He completed his education at Prince of Wales Secondary School and later New York University.
In his late 20s, Owen started a textile business that later expanded to both Toronto and New New York He became a director of the Vancouver Art Gallery, president of the Downtown Vancouver Association, chair of Saint George’s School and was involved with many other local organizations. He entered civic politics in 1978 after being elected to the Vancouver Parks Board.
Owen was elected Vancouver’s 36th mayor in November 1993, and was re-elected in 1996 and 1999, making him Vancouver’s longest serving consecutive-term mayor.
During his nine years as mayor, the city"s downtown residential population doubled from 40,000 to 80,000 and the residents enjoy a new vitality in a part of the city that continues to improve and is a model for North American cities. The city maintained a "Triple-A" cr rating as well as being rated the number one city in the world for quality of life by the William Mercer Study.
Under his leadership, the city also opened Library Square, a new downtown headquarters for the Vancouver Public Library which features an innovative architectural design by Moshe Safdie. Owen is most noted, however, for his championing of drug policy reform.
After four years of research, Owen led local and national debate to fight drug addiction problems in Canadian cities through a "Four Pillar Approach", a comprehensive program with provisions for prevention, treatment, enforcement and harm reduction.
An 85-page action plan was passed unanimously by Vancouver City Council in May 2001. This new policy had the support of over 80 per cent of Vancouver"s residents, as well as the Federation of Canadian Municipalities" Big City Mayor"s Caucus. As a result of the Four Pillar Approach, Vancouver opened Insite, North America"s first legal safe injection site for intravenous drug users, in 2003.
On February 15, 2011, Owen published letters in several major Canadian newspapers apologising for comments that he made blaming former Vancouver Police Department Inspector Kim Rossmo for delays in the investigation of serial killer Robert Pickton.
During much of the Pickton investigation, Owen was the head of the Vancouver Police Board. He has been criticized for commenting, after some 20 prostitutes went missing from Vancouver"s Downtown Eastside, that there was "no evidence that a serial killer is at work.".
In 1986 he became a member of Vancouver City Council, and served there for seven years.