British Columbia·Analysis

Christy Clark, a polarizing premier, leaves the political arena with an uncertain legacy

It seems unlikely that time will smooth over the large divide between former B.C. premier Christy Clark's fans and her detractors.

Much is contingent on whether her mega-projects come to fruition

Christy Clark, former premier of B.C., is stepping down as leader of the provincial Liberals after a tumultuous election that ultimately saw her replaced by NDP Premier John Horgan. (Darryl Dyck/Canadian Press)

After Christy Clark announced she would be stepping down as leader of the B.C. Liberal Party, the first public comments from her fellow MLAs came from Rich Coleman, B.C.'s long-time deputy premier.   

"I want to talk about Christy for a second," he said, voice choking up, outside the building where the Liberals were holding a caucus retreat. 

"I've never worked with anybody with more passion and love, strength of leadership and management in my entire life than Christy Clark.

"What she's given to this province should never be forgiven," said Coleman, before realizing his mistake.


Never be forgiven, or never be forgotten? 

It's a slip up befitting an incredibly polarizing premier.

No nuance

There's a reason historians caution against assessing political leaders right after they depart the scene: it's hard to fairly judge decisions and performance without some distance.

But it seems unlikely that time will smooth over the large divide between Clark's fans and her detractors. 

Some saw a dynamo of a politician who led British Columbia through five balanced budgets and the strongest top-line economic growth in the country, a female trailblazer who had a relentless work ethic and inspired tremendous loyalty in those around her, a premier who never stopped believing what B.C. could accomplish. 

Others saw a career politician with ruthless ambition, one who would say — and do — anything to get elected, prioritizing politics over policy every step of the way, an ethically-challenged leader who showed a lack of sympathy for the province's most vulnerable and had no guiding compass for the province beyond jobs. 

Clark's particular way with messaging makes it hard for people to hold a moderate view of her.

Jobs, jobs, jobs

When she was once asked why she didn't have a child poverty plan, she replied: "We have a jobs growth plan. That's how you eliminate poverty."

"You know why we have so much social housing?" she asked one crowd during the recent election campaign. "It's not because we have socialism; it's because we have a resource sector with hard-working people."

Clark focused much of her campaigning around job creation, a message welcomed by some but scorned by others, who felt her government failed to address other social issues. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

When challenged in a debate about housing unaffordability in B.C., she said "You know what you need to be able to afford a home? You need a job."

For Clark, everything always pivoted back to the economy. 

Even after her resignation, when former health minister Terry Lake was asked about Clark's detractors on non-economic issues, his first response was to talk about the economy.

"When I was elected in 2009, we were in recession. We were in deficit," he said. "Look at us today, five balanced budgets, the economy is better than ever, people are working all around the province, and people don't give Christy Clark the credit for important social initiatives."

Lake then mentioned two initiatives that provided incentives for people to rejoin the workforce. 

Last-minute pivots 

Why couldn't Clark win another majority despite a strong economy and split opposition in the NDP and Greens?

It's a question those looking to replace her as leader will have to answer at some point. 

It's a question Clark never answered herself, even after saying she would stay on as Opposition leader — the final change in course of a leader who had plenty of them.

Clark said she wouldn't ask Lt.-Gov. Judith Guichon to send British Columbians back to the polls. Then she did exactly that.

She accused the B.C. NDP of hacking into her party's website — and then said she was wrong and never had any proof.

The pattern of pivoting became as much of her political persona as job creation.

Mega-projects may not happen

Her largest long-term legacy may be the health of the B.C. Liberal Party: when she became leader, there was infighting within her caucus, a resurgent Conservative Party and a real question where the centre-right in B.C. would go.

Today, the Liberals are flush with cash, the provincial Conservatives in shambles and her caucus is united in publicly praising her legacy.

But most legacies, at least in British Columbia, are made of what leaders build.

And on this front, Clark's legacy is very much in question. None of her vaunted mega-projects — Site C, LNG and the Massey Bridge — may come to be.

With the NDP in charge, the Site C dam is destined for review and could be stopped. 

The future of LNG is up in the air after Pacific Northwest LNG's decision to halt its project. And Horgan has said his transportation priorities in Metro Vancouver are the same as the mayor's council — which does not include the Massey Bridge.

Clark's biographer, former Liberal MLA Judy Tyabji, is optimistic on how history would portray the former premier.

"She didn't have recognition for the vision that she was putting in place while she was leader, but it'll come."

Whether positive recognition comes or not, Christy Clark will be remembered as B.C.'s first elected female premier, a tireless campaigner whose leadership came to an end after the most unusual election in B.C. history. 

And as perhaps the most polarizing premier in modern times.

The historians will decide the rest.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?