“I’m not as tall as I look, because I’m standing on the shoulders of John Horgan.”
Officially, David Eby became B.C.’s 37th premier on Friday. But his swearing-in ceremony was a first in the province’s history, and ended up being such a moving and successful event that it could be the start of a brand new tradition for future premiers as well.
Eby chose to take his oath of office at the Musqueam Community Centre, after a dispute with Government House over the availability of the ballroom (it was set up for another event on the date Eby had chosen).
The scheduling snafu proved a blessing in disguise, as it allowed Eby to be sworn in near his home at the University of B.C., in close proximity to friends and family. But moreso, it served as a fitting way to for the first time include Indigenous participation into what had been, in the past, a dry and boring ceremony involving the Crown’s representative.
“Today is a historical day,” said chief Wayne Sparrow. “It’s so heartwarming and exciting for First Nations, not just Musqueam, to be able to for the first time in B.C. have our premier sworn here in our community in Musqueam.”
“I am a warrior”
The event began with the Musqueam warrior dance, as dancers ran into the room, danced in a circle, and performed what host Alec Dan said was a song with words that included: “I am a warrior, and not afraid of large crowds.”
That was followed by a blanketing ceremony, in which the audience chuckled at a group of regular-sized dignitaries trying to get a blanket over the six-foot-seven frame of Eby.
The purpose of the blanketing was to acknowledge partnership and respect, and to indicate love and honour to those who are looked up to and admired, said Dan.
The event also featured other unique and powerful moments.
Outgoing premier John Horgan sat with Eby and gave a speech. Most premiers don’t take spotlight roles in the ceremonies appointing their successors, because they’ve either fallen to defeat at the polls, or been overthrown in messy internal coups.
Standing ovations for Horgan
But Horgan retired on his own terms, and so he earned two standing ovations from the crowd of almost 400 people.
Horgan recounted how in opposition and government, he frequently turned Eby, “the tallest person I could find, and started piling things on his shoulders.” He gave Eby’s the toughest critic portfolios, like money laundering and ending big money in politics. He also gave him the toughest ministerial portfolios, including homelessness, crime, a proportional representation referendum and saving the cash-strapped Insurance Corporation of BC.
“On this day… I turn to the tallest guy in the room and say congratulations Premier Eby,” said Horgan. “It’s been a great ride. We’ve done a lot together, and have more to do.”
Not done with the shoulder metaphors, an emotional Eby paid tribute to Horgan as well.
“I’ll let you in on a secret really,” he said. “I’m not as tall as I look, because I’m standing on the shoulders of John Horgan.”
The unique circular setup of the proceedings allowed Eby to face his wife Cailey, daughter Iva and son Ezra during the actual oath of office. The crowd included family and friends, as well as the entire B.C. NDP caucus and former premiers Glen Clark and Mike Harcourt.
Eby pays tribute to his father
Eby also got a chance to pay tribute to his late father, in the form of choosing to wear shoes for the ceremony that his father had given him when he first became a lawyer.
“He’s with me in this way through these very shiny shoes,” said Eby.
“I feel the values of the family I was raised by; that we are part of a community; that you need to give back; that you need to look after those that need extra support; that you need to celebrate together the victories; that you’re part of a team; that fairness is critical. And I hope to bring that to this job.”
The actual swearing-in of a premier is a process steeped in colonial history, by necessity, because the premier is swearing allegiance to the King and his vice-regal representative, the lieutenant governor.
But the normally dry and arcane ceremony seemed livelier and fresher in the beautiful community gymnasium at Musqueam.
“Symbol of partnership”
“It’s a symbol of a partnership our province will have with First Nations going forward,” said Eby.
Even more than that, it was a “merging” of traditions, as Eby called it, of a modern British Columbia that is seeking to move beyond its colonial past by reshaping its old way of doing things to include First Nations communities in meaningful ways.
“It’s an important symbol of a merging of traditions of the British colonial Commonwealth tradition, represented by the Lieutenant-Governor, and First Nations traditions, cultural practices, and recognition of our partnership as governments working together,” Eby told reporters afterwards.
“I thought it was just a remarkably moving ceremony.”
On that he was right.
It’s hard to imagine premiers choosing to go back to Government House for future oaths of office. Sometimes, old traditions are changed for the better.