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Activist John Turvey dead at 61

Neal Hall
Vancouver Sun

Friday, October 13, 2006

VANCOUVER - John Turvey, a former drug addict who went on to become a champion of the poor and downtrodden in Vancouver's Downtown Eastside for more than three decades, has died. He was 61.

GLENN BAGLO/VANCOUVER SUN FILES John Turvey became a government social worker in the 1970s.

Turvey died Wednesday morning in Comox. He had moved there with his wife Deb Turvey after he was diagnosed almost four years ago with mitochondrial myopathy, which interferes with nerve and muscle function.

Turvey was best known for founding the Vancouver needle exchange program -- one of the first in Canada -- and the Downtown Eastside Youth Activities Society (DEYAS).

The former social worker was forced to retire as executive director of DEYAS after he was diagnosed with the fatal disease.

"He fought all his life for everybody else and this was his fight," Deb Turvey, a former Downtown Eastside social worker, recalled Thursday. "He never quit trying. He never gave up."

She said one of the highlights of her husband's life occurred in March, when he was presented with the Order of Canada for his life's work helping others.

"It was a very proud moment for him," she recalled, adding the ceremony was held at the Comox recreation centre because John was too ill to travel to Ottawa. "He had his grandson on his knee and his family there."

She was John's full-time caregiver for the last three years, which brought them closer, but his death still came as a shock, she said. "I'm going to miss him so much."

At the time he was awarded the Order of Canada, John Turvey told The Vancouver Sun that his greatest achievement in life was discovering the wonders of family with his wife Deb and son Chad from another marriage, who came into his life after years of estrangement.

"Here's a guy with little experience with a functional family," Turvey said about himself at the time. "Now I'm experiencing family. I'm overwhelmed, excited."

His wife said a private memorial will be held in Comox for family and friends and a public memorial is being planned for Vancouver, although no dates have been set.

Turvey also received the Order of British Columbia in 1984 and was recognized in 1988 by the Atlanta Center for Disease Control for his plan to make needles readily available to Vancouver drug addicts to reduce the spread of the disease.

He was the son of fundamentalist Baptist parents in Chilliwack. He ran away from home at age 13, when he became a heroin addict, but had turned his life around by his early 20s.

He first became a government social worker and began working in the 1970s with street kids, who respected Turvey because he had experienced addiction and life on the street.

He later started DEYAS and began handing out free condoms to street prostitutes, whom he respected as part of the community and later referred to as sex trade workers.

One night, one of the prostitutes suggested to Turvey that he should be handing out free hypodermic needles so junkies would stop sharing needles, which was causing the spread of hepatitis and HIV.

That led to him pioneering Vancouver's first free needle exchange, which he is credited with doing without government assistance. The exchange now gives out more than three million needles a year.

"He was a pioneer in the realm of harm reduction," recalled Bob Sarti, a longtime resident of the Downtown Eastside and board member of the Carnegie Centre.

"We have to recognize that he was the first person out there on Hastings Street, handling out needles and condoms," he said. "Creating the needle exchange was a mind-blowing thing for the city. It was the first thing that set everything else in motion."

nhall@png.canwest.com

Obituary of John Turvey

 The Vancouver Sun 2006

The world is a better place, thanks to John Turvey

Vancouver Sun

Saturday, October 14, 2006

Many people talk about Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, and the many problems it has experienced, from poverty to prostitution to homelessness to drug addiction.

But a few people -- too few -- do more than just talk, and make an earnest effort to help those who, for whatever reason, find themselves down and out on the Downtown Eastside.

No one made a greater effort than John Turvey, who died on Wednesday at the age of 61. Born in Calgary and later adopted by a British Columbia family, Turvey had a troubled childhood and became a drug addict by the age of 13.

Many difficult years followed, as Turvey ran away from home and lived on the streets, which gave him a unique insight into the lives of people he would later help.

By the time he reached his early 20s, he had kicked the habit. But he would never leave the street, as he spent the next 35 years fighting for the welfare of others who had not kicked their addictions.

Indeed, Turvey is perhaps best remembered for starting Canada's first free needle exchange. Without any government assistance -- and while needle exchanges were still illegal -- Turvey filled a knapsack with syringes and distributed them to drug users. He was recognized by Atlanta's world- famous Centers for Disease Control for the effort.

No one can say how many people Turvey helped to avoid contracting HIV or hepatitis C, but the needle exchange certainly wasn't his only contribution to the community. He also founded the Downtown Eastside Youth Activities Society, which assists street youth, and was a founding member of the B.C. AIDS Network and the Vancouver Native Health Society.

Turvey received many honours for his work, including the Order of British Columbia in 1984 and the Order of Canada earlier this year. Yet he said his greatest achievement in life was discovering the wonders of family.

His family -- his wife and son, and all the street people he helped over the past 35 years -- are better for having known the wonder that was John Turvey.

 The Vancouver Sun 2006

 

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Updated: August 21, 2016