LITERARY LOCATION: Insite Supervised Injection Site, 139 East Hastings Street, Vancouver

Downtown Eastside activist Bud Osborn was an originator of North America's first supervised injection site here, near Hastings and Main. Also a superb poet, Osborn published six books, made a music CD and won the City of Vancouver Book Award. Also a co-founder of VANDU (Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users), Osborn was an unofficial archivist of Canada's poorest neighbourhood and its most eloquent and forceful spokesman. "He could communicate with people," said his friend and colleague, MP Libby Davies, "and he always spoke the truth, always. He never shied away from it. I credit him with being able to change the way people perceive drug users." Hundreds gathered outside Insite for a memorial after Bud Osborn died, at 66, on May 6, 2014.


Vancouver poet and Downtown Eastside activist Bud Osborn, the unofficial archivist of Canada's poorest neighbourhood and its most eloquent and forceful author and spokesman, died on May 6, 2014, at age 66, after being diagnosed with pneumonia. He was hospitalized for five weeks, came home for one day, then had chest pains and shortness of breath. He collapsed and was rushed to emergency, but died, according to Ann Livingston, a former partner and co-founder of VANDU (Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users).

NDP MP for Vancouver East, Libby Davies, a longtime friend, said Osborn's passing is an enormous loss to the community and that he was a hero to the people of the DTES and the City of Vancouver overall. She added that Bud Osborn understood harm reduction and safe injection sites as important health measures and a fundamental human right. "I credit him with being able to change the way people perceive drug users," Davies said.

Osborn's poetry worked in tandem with his activism for people living on the street and poverty issues. "His words captured the raw horror of being abandoned, poor, cold and lonely," says Livingston.

His second publisher, Brian Kaufman of Anvil Press, recalls: "In 1994, Bud delivered his typewritten manuscript, Lonesome Monsters, to the Anvil offices on the second floor of the Lee Building at Main and Broadway. And what I saw in Bud's work then was the same thing I see now when I open one of his books: raw, brave, human, unadorned depictions of people caught in the meat-grinder life of poverty, homelessness, addiction, and violence. He gave voice to the many that could not put it down in words, to the many who are never listened to. The epigraph he gave me for the book was this: 'the primary intention of my writing has been fidelity to my experience and those of the people about whom I write.' And in that, he never wavered."

A chapbook by Bud Osborn called Keys to the Kingdom (Get To The Point Publishing 1998) received the City of Vancouver Book Award.

"Bud was an eloquent and passionate spokesperson for the dispossessed," said publisher Brian Lam of Arsenal Pulp Press. "As a recovering addict, he knew all too well the struggles of those who live with poverty and addiction, and dedicated his life to documenting their experiences, including his own, using the medium of poetry to move and educate others. As well, Bud was a spirited activist, a well-known figure at various demonstrations and gatherings in the Downtown Eastside, which was his literal and figurative home."

Bud Osborn was born in Battle Creek, Michigan and raised in Toledo, Ohio. His father, a reporter for the Toledo Blade, was a shot-down bomber pilot and former prisoner of war. He received his father's exact name, Walton Homer Osborn. His father committed suicide in jail, as a traumatized alcoholic, when Bud Osborn was three. Osborn himself tried to commit suicide with 200 Aspirins when he was 15.

"Amid our peregrinations through poverty neighborhoods, I was so afraid of my name that when a tough alley urchin gang leader in another new location asked my name, I said my name was Raymond or something, but this raggedy kid replied, 'No, it isn't. It's Bud!' And I have insisted on being called 'Bud' ever since."

Osborn began to consider himself as a perpetual bud on a tree, never to bloom or come to life. He briefly attended Ohio Northern University and took a job with VISTA in Harlem as a counselor. He became a drug addict, married and had a son. His family accompanied him to Toronto, but then his wife and son left him to go to Oregon. He lived on the mean streets of Toronto, Toledo and New York until he moved to the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver where he eventually entered Detox. "I stopped running and tried to face myself," he says.

Osborn's former life as a lost soul on the mean streets of Vancouver has been dramatized in an award-winning film called Keys to Kingdoms, made by Nathaniel Geary. He was also the subject of the 1997 documentary by director Veronica Mannix called Down Here.

A former addict who was 'seven years clean', Osborn became a board member of the Vancouver/Richmond Health Board, the Carnegie Centre Association Board and VANDU (Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users). In the process he began working closely with MP Libby Davies and advocating for the introduction of free injection sites.

"I realize there are not many people who can advocate from the bottom, who have lived at the bottom," he said. As a City Council candidate for COPE, Osborn became a fierce adversary of Mayor Philip Owen and met with federal Health Minister Allan Rock. He did remarkably well at the polls for someone who could have been dismissed as a former alcholic and drug addict. Although Osborn didn't win election, Mayor Owen reversed his stance and accepted most of the policies that Osborn and Davies had been advocating. A reunion with his son ensued after 30 years of separation. Osborn has described it as "the single most powerful experience of my life." They met a second time but the relationship proved fractious.

In his poetry Osborn has portrayed the 'scorned and scapegoated' of his neighborhood as brave souls fighting for their dignity. His collection of poetry from Arsenal Pulp and a CD of songs produced by Alan Twigg, both called Hundred Block Rock, were released to coincide with his performance at the Vancouver Folk Music Festival with bassist Wendy Atkinson and guitarist David Lester. "The title Hundred Block Rock refers to the 100 block of East Hastings," he said, "It's the epicentre of several pandemics. Probably the only comparable conditions are some of the worst places in the so-called Third World."

In his third poetry collection, Oppenheimer Park (1998), with prints by Richard Tetrault, Osborn offers a plea for compassion in 'A Thousand Crosses for Oppenheimer Park'. The long poem was spoken at a memorial service to mourn and protest the needless deaths by drug overdose of more than one thousand residents of Vancouver's downtown eastside. "Any one of these thousand crosses could easily represent my own death," he says. Oppenheimer Park was privately printed for subscribers. His first book was Lonesome Monsters (Anvil 1995). See Interview.

For more than twenty years Bud Osborn was also an unofficial archivist of the Downtown Eastside [DTES], Canada's poorest neighborhood.

"We have become a community of prophets,"; he wrote, "rebuking the system and speaking hope and possibility into situations of apparent impossibility.";

Along with Donald MacPherson, the City of Vancouver's Drug Policy Coordinator since 2000, and UVic academic Susan Boyd-who lost her sister Diana to a drug overdose-Osborn, who ran for City Council in 1999, has documented the social justice movement in the DTES that culminated in the opening of North America's first supervised drug injection site.

As a landmark celebration of collective activism and resistance, Raise Shit! Social Action Saving Lives (Fernwood 2009) is a sophisticated history of despair and courage, commitment and hope. It is also an important contribution to the serious literature on drug prohibition and inspiring story of how marginalized citizens have refused to let their friends' deaths be rendered invisible.

"Our story is unique," wrote the trio of authors. "It is told from the vantage point of drug users, those most affected by drug policy."

The DTES made headlines around the world in 1977 when a public health emergency was declared in response to the growing rates of HIV, hepatitis C and overdose deaths among drug users in the area. At its outset, this montage of photos, news stories, Osborn poems, MP Libby Davies letters, journal entries and records of early Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users [VANDU] meetings does not fail to note: "From the early 1980s, poor women, many Aboriginal, associated with the DTES, went missing. Twenty years passed before one man was charged with the murders of 26 of the missing women; however, later he was convicted of six counts of second degree murder. The investigation is ongoing, and poor women remain vulnerable to male violence."

Interviewed by telephone from Ottawa, Libby Davies told Georgia Straight, "He was the kind of guy, he could talk to lawyers and judges and politicians and bureaucrats, and scientists and business people...or just the ordinary person on the street,"; she stated. "He could communicate with people and get them to understand what was going on, and he always spoke the truth, always. He never shied away from it."

[For other authors pertaining to the Downtown Eastside prior to 2011, see abcbookworld entries for Atkin, John; Ballantyne, Bob; Baxter, Sheila; Brodie, Steve; Cameron, Sandy; Cameron, Stevie; Campbell, Bart; Canning-Dew, Jo-Ann; Clarkes, Lincoln; Craig, Wallace Gilby; Cran, Brad; Daniel, Barb; Douglas, Stan; Fetherling, George; Gadd, Maxine; Gilbert, Lara; Greene, Trevor; Herron, Noel; Itter, Carole; Knight, Rolf; Lukyn, Justin; Mac, Carrie; Maté, Gabor; Murakami, Sachiko; Murphy, Lorraine; Reeve, Phyllis; Robertson, Leslie A.; Robinson, Eden; Roddan, Andrew; Swanson, Jean; Taylor, Paul; Tetrault, Richard; Vries, Maggie de; With, Cathleen.]

Library Students at UBC created an archive ("The Bud Osborn Collection") of Osborn's poetry, accessible via:

The UBC-generated collection is the result of projects conducted by students of the School of Library, Archival, and Information Studies at the University of British Columbia, developed in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the class LIBR 582: Digital Images and Text Collections. The Osborn poems are accompanied by images by Richard Tetrault, and in collaboration with designers David Bircham and David Lester.


Black Azure (Coach House Press 1970)
Lonesome Monsters (Anvil 1995). $10.95 1-895636-08-6.
Oppenheimer Park (1998), with prints by Richard Tetrault. 0-9683337-0-2.
Keys to the Kingdom (Vancouver: Get to the Point, 1998).
Hundred Block Rock (Arsenal Pulp) $14.95 9781551520742
Signs of the Times (Anvil Press, Signs of the Times, 2005). with prints by Richard Tetrault.
Raise Shit! Social Action Saving Lives (Fernwood 2009), with Donald MacPherson and Susan Boyd. Non-fiction. 978-1-5526-6327-1

[Alan Twigg / BCBW 2015]