Born and raised in Brantford, Ontario, Campbell became a steelworker in Hamilton in the 1960s. In his first career move, he joined the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and was transferred to Vancouver in 1969, later joining the RCMP drug squad in 1973.
After more than a decade with the RCMP, Campbell transitioned into death investigation, establishing Vancouver’s first District Coroner’s Office in 1981 and becoming the Chief Coroner for British Columbia in 1996. In this capacity, he became the inspiration behind the popular CBC drama Da Vinci’s Inquest, as well as its spin-off, Da Vinci’s City Hall.
In 2002 he was elected Mayor by the citizens of Vancouver under the banner of the Coalition of Progressive Electors (COPE). Mayor Campbell spearheaded the approval and establishment of North America’s first legal safe injection site and continued to champion the Four Pillars Drug strategy. In addition to drug and crime prevention, he was also instrumental in the successful Vancouver bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games; and the redevelopment of the Woodlands site.
In August 2005, Campbell was summoned to the Senate of Canada by Prime Minister Paul Martin. As a Senator, Campbell has continued his work on drug policy, mental health, and aboriginal issues.
In 2009, Campbell co-authored a book titled A Thousand Dreams: Vancouver's Downtown Eastside and the Fight for its Future with Neil Boyd and Lori Culbert.
He holds a Master’s Degree in Business Administration (MBA) from City University in Vancouver.