Redefining the role of frontman
David Eby’s hiring was a departure for the B. C. Civil Liberties Association — one that raised its profile
I was someone who was very visible and used the media to advance issues and used litigation to advance issues — and it’s something [ the BCCLA board] wanted, otherwise they wouldn’t have hired me. They would have hired an academic.
DAVID EBY EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, B. C. CIVIL LIBERTIES ASSOCIATION
Midnight at the Cobalt Hotel on Main Street and the lanky frontman of the group Ladner is rocking out, showing no sign of his qualms about playing at the SRO hotel whose owner had turfed out the bar’s former manager in a move that reeked of gentrification.
Most lead singer-guitarists aren’t troubled by such philosophical dilemmas, but this pop musician is also the executive director of the B. C. Civil Liberties Association and one of the city’s best-known antipoverty activists.
David Eby wasn’t happy about how the bar’s former manager, Wendy Thirteen, was evicted, ending the Cobalt’s status as the city’s premier hardcore heavy-metal haunt. But the gig’s promoter is a friend of the band’s keyboardist and Eby decided that in this case, personal loyalty trumped concerns about the hotel’s management. It’s only rock ’ n’ roll. But Eby’s ethical ambivalence about playing at the Cobalt contrasts somewhat with the unalloyed conviction behind the provocative stands he’s taken in his day job with the BCCLA and before that as housing coordinator with the Pivot Legal Society, a legal advocacy group in the Downtown Eastside.
Eby sparked controversy recently with his demand that the Vancouver fire department remove a mural from its Downtown Eastside firehall. It showed the Grim Reaper wielding a syringe-tipped scythe with the words “ The Skids” inscribed on the blade. Many believed the mural episode was a clear free-dom-of-expression issue — and that the BCCLA should have opposed censoring what the firemen put up on their wall.
For some observers, it seemed further evidence that the group’s focus had strayed away from traditional civil libertarian concerns of freedom of speech and expression since Eby became the BCCLA’s executive director 14 months ago.
Eby had also been a frequent, some might say unnecessarily alarmist, critic of Vanoc and Olympic security officials in the lead up to the 2010 Olympics.
His high-profile media presence grates on his critics, including Gord Ditchburn, president of the Vancouver Fire Fighters’ Union.
“ This is an individual who promotes freedom of speech — and it was he who was imposing his thoughts and ideas instead of allowing freedom of expression,” said Ditchburn.
Sheila Kennan, a writer and editor, said the group’s stance on the mural was “ antithetical” to its mission.
“ It wasn’t too long ago David Eby was complaining about a mural on Beatty Street being painted over before the Olympics,” wrote Kennan in an e-mail to The Vancouver Sun. Afterwards, Kennan told The
Sun, “ I still believe the BCCLA is a worthwhile organization and that David Eby is a person of integrity.” Kennan added she has since joined the BCCLA and made a donation.
Eby has become the BCCLA’s most public figure, but his influence is overstated, according to BCCLA officials. They said Eby speaks on behalf of the BCCLA board and answers to its president Robert Holmes, a self-described political conservative and pro-life Catholic who is president of the Trial Lawyers Association of B. C.
It was Holmes’s position on the firehall mural, they added, that became the consensus view of the BCCLA board and then was advocated publicly by Eby.
“ The position that the president took finally won the day,” said John Dixon, a former BCCLA president and former federal justice department policy adviser during the Mulroney era. “ One of the things that distinguishes Dave Eby is that he does what he is told and I don’t think he has varied from that in my experience.”
Dixon said he assumed Eby has social-democratic beliefs. But Eby’s politics are unconnected to his conduct as BCCLA executive director because he takes direction from the president who develops policy positions after canvassing board members, added Dixon.
“ If Dave Eby went off the reservation, he would be gone.”
Holmes said the association reversed its usual free-speech stance on the firehall issue to question whether a government agency should be allowed to show disrespect to the community it serves.
“ The B. C. Civil Liberties Association has always stood for the rights of individuals to freely express themselves,” he said. “ But our position is also that government should not engage in discriminatory activities.”
Holmes said the mural was not a provocative piece of art hanging in an art gallery.
“ Government is restrained by the Charter of Freedoms and can’t go around stepping on people’s toes,” said Holmes.
Ditchburn dismissed the notion that the mural reflected a discriminatory attitude among firefighters toward people in the Downtown Eastside.
“ Our members treat the public with utmost care and concern,” said Ditchburn. “ We treat everybody equally.”
As to Eby’s role in the matter, Holmes said: “ David reports to me and to the board and I think he is doing a fine job. And the idea that he has hijacked anything is ridiculous.”
Nevertheless, it’s safe to say the BCCLA has a more provocative media presence these days than it did before Eby’s arrival from Pivot Legal.
During 2009, the BCCLA gave nearly 1,000 media interviews, an 88-per-cent increase over the year before, according the group’s 2009 annual report.
BCCLA board member John Russell said Eby’s background in community activism was a departure for the civil liberties group, which has tended to hire academics skilled in producing legal briefs and lobbying government. There were concerns, said Russell, former executive director and past president of the BCCLA, that Eby’s hiring might be “ inappropriate given our history of calm, reasoned interaction.
“ But I don’t think that tradition has been diminished. I just think there is a little more of an edge now because of David.”
Russell, who now teaches philosophy at Langara College, said Eby’s approach has been “ a little more abrasive but not unreasonably so.”
Eby similarly said the BCCLA was previously more focused on negotiating with government. The training of hundreds of “ legal observers” to monitor Olympic protests “ isn’t something the old civil liberties association would have done.”
Eby said the BCCLA knew what it was getting when it hired him. “ I was someone who was very visible and used the media to advance issues and used litigation to advance issues — and it’s something [ the BCCLA board] wanted, otherwise they wouldn’t have hired me. They would have hired an academic.”
If there is any dissension over Eby’s style within the BCCLA, there’s scant evidence of it in the group’s latest annual report. The association’s membership rose by 18 per cent to 1,242 members in 2009 and donations climbed by five per cent during a recessionary year.
The BCCLA’s budget for 2009 was $ 725,957. Revenues totalled $ 889,548, including $ 313,600 from the Law Foundation of B. C., $ 202,608 from membership and donations, $ 99,669 from various grants and $ 47,759 from gambling revenue. Part of the association’s success this year may well be due to Eby’s public profile.
Over the past five years, Eby’s 6-foot-7 frame has loomed over countless media scrums, giving him a higher profile than most 33-year-old lawyers in the city.
When Eby was called to the bar in a ceremony at the Robson Square law courts in 2005, he received two job offers. One was a position with the federal justice department that came with a $ 60,000 annual salary plus benefits. Another was a job with Pivot Legal, which offered $ 2,000 a month, no benefits and no job security. To the dismay of his mother, who was attending the ceremony, Eby took the Pivot Legal job. “ I’m sure she doubted my sanity.”
Eby had been volunteering with Pivot for some time. He’d been inspired by executive director John Richardson, whom he’d initially met while taking affidavit information from people in the Downtown Eastside who alleged they’d been mistreated by the police.
Eby grew up in a middle-class family in Kitchener, Ont. His father was a lawyer and active Liberal. He attended the University of Waterloo, where he worked on the student newspaper and for a public interest research group on campus.
In the late ’ 90s, he became active in the anti-globalization movement at Waterloo, staging seminars on trade issues and human rights. After graduating with a degree in technical writing, Eby worked for a communications company that produced guides and manuals for a variety of corporations.
Eby wasn’t a natural fit with the media company. The vegetarian found himself writing copy for meat companies and for McDonald’s, which he’d boycotted for years for a variety of reasons. The final straw came when he was assigned to write a manual for Shell Oil on how to handle protests over its activities in Nigeria — protests with which he sympathized.
“ I’ve always been a pragmatic activist,” recalled Eby, “ but I remember feeling very conflicted over Shell and I left the job.”
In 2001, Eby was among the 20,000 anti-globalization protesters at the Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. He was impressed by lawyers he saw there informing protesters of their legal rights. “ I looked at those lawyers and knew I wanted to do that — be a part of that.”
Eby studied law at Dalhousie University and eventually moved to Vancouver in 2005.
The activist had a recruitment meeting with a large establishment law firm, at which he was told a position with the firm would involve representing people and companies he might not like.
“ I realized that being a hired gun for clients that I wasn’t too excited about wasn’t why I became a lawyer,” he said.
Eby didn’t join the firm, which ironically now does pro bono work for the BCCLA.
He began volunteering with Pivot, eventually becoming its housing coordinator and chief spokesman on issues in the Downtown Eastside. Between 2005 and 2009, he became a familiar figure in coverage of evictions at SRO hotels, gentrification in the Downtown Eastside and policing issues.
His work won him many fans among Vancouver’s activist centre-left, including entrepre-neur-philanthropist Joel Solomon, who encouraged Eby to run for city council on the Vancouver Vision slate. Eby fell just 17 votes short of gaining a position on the Vision slate — quite an achievement considering his name wasn’t attached to any of the slates competing for the Vision nominations.
Eby became BCCLA executive director last year and quickly found himself caught up in the debate over the 2010 Olympics. He was the public voice of the BCCLA’s opposition to the city’s Olympic signage bylaw, the Integrated Security Unit’s proposed “ protest zones” and the provincial government’s ill-fated Assistance to Shelter Act. Eby also coordinated the training of hundreds of legal observers to monitor free speech during the Games period.
Eby was criticized by the media when he agreed to requests from far-left protesters not to have the legal observers attend a protest at which anarchist “ Black Bloc” demonstrators vandalized the Hudson’s Bay store. It appeared to some Eby was taking orders from protesters rather than ensuring their right to protest. That notion was somewhat neutralized five days later during an anti-Olympic forum when Eby was pied and heckled for his criticisms of the rioting protesters.
One anti-Olympic anarchist, angry at Eby’s politics, told him to stick to being a lawyer. No doubt many politicians, police officers, Downtown Eastside hotel owners and firefighters have wished the same.