Incoming B.C. premier Eby vows to make Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside healthy, safe

British Columbia’s incoming premier says he will lead the government’s push to transform Vancouver’s inner-city east from a hopeless neighborhood to one that is healthy and safe.

David Eby, who will be sworn in as B.C.’s 37th premier on Friday, says his government will be tasked with restoring low-income areas plagued by crime, drug addiction, homelessness and Mental health problems.

“Right now, people living in tents and on sidewalks don’t feel safe, and the wider community, they don’t feel safe about what’s happening on the Midtown East,” he said in an interview. “We need to fix this.”

Eby, 46, has made a career of big assignments, including defeating then-premier Christy Clark in the 2013 general election, which she won in her Vancouver-Point Grey riding .

Addressing complex and contentious issues is what the government should be doing, he said.

Eby said finding ways to help people was why he entered politics about a decade ago and eventually sought the prime ministership.

“I’ve seen my political journey begin with the frustration of politicians who seemed to get elected but weren’t quite sure what to do once they were elected,” Eby said. “They don’t seem to understand that government should be there to serve people’s priorities.”

Eby won housing rights for low-income residents as a human rights attorney and executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association.

As attorney general and minister responsible for housing, he restructured the province’s cash-strapped B.C. state-owned insurance company, cracked down on money laundering and pushed the debate on housing policy reform.

He also ushered in the re-establishment of the B.C. Human Rights Commission.

Eby said the challenge of rebuilding the downtown east side will become a hallmark of his NDP government.

“I’ve never seen a more hopeless downtown east side,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything worse. I worked there for many years 20 years ago, and I think it was pretty hopeless. We went in the wrong direction in that neighborhood.”

Eby became NDP leader last month after his sole challenger, Anjali Appadurai, was disqualified by the party. He said he knew he was not well known across the province, especially not as well known as outgoing premier John Horgan.

“I want people to see me as someone who is going forward on issues they care about,” he said.

Ebby said he looked to previous NDP leaders — Tommy Douglas, Dave Barrett and Hogan — as inspiration and guides when he took office.

But Joy McPhail, a former NDP stalwart, “was someone I had on speed dial,” Ebby said, describing her as a widely respected political figure in the private and public sectors, “who always faced With a smile.”

“What all of these NDP leaders have in common is that they take direction directly from the community and focus on the immediate needs of the people,” he said. “One of the lessons I learned very early on was that you have to connect directly with the community, the frontline workers, the people who provide the services and the members of the community.”

Greens leader Sonia Furstenau, who worked with Eby in 2017 after the Greens helped the NDP form a minority government, said the new prime minister was goal-oriented and knew where he wanted to go.

“What he showed us was that he really understood how to make things happen,” she said.

Furstenau said she did not see Eby’s previous activist work as a human rights lawyer as a topic of concern, even though it was characterized by the opposition Liberal Party as anti-law enforcement.

“As MLAs, we all should have a level of activism in our work as we actively try to address issues in our constituencies, regions and provinces,” she said. “If you want to go into government and become an elected representative, definitely part of what motivates you is that you want to make a difference.”

Liberal leader Kevin Falcon said he foresees Eby and the NDP trying to reinvent themselves as a new government, but he will remind them they are getting old.

“They’ve been there for almost six years and have had very little to show for it in terms of actual results,” he said.

During Eby’s tenure as housing minister, “we had the highest home prices in North America,” Falcon said, while random crime rates in Vancouver and British Columbia soared during his tenure as attorney general.

“He’s really overseen it all and now wants the public to believe that he’s suddenly religious and now he’s going to do all these things to fix these issues,” he said.

Falcon said Eby’s plan to overhaul housing policy to increase supply in the market “stolen my idea. I just didn’t believe it.”

Employment Minister Ravi Kahlon, who was Eby’s campaign co-chair during the leadership campaign, said the new prime minister was unique among politicians because he had the support of the entire NDP caucus.

“It shows and reflects who he is as the leader of our room when decisions are made,” he said. “He’s thoughtful. He reflects everyone’s opinion. People will see that he’s real, that he’s genuine, that he cares about the province.”

Eby said he experienced first-hand some of the major issues facing the province during the COVID-19 pandemic, when his family briefly moved to Port McNeil on Vancouver Island for his wife’s family doctor work.

“It was a real eye-opener,” he said. “As we tried to settle down, we realized we couldn’t find a place for the family,” he said. “We almost had to cancel because we couldn’t find a place. To me, this is such an example of how housing can overcome many of the different challenges we face.”

Eby said his family, including two children, did manage to find a rental property so his wife, Dr. Cailey Lynch, could complete her rural medicine internship.

“If we can’t find housing there, they won’t be able to have doctors in clinics for a very long time,” he said. “She’s in charge of the entire district and can respond to any emergency, multi-vehicle collision or crisis someone is facing.”

Ebby, who described himself as a reluctant politician in his early years, said he never expected to beat Clark in 2013, but as the years went on he found a way to achieve results and purpose in government.

“Before I got into politics, I never really looked to politicians for inspiration,” he said. “I’m actually very skeptical of politicians and their motivations, and what they do and don’t do. Since getting involved in politics, I’ve definitely seen different ways of operating and it’s made me reflect on the way I deal with people.”

– Dirk Meissner, Canadian Press

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