Rob Shaw: Meet Premier Eby: The new leader of British Columbia - The Orca
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Rob Shaw: Meet Premier Eby: The new leader of British Columbia

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It’s 7:30 a.m. at the Eby house, and three-year-old Iva is running around the kitchen with reckless abandon, circling the counter in a tiny blur, her hands in the air, a tiara on her head, shouting: “I have energy!”

Standing off to the side, with bedraggled hair, sweatpants, a blue University of British Columbia sweatshirt and decidedly less energy, is B.C.’s newest premier. David Eby is sipping on a quad-shot espresso.

Also, he’s wearing a matching tiara.

There are a hundred things on Eby’s plate right now – preparing for his swearing-in, selecting his new cabinet, sketching out his plan to take over Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside – but his phone is nowhere to be seen.

Instead, he’s on his way to tea.

Iva has set up a child’s tea set in the living room. Eby folds his six-foot-seven frame over the table and sips comically small cups of water. Iva keeps a watchful eye to make sure his tiara stays in place.

And so the morning proceeds for the man about to become B.C.’s 37th premier.

His son Ezra, 8, wanders down from bed later and the two discuss Minecraft. Eby shares a hug with wife Cailey Lynch during a quiet moment between coffees and child-related hurricanes.

Eby is about to take on the most difficult job of his career. But he’s also crystal clear about something else: These mornings with his kids and Lynch will not be sacrificed. He won’t become glued to his phone, laptop or work schedule.

When he was a younger activist working in the Downtown Eastside, Eby burnt out, became unhealthy and got divorced. Now 46, he has the partner, kids and life he always wanted. He’s mellowed. The premier’s job, he explains, simply has to fit into the boundaries that protect the life he’s created.

“It’s very important to keep that part as compartmentalized as possible,” says Eby, who keeps all his work material in a banker’s box under a nook off the kitchen.

“I think with this new job, the boundaries push in a little bit. The recognition on the street goes up, Ezra’s interactions at school with other kids go up where they know what my job is … and for Cailey she’s increasingly in public view, so it does shift things. But one of the things for our relationship is we’ve always got to have something on the move.”

He pauses, because Iva has called his name for the eighth time. She wants to eat a cookie shaped like a bee. The answer is no.

Next, she’s jabbing The path to the premier’s office

Almost no one is surprised Eby is about to be sworn in as premier.

People have pegged him as the BC NDP’s next leader for almost a decade, virtually since he switched into politics in 2013 from his previous career as a civil rights lawyer in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. He was going to run for the job in 2014, but Lynch was pregnant with Ezra; Eby instead threw his support behind John Horgan.

Since then, Eby’s desire to be premier has waned. He wasn’t entirely sure if he wanted the big chair. He’d settled into what he called fulfilling work as attorney general, tackling big files, all while maintaining a work-life balance involving morning yoga, and evening family time.

It was his wife, a 38-year-old family doctor and Star Wars fan, who stole a line from wise Master Yoda and pushed Eby to refocus on the ambitious apex of his political career.

“We had had the conversation a couple of years earlier, where I just sort of said: Do or do not,” she says.

“If you’re going to stay in Victoria doing this work, I prefer you are thinking about (the job of premier) being the final phase of your political career. Otherwise, it’d be really nice if you could refocus on something that makes you more available to the rest of us.”

The couple live by the idea that they’ll encourage each other to make big swings in their lives. Lynch went from a nursing career into medical school while pregnant, and then moved the family for months to a rural area for a locum position. Eby went from law into public office.

“The one constant in our relationship has been change,” he says. “In both of our careers it’s been really positive for us.”

The extended Eby-Lynch clan is not surprised.

“As their family, we’ve given up underestimating what they are capable of as a couple because there have been many instances over the years where I’ve heard about their upcoming plans and thought to myself: That’s crazy,” says Angus Lynch, Cailey’s brother.

“They both support each other whenever someone is doing something absolutely insane, which is frequently. They tend to get behind the other person. That’s inspiring.”

Change and the public eye

But what does change mean for their well-balanced family dynamic?

Politics is a brutal business, especially in today’s social media environment, where premiers are routinely on the receiving end of vile, sexist, racist, derogatory commentary, death threats and sometimes (in the case of Horgan, Christy Clark and Gordon Campbell) activists who target their homes and families.

Eby’s move to the top job puts his face on the party brand, and his family in the public eye. Worries about safety (every premier gets an RCMP detail) aren’t enough to discourage from the job.

“You really can’t live your life that way,” says Eby.

Adds Lynch: “People in the community, people that we know, my patients, our friends have sort of challenged me with the statement: Everything’s gonna change now, are you ready?

“One of the strengths in the relationship is that we approach challenges without a lot of baggage.

“I think it’s very possible that you’re right. But I do think that there’s a possibility that not very much will change. And that may be a bit naive, but I think it’s possible that where we’re at now will be essentially maintainable.”

There’s even a potential best-case scenario: Eby returns the work of government to Vancouver, away from Horgan’s Victoria focus, and it essentially becomes a commuter job outside legislative sessions.

As the two sit at the family’s kitchen table, with the kids in bed, talking about the future, this is very much a desired outcome.

“It’s important to stay open to that possibility that the only thing that will happen is you actually might be around more,” Lynch says.

Pressure and expectations

Eby has 23 months and two days, from his first day as premier to the next scheduled election in 2024, to make progress on some major crises: Affordability challenges caused by inflation and interest rates, housing prices, a collapsing health-care system, prolific offenders, an overdose emergency and more.

It’s a daunting list.

“I feel a huge amount of pressure,” he admits. “I’ve got two years with my colleagues to deliver some fairly significant results on major files, big challenges. We’re not going to solve all the problems, but people need to see which direction we’re going.… But it’s all good pressure. You know, it’s an environment that I thrive in.”

His critics, including the BC Liberals, say he’s responsible for making those files worse during five years as attorney general, leaving a legacy of less affordable housing, an untamed overdose crisis and a catch-and-release justice system.

“I find it quite laughable that he’s going to be Mr. Fix-It to something that he’s been overseeing for five years, since day one for the NDP,” says BC Liberal leader Kevin Falcon. “He’s watched crime spiral out of control under his direct control.”

While New Democrats seek to paint Eby as a fresh new face, the Liberals say they’ll highlight how he’s spent over half a decade as a senior minister in government, with his fingerprints all over some files that have been failures.

Eby’s also under attack from many of the same activists he once worked alongside, who find his suggestions of involuntary confinement for people who repeatedly overdose a violation of civil liberties. And in the most recent BC NDP leadership race, he was characterized as the status-quo candidate who is in the pocket of big oil companies, wealthy donors and government lobbyists.

All of that may influence the public perception of the new premier. But Falcon, who also has two young children, says he intends to keep the criticism strictly professional.

“I will be a tough Opposition leader, and be very tough on holding him to account for his record,” says Falcon. “But I don’t need to make it personal at all. I don’t think that’s necessary.”

Popularity and connection

There’s also a different pressure: Popularity.

According to polls, Horgan was the most consistently liked B.C. premier in at least five decades. Even his occasional dumb statements or verbal gaffes seemed to generate voter endearment. His personal brand carried the BC NDP.

That’s not the case with Eby.

He’s best known to the general public as a very tall guy in a suit who speaks like a lawyer on serious issues like auto insurance and transnational money laundering.

“I can’t be John and I’m not going to try to be John,” he says. “If I’m successful in connecting with British Columbians it’ll be in a different way. And that’s okay.”

At home, in private, a different side is on display. He is far less serious, far more goofball.

At bath time, Iva wants a piggy-back upstairs. But as soon as the trip begins, she announces she is now a bee, and, perhaps still nursing the earlier rejection of a similarly shaped cookie, turns on her father.

“Sting!” she shouts.

“Oh no, Ow, the antidote, I need the antidote,” Eby wails, faltering on the stairs, his giant frame tilting precariously backwards.

“Here you go,” she says quickly, to avoid the fall.

Eby sighs. “Ah thank goodness.”

He makes it up one more stair before, again: “Sting!”

It’s the kind of imaginative physical comedy some dads excel at, but few would associate with Eby based on what they see of him from the nightly newscasts. It’s unclear how much of this truer version the public will ever get to see.

“David is a completely different person when he’s around his kids,” says Ravi Kahlon, a cabinet colleague who abandoned his leadership bid to co-chair Eby’s campaign.

“He becomes a big kid in that environment.

“One of the challenges is having the public see a side of you that they don’t normally see, and at the same time retaining some safe space for you and your family. That’s a balance everyone has to find in their own way.”

Premier Eby

A lot of Eby’s home life runs contrary to the public image of him as a tightly wound details guy.

He plays with Lego and stuffed animals. He chases his children around the playground like a monster. He scours Craigslist and auction houses for used furniture (he’s decorated the entire home).

Sometimes he even breaks out into song – though not the kind of alternative rock from his youth in a Vancouver indie band. Instead, earlier that day, he belted out the beginnings of a respectable version of “Let It Go” from Disney’s Frozen.

Eby is “in charge of arts and culture” in the household, says Lynch, while she handles the day-to-day details. Not what you’d expect from his buttoned-down public persona.

Their partnership seems perfectly complementary – as long as you realize Lynch is very much smarter, funnier, more ambitious and the family’s main breadwinner.

To paraphrase a Frozen line, they finish each other’s… sandwiches.

“The piece that remains my focus, why I got into government, is the belief that government can be more effective, that the government can actually make a difference for people,” Eby says while they sit together.

But then he trails off. Lynch jumps in: “And to be a source of good in our lives.”

“Exactly,” he says.

Around their kitchen table, they admit they have no idea what comes next after David Eby becomes Premier Eby. But, they’ve braced their family for the change as best they could.

“I’m happy that you are here,” Lynch tells him. “I’m happy that you get to shake the tree and see what comes out.”

There are still many risks. But Eby says he has to try.

“You need to either take on the challenges and do your best and be judged by that, or get out of the way and let someone else do it,” he says.

“That’s just how I feel about the responsibility of government.”

Rob Shaw has spent more than 14 years covering B.C. politics, now reporting for CHEK News and writing for Glacier Media. He is the co-author of the national bestselling book A Matter of Confidence, and a regular guest on CBC Radio.

rob@robshawnews.com

her hand in the air. “I’m a pirate!” she exclaims.

“So do ye want salted cod for breakfast, or pancakes?” Eby asks, in a guttural reply.

Pancakes win the day. The premier starts cooking.

“The nice thing about having kids is they know when you’re drifting,” he says. “Like if you’re trying to blend the work with family life – they’re just in your lap, on top of you and pulling your hair or whatever.”

 

SWIM ON