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Landmark agreement ‘fell by the wayside'

From Monday's Globe and Mail

VANCOUVER — The horrid conditions in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside reflect a failure of politicians over the past decade to stay focused on the problems, allowing conditions to worsen, say the three architects of a landmark agreement in 2000 that was expected to transform the neighbourhood.

Former Vancouver mayor Philip Owen forged an alliance at that time with former federal Liberal cabinet minister Hedy Fry and former provincial NDP cabinet minister Jenny Kwan to turn the Downtown Eastside into a safe, healthy community with jobs for local residents. They set out a comprehensive approach called the Vancouver Agreement to respond to drug addiction, mental illness, homelessness and the faltering local economy.

But they say the neighbourhood is now worse off, mostly as a result of the failure of federal, provincial and municipal governments over the past decade to keep the issue as a top priority.

“At any moment, we [politicians] worry about what the press is saying,” said Mr. Owen, who retired from politics in 2002.

“We worry about tomorrow's media coverage and the next election. It just annoys the hell out of me,” Mr. Owen said.

“Most politicians want to reinvent the wheel, come up with a new idea … new names, new policies, new programs, and let's go back to wicket one,” he said in a recent interview. “We should have just kept going and it did not happen.”

Dr. Fry, who was a secretary of state in the federal cabinet from 1996 to 2002, said the Vancouver Agreement “fell by the wayside” as governments changed over the years.

“You need passionate people who are prepared to be hands-on,” she said. “That passion was not there any more. It slid, and people slid back to doing their own things,” she said in a separate interview. “The momentum was lost. … Everybody had other things they were doing and that was not at the top of the agenda.”

Ms. Kwan, a provincial cabinet minister from 1998 to 2001, said the agreement was abandoned after Gordon Campbell's Liberals replaced the provincial NDP government in 2001.

She recalled, as the cabinet minister responsible for the agreement, telling her staff about the importance of the issue. “My deputy [minister] had regular meetings with other deputies in other ministries to bring them on board,” she said. “And then the politicians would be driving at it at the [cabinet] table. All that disappeared after 2001.”

The Liberals cut income assistance and cancelled housing programs months after their election victory, she said. The federal Conservative government, which has been in office since 2006, has tried to close down the safe-injection site that opened in 2003. The site was considered to be an essential part of health measures included in the Vancouver Agreement, she said.

“So everyone's efforts are now going into fighting those fights all over again, instead of thinking, ‘what are the next steps? What is the continuum of service to make this plan comprehensive and fully in place?'” Ms. Kwan said.

“We're a step back from where we were when we first got the Vancouver Agreement in place, both on the homelessness, housing front, the harm-reduction front and the co-ordination [among levels of government and government departments] front,” Ms. Kwan said.

However, with the world coming to Vancouver in less than 12 months for the 2010 Olympics, the conditions in the Downtown Eastside have once again moved to the top of the agenda. The low-income neighbourhood is the poorest in the country and accounts for a disproportionately high percentage of the city's intravenous drug users, mental-illness cases, homeless and jobless.

The federal, provincial and municipal governments and dozens of non-profit community groups provide services in the Downtown Eastside, but no one keeps track of spending in the neighbourhood. A Globe and Mail investigation for the first time tallied how much public and private money has been poured into the area since 2000. Based on available sources, The Globe estimated more than $1.4-billion has gone into the neighbourhood during this decade.

Reflecting on the dismal results of the Vancouver Agreement, Mr. Owen recalled phoning his Conservative Party friends last September in search of support for a national program based on the agreement.

Mr. Owen envisioned a co-ordinated federal-provincial arrangement similar to the Vancouver Agreement. “I was saying, look, we've got a national problem in Canada, from Victoria to St. John's, Newfoundland,” he said. “We got people who are mentally ill that should be back in an institution, to get balanced on their meds again; we have drug addicts; we have homeless and jobless right across the country.”

But Mr. Owen said he got nowhere. He could not even persuade the federal government to contribute $200,000 to a new drug-treatment centre for boys and girls that opened earlier this year, despite Conservative Party campaign promises to support treatment and prevention over harm reduction.

“It was just bizarre. There's no common sense,” a frustrated Mr. Owen said. “All they worry about in Ottawa is tomorrow's newspaper story and the next election. There are no long-term things.”

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With the 2010 Olympics coming to Vancouver, the eyes of the world will be on the city's Downtown Eastside. The millions poured into the neighbourhood seem to have had little impact on its squalor, its people or their problems with addiction. What should be done? Where would you start? How would you fix Canada's slum?


Public Forum:

On March 24 at 7 p.m. PT, The Globe, in partnership with CTV and the University of British Columbia, will bring together experts with fresh solutions for the Downtown Eastside at a public forum at UBC’s Robson Square campus.


For tickets, call toll-free 1-866-545-0016.
Update (March 6, 2009): Tickets are now SOLD OUT


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