British Columbia·Profile

'She evokes strong emotions': A profile of Christy Clark

Who is Christy Clark? It could be one of the defining questions of the 2017 provincial election. Her friends say she is a dedicated leader and a great, caring mother. Her opponents call her a divisive leader who cares only about her donors.

B.C. Liberal leader Christy Clark has been on the job for 6 years and a lot has changed over that time

BC Liberal leader Christy Clark and her son Hamish Marrisen-Clark, 11, share a laugh as they watch the results come in on TV of the 2013 British Columbia provincial election. (Jonathan Hayward/Canadian Press)

On February 26, 2011 Christy Clark's life changed.

The radio talk show host and former education minister was only supported by one member of the B.C. Liberal caucus, yet she still was able to win the party's leadership race and become the province's 35th premier.

On the eve of the 2017 provincial election campaign— Clark's second election as party leader — she went back to where she was crowned that night, inside the new Vancouver Convention Centre.

Reflecting on the events, Clark points to one memory in the hours leading up to her name being announced as the party's new leader. She was sitting in a holding room inside the convention centre, waiting for the final results, surrounded by staff and family. But closest to her was her son Hamish.

"He crawled up on my lap, he was nine at the time and says, 'Mom, I think I am going to be sick," said Clark. "He was so nervous."

"When we won there was no one in the room happier than Hamish. He worries a lot for me."

The 'weight of responsibility'

B.C. Liberal leader Christy Clark is looking to be re-elected on May 9. (Harold Dupuis/CBC News)

A lot has been said about Clark since she became premier. Just type her name into Google and the search engine pops out 19.8 million results.

The same search for NDP Leader John Horgan generates 472 thousand results.

"I felt that weight of responsibility. You think you know what it will feel like, but you don't. The only thing I can compare it to is becoming a parent," said Clark.

"So you think you know what it will be like to become a parent, but the moment the baby arrives you suddenly feel there is a whole new geography of responsibility."

Clark has one child, Hamish. The 15-year-old spends one week at a time with his mom and the next week with his father, Mark Marissen. Amidst all the changes Clark has faced, the one thing she tries to keep consistent is her schedule with Hamish.

"The weeks I have him, I always try to make sure I am home for breakfast and get him off to school. You know he's 15, so he has lots of after school activities and I always try to be home for supper. Then I will go off again to do an event, to be somewhere. I can work everything around Hamish, but I don't really have time for anything else," said Clark.

Facing the 'political heat'

B.C. Liberal leader Christy Clark speaks to CBC reporter Richard Zussman at the Vancouver Convention Centre 6 years after winning the party's leadership in the building. (Harold Dupuis/CBC News)

Clark is often racing off to political fundraisers. Of all the issues Clark has dealt with since 2011, it is the one where she has seemed the least steady. Gordon Campbell's former chief of staff Martyn Brown has been a vocal critic of Clark.

"She has no intention of banning big money, she's very clear, and that's appalling. People should be saying, 'No, we can do better than that," he said.

"Christy Clark lashes out at those who point out her transgressions, blames them, and only backs away and does the thing that is necessary if she feels the political heat gets too great."

Politics has also taken a toll on her personal friendships. The 51-year-old premier doesn't use the word lonely to describe her existence, but does say since becoming premier she has had very little time to interact with her closest friends.

"I just haven't had the time to be the good friend I use to be," said Clark. "But my friends are still the good friends."

Instead she fills her life with political friends, mostly. When asked who at the end of her busiest, most stressful days of work she picks up the phone to call, she said Brad Bennett, chair of B.C. Hydro and the son of former premier Bill Bennett.

"He really understands British Columbia in his bones," said Clark.

She also calls her staff, ministers and advisors like Mike McDonald. McDonald, Clark's former chief of staff and 2013 campaign manager, provides a rare introspective into Clark's rise and change over the past 6 years because he has known her for so long.

The pair first met at Simon Fraser University in the fall of 1986 at a meeting of the Young B.C. Liberals. At the time the party had no structure and no representation in the legislature. That has changed, but has Clark?

"I honestly don't think she has changed that much," said McDonald. "What I think has changed is her ability to show people what she can accomplish in government."

What McDonald is referring to is the 2013 election, where Clark went in without any real record as premier, serving just two years in the job following a decade of rule by her previous boss, Gordon Campbell.

Strife with B.C. teachers

Christy Clark is photographed by a supporter after she was voted the new party leader during the B.C. Liberal leadership in Vancouver on Feb. 26, 2011. (Andy Clark/Reuters) (Andy Clark/Reuters)

While in the Campbell government she was minister of education. It was during her time that the legislation that stripped the rights of teachers to negotiate on class size and composition was brought in — a piece of legislation that was at the heart of two acrimonious strikes, and was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court last year.

"I remember Christy Clark talking about the flexibility and choice and all the wonderful things her legislation would bring for children and youth in K to 12 schools in B.C. that simply did not happen," said Glen Hansman, BCTF President. 

"What resulted was the loss of thousands of front line teaching jobs and other frontline jobs to students, and facilitated all the cuts overseen by premier Gordon Campbell." 

Evoking strong emotions

B.C. Premier Christy Clark speaks to her son Hamish during the swearing in ceremony at the legislature on September 8, 2013. (CBC)

But in Clark's own circle, she is much stronger now than she was four years ago. She has recruited candidates, placed and removed people from cabinet and made thousands of decisions.

Health Minister Terry Lake has had a front row seat for all of this.

"She evokes strong emotions in people. A lot of  those are very positive emotions," said Lake. "But if you don't agree with her point of view it can evoke negative emotions."

Those emotions are something Clark knows about all too well, and she admits to taking a scan at the attacks she faces on a daily basis on social media.

But the premier is looking at bigger things: an election that, if it goes well for her, could cement her as one of B.C.'s most significant premiers.

Listen to CBC reporter Richard Zussman's interview with B.C. Liberal leader Christy Clark: