On the first day of the new Parliament in 1997, Libby Davies found herself walking to the Senate to hear the Speech from the Throne, a tradition she was not entirely familiar with, and in the immediate vicinity of Allan Rock, the newly appointed minister of health. Davies—a former city councillor in Vancouver, co-founder of the Downtown Eastside Resident Association and a long-time activist in Canada’s most infamous neighbourhood—wanted then to talk to Rock about what havoc heroin was wrecking in her riding.
“I introduced myself and I said, ‘Can I come and meet you? This is a life-and-death issue; people are dying of drug overdoses; we’ve got to stop criminalizing them; we need help,’ ” Davies recalls. Rock, she says, said he was delighted to meet her and that she could come and see him any time. “So I thought, ‘Well, this is amazing,’ ” Davies says.
“I got back to my office and we wrote an email. We wrote a letter; we started phoning. Of course, they totally ignored us,” she continues. “After about a month or so, I thought, ‘Well, what would I do in my neighbourhood? How would I handle this?’ And I thought, ‘Okay, I know what I would do.’ So I went to his office and I walked in and I sat down and I said, ‘I’ve been trying to get an appointment for over a month. You haven’t replied, so I just want to let you know I’m not leaving until I get an appointment.’ ”
She smiled, then took a seat.
“And then I said, ‘And I have all the media outside.’ ”
In fact, she had a reporter from the Vancouver Sun waiting outside.
Rock’s staff went into another room to discuss Davies’ ultimatum, then emerged to tell her they’d be glad to schedule an appointment. Other meetings would follow.
A little more than 18 years later, Davies turned in the keys and left Ottawa last week. Having decided to not contest this year’s election, she ceased to be an MP in August when Parliament was dissolved, but her Centre Block office still needed to be cleaned out and vacated before Oct. 19.
Generally, only the exits from Ottawa of prime ministers, cabinet ministers and party leaders are lavished with much consideration. Libby Davies spent 18 years in opposition, 14 of those years as a member of the fourth party. But she is at least among those MPs whose files Library and Archives Canada has requested for preservation. In her Parliament Hill office were 20 boxes, numbered and labelled with the causes and concerns of her career, and in Vancouver were another 30 boxes, with files dating to her time as an activist and city councillor, all bound for this country’s official archives.
“I think my role here has been to raise issues that don’t usually get raised by members of Parliament,” she says. “I think I have become seen as a sort of a representative, or a voice, or someone who works with people who have been marginalized. And I think I’ve helped bring that into Parliament.”
At the time of her first encounters with Rock, Davies was advocating for the use of prescription heroin and supervised injection to treat addicts. With Rock’s official approval, Insite, Canada’s first injection facility, opened in Vancouver in 2003. In 2011, Health Canada approved clinical trials for prescription heroin, and Davies challenged Health Minister Rona Ambrose in 2013 when Ambrose subsequently reversed a Health Canada decision to allow former study participants to continue with heroin-assisted treatment. During debate in the House two years ago, Labour Minister Kellie Leitch referred to Davies as “pro-heroin” and “anti-salt,” (Davies has also called for a national strategy on sodium reduction.)
In 2001, almost off-handedly, she became the first openly gay female MP, when she told the House one Monday morning that she was “involved in a same-sex relationship.” She became NDP House leader, then deputy leader. In 2005, she helped to negotiate a budget deal with Paul Martin’s Liberal government that committed $1.6 billion to affordable housing, one of the concerns that first motivated her to seek office. As the result of a motion tabled by Davies in 2003 and passed unanimously by the House, a subcommittee of Parliament spent several months studying solicitation laws in Canada, hearing from hundreds of witnesses and issuing a 100-page report in 2006. Last year, she won unanimous support for a motion calling on the government to compensate the victims of thalidomide.
Her periodic and notable forays into foreign affairs have included a trip in 1998 to a naval base in Washington State as part a “citizens weapons-inspection team” looking for weapons of mass destruction—the local paper described her as “cherubic-looking“—and two trips to the West Bank. Five years ago, she apologized after telling an interviewer that Israel’s occupation of Gaza had begun in 1948 (a date that can be read as denying Israel’s right to exist).
She leaves behind 32 private member’s bills, only one of which ever made it past second reading (two of which were outright defeated, including her call for a national strategy on sodium reduction). Another 71 motions tabled by Davies were still on the order paper. “It’s not so much, ‘Yeah, I got 10 pieces of legislation,’ but more how you can influence public attitude and our response to some of these issues,” she says.
She says she never got caught up in Ottawa. “I always knew why I was here. I always knew what I needed to do.” And, while every MP—or at least the ones with a strong desire to be re-elected—will declare some desire to focus on their riding, Davies was steeped in one in particular: In 1972, she helped co-found a low-cost grocery store in the Downtown Eastside. Before city council and Parliament, she’d been a community organizer in east Vancouver.
“I’ve sometimes felt like the parish priest. People would come and tell me very personal things about their lives. I’ve dealt with people who were suffering from mental illness and felt like they wanted to end their lives; I’ve talked to people who have been in jail; I’ve talked to many, many people who have suffered with addiction issues . . . I was there to listen to people, because no one would listen to them,” she says. “Sometimes I would just come home and want to cry—the stories we would hear from people. And it made me realize that, at least in my community, so many people are literally on the edge; they’re literally hanging on.
“That was a huge motivation in Ottawa. I never felt I could come here and just play.”