Street Legal: David Eby

Outside the club a scattering of people—hipsters, most of them, in nerd glasses and well-considered accessories—are smoking, and eating pizza from the shop next door. A guy in a hunting shirt with leather elbow patches darts by wearing a rubber pig mask. One young woman, who has the last stanza of T.S. Eliot’s “Love Song of J. Alfred
Prufrock” tattooed on her left arm, chats with a friend.

Inside, David Eby, executive director of the BC Civil Liberties Association, readies for the event, a release party for a local art-lit magazine. Everything is saturated with fuchsia light, including Eby, who’s on stage in a red plaid shirt and loose jeans, an electric guitar slung over his shoulder. He’s 6-foot-7, a narrow, angular fellow. As he maneuvers around, he’s careful not to knock his head against a low-slung gold chandelier.

The club is in the Cobalt Hotel on the southern edge of the Downtown Eastside, a.k.a. “the poorest postal code in Canada.” Eby, a career advocate for those on the margins, once called the owners of the hotel, the Sahotas, “some of the worst slumlords in Vancouver, who should probably be criminally charged.” But he’s not here to protest. Tonight, David Eby just wants to play some love songs.

The band launches into music as loud as the fuchsia lighting, alternately driving and dirge-like, tweaked with retro keyboards. Eby, on vocals, doesn’t jump around or head-bang, but when friends of the band shout ironic imitations of shrieking fans—“You’re a fucking God!”—he does smile, broadly and genuinely. This is a side of Eby not many people see. Rather than the haranguing social reformer, he comes across tonight as someone who’s in on the joke.
One of his long-time friends, a lawyer who works for the Department of Justice, yells over the wall of sound. “You hear people talk about activists jumping on bandwagons, but David has always been the way he is. He’s how an activist should be. He’s just himself.”

Being David Eby doesn’t only mean singing quirky, suburban-teen love songs (though he’s pretty good at it, making the college radio top 10 charts in 2008 with an album titled Makeout Music). It means being called to the bar at age 28, turning down a nice salary at the federal Department of Justice, and taking, instead, a $2,000-per-month contract with the fledgling Pivot Legal Society in the Downtown Eastside, an offer scrawled on the back of his commencement program by a guy with a goatee, hoop earrings, and a shaved head. And it means saying things people—even those on the same side—don’t always want to hear.

Since taking that job offer from Pivot director John Richardson, Eby, now 34, has emerged as one of the most influential civil rights lawyers in Canada, earning a reputation as an activist bulldog. Along with his position at the BCCLA, he’s president of the Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, a research associate with the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, and a founding board member of the International Centre for Science in Drug Policy. Over the past five years, his work on homelessness and policing issues exposed the shadow side of a high-minded city. He turned mass evictions from single-room occupancy hotels into media scrums that exposed the erosion of affordable housing.

He’s been outspoken on the need for civilian oversight of the Vancouver Police Department,  charging that the VPD has a history of “releasing misleading information” on cases where police conduct is questioned. Eby is a ubiquitous presence where civil rights are concerned. In the lead-up to the Olympics, he responded to the clamp-down on Charter Rights by helping two activists sue the city over its planned “free speech zones.” (The city backed down.) Not surprisingly, some consider his style confrontational. “He certainly hasn’t made friends in some areas, with an ideological approach that everybody else is ignorant of the issues except for him and his friends,” says Dave Jones, a former police officer and security consultant for the Downtown Vancouver Business Improvement Association (DVBIA). Eby and the BCCLA got considerable flack for not having legal observers present at an anti-Olympic demonstration by Black Bloc rioters. (BCCLA observers were absent. As Eby explains: “We didn’t anticipate that we’d need to protect the civil liberties of pro-Olympic people. But it quickly became apparent that that’s what happened.”)

Jones was not impressed. “I just went ballistic over that,” he recalls. “You can’t say we’re only going to view the police and hope they do something, or believe that they may do something illegal, and then step aside when others do illegal things.” At the suggestion that a more co-operative approach would better serve his purposes, Eby nods, and traces his lips with his knuckles. “I recognize that there’s a place for behind-closed-doors-type approaches,” he says. “And we do try them, but organizations like police departments have infinite resources for sitting down with you, doing consultations, and issuing annual reports that say, ‘We consulted with BCCLA or this group on this matter.’ And nothing ever changes. So I tend to be a little skeptical of the idea that you can change these organizations without the public being involved.”

On a sunny spring morning, Eby rides his bicycle to his fifth-floor BCCLA office in a glass-and-concrete tower on West Georgia, overlooking Stanley Park. His desk has two computer screens and is covered in binders and printed emails. The day begins with a phone interview on a local radio station: the subject is a mural at Firehall #2 in the DTES that Eby says is “problematic” and should be taken down. The mural shows a grim reaper wielding a scythe emblazoned with the words “The Skids” and tipped with a blood-dripping syringe. A tagline reads: “It’s not the end of the world but we can see it from here.” The mural has been in the firehall for over a decade, but now that he’s publicly denounced it, Eby has been attacked by firefighters and the media for an apparent hypocrisy: the director of a free-speech watchdog trying to censor the free expression—“black humour,” in the words of one official—that helps bond firefighters serving in some of the worst conditions in North America.

At one point, the radio interviewer accuses Eby of enforcing “the whims of political correctness.” Eby leans forward on both elbows and looks down as he speaks into the phone, as if focusing on a chess game. “Our main concern is that this mural was on the wall for 15 years and no one said, ‘Hmm, maybe this doesn’t represent the image of the firehall or the community that we serve.’”

As the interview ends, he swivels away from the phone. Asked how it went, he gives a resigned laugh. “All right. The usual,” he says. “Firehall #2 is my firehall. I’m going to have to be very careful around my apartment.”

In interviews Eby is even-tempered—an approach he learned from John Richardson. “John was good at not being the really excited or angry activist on TV,” Eby explains. “People aren’t at the same emotional state as you are about the issue; you have to meet them where they’re at. And media are almost trained to filter the emotional activist out.”

The fracas around the mural raises a question: what kind of a guy goes around swatting municipal hornets’ nests? Does it really matter if the mural of a grim reaper hangs in a firehall? In his years on the police force, Dave Jones often heard accusations of what’s known as “noble cause corruption,” where people believe they’re operating from a higher principle. “I wonder if some people who get involved with these social issues, out of frustration that  nothing’s moving fast enough, have aspects of this creep into their behaviour: ‘My cause is just, therefore my actions are justified.’” Jones doesn’t accuse Eby of this, but mentions it as a cautionary principle. “He’s a bright guy, very likeable and passionate about the issues,” Jones says. “David at one time seemed to have an ideological filter that put him at risk of being the Man of La Mancha, tilting at whatever windmill is out there. But I think he’s matured since moving to the BCCLA.”

Eby is used to having his methods questioned. “I’ve been accused of being an opportunist,” he says cheerfully. “One thing I do well is spot opportunities to achieve the change that I think needs to happen, or preserve what I think we need to preserve. The mural is just a symbol. The worst outcome would be for them to remove it and not do anything else—not acknowledge the strain the DTES puts on firefighters and get them more resources.”

If Eby is a swatter of hornets’ nests, he is selective. He doesn’t pick fights just for the pleasure, as one critic put it, of “purporting to have the high moral ledge.” As for bandwagons, he puts ethics before alliances, as when he denounced Black Bloc violence as “sickening.” (The criticism earned Eby a pie in the face from an enraged protester—as well as, he says, a lot of “David Eby is a sell-out hack” charges from former allies in the DTES.) His biggest flaw might be that he doesn’t filter empathy the way most people do. A mural of a death-head with a blood-dripping junkie needle is inoffensive to many of us who don’t have friends or family dying of addiction. But Eby walks in the shoes of the sidelined first. If he has a failure of character, it’s an occasional inability to see things the way the mainstream does.

The oldest of four kids, Eby became a militant vegetarian at 14, his brother Patrick remembers, after reading Diet for a New America. When the circus came to his hometown of Kitchener, Ontario, the teenaged Eby wasn’t trying to score with girls on the Ferris wheel; he was outside the gate protesting for animal rights. “David would try to talk to us about all this heavy stuff,” Patrick says, “and we’d be like, ‘Huh? We just want to be outside playing games.’”

Their father was a personal injury lawyer who occasionally took on pro bono cases for low-income clients. While he was a donating member of the federal Liberal party—and not, as Eby puts it, “a hippie, or a Marxist, or anything”—his father used the law to prevent the little guy from getting rolled by powerful interests. His mother, a retired elementary school teacher and principal, taught him a “scrupulous fairness,” Eby says. “It got firmly ingrained in me that everyone should have the same kind of treatment.”

But standing up for equal rights in the Downtown Eastside isn’t the same as demanding your fair share of dessert. Eby’s job with Pivot was like playing a freshman district attorney in a Batman movie: “Go out there, kid, and take on two of the Downtown Eastside’s touchiest and most intractable issues.” First, increase available housing. Second, shift the adversarial and sometimes brutal relationship between police and DTES residents. Eby started in 2005, and often worked 12 hours a days, six or seven days a week. The problems still get him worked up. “If you wanted to design the most inefficient, most expensive way to handle the issues of mental health, addiction and poverty, the Downtown Eastside is a great model,” he says. “Hire police at incredible wages to move people around. Drive them to the courts, where expensive lawyers and judges put them in expensive jail cell housing. Release them. Repeat. Deliver mental health care and disability health care via emergency rooms and ambulances on a crisis basis. Solve homelessness by providing temporary shelter beds that people have no opportunity to move out of and will depend on forever.” Along with offering detox on demand and residential drug treatment outside the neighbourhood for those who want it, the only way to plug the financial sinkhole of the DTES, Eby is convinced, “is to invest in real social housing, both supportive housing and simple affordable housing, both inside and outside the DTES. Otherwise we’re not investing, we’re just spending.”

Eby broadcast this argument at Pivot for three years. Allied with other advocacy groups, he helped turn each mass eviction of residents at single-room occupancy hotels into a press conference. He halted evictions at a half-dozen SROs, but his real goal was to shame politicians into investing in decent social housing. After years of meetings, press releases, and legal challenges, he helped leverage a major shift in housing policy. In 2007, the province agreed to buy more than 20 privately owned SRO hotels and convert them into social housing, stanching the 20-year hemorrhage of affordable housing stock. By 2012, the province will have built 750 new social housing units and renovated 600 more. Warm beds don’t cure addiction and poverty, but they offer something not yet guaranteed in the DTES: survival.

Eby was equally vocal about police brutality and the failure of the Office of the Police Complaint Commissioner to fairly investigate citizen charges against police. Unlike Ontario, police complaints in B.C. are investigated by police themselves, a system that has left the police department open to accusations of corruption. Eby was co-counsel for the United Native Nations in the inquiry into the exposure death of Frank Paul. Along with the RCMP tasering death of Robert Dziekanski, the Frank Paul Inquiry is cited as a key reason why the BC Association of Chiefs of Police finally took up  Pivot’s decade-long call for a new civilian-based unit to investigate complaints. (The success wasn’t Eby’s alone. Pivot, he notes, took affidavits about police behaviour for a year and a half before he got there, and one of his mentors, lawyer Cameron Ward, championed the issue since the late ’90s.)

His 80-hour work-weeks were, of course, a recipe for burnout. John Richardson, who goes on a four-week meditation retreat every year, tried to tell him as much, but Eby didn’t listen. “If the older me could go back and talk to me back then,” he says, “there’s a bunch of advice I’d probably give myself about taking time for myself, taking off weekends, getting out of the neighbourhood.”

The relentless misery of a place like the DTES tends to numb empathy. The idealistic kid who fought to help caged circus lions became inured to the pain. “By the time I left Pivot, in 2008, I was totally done with the DTES. I’d be like, ‘I don’t even want to talk to you. It’s not bad enough. Whatever issue you’ve got going on doesn’t register with me as seriously as the dead guy whose family I’m working for right now,” Eby recalls. “When you get to that kind of relativism about people’s level of tragedy, that’s a real warning sign.” By then, his friendships were suffering and his marriage had fallen apart. Activists who work on the front-lines of the social welfare system are sometimes guilty of neglecting their own social welfare, and Eby wasn’t immune. The BCCLA position offered a welcome change. “There was too much collateral damage in my life. I had to learn how to do activism in a sustainable way,” he says, then adds, “I’m still learning.”

It’s the day after his gig at the Cobalt, a Friday, and Eby’s tiny apartment is messy with amp cords, guitars, books, and CDs. Drawing a long leg over the arm of his couch, he’s obviously tired. But he perks up when talking about ideas for the future. For one thing, he plans to increase the BCCLA’s influence by revitalizing a dissipated network of civil-rights groups in northern and rural areas. There are, he says, some “crazy” things happening with RCMP abuses in rural areas.

As his lanky build and indie-rock persona suggest, Eby can be an awkward presence on the public stage. He tends to piss off members of various orthodoxies, whether police, government, or fellow activists, which can make him a tough political sell. (He ran for Vision Vancouver city council in 2008, but lost by 17 votes.) “I don’t know what the future looks like for me,” he says, picking at the fret-board of his guitar. “I love Vancouver, but it’s a small town for the kind of work I’m really interested in.” He brushes off talk about politics, but would consider helping spearhead a new international human-rights campaign.

Still, Pivot mentor John Richardson wonders if public office may yet be Eby’s destiny. “Look back at rabble-rousing lawyers of 30 years ago, like Mike Harcourt. Those luminaries were once outside the fold, raising a ruckus. Dave is like that. He’s just in his apprenticeship right now.” VM