Philip Owen, former Vancouver mayor who championed harm reduction, dies 'peacefully'

Former mayor of Vancouver Philip Walter Owen died Thursday night at the age of 88.

Owen was mayor for three terms, having served from 1993 to 2002 as a member of the right-of-centre Non-Partisan Association.

In a statement, Owen’s family said he had been living at Point Grey Private Hospital in Vancouver for three years and passed away peacefully from complications related to Parkinson’s disease.

Under Owen’s leadership, the city began to favour less-punitive methods of managing drug use, choosing to see it as more of a public health issue than a criminal one. After hearing the calls of activists, drug users, and researchers, Owen championed the Four Pillars Drug Strategy, an approach to drug use and addiction that emphasizes prevention, treatment, enforcement, and harm reduction.

Owen’s approach to drug users was at odds with many of his colleagues and his political party. In 2002, the NPA selected a different person to run as mayoral candidate in the city’s municipal election. That candidate, Jennifer Clarke, lost to COPE’s Larry Campbell, ending 16 years of NPA control of the mayor’s office.

The policies passed under Owen enabled the creation of Insite, North America’s first legal safe injection site for intravenous drug users, which opened in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside in 2003.

In a statement on Owen’s passing, current Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart spoke to Owen’s collaborative approach.

“Though a challenging idea at the time, Mayor Owen learned from talking with those living with addiction that harm reduction was the only way to address the overdose crisis of the mid-1990s and early 2000s,” Stewart said.

“(Owen) worked side-by-side with grassroots Downtown Eastside leaders to push for change,” he said.

In January 2021, the Philip Owen Professorship in Addiction Medicine at the University of British Columbia was established to honour his legacy.

Owen is survived by his wife of 63 years, Brita, their children, Lise Owen Struthers, Christian Owen, Andrea Owen, and his many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The family says that funeral and memorial details will follow in the days ahead.