Book Title: A Thousand Dreams: Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside & The Fight For Its Future
Author: Larry Campbell, Neil Boyd & Lori Culbert
Published: 2009
Pages: 291
Category: nonfiction: Canadian politics; nonfiction: BC Politics

As some of you may have noticed, the city of Vancouver is playing host to the Olympic Winter Games this February, and as you also may have noticed, there is a segment of Vancouverites who don’t feel too kindly towards these Games.

One of the major points being made by the “No 2010” groups is that Vancouver’s Olympics, or at least the $6 billion it took to put them on for the world could have gone to many badly needed social issues, such as affordable housing, health care, education, throughout the province and especially in Vancouver itself. One of the major issues cited by those against the 2010 Games is the plight of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, a section of Vancouver known around the world for being an area of drug abuse, prostitution and desolate poverty. Literally blocks away from some of the richest business districts, company headquarters, and most expensive apartment blocks in British Columbia, the Downtown Eastside is a startlingly different side of life in Vancouver.

Living in, or simply visiting Vancouver, it is altogether too easy to avoid the Downtown Eastside, and so doing, ignore the plight of its residents. Or even without ignoring them, to lump them into a one dimensional group of ‘addicts, welfare dependents, or good-for-nothings.’ As this book shows, it is always more complicated than this. Written by former mayor, and chief coroner of Vancouver Larry Campbell, professor of criminology Neil Boyd, and investigative journalist Lori Culbert, A Thousand Dreams goes into some of the history and detail of the Downtown Eastside, its struggles, its residents, and its heroes.

Despite the magnitude of the issues addressed in this book, I would not have heard of it if not for a persistent and annoyed customer at the bookstore I worked at during this Christmas Season.  He came into the store looking for the book, and we only carried it in the stores in Vancouver – I ended up having to go to a manager as this customer was so upset that it wasn’t deemed ‘Local Interest’ for all of British Columbia, only the downtown Vancouver stores. After he left, I took down the information for the book, intending to look for it next time I was in Vancouver, and indeed I found it – but in the store on the ferry to Vancouver.

I thought that this would be a fitting book to read and review during these two weeks, as Larry Campbell, one of the authors, was instrumental as Mayor, in both creating the first (legal) supervised injection site in Vancouver, known as Insite, and in cementing Vancouver’s bid for the 2010 Winter Games. The Olympic Games have become such a polarizing issue that I felt it is important to point out that Vancouver’s revolutionary former Mayor, Larry Campbell, thought it possible to both improve quality of life for those living on the Downtown Eastside, as well as put on the incredible international party that is the Olympics.

The book itself speaks to many of the issues, and many issues greater than the idea that hosting the Olympics is taking money away from social programs in the Downtown Eastside. As the authors point out, money that is going to the Olympics most likely would never have been aimed at social issues were the Olympics not taking place. And aside from that, there were many other political forces at work in the reduction of funding for harm reduction policies and other programs. While Campbell was mayor of Vancouver, he had a federal Liberal government that was more open to the idea of Harm Reduction policies, as well as being more willing to fund such programs. Whereas the current Conservative Government, under the leadership of Stephen Harper, has fundamentally opposed many of the progressive programs put in place in Vancouver. And as such, the citizens of the Downtown Eastside have had to fight to maintain valuable social programs, and have been less able to fight for putting in place new ones.

On the specific topic of the Olympic Games, the authors discuss the questions that remain even today, 3 days into the Games.

“Wouldn’t it be better to spend all that money on social services? Would the pre-Games development displace poor people, as Expo 86 had? Would there be any long-term benefit to the city’s neediest citizens?” (191)

The authors also talk about the plebiscite that was run for Greater Vancouver, to ultimately decide if the city should go through with the bid for the 2010 Games. Campbell also remarks that if he had the authority to make the vote province-wide, he would have.

“But in the end, nearly two thirds of those casting votes said Vancouver should host the world in 2010.” (191)

I learned a lot from this book, not least of all is a slightly different opinion of British Columbia Premier, Gordon Campbell (no relation to Larry Campbell), who appears to have actually been a champion of several social programs in the Downtown Eastside, much to my surprise after growing up in a High School & University culture in BC that has despised him since the massive cuts and job losses in my Grade Nine year (2001-2002).  The authors say that

“Gordon Campbell, Vancouver’s…mayor at the time…was an unexpected champion of an official needle exchange…[and] provided city funding for the controversial project.” (46)

I’d really like to open up the comments to discussion & debate, I know a lot of my friends have very strong convictions about the Olympics and BC’s social issues in general, and I’d love to hear your opinions, do you feel that “the world will be watching in 2010…[and] the coming Olympics…are a tool the community can use to lobby for more resources.”? (Jean Swanson, pg 264), or are “the Games …going to be a net benefit to the Downtown Eastside.”? (Campbell, pg 265). Or are you opposed altogether?

Keep it clean, open, and logical and maybe we’ll all learn something or add another level to our original opinions.  I know that the plight of the poor and the residents of the Downtown Eastside is not the only reason to oppose the Games, and I don’t attempt to defend every aspect of them, I simply am reacting to what I read in A Thousand Dreams, and the information it presented to me as a citizen of British Columbia, and someone who sees Vancouver as a second home. I would also recommend that anyone who has any interest at all in the subject matter should read this book, as well as any resident of Vancouver, or indeed British Columbia.

I will leave you with this powerful quote of Campbell’s, which to me is especially relevant, as I do have a very personal connection to the Downtown Eastside, in a family friend who died on those streets in 2002. We should all care, because there are very few things keeping us from being the ones affected in such a way.

“Everyone in Canada should care about this. So many people are one paycheque away from having their financial security crumble. And even if that’s not you, or your family, or friends, you should care because it’s happening in wealthy cities in your country. Whose responsibility is homelessness? It’s everyone’s responsibility…as taxpayers, as citizens, to take care of everyone. It can be done.” (261)

Places to start if you want more information:

The television series “Da Vinci’s Inquest” loosely based on Larry Campbell’s career as chief coroner.

The No 2010 Coalition, who are mentioned in A Thousand Dreams

Next Book: The Lovely Bones, written by Alice Sebold


2 thoughts on “Book 7: A Thousand Dreams

  1. This sounds like a SERIOUSLY interesting book. I mean that, I’m adding it to my list of things to read (Gosh, your blog keeps making me do that–I finished Just a Geek a few hours ago).

    I think there is, over all, some truth to the notion that an event bringing money into the city will benefit a particular neighborhood, as it will certainly benefit the city as a whole in one way or another.

    Of course, it can’t be left at that. The action the city takes after the Games (as they are, you know, there now) is what will really matter. Will the make Downtown Eastside a priority? Can they fund it, and get backing for funding it? Can the city commit to long term projects to benefit that neighborhood?

    Projects that give communities ownership of their own issues have show huge success elsewhere, including in Portland and in my lovely Seattle. Despite our many transportation and equity issues, the city of Seattle does a great job of giving neighborhoods opportunities to be involved in their own well being, develop and fund projects, and create a real sense of neighborhood.

    If you ever want to check it out, I would be more than willing to lend you “Neighbor Power: Building Community The Seattle Way” by Jim Diers. It tells some interesting stories about how communities here are addressing their needs. I read his book last year for my community systems class, and I’ve seen him speak a couple times since then.

    Just as a general note, I love this book blog that you’re doing. It’s really wonderful, and I’m inspired to get reading back into my schedule every time you post something new.

    1. I definitely think we should talk about this more when I visit in March! And I’d love to take a look at that book!

      Yay book inspirations!

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