Book excerpt: The political rise of Christy Clark

In the 2013 provincial election, Christy Clark surprised voters and insiders alike by leading the B.C. Liberals to victory over the NDP. In her 2016 biography of the premier, former MLA Judi Tyabji combines research with personal recollections of her encounters with Clark over 30 years to reveal the story behind Clark’s rise to power in the turbulent world of B.C. politics.

I first met Christy Clark in 1984 or 1985, while studying at the University of Victoria. Christy and I were both Young Liberals and met at a few functions in Vancouver and Burnaby. At that time, she was attending Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, so we didn’t know each other that well. The gatherings were usually well attended, with anywhere from thirty to eighty youth, depending on whether it was an informal gathering or a function of the Liberal Party. Christy and I were 19 or 20 at the time and both of us “true believers.” My parents were Liberals, and I’d been recruited to the Young Liberals on campus. Christy was already involved because of her father’s activities. When I think back to those first few meetings, what I remember most about her was her laugh, her curviness, and her hair. She was always smiling and interested in the latest political conversation.

Before I get into what I mean by true believer, perhaps a little background on the political realities of the day. At that time, the national Liberal Party and the Liberal Party of B.C. were the same political party, which is not the case anymore. The Young Liberals (YLs) was a fairly active club, even in B.C., although provincially, the Liberals had been in the wilderness for a long time.

In the 1984 Canadian federal election, Brian Mulroney and the Progressive Conservatives defeated John Turner’s Liberals and formed a majority government, the first stable Conservative government since the late 1950s/early 1960s, Joe Clark having lasted less than a year before falling to a non-confidence vote in 1980.

In British Columbia, the political landscape was, and is, unique. When I first met Christy Clark, the B.C. legislature was divided between the Social Credit Party and the NDP. Social Credit came to power in the 1950s as a result of a special ballot set up to try to keep the labour-affiliated party out of power. This ballot elected the Social Credit Party, which evolved into a coalition of the provincial Liberal and Conservative parties, described in detail later.
Social Credit became almost unbeatable, forming ten of the eleven governments from 1952 until 1991. What this meant was if you were a Liberal in the mid-1980s, you supported the Liberals federally and Social Credit or NDP provincially, unless you were a so-called true believer.

So what is a true believer? There are different definitions, but when it comes to politics, a true believer is a person who holds to certain core political beliefs even when these beliefs do not help gain power. In politics, the true believers are actually gold during tough times, because they stick around when a party is out of power and has no money, because they believe in what the party stands for. Most important, they believe their political party would make the world a better place. True believers will work for no money and no expectation of immediate reward. They will slog away between elections, work like slaves during elections, run for office, contribute money, and argue their party and candidate’s positions with the passion of their beliefs and conviction. True believers make up the backbone of the political system because these are the people who do most of the work. A political party can run without them, if it has a lot of money, but even money can’t always buy power.

Christy Clark was a true believer, both in the Liberal Party of Canada and the Liberal Party of B.C. In fact, she was a second-generation true believer, following in the footsteps of her father. She was passionate about Liberal issues like social justice, multiculturalism, equality of opportunity, fiscal responsibility, health and education, and the environment; she was known as a progressive thinker.

There are often arguments about what it means to be Liberal in Canada, although there is usually agreement that Liberals support social programs (such as health care and pension plans); targeted government spending on social and government infrastructure (such as post-secondary education or national highways); tax policy that encourages economic growth or business investment; scientific work tied to economic development, international policy that encourages immigration and multiculturalism; and fiscal responsibility, including balanced budgets.

By way of contrast, the NDP generally supports higher taxes on business and high-income earners to support expanded government programs; labour laws and policy that provide higher wages for unionized workers or minimum-wage workers; laws and regulations that protect the environment; social programs that support families (such as public education and daycare), government-supported affordable housing projects; and deficit spending to cover the cost of the expanded government programs. Conservatives tend to support smaller government, lower taxes (especially on business), reduction in government spending and social programs, and restricted immigration.

True believers within a political party tend to be quite passionate about their party’s position on key topics. True-believer Liberals in Canada and British Columbia feel passionately that a tolerant, multicultural mosaic enriches Canada; that respect for indigenous people must be woven into public policy; that every person deserves an equal opportunity to succeed; and that government’s role is to provide the environment in which this opportunity can occur. What this means, specifically, is sound education, good health care, a healthy framework for a sustainable economy, and affordable government. Liberals will sometimes take on unions just as they will sometimes take on big business if either group appears to be acting contrary to the public interest.

I often tell my children that the world is run by the people who show up, because the truth is that most people don’t show up, especially for politics. People who show up in politics are in two groups: those seeking power, influence, or a career, and those who want to help their political party make the world a better place, whether nationally, provincially, or even municipally.

This brings us back to the Liberal Party in B.C. in the 1980s, a party made up entirely of true believers. Often we would attend receptions alongside people who were pretty angry with us for believing in something that wasn’t good for the Social Credit government. There were constant efforts to undermine any progress we made, and since many Socreds were federal Liberals, any time we raised money, they made sure it went to Ottawa and was not available for our efforts.

When I moved to Vancouver and started working for the federal Liberal Party in 1987, I attended a few Young Liberal social get-togethers, often held at someone’s rented house or apartment. Often Christy was there, sitting in a chair, a bottle of beer in hand and looking entirely at ease.

I remember Christy Clark at these events as a young woman in a T-shirt and jeans and with long, wavy blond hair. All the people were drawn to chat with her, and she engaged in conversations with a big smile on her face. Every now and then, her laugh would fill up the room and everyone would feel it. As for me — the newly arrived, policy-wonk ethnic girl from the Interior — I was a non-drinker and very shy, usually overdressed and keen to debate the constitution. I didn’t hang out with Christy, although we talked a few times and I really liked her. Everyone liked her. Her personality was warm and she seemed kind.

It is worth pointing out that, when I knew her back then, she didn’t show any leadership ambitions whatsoever. To put that in context, there were many Young Liberals who would tell us, whether we wanted to know or not, of their ambitions to be a member of parliament or prime minister or member of the legislative assembly or premier. These were the YLs who would really focus on grabbing key positions or attention at meetings. As much as Christy worked at events, she didn’t shoulder her way forward to grab key spots or seek out the limelight. She showed a keen intelligence and a gift for making friends, something not always easy for true believers willing to speak their mind.

Meanwhile, the split among Young Liberals between the young Socreds and provincial Liberals was pretty intense. Big arguments would break out. Some Young Liberals were actively engaged in organizing for the Social Credit Party, and many of these were loudly contemptuous of those of us hoping to elect Liberals to the B.C. legislature again.

Christy Clark followed every YL debate or discussion, and it was clear where her values lay, but her values seemed to serve more as a compass than an engine, guiding her opinions rather than driving them. Clark was always speaking up for the little guy, arguing against anything that she saw as elitist. When it came to the Constitution of Canada, she was ready to get into a scrap to fight for B.C.’s place in Confederation and did not accept the view often voiced from Ottawa, namely that B.C. should not make waves and be happy with the status quo. Clark, like many B.C. Young Liberals, was pretty passionate about B.C. receiving its fair share in terms of Senate seats and federal ridings. In those days, we were seriously underrepresented in the House of Commons and the Senate.

She was a Liberal, provincially and federally, and her centrist perspective seemed woven into the fabric of who she was. That being said, I remember her as much more tolerant of dissenting views than I was; I was happy to argue with the Socred supporters in the Young Liberals, sometimes just to taunt them.

Mike McDonald was a 17-year-old Young Liberal when he first met Christy Clark at an SFU Young Liberal meeting in the fall of 1986. He describes himself back then as a geeky kid who didn’t know what to expect from a political meeting.

“I remember Christy having the qualities we have seen in her today: full of life, approachable, lots of laughter. She made quite an impression on me, and we became fast friends.

“We quickly discovered that we both came from families of Liberals in dark times. The notion of struggle was intrinsic. Her dad, Jim, had run as a provincial Liberal in the late sixties and early seventies in Burnaby, outside the Liberal strongholds. He was a sacrificial lamb. My dad, Peter, ran in Dewdney in 1969 as a provincial Liberal, finishing third. They both fought the good fight, and both Christy and I were shaped by the experiences of our fathers: instinctively Liberal, not afraid of long odds.”

They were soon tossed into the deep end with politics. “Within the first month of belonging to the SFU Liberal Club, there was a provincial election where Art Lee was party leader. He was respected, and we felt we could get behind him. … Christy’s brother Bruce was on and off the ballot. I was very active in Maple Ridge. It was exciting to be part of something on the ground floor.” The results of all that hard work were not great. “We came out of the provincial election with less than seven per cent of the vote. Alas, there were no Liberal seats, but our fervour was undiminished.”

It was an exciting time to be a Young Liberal in B.C. In those days, the federal and provincial parties were in the same office, and I had a job working for the federal Liberal Party in the fundraising wing, under John Turner’s leadership. This meant I was woven into all the discussions that went on around the office.

Many of us, as young political geeks, ended up spending time at University Model Parliament (UMP), which meant that we participated in elections on campus to determine which political party would be government, which would be Opposition, etc. Then we invaded the real B.C. legislature in Victoria, and spent an entire weekend taking ourselves very seriously.  It was a lot of fun and great training for any young person wanting a chance to learn about government.

My cousin Mark Devereux and I attended the University of Victoria together, and we attended UMP before I graduated in 1986. In 1987 he attended when the Liberal Party was government. At that session, there were twelve Young Liberals in cabinet, and Christina (Christy) Clark was one of them. The elected leader of the Liberals was Patrick Salinger, and he appointed Christy Clark as minister of environment. My cousin Mark, well travelled by that age, was the minister of external affairs.

In the late eighties, we were plunged into constitutional discussions, which spread across Canada and led to some very heated debates. There were talks of Quebec separatism and western alienation, although few of the politicians in central Canada took the west too seriously. The federal Liberal Party was humming; after all, we were the party that had been in power when so many dramatic events had taken place regarding the constitution. Meanwhile, it was hard to be heard in the west.

Christy’s older brother, Bruce, was also politically involved. I remember he was often around at Young Liberal meetings. He was the tall, good-looking guy that all the girls were after. Christy and Bruce seemed very different and yet similar, as siblings often are — similar in looks and core values and dedication to the Liberal cause, but very different in personality and methodology. He seemed quiet and focused and ambitious and serious; she seemed relaxed, outgoing, fun-loving, and ready for whatever would happen next.

Bruce Clark explains where his little sister Christy engaged on the political spectrum. “I was just getting into the Young Liberals in 1975, and when Christy became involved, about 1980 or so, it was obvious that she was very good at it. She was on the more progressive side of the party; I was on the less progressive side.”

Being a progressive member of the party in the mid-1980s sets the stage for Christy Clark’s working relationship with the leader of the Liberal Party who replaced Art Lee, in late 1987: Gordon Wilson.

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