but the Downtown Eastside wasn’t a neighbourhood where people lived. It was considered, you know, transients, down and outs, alcoholics. Interestingly, there wasn’t homelessness then. People are very shocked by that. When I first started working here, you didn’t see people sleeping out on the street, or in doorways. People lived in cruddy housing, but there was no “homelessness.” So that’s a very important thing to think about. What happened over all those years that caused homelessness?

“[Because] this is the oldest part of the city, and because it was always a place where workers gathered, it’s always had this history of turmoil and change and activism.”

At the beginning, there was basically the social agencies and the missions and the churches that ran everything, and they basically had a philosophy and an attitude that everyone was a client, not a citizen. When DERA came along, it was really like a union. There was an enormous transformation that took place, it was then about people, residents, citizens, rights, asserting your rights, going up to City Hall demanding that bylaws be enforced, taking on the slum landlords. And from that, it became a neighbourhood that became very politicized, very resilient, very strong. And I’ve seen ups and downs in the community. I think the long, long term impact of gentrification has been incredible and I don’t think anybody has ever really been able to get deeply enough into the shift that’s taken place. Most skid roads in North America were obliterated. They were demolished, but in this community people fought back, and are still fighting back as changes take place. I do think that, in the longer term, you saw an area that was basically invisible, not organized, not heard, become a community that actually changed the politics of Vancouver. I don’t think people realize that either, how much this neighbourhood has permeated all political discussion in this city. People run for office on where they stand on issues in this neighbourhood — they live or die by it, they win or lose.1eb91a03-12c0-4bef-9211-ae9894a694a1

This neighbourhood, despite still having enormous challenges and struggles, has had a profound impact on the politics of Vancouver and the development of Vancouver, and I don’t think you should forget that, because academics will write about it, and I think that’s good — it’s probably the most studied area in Canada, if not North America — but it’s pretty important. And then I would say [one] element that I have seen is very transformative in terms of the politics and what happens in the Downtown Eastside, but also in Vancouver, is the Aboriginal community. Again, when I first was in this neighbourhood there were very few Aboriginal people, and now it’s become a very strong centre of activism and voice and leadership. I mean, I’m blown away by some of the young leadership in that I see in the Aboriginal community that is so contrary to all the stereotypes that there are in the mainstream media.

If you look at this neighbourhood, it actually goes way back. Oppenheimer Park used to be called the Powell Street Grounds. I have a wonderful book of the first woman City Councillor, Helena Gutteridge — she’s literally standing on one of those soap boxes giving a speech to the unemployed in what was called the Powell Street Grounds in the 1930s. And the “On to Ottawa Trek” started in this [neighbourhood]. [Because] this is the oldest part of the city, and because it was always a place where workers gathered, it’s always had this history of turmoil and change and activism. So, in actual fact it goes way back — certainly from the thirties, in terms of activism and momentum for change. This has been a centre, a hub of that for many, many decades.

Join us in on Wednesday, September 21 in the Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts (149 W. Hastings St.), from 7:00 PM to 8:30 PM. FREE, registration is required.