Women and Substance Use: An Interview with Ann Livingston

March 6, 2019. Article by: Government of BC

For more than two decades, Ann Livingston has worked tirelessly to promote harm reduction and the rights of people who use drugs in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

A powerful and passionate community champion, Ann feels her greatest accomplishments lie in the groups she has helped found over the years. The first was VANDU – the Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users, formed in 1998 – which led to the British Columbia Society of People on Methadone and the Western Aboriginal Harm Reduction Society.

“These groups are grounded in the reality of peoples’ lives, and the actions they take try to reflect the urgency of the situation in the Downtown Eastside, focusing on advocacy, education, and support,” says Ann. “It’s been a huge accomplishment to have them continue.”

To mark International Women’s Day on March 8th, Ann shares insights from advocating for her neighbours and highlights the role women play in this lifesaving work.


How do you see substance use impacting women?

“What’s interesting is that we hear stories about how the criminalization women have experienced in the past follows them along and creates a tremendous amount of problems in the present.

The women that survive drug use often become heavily involved in the harm reduction movement. They may have had their children apprehended at one point, and then got them back. But the risk of working in harm reduction as an acknowledged peer, perhaps as a single mother, still creates an immense amount of stigma.

Even if someone leaves their whole life of drug use behind them, goes to university, graduates and try to find work – even in a harm reduction facility – they might not get hired because they have a criminal record. So that point of criminalization continues to impact people.”


How do you think attitudes towards substance use contribute to the overdose emergency?

“We’re faced with huge numbers of overdose deaths, even among people who have had long periods of abstinence. This is partly because the abstinence-only attitude makes people keep their “slip-ups” with substance use very secret, which puts them at risk of fatal overdose. B.C.’s chief coroner points this out: often the people dying of overdose are using drugs at home alone, male, and may or may not be working – possibly keeping their use secret from the people around them.”

It shouldn’t be about whether you use drugs: it should be about whether you use drugs safely.


How has being a mother impacted or informed your work in community organizing?

“I had an 11-year-old with cerebral palsy, a five-year old, and a three-year old when I started this work. I went to every possible workshop to help my disabled child and came across this idea of asset-based community development. The idea is that you empower a community by focusing on its strengths and assets, instead of trying to fix its deficits.

That’s true of raising children. The most important thing any parent or mother can do for a child is give them a sense that they are somebody, that they have a circle of friends, that they’re supported and not isolated.

So, when I started VANDU that’s what I had in mind: If you’re going to create a centre for people who use drugs, it’s important they have a say in its democratically-elected leadership and programming to create something that will really serve its members better.

So, I think the model of asset-based community development is a very important thing to teach people.”

The great hope of educating women in this area is that they take leadership roles and then we’re able to create a lasting social change, that continues over generations.