It’s raining right now while I write this in that dreary Vancouver kind of way. On Tuesday May 6 at night, the city lost an irreplaceable giant and we are all diminished by this sad, sad news.
Bud Osborn was a prophet, an angel, a poet of the Downtown Eastside. It was in his anger and indignation, his words and his love that a city and its people came to be transformed, almost against their will. He had iron in his soul. Bud made the impossible possible. He put in motion a tidal wave of hot fury, breathing fire in to the most superficial, hypocritical, farcical contradictions of this imperfect city. He did it with a potent mix of disgust and love. He brought to visibility the uncounted, the unloved, the exiled, the unaccounted for. He was Vancouver’s genuine heart and soul. This city, the side that we love, wouldn’t be what it is without Bud Osborn.
Embedded in Vancouver, in its shallow postcard backdrop of mountains and water, is a smug lifestyle politics trafficking in moral blindness. On a good day, its public sphere is a narrow sliver of boredom, policed at the margins by a smug ruling class — surrogate ambassadors invested in keeping things the way they are. It’s a sick, unforgiving culture, and we live in the filth of that very propaganda every day. Bud knew this better than anybody. His poetic credo was ‘fidelity to lived experience.’ He wanted to disrupt the repetition of the world as it is, as part of what he saw as the poet’s vocation. As he wrote in 1995:
who do you
for real change?
In the 1989 poetry anthology East of Main, Bud described himself this way:
I was born in 1947 in a U.S. army hospital in Battle Creek, Michigan, and later became a draft dodger. I wandered North America for many years, working day labour jobs, picking fruit, selling plasma, writing poetry and getting in trouble. Then I switched sides of the social control desk for a few years, working in a group home for ‘troubled youth’ in a residence for ‘retarded’ people and in a detox center on skid row — not as a ‘professional’ social worker, but as part of the poet’s vocation to try to be of help to others exiled by the technological system, those whose everyday speech so often produces the living poetry of our time…I’ve made my home in the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver, in one of the last traditional skid row areas, where shared poverty and acceptance of individual differences exist, and where personal acts of charity still occur on a daily basis, despite the renovation-exterminations underway.
In this city, the citizenry is lulled in to a state of soporific complacency by the totalizing and corruptive inertia of the development game — Vancouver’s Great Game if there ever was one. In our city, in our own time, if we don’t push for fundamental change, what we are doing today in a material way is building a pathetic monument to inequality. In the face of this agenda, Bud spoke truth to power — he was an immovable rock. He shook people out of their empty existence to care about something that was bigger than them. You can’t have a resilient, caring community if you don’t take care of everybody, particularly by genuinely including those on the margins and the periphery of civic life.
Back in the mid to late 1990s, there were maybe 200 people in the entire city supportive of a safe injection site despite the hundreds of overdose deaths and third world rates of infection for HIV/AIDS, Hep C and TB. It was a pandemic. No level of government was on board. Three years later, there was a broad consensus in B.C. across the political spectrum in support of harm reduction policies. That transformation didn’t happen overnight — it was a profound labour to move this issue from a criminal justice issue to one defined by health and human rights.
Every city, despite its political enclosures, is always a site of political possibility, creative novelty and invention. It’s never static. A city always breathes and invents in spite of everything that stands in its way. One breaks in to two, and in its fragmentations, sometimes truths emerge like a wildfire.
There wouldn’t be a safe injection site in Vancouver today without Bud. He willed it, and it happened. His moral outrage transcended the acceptable rhetoric of the time. A new language was born, a new possibility created, a new idea of freedom circulated. To take a radical idea and turn it in to a fact on the ground was a lesson in the power of solidarity and a political education of a lifetime. In Bud’s capable hands, the movement from the present to the future was driven by compassion and empathy and inclusion. To speak with Bud, to spend time with him, was to make yourself better. He had that kind of presence and authentic connection with everyone he met. Those who ever met him, felt like they had a personal relationship with him that was uniquely their own. That’s why there’s a whole city mourning this week.
Leaving the rarified air of UBC’s Point Grey campus and meeting Bud in the Downtown Eastside in the 1990’s was like getting hit by a meteor. He was from another planet, another era — he was so strong, so vulnerable. That was his special way of being. Bud affected the city deeply. He was real.
To meet with Bud at the Ovaltine Café for a conversation on the state of the neighbourhood political situation was a rite of passage for any social activist of that era.
I remember attending a public forum on heroin overdose deaths at the Aboriginal Friendship Centre in 1998. Ann Livingston and Bud invited me to a VANDU meeting on a rainy, Saturday afternoon. It was at the corner of Powell and Jackson, on the second floor, above the Living Room Drop-in Activity Centre. The meetings were every second Saturday at 2pm. Bryan Alleyne would be making sandwiches and handing out stipends.
The year before, Bud had been essential in getting the Vancouver/Richmond Health board to pass a motion calling on the federal government to declare a health emergency. There were over 100 people there every week — sometimes 150, sometimes more — they were the walking dead of the city. They always ended with a circle and a recitation of the names of people who had died recently and a dedication to all the others who had passed on. The meetings were a site of organizing and information sharing. Being there changed my life. We started organizing our own friends around the city to start doing something about the outrageous situation in our own apartheid city.
In September of 1998, Bud was the first ever guest speaker of UBC’s Humanities 101 program. It was in the Or Gallery space, then in the old Perel Tailors building at 112 West Hastings. We were up on the 2nd floor where the Kootenay School of Writing used to be. It was a heated discussion — not everyone was on board. But listening to Bud that night, nobody could have left without having their entire being shaken to the core.
In 1999 I went to work in Victoria in the legislature. Ann Livingston contacted me one day, hoping to set up some meetings with cabinet ministers. I phoned around and got some meetings set up. About twenty people came over on the ferry with two Portland Hotel Society vans. Half of the VANDU members stayed with Ann and the other half, along with Nathan Allen, stayed at my place — an apartment on Broad Street in Victoria. (I didn’t give my room-mate advance notice that we were going to have a VANDU slumber party with pizza and beer! and everyone wanted to watch the Best of Jerry Springer on tv — it was a pretty raucous night.)
The next day I sat in on the meetings with the cabinet ministers. Bud and Ann lay in to them and clobbered the politicians pretty hard. After that, I went for a walk with Bud in the basement of the legislature and Bud went ballistic: “Those fucking political hacks in the NDP are standing in the way of social justice and real people are losing their lives. They need to do something!”
There were speeches on the steps of the legislature and a window got kicked in by somebody. No one remembers if it was someone from our group or not.
When I got back to work the next day, the political apparatus closed in on me. I was in deep shit for facilitating the meetings and sent in to temporary organizational exile. The information flow dried up and I never charmed my way back to the inner circle. But I didn’t care — it was more important to be part of something important and meaningful. It felt like we were members of a gang. By his very presence and his way of working, Bud instilled courage in the people around him.
Raising shit is a vital part of how change happens. Bud led the way on that front his entire life and in that journey took everyone along. We are all better off for it.
A community canonizes its own saints – there’s no need for Vatican approval. In the Downtown Eastside, everyone knows that St. Bud performed miracles. He was a good man and a gentle soul — a poet to the core. We miss him dearly.
This is from a poem by Bud called ‘the past is not past’:
and the dead we memorialize today
are lost to us in their physical presence
which leaves a great pain in us
but the dead are very much alive
in their passage through our lives
and the dead are not less dear
less loved less cared for
and when we speak the names
and lives of our deceased
they continue to regain their identities
the dead live in our memories
of moments and months and
years with them
the dead of the downtown eastside fought wars
and fight those wars with us today
There will be a Memorial for Bud Osborn this Friday May 16 from 12-4 p.m PST starting on the 100 block of West Hastings in front of Insite. The Memorial will include readings of Bud’s poetry.