“We Must Not Let History Repeat Itself: Race-Baiting and Revenge in Richmond

This article is the first in a series by the DULF Solidarity Committee investigating the organized, revanchist campaign against harm reduction. 

On Monday February 12, Richmond City Council was expected to vote on a motion that would instruct staff to “gauge the potential benefits and challenges of implementing a drug consumption site” at Richmond Hospital. The council meeting, which adjourned on Tuesday, resulted in a majority 7–2 decision in favour of the motion.

What should have been welcome news of a mild advancement in public health was overshadowed, however, by the media’s sensational coverage of protests mobilized to oppose the possibility of a safe consumption site in Richmond. Hundreds reportedly descended upon city hall to express their dissent, jeering and waving money from their seats in council chambers. Mainstream media reporting on the event predictably foregrounded dramatic scenes of opposition protests clashing with those who came to support the motion.

Notably, federal Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre took to Twitter to broadcast a provocatively-framed clip depicting an unidentified white woman – labeled a “radical activist” – telling “a Chinese man” that “in Canada, we stand up for our citizens” and that he should “go home.” The video is distasteful and disturbing, a perverse reflection of the white nationalist and xenophobic rhetoric of the Conservative right wing. Not one to let hate speech go to waste, Poilievre tagged the clip with a partisan plea: “Help me fight against the NDP/Liberals pushing drugs on the Chinese community.”

The rank racism captured on camera has no place in the movement for harm reduction. If left unaddressed, the long-running current of anti-Asian xenophobia that surfaced in this confrontation will further undermine the cause of the drug user liberation movement, which has historically been led by working-class, racialized communities combating anti-Indigenous, anti-Black, and anti-immigrant criminalization.

Harm reductionists cannot afford to see this incident as an isolated, if regrettable, outburst. Across Turtle Island, the professionalization of harm reduction has eroded the practice’s connection to its political origins in race-based liberation movements. The long institutional capture of harm reduction has alienated the practice’s liberatory principles from its grassroots, multiracial base. The public health system’s legacy of racist exclusion evidently compounds felt sentiments of government abandonment in immigrant communities. The bitter irony of this ugly exchange is exposed when we are reminded that the Opium Act of 1908 was designed to police and incarcerate Chinese migrant workers.

It should not need to be explained that no one should take Poilievre’s race-baiting charge to defend “the Chinese community” at face value. Ever the shitposter, the opposition leader has for years cultivated the animal passions of his pathologically-online voting base, peppering his media appearances with barely-concealed, bigoted dog whistles meant to inflame racial division.

But again, the vile opportunism on display here cannot be waved away as a one-time spectacle – despite the fact that the campaign against the Richmond motion was quietly removed from the Conservative party website only days after the confrontation. In the long lead up to the 2025 federal election, Poilievre has publicly partnered with an organized and moneyed bloc united against harm reduction: treatment lobbyists, ‘addictions doctors’, cops, and real estate moguls, as well as propertied elites of all stripes, including the Chinese-Canadian ownership class.

As the election approaches, we can expect the assault on harm reduction to grow and metastasize as a lurid wedge issue, fed from Conservative Canada’s deep well of racism and anti-poor resentment. And while Poilievre reaps electoral gains from fanning the flames of the drug war, those whose lives depend on harm reduction services will face dire, deadly consequences. Less than twenty four hours after Richmond City Council approved the motion supporting a possible safe consumption site, BC NDP Premier David Eby casually capitulated to the opposition by openly questioning the need for harm reduction services in Richmond altogether. By the end of Wednesday’s news cycle, Vancouver Coastal Health (VCH) announced it is “no longer considering the proposal.”

We as drug users and rank-and-file harm reductionists have our work cut out for us. Poilievre intends to claw his way to power over the bodies of our loved ones, sowing hate and division on his path to Parliament Hill. Meanwhile, his stated opponents in the war on ‘woke’ drug policy – whether the federal Liberals or the BC NDP – have demonstrated their cowardice by abandoning thousands to die from the toxic drug poisoning crisis at the slightest suggestion of political pushback. Complacent health authorities, following the province’s command, have shown little or no resistance to baseless attacks on their own services.

For harm reduction to survive, it must be rescued from years of institutionalization and government misleadership. From Richmond to Vancouver, drug users and their allies must build a movement that empowers its multiracial, working class base. Resistance must come from below.

Chairman Fred Hampton once told us: “We don’t think you fight fire with fire best; we think you fight fire with water best. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity.” The drug user liberation movement on Turtle Island must take heed. A popular front must be ruthless in rooting out its internal contradictions if it is to stand a fighting chance against Poilievre and the enemy class he serves. It is frankly an embarrassment to our cause to be out-flanked by the two-faced demagogues and race-baiters of the right wing.

The rumble in Richmond is far from over. Not satisfied with killing the proposed drug consumption site (with the added bonus of humiliating Eby, the BC NDP, and VCH in the same stroke), the Conservative Party candidate for Steveston–Richmond announced a new campaign on February 19. Its goal: to extract an apology from Richmond City Council for daring to consider the embattled motion. This renewed charge – a cynical act of performative revenge – was championed by another media-savvy mobilization the same day.

Our enemies are organized. Their recent advance on the Richmond battlefront demonstrates effective coordination between right-wing civil society groups and professional political operators, supported by the deep pockets of the federal Conservatives. Coverage of the February 19 protests again illustrates the opposition’s shrewd tactic of foregrounding speakers and crowds drawn from Richmond’s East Asian communities.

Poilievre’s victory lap in Richmond suggests that strategic recruiting from the elite layers of Canada’s multicultural mosaic can reap fortunes for the Conservative coalition and the drug war generally: the latter namely by consolidating the forces aligned against harm reduction and further polarizing the constructed controversy over this life-saving practice.

The destruction of harm reduction is not inevitable. As this reactionary bloc grows, the alliance between aggrieved immigrant homeowners and the Conservative’s old stock of dyed-in-the-wool racists will become untenable. And Richmond is far from lost. If the struggle in Vancouver’s Chinatown is any lesson, elites depend on the bigoted laziness of the journalist class to sell themselves as representatives of wildly diverse populations – for instance, ‘the Chinese community.’ To break their grip on the narrative, it will be up to drug users and harm reductionists in the East Asian diaspora to stand up and fight back.

Stirring up racial hate for political gain is the oldest trick in the populist playbook – in fact, the 1908 Opium Act was legislated on the heels of the 1907 anti-Asian race riot that burned Vancouver’s Chinatown to the ground. The Act’s most vocal sponsor in the House of Commons was Mackenzie King, who went on to ride the success of his racist, prohibitionist policies into the Prime Minister’s seat in 1921. Let this grim echo of our home-grown drug war be a call to action: we must not let history repeat itself.