The parallels between David Eby and Mackenzie King

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      Earlier this year, I wrote a fanciful column speculating whether B.C. attorney general David Eby might be aiming to become Vancouver's next prime minister.

      Some in the media see him as the premier-in-waiting, but I laid out a road map showing how he could rise even higher than that.

      It's predicated on NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh falling flat on his face in next year's federal election. That's a disinct possibility.

      Then the federal NDP would have to hold a leadership contest.

      Eby might decide to enter the race, possibly against high-profile B.C. MP Nathan Cullen. For this scenario to play out, Eby would have to triumph.

      This could set him up for a showdown with Justin Trudeau's Liberals after they've been in power for eight years.

      Here's the bonus for Eby: he wouldn't have to run for reelection in his relatively wealthy provincial constituency of Vancouver–Point Grey.

      This political turf has been tough slogging for the NDP in the past. It's why the B.C. Liberals and their allies are trying to whip up enthusiasm for a campaign to recall Eby, linking this to the new provincial surtax on homes valued at more than $3 million.

      Of course, if the proportional representation referendum passes, Eby could still sail back into the legislature under yet-to-be-defined voting boundaries.

      Some see David Eby (right) as the heir apparent to B.C. premier John Horgan.
      B.C. NDP caucus

      Eby and Mackenzie King share the same hometown

      But let's get back on the Eby-as-prime minister track. That's what this column is all about.

      Here's a little-known fact: Canada's longest-serving prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, is from the same hometown as Eby.

      King was born in what was then called Berlin, Ontario.

      The name was changed to Kitchener during the First World War when the British Empire was fighting the Germans.

      Sitting 100 kilometres west of Toronto, Kitchener was originally called Ebytown.

      This was in honour of its founder, a Mennonite preacher and bishop named Benjamin Eby.

      The Waterloo Region Record  published a story in 2015 about another significant Eby—Christian Eby—who was a charismatic Mennonite folk healer and a grandson of Benjamin Eby.

      Local historian Joanna Rickert-Hall described Christian Eby, who died in 1920, as a moody and eccentric man who sometimes expressed rage but on other occasions showed compassion. People would travel from great distances, as far away as Chicago and Manitoba, to seek treatment from him.

      He sold guinea pigs, telling people that this would cure their rheumatism.

      "A lot of what he was doing was not what you would consider mainstream medicine by any shot," Rickert-Hall told the newspaper. "But the notion he was doing witchcraft is misdirected."

      There were a lot of Ebys in Ebytown. They were German descendants, but came via Pennsylvania. This is one reason why the town was renamed Berlin in 1833.

      Over the next five decades, there were lots of Lutherans arriving too, just as they were also going to Minnesota and Wisconsin. Most of these Lutherans came directly from Germany.

      In 1897, Kitchener residents erected a bronze bust of Kaiser Wilhelm I in a local park. It was demolished after the First World War began.

      By 1911, 70 percent of "Berlin" was of German origin, though the vast majority were Canadian-born.

      The Mennonites among them were pacifists. 

      During the First World War after some racism was inflicted on people who traced their roots back to Germany—including violent attacks—the name of the city was changed to Kitchener.

      Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener was a British war hero who died that year. Kitchener also had the dubious distinction of creating concentration camps during the Boer War in what is now South Africa.

      Mackenzie King's boyhood home is a tourist destination at the Woodside National Historic Site in Kitchener.
      Waterloo Historical Society

      King and Eby made their names in Vancouver

      Many Vancouverites don't realize that Kitchener's most famous resident, Mackenzie King—the man on Canadian $50 bills—burst into public prominence because of race riots in Vancouver's Chinatown and Japantown in 1907.

      University of Toronto historian Julie F. Gilmour revealed this in her 2014 book Trouble on Main Street: Mackenzie King, Reason, Race, and the 1907 Vancouver Riots. King held a commission of inquiry, which led to him being elected to Parliament for the first time in 1908.

      King discovered that there was widespread consumption of opium in Chinatown, which led to federal legislation banning its use except for medical purposes. He travelled widely to share his expertise on drugs with foreign governments.

      Gilmour's book documents how King helped mediate rising tensions between then U.S. president Theodore Roosevelt and Great Britain. It concerned Roosevelt's belief that there was going to be a war with Japan, which was a British ally.

      King has been described as a cold man with few friends and a poor orator, but he had many political allies who helped advance his career. He was also a brilliant tactician.

      No doubt, Eby learned a great deal about King as a student growing up in Kitchener. After all, King was a local legend—the native son who made it big in the world of politics.

      King moved away from Kitchener (then Berlin) to attend the University of Toronto. He never returned to live in his hometown again, though he stayed at a local hotel or rented a house there when he ran in three elections.

      Eby moved to Vancouver after graduating from Dalhousie's law school in Halifax in 2004. Like King, he became a public figure in Vancouver. This came while Eby was working for the Pivot Legal Society.

      In this capacity, Eby launched legal challenges on behalf of residents of single-room-occupancy hotels in the same neighbourhood where King was probing the damages wrought by riots a century earlier.

      That's not the only parallel. Both of these Kitchener boys found themselves at the nexus of race and politics in Canada.

      In February 2016, David Eby held a news conference highlighting how local real-estate agents were circumventing federal financial-disclosure rules.

      Housing critic shone a spotlight on purchases 

      After being elected to the legislature, Eby's star rose in the media as the NDP's housing critic. He focused on foreign buying of real estate in Vancouver—and the lack of effective regulation over the movement of money.

      Eby encouraged a researcher of Chinese ancestry, Andrew Yan, to probe the extent of Chinese immigrants' real-estate purchases in a part of Dunbar.

      In addition, Eby raised concerns about Chinese students being listed as the owners of expensive homes. He held a news conference to highlight wrongdoing at a real-estate agency employing many Mandarin-speaking agents.

      All of this fuelled Vancouverites' concerns about foreign ownership of housing. It helped the NDP form a minority government—the first time it held power since it was trounced in the 2001 election.

      Later as attorney general, Eby retained a former RCMP assistant commissioner, Peter German, to investigate money laundering in casinos. This, in turn, focused more attention on activities within the Chinese community.

      Eby repeatedly praised reporters Kathy Tomlinson and Sam Cooper for their efforts to expose wrongdoing in the real-estate and casino industries. Their articles paid a significant amount of attention to people of Chinese ancestry. Tomlinson and Cooper helped boost Eby's profile by including him in their stories.

      Going back in history, fears about the yellow peril are what caused the riots in Chinatown and Japantown in 1907. Labourers descended on these neighbourhoods, spurred on by racist demagogues. This was the catalyst for King getting into Parliament.

      More than a century later, fears of a new foreign yellow peril emerged in Vancouver. And this time, it was another Kitchener native, Eby, who was promising to address the underlying issues.

      Eby has become extremely popular with many millennials, as well as many older voters. They see him as the only straight shooter in politics.

      There's a certain irony here. Both King and Eby come from a community where, in a historical sense, residents knew what it was like to be hated for their heritage.

      Those living in Kitchener went out of their way to prove their patriotism by naming their city after the British war hero.

      After King became prime minister, his razor-thin majority government introduced the Chinese Immigration Act. It banned virtually all immigration from China from 1923 to 1947. He also outlawed cannabis.

      King was reelected to head a minority government in 1925.

      In addition, King headed a majority government that interned Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. King's Liberals were reelected in 1945 to form a minority government.

      In 1988, a Conservative prime minister, Brian Mulroney, issued an official apology to Japanese Canadians. In 2006, another Conservative prime minister, Stephen Harper, delivered a formal apology to Chinese Canadians.

      Mackenzie King oversaw a commission of inquiry into the 1907 race riots, when a mob of white residents descended on Chinatown and Japantown to smash windows and attack residents.
      UBC Special Collections photo

      Sinophobia emerges again

      When housing prices were on the rise, there were several news reports of racist flyers being distributed in parts of the Lower Mainland.

      Recently, an ethnic Chinese real-estate agent in Coquitlam was the recipient of a threatening letter from a racist.

      One of the Straight's contributors, Ng Weng Hoong, brought this to the attention of B.C.'s attorney general. This was revealed on Ng's website.

      Through a spokesperson, Eby told Ng that anyone who uses the Dirty Money report on casino gambling "to legitimize anti-Chinese sentiment is intentionally distorting the findings in order to perpetuate racist attacks".

      Meanwhile, Eby continues to claim that casino money laundering is "linked to housing prices that have made life unaffordable for BCers".

      Some, including Ng, have questioned that assertion, noting that $48.9 billion worth of residential real estate was sold in Vancouver last year.

      The Dirty Money report estimated that about $10 million per year was being laundered through casinos. Ng pointed out on this website that this amounts to less than 0.02 percent of the value of all transactions.

      But not everyone pays attention to details like this.

      Mackenzie King knew it was good politics to launch a war on cannabis and keep the Chinese out of the country in the 1920s. It helped him stay in the prime minister's office.

      And nearly a century later, another famous Kitchener native, David Eby, obviously sees political benefits in playing up links between casino money laundering—rather than money laundering in the cannabis sector or many other industries—to sky-high B.C. housing prices.

      Perhaps one day, this will help vault him into the prime minister's office.

      It's a small world that we occupy here in Canada, notwithstanding the vastness of the landscape.