David Eby handles every live grenade in B.C. politics. Is he a premier-in-waiting?

From Vancouver real estate to the pipeline lawsuit, the NDP attorney general has planted stakes in the province’s biggest issues. But his greatest challenge might be hanging on to his seat
David Eby
Attorney General David Eby arrives to speak to media following the public engagement launch for next year’s provincial referendum on electoral reform during a press conference at Legislature in Victoria, B.C., on Thursday, November 23, 2017. (Chad Hipolito/CP)

David Eby, B.C.’s high-flying attorney-general, expected the Point Grey Residents Association meeting to be explosive. But as he was introduced, the thunder of boos from about 1,000 attendees, many of them monied constituents of his Point Grey riding, had the feel of a full-on voter revolt. They filed to the microphone, excoriating Eby’s NDP government for a new so-called school tax imposed on homes valued over $3 million. “This is equity theft—it’s destructive, it’s divisive and it’s bad,” exclaimed David Tha, a 72-year resident of Point Grey. From a side table, Eby’s arch political opponent, Liberal Party leader Andrew Wilkinson, grinned. He was given two minutes to speak, which he used to slam the so-called school tax for it’s “phoney” name—the proceeds will go into general revenue—and to accuse Eby of creating division between rich and poor. He didn’t need to say more: the audience took care of the rest. What followed was a two-hour flogging.

The property tax is the type of legislation Eby, an anti-poverty activist turned politician, supports, and polls show it’s a hit with most of the public. “It’s a recognition that people who own these multimillion-dollar homes have done very well in the last five years and so a 0.2 per cent tax is a fair thing to ask,” he says. But selling it to constituents who are the tax’s prime target is a supreme test of a man some in this province see as a future premier—a political high-wire he must cross to keep his surging career on track. His west side Vancouver riding is one of the wealthiest in B.C. Point Grey is home to the “Golden Mile,” a street lined with many of the city’s most expensive properties, and to Lululemon founder Chip Wilson’s $78.8 million mansion. At times like this, Point Grey is an uncomfortable fit for an NDP MLA.

The trouble on the home front comes at a time when Eby’s political star has never been brighter. Since last July, when he was named attorney-general by NDP Premier John Horgan, Eby has earned a national reputation as an indomitable, anti-corruption crusader. At 41, he is seldom out of the headlines and his performance as AG has people musing that he will be the party’s next-generation leader. Among them: former B.C. premier Glen Clark, who describes Eby as a smart guy, deftly handling a host of heavy files. But leadership requires more than that, Clark says. “He’s fearless. One of the things you need to be in power is confident in your ability to get things done. He clearly has no problem with taking command and making decisions.” And given that the current NDP rule hinges on a tenuous agreement with the Green Party, Eby’s chance could come sooner rather than later—provided he doesn’t lose his seat.

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For now, he is content juggling numerous hot-button dossiers which include a fiscal fix for the province’s debt-riddled auto insurer and designing an electoral reform referendum. Most recently, Eby’s been the face of B.C.’s legal counterattack against Alberta in the Kinder Morgan pipeline spat, arguing Alberta’s plan to cut the supply of domestic fuel to B.C. is unconstitutional. At home, he’s known for his clean-up-Dodge approach to Vancouver’s hyper-inflated real estate market. As opposition housing critic, he’d decried the role of foreign investment in driving up Canadian house prices and called for a foreign buyers tax before most other politicians acknowledged the problem. Now, at his urging, the government is designing a “beneficial ownership” registry which will require property owners to disclose their true identities, thereby making it easier to monitor tax evasion and money laundering. And he’s appointed a former RCMP deputy commissioner, Peter German, to probe the connection between money laundering and real estate investment. In March, Eby took his corruption concerns national in a speech before the House of Commons Standing Committee on Finance. Canadians were shocked as he described viewing video of shady gamblers rolling suitcases stuffed with cash through the doors of B.C. casinos. “I was astounded by the audacity of those involved,” he said. “On a purely practical matter, $800,000 in twenties is very heavy. It looked like they were helping somebody move a box of books.”

His crime-busting efforts are winning kudos from Wally Oppal and Ujjal Dosanjh, former Liberal and NDP attorneys-general, respectively. Critics, however, accuse him of political grandstanding, particularly on the housing file. Eby’s insistence that foreign capital is largely to blame for Vancouver’s housing crisis is decried as cheap, populist politics by those who believe the real problem is lack of supply.

It’s early, of course, to pencil Eby into the premier’s office: among New Democrats, support for Horgan remains solid. But ask anyone about future leaders and Eby’s name comes up. NDP party stalwart Bill Tieleman lives in the riding and, even though he opposes Eby’s push for proportional representation, campaigns for him in every election. “I think the future for David Eby in the party depends on him continuing to win his seat, which is a challenge because of the luxury tax,” he says. The Liberals ran a low-profile candidate in the last election; knowing Eby’s current vulnerability, they will most certainly seek out a heavy-hitter next time round, he predicts.

Eby’s been left to defend the surtax in his own riding; the reaction has been less than warm (Photograph by Jimmy Jeong)

Eby grew up in Kitchener, Ont., where his father was a personal-injury lawyer and a federal Liberal, his mother a school principal. “She was the AG of our family. There were four kids in our house and she maintained law and order,” Eby says. Dinner table political discussion heated up as Eby became a vegetarian, environmentalist and railed against Mike Harris’s government of the day. His parents hoped law school would moderate him, and when Eby was called to the bar, his father gave him a pair of patent leather “court shoes.” That day, John Richardson, founder of Pivot Legal Society, wrote him a job offer to join the anti-poverty activist group in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. Eby says he was so excited he almost cried. The shoes went to the back of the closet.

Pivot’s outgoing executive director Katrina Pacey describes him as so smart that he “can be intimidating.” (At six-feet, seven-inches, Eby is physically imposing as well.) But as a colleague she found him a “great combination of determined, smart, principled, funny and warm.” The group of young activist lawyers hounded the police and supplied residents in the impoverished neighbourhood with “Know Your Rights” cards. Eby’s most anti-authoritarian move was co-authoring a document entitled “How to sue the police and private security in small claims court.” That made him a pariah with law enforcement and some wondered early on whether he was a good fit for attorney general. Eby says his aggressive approach was appropriate for his activist role at the time. But like any politician who goes mainstream, he says he recognizes his constituency is now much broader.

This recalibration won him a measure of respect among some of his former enemies, including Tom Stamatakis, president of the Vancouver Police Union. When Eby left Pivot to become executive director of the British Columbia Civil Liberties Association, he’d continued his crusade for civilian oversight of police. More than once he publicly slammed officers he felt had overstepped before the cases were fully investigated. At least once, the officers were later exonerated of any wrongdoing. This prompted a scathing news release from Stamatakis: “It is fair to conclude … that Mr. Eby doesn’t believe police officers under investigation should be presumed innocent until proven guilty.” But that was then, and Stamatakis now says Eby has mellowed. “Many people would be surprised to hear me say this, but generally speaking he’s doing a good job.”

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Eby left the BCCLA for politics, unsuccessfully seeking a city council nomination with left-leaning Vision Vancouver in 2008, before taking on former premier Christy Clark for the Point Grey seat in a 2011 byelection. He lost, but put up a good showing, and when the general election rolled around in 2013, he tried again and won. The ensuing giant-slayer references boosted Eby’s profile and he continued that upward trajectory as opposition housing critic, inveighing against the growing affordability crisis.

After the 2013 loss, the NDP needed a new leader. Horgan initially said he didn’t want the job and Eby seriously considered a run. But just then his wife discovered she was pregnant with their first child, and he stood down. He’d seen the burden shouldered by former party leader Adrian Dix, and understood the need for the leader to be on the road non-stop. “It’s just so much work, so relentless,” he says, adding that he made the choice to ensure his son “would have a dad who was around a lot more.” Horgan reluctantly agreed to run, but for some time after, rumours swirled that Eby might still be angling for the job. The party was down in the polls. There were suggestions in the media that some people were having second thoughts about Horgan. “It couldn’t help but affect our relationship,” Eby says. He reassured his boss he had no designs on the position and they worked through the bad feelings. “He gave me high-profile critic roles, and as much space as I needed to bring forward the issues,” Eby says, adding that Horgan “wasn’t concerned personally about the level of profile the housing issue turned into.” When the NDP won the next election, Horgan named Eby attorney general.

In that role, Eby is now less directly involved in the housing file, except to defend taxation policies in his own riding. But B.C.’s Liberal housing critic and former mayor Sam Sullivan accuses Eby of making his name by scapegoating foreign buyers for Vancouver’s housing crisis. “I understand electorally, it’s a great winning formula,” he says, “but it’s not one I have respect for.” Sullivan points to a CHMC study which concludes a lack of housing supply and surfeit of government regulations pushed up prices. He chides Eby for ignoring the data in favour of an easier, more populist, blame-the-wealthy-Chinese approach. “I can’t believe any person making public policy wouldn’t consult such a well-funded report.”

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At the residents’ meeting, Eby returned to that populist refrain in an attempt to redirect homeowner hostility. It showed, if nothing else, a capacity to thrust and parry even as he absorbs epic punishment—a virtue, surely, in B.C. politics. He denounced developers who market to offshore buyers who then flip homes for profit. He took shots at Wilkinson for hosting meetings at the “elite” Arbutus Club, and at the Liberals for standing by while family neighbourhoods transformed into a “speculator’s paradise.” In almost every riding except his own, Eby’s words would’ve resonated with Vancouverites, many of whom can only dream of owning a home. But they fell flat with Tamara Knott, a constituent who claims the new tax will force her to sell and demanded he side with his constituents or resign. “Recall,” shouted someone in the audience.

Eby’s political future, at least in Point Grey, is far from cloud-free. Yet Patti Bacchus, a former chair of the Vancouver School Board who lives in Eby’s riding and is standing by him despite being hit by the tax, believes her MLA has huge potential and is convinced he will survive—if not in her riding then somewhere else. “He has that ability to work across lines. It’s his personal approach: he’s a likeable guy and keeps his cool.”

Correction: Bill Tieleman’s name was spelled incorrectly in the original version of this story