Former Vancouver mayor Philip Owen dead at 88

Philip Owen, who was mayor of Vancouver from 1993 to 2002, has died at the age of 88.

Owen was a councillor and park board commissioner before becoming mayor, and served for nine years, the third longest tenure in the city’s history. 

He oversaw a large period of growth in the city, including the development of the Yaletown and Coal Harbour neighbourhoods downtown.

But he is perhaps best known for championing the “four pillars” drug strategy for Vancouver, which led to the city setting up North America’s first legal supervised injection site.

“He loved this city, every part of it, and you could see this in how he found the right balance, even when it came to the toughest issues. He was a gentleman and a devoted Vancouverite, right to the end,” said his son Christian Owen in announcing his passing.

Owen opted not to seek re-election in 2002 following a dispute with his party, the Non-Partisan Association. He was made a member of the Order of Canada in 2008.   

‘Central casting’

Philip Owen was born on March 11, 1933, to a family from Vancouver’s wealthy Shaughnessy neighbourhood. His father, Walter Owen, was a prominent lawyer who served as B.C.’s Lieutenant Governor from 1973 to 1978. 

“He is really just a manifestation of the Vancouver elite. If you went to central casting and said, ‘give me something that represents the whole elitist Shaughnessy,’ there would be Philip Owen,” said Gordon Price, who served as an NPA councillor for Owen’s entire tenure as mayor.

But Owen formed a reputation as a conciliatory leader, who won all three elections he stood for mayor with ease, in part because of his efforts to reach out to all sides of an issue. Famously, he walked around all neighbourhoods of the city on a regular basis. 

“He was a graceful and an elegant man. He was soft spoken. But again, he was able to both listen and then to articulate back to people what they wanted to hear. That is not an easy thing to do,” said Price. 

4 pillars approach

That disposition helped him lead “A Framework for Action: A Four-Pillar Approach to Drug Problems in Vancouver” through council in 2001, a policy emphasizing harm reduction that was revolutionary for the time and led to the founding of safe injection site Insite in 2003. 

“He may not have had to craft the policy, but he was really the only one I think who could have succeeded in getting it through,” said Price. 

“It’s very often the case where the person you least expect to do something may be the only one who can. I think if anyone else tried to do it in the Downtown Eastside there would have been much more public resistance.”   

Insite’s future, once in question, survived several legal and political challenges, and today there are supervised consumption sites in communities across Canada. 

In a statement, Vancouver Mayor Kennedy Stewart called Owen “a gentle and a decent man” with “courage and foresight.”

“We would not be taking the necessary next steps today on safe supply, decriminalization, expanded treatment and enhanced support for those facing mental health and addiction challenges if it was not for Philip Owen’s leadership,” Stewart wrote. 

“He will be missed.”

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