Saving the Downtown Eastside Before It’s Too Late

Historical Insight on Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

To understand the complex nature found in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, Jodi Newnham and UBC Learning Exchange provide historical context as to how the area became instilled with social and economic factors of poverty, instability, homelessness, and so forth.

Map of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

Map of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

[Documentary of the current Fentanyl Drug Epidemic in Vancouver, Source:](

Documentary of the current Fentanyl Drug Epidemic in Vancouver, Source:

Timeline of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

Late 19th century

The area was primarily occupied by the working class and families with low incomes as those who could afford to move away had migrated to other areas thanks to the expansion of the streetcar system.

The late 1950s/1960s

Gradual marginalization had occurred due to developments elsewhere and streetcars no longer drove in the area. The main library and department stores were relocated out of the Downtown Eastside. However, the area continued to have 26 beer parlours and two liquor stores in operation. As housing prices spiralled, individuals with low-income had migrated to the Downtown Eastside.

The 1970s

Thousands of psychiatric patients that were deinstitutionalized were confined to the Downtown Eastside, as other communities were unwilling to accept them.


The City of Vancouver established the Four Pillars Coalition. Combined efforts with 20 founding partners, including businesses, government, non-profit organizations, universities, and advocacy groups.

The 1980s

The drug situation in the Downtown Eastside had gotten worse and cocaine had become a favourable choice by substance users, as it was more addictive and less costly than heroin which led many to turn to crime/theft to pay for their drugs. In turn, an excess of illegitimate business had exploded in the area.

The 2000s

The three bodies of government, Federal, Provincial and City of Vancouver signed the Vancouver Agreement.


The city of Vancouver adopted the Four Pillars approach that calls for: harm reduction, prevention, treatment and enforcement.

Advocacy for Safe Injection Sites (SiFs)

With the area’s troubled history, experts have urged stronger harm reduction protocols. Chief Coroner of British Columbia formed a task group that would later produce the so-called Cain Report. This report, published in 1994 dismissed the ‘war on drugs as a failure and strongly pushed for the creation of Safe Injection Facilities (SIFs).

Despite the success of Insite, it quickly began a target for the Conservative government elected in 2006. Following this election the site was slated for closure, resulting in local advocates taking the federal government to the Supreme Court of British Columbia, the court ruled in favour of the continued operation, noting that it would be unconstitutional to deny those who inject illicit substances access to this life saving medical service. Following this judgement, the Federal Government fought the ruling to the Supreme Court of Canada which ruled 9-0 in favour of the continued operation of Project Insite, once again citing that forcing the closure of the facility was a violation of the Charter Rights of the individuals that relied upon the service, specifically their ‣ relating to life, liberty and security of the person.

Following the report, many early actors began advocating for these SIFs and some created their own. All of these early SIFs were unsanctioned by the government and forced to close, despite the fact that they were shown to be incredibly popular and effective. In September 2003, North America’s first government-sanctioned SIF opened under the name Project Insite, it was opened under the strict condition that it operates as a scientific pilot (meaning it had to be rigorously evaluated). Quickly it became apparent that Insite was a massive success, providing a range of benefits.

Benefits of Insite