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Drugs, art and the Downtown Eastside

Two nights, two art spaces, two different gatherings, and yet some parallels.

Friday night, an eclectic group of people gathered at the Vancouver Centre for Contemporary Asian Art to say goodbye to Donald MacPherson, the city-hall drug-policy co-ordinator for the last nine years, who announced last month that he was off to new adventures (still not specified).

As has been the case throughout the city’s last decade of breaking new ground in drug policy, there was a wide-ranging group of people present, from Earl Crowe and Ann Livingston, stalwarts of the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, to the Owen family — Philip, wife Brita, and son Chris — and everyone in between.

Oddly, not a single Vision Vancouver councillor was present, though former NPA mayor Sam Sullivan, former councillor B.C. Lee and current councillor Suzanne Anton did make it down, as did COPE councillor Ellen Woodsworth.

What was clear from listening to the speeches was the way everyone saw what Vancouver had gone through in the past decade as nothing short of a revolution. As Donald made a point of mentioning, at the beginning of the decade, no one on the NPA council, (”including even you, Philip”) could even bring themselves to say the words “supervised-injection site” because it was just too scary.

Now, the site is an accepted fact, though, as everyone acknowledged, drug policy isn’t taking any huge leaps forward with the current Conservative government in place.

That turned the party into a bit of a rally for continuing to fight the good fight, with Philip Owen in particular calling on everyone to keep on charging into battle.

The next night, a few of the same people showed up to the slightly higher-profile party going on a block away at Bob Rennie’s new art museum in Chinatown, Suzanne Anton, Sam Sullivan, and Ellen Woodsworth among them.

As promised, the opening brought out the power crowd aka Bob’s World to talk in the cathedral-like main gallery or cluster up on the roof with its anti-conventional-Vancouver viewscape: no mountains or sea, but just the low buildings of Chinatown and then Mount Pleasant on the slope beyond.

I thought Jane Bird, the woman who presided over the Canada Line, had the most interesting comments of the evening, telling me and Monte Paulsen from the Tyee that she thought Bob’s museum as a symbol of the city showing signs of really growing up.

That someone would take his wealth and plough it back into the community to create a self-funded, interesting space that isn’t a big institution or formal building, but a reworking in the oldest part of the city.

Comparable, we were saying, perhaps to the kind of money that Seattle’s wealthy have put into their city, with Paul Allen building the Experience Music Project while he and others contributed heavily to an art-gallery renovation, a new concert hall, a new library and other cultural institutions.

At any rate, an interesting couple of nights, where the issues of drugs and art and the Downtown Eastside and our city, who are we and what is Vancouver, were prevailing topics in one way or another in both places.

Frances Bula blogs about city life and politics at State of Vancouver, where a version of this story originally appeared.

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