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BC Politics

The Shoo-in

David Eby remains unopposed in his party to become BC’s next premier. How did he get here?

Steve Burgess 8 Aug

Steve Burgess writes about politics and culture for The Tyee. Read his previous articles.

Roughly four months before the BC NDP are scheduled to announce their new leader, a couple of things are clear. One: calling David Eby the “front-runner” is misleading, as it implies the presence of others on the track. Two: the leadership debates are going to be even more tedious than usual.

NDP candidates still have until Oct. 4 to enter the campaign to replace retiring Premier John Horgan. But thus far all of Eby's expected competitors have declined to compete. Most significantly Ravi Kahlon, widely expected to be his main rival, instead threw his support to Eby. Adrian Dix, Bowinn Ma, Melanie Mark, Rob Fleming, Katrina Chen, Josie Osborne, George Heyman and Jennifer Whiteside followed suit, while Nathan Cullen and Selina Robinson simply announced they would not run.

As of now the winner is set to be announced Dec. 3, although the party has said that a lack of candidates could lead to an earlier decision. So far the MLA for Vancouver-Point Grey appears to have transformed what was to be a horse race into a long victory lap. He’s certainly not playing coy. Last month, contrasting himself with Horgan, he said, “I’ve got a young family at home. John’s kids are all grown up. And I think I do present the opportunity to bring the voice of the next generation of leaders in our province.”

While the lack of candidates is a surprise, the expected outcome will not be. From the time of his 2013 breakthrough on the B.C. political scene, Eby has been viewed as a leader in waiting. That's what happens when a young dragon slayer takes down a sitting premier. But Eby is no stranger to adversity either. His career as an activist, organizer and MLA has left him dealing with controversy and, on one occasion, a face full of pie.

The road to Vancouver

Eby was born in Kitchener, Ontario, in 1976, the oldest of four children. Political debate was lively in the Eby household, with his father a fierce Liberal partisan. Young David's first winning campaign made him president of St. Mary's High School. But despite eventually growing to a height of 6'7”, his athletic career was less than stellar. “I broke a lot of hearts in high school,” Eby told BC Business magazine, “but most of them were basketball coaches.”

Eby studied at the University of Waterloo before going on to get his law degree at Dalhousie in Halifax. Along the way he picked up piano and guitar, talents he would later display in West Coast rock bands Ladner and World of Science. First he had to get to the Coast however. As is often the case, the impetus was romance.

While still studying at Dalhousie he travelled to Vancouver one summer in pursuit of a young woman he had met out East. The love connection did not take hold but others did, such as a job with the Law Foundation of BC. Upon being called to the bar in 2005 he was offered a job with the newly formed Pivot Legal Society. “You don’t see many wins in that kind of low-income human rights work,” he said in 2016. “Most people think if you were shot by the cops, you probably deserved it.”

Eby spent four years there and later became executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association. Vancouver was home now.

His first go at local politics was a 2008 run for a Vision Vancouver city council nomination. He missed the mark by under 50 votes.* By then Eby was becoming a familiar activist and spokesperson for civil liberties and social justice. That made him a natural member of the movement opposing the 2010 Winter Olympics — but not by any means necessary.

On Feb. 13, 2010, a group of masked protesters referred to as the “black bloc” ran amok in downtown Vancouver, smashing windows, spraying paint and vandalizing cars. Eby immediately criticized the violence. Several days later Eby appeared at a meeting of anti-Olympic groups. One outraged activist was waiting with a cream pie. Eby wiped the goo off his face and stood his ground, telling the masked vandals that they “mirrored all the worst qualities of those currently in power.”

May 14, 2013 was a confusing night for Premier Christy Clark. In her first campaign as BC Liberal leader she guided her party to an upset victory over the Adrian Dix-led NDP. But Clark was defeated in her home riding of Vancouver-Point Grey. Her loss, while shocking, was not a complete surprise to political observers. Two years earlier David Eby, then a political neophyte, had come within 564 votes of ousting Clark. In 2013 Eby finished the job, topping the premier by over a thousand votes. He was just 36 years old.

‘My go-to guy’

From the beginning Eby was no ordinary backbencher. He quickly stepped to the fore as the party's housing critic. Eventually Premier Clark began referring to him sardonically in the legislature as “the incoming leader.” Others thought so too — former premier Glen Clark called him “the future of the NDP.” As it turned out Eby himself did not feel ready for that future. Not yet.

Eby recently told CBC Radio he was so new to the BC legislature in 2013 he “didn't know where the bathrooms were.” That summer his partner Cailey Lynch became pregnant. When Adrian Dix announced he would step aside as NDP leader, Eby signed on as John Horgan's campaign manager.

A group of mainly white, older people gather in a park setting holding signs saying, among other things, ‘NDP = Communist Ideology’ and ‘Don’t Tax Wealth, Tax Poverty Instead’
As attorney general, David Eby held a 2018 town hall on Jericho Hill to explain his government’s tax on homes worth over $3 million. In response to angry protesters, many arriving in luxury cars, he noted, ‘The proposed tax at its highest level is 0.4 per cent — it’s a fraction of a fraction of the appreciation level of these homes.’ Photo by David Beers.

Under Horgan, Eby has solidified his position as the party's second in command — “My go-to guy,” according to the premier. He was given the portfolios of both the attorney general and minister of housing, taking on what he claimed were the linked issues of casino money laundering and housing affordability, as well as the mess at ICBC, bringing in no-fault insurance.

Eby's portfolios have suffered some recent setbacks. A key element of his plan to cap ICBC costs was just struck down by the B.C. Supreme Court. And his recent (quiet) announcement of the firing of the entire BC Housing board followed a highly critical Ernst & Young report on that organization. The subsequent resignation of BC Housing CEO Shayne Ramsay added to the sense of an organization in chaos, an organization for which Eby is ministerially responsible.

As attorney general, Eby found himself embroiled in the controversy over the resignation of Harsha Walia as head of the BC Civil Liberties Association he used to head. Walia was under intense pressure for tweeting "burn it all down" from a personal account in reference to two mysterious church burnings after unmarked graves were detected on the grounds of residential schools. Walia maintained she merely meant it as a political metaphor, but a BCCLA committee member accused Eby of meddling to push out Walia, a charge he denied.

Eby's tenure as Vancouver-Point Grey MLA has not been entirely smooth either, a fact that may reflect the odd circumstances of his election. His 2011 candidacy was essentially a political suicide mission for a party that needed a noble volunteer against a sitting premier. Eby's near-win, driven by resentment against Clark and a feeling she had neglected her riding, made it only natural that he try again in 2013. But prosperous Vancouver-Point Grey would not seem the natural home for a man who made his name fighting for Downtown Eastside residents at the Pivot Legal Society.

So when the NDP government proposed a school tax for homes worth over $3 million, Point Grey residents gathered to protest. But although Eby's vote share dropped by close to five per cent last election, he maintained a comfortable margin of close to 5,000 votes. Vancouver-Point Grey does not seem destined to become a graveyard of premiers quite yet.

A beaming David Eby stands on a stage holding a child and surrounded by cheering people, with a sign telling people how to contact his campaign.
Eby with family and supporters at his BC NDP leadership announcement on July 19. ‘Government is a very powerful tool,’ he has said. ‘It’s all of us working together. It’s not inherently evil or problematic.’ Photo for The Tyee by Jen St. Denis.

Now married to Lynch with two young children, Eby is not quite the same man who railed at the Clark government as housing critic. This year he shifted his position on the housing affordability solution to favour increased supply, a change that has inspired both kudos and criticism. With all the heated debate on the issue Eby believes a certain amount of good will is required from the interested parties.

“I think we need significant government involvement if we are going to solve the housing crisis,” he has said, “and we can’t do that if people believe that government is poisonous from the very beginning.”

The absence of a leadership race may leave unanswered questions about Eby's intended course.

Would a Premier Eby move the government significantly to the left, as Kevin Falcon is sure to claim?

Will he focus more on uniting the activist and labour wings of the NDP?

Will he wait for a new mandate before launching any major initiatives or will he hit the ground running with an entirely fresh approach?

“Government is a very powerful tool,” Eby once said. “It’s all of us working together. It’s not inherently evil or problematic. It has been abused, but it’s a tool like any other.”

Whatever his plan, Eby will face a big challenge at his new desk. For the past five years John Horgan has been the most consistently popular premier in the history of the BC NDP. There are plenty of potential cream pies waiting for his replacement.

* Story updated on Aug. 10 at 11:38 a.m. to clarify Eby ran for a Vision Vancouver nomination in 2008 but did not secure a spot.  [Tyee]

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