Kevin Falcon is a man undaunted by controversy. As transportation minister, he faced down vocal opposition and pushed through the contentious Gateway project. Now the longtime free-market champion – and likely contender for Gordon Campbell’s throne – tackles the third rail of B.C. politics, health care, and discovers that challenging the status quo may not be so easy this time round.

Even now, more than a quarter century later, Kevin Falcon sounds slightly awestruck, almost gushing, when he talks about his most memorable encounter with one of the major political inspirations of his life, former premier Bill Bennett.

It was at the Hotel Vancouver during the height of the union-organized Solidarity protests against the premier’s restraint plans in the fall of 1983. On Oct. 15, 60,000 protesters surrounded the hotel, where the Social Credit party was holding its annual convention, one of the largest political protests this province has ever seen. But inside the hotel’s convention rooms, amid the carpets and chandeliers, Socreds of all descriptions were networking as usual.

The 20-year-old Falcon, an insurance broker and Junior Chamber of Commerce vice-president active in the Young Socreds, walked past the premier as he was talking with Peter Brown and Murray Pezim, two major power brokers.

“I was standing there hoping that maybe when their discussion was finished, I might get a chance to introduce him to my friends. And the premier saw me, said, ‘Excuse me,’ to these very important people and came over and said, ‘Hello, Kevin, How are you? Good to see you.’”
That kind of time for someone who was then a “nobody” has stuck with Falcon to this day. But even more important, Falcon was inspired by what Bennett did as the leader of the province. He challenged the status quo, just as Falcon’s two other inspirations were doing at the time: Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan.

Kevin Falcon ski pass
Kevin Falcon family photo
A Falcon family portrait circa 1973.
Clockwise from left: Mother Jacqueline, Mike
(the eldest son), father Brian, Dan, Kevin, Larry,
Greg (who died in 1986) and Dave (the youngest)

“The underlying attribute that all three of those leaders had that I admire more than anything else in public life is courage – the courage to do what they believe is right, even if it’s unpopular. With Thatcher, I remember the battle that she went through to deal with the most radical union in England that had such a negative influence on public life there for so many years. And Ronald Reagan, of course, there were multiple examples. And Bill Bennett, with Solidarity.”

Things have changed a lot in the intervening decades. Kevin Falcon, now 46, could still pass for a student from a distance, with his spiky hair, cool-college-nerd glasses, athletic springiness and the boyish energy that he radiates. But he’s been a provincial politician and cabinet minister himself for eight years. This June Premier Gordon Campbell made him the province’s new health minister, a job that puts him in charge of a $15-billion-a-year system. The day we talk, as he tells me his stories about Bill Bennett, he is himself sitting in a very different but equally lavish Vancouver hotel – the Cascade Lounge of the Pan Pacific – while supplicants line up to get a few moments of his time during the networking-intensive Union of B.C. Municipalities convention.

Falcon’s new position also lands him with one of the thorniest cabinet jobs of all time: managing a file where the bills keep climbing to astronomical amounts, with the looming spectre of private health care as the flashpoint. The worst economic recession in 30 years isn’t going to make the task any easier. Although Falcon is quick to defend the government’s spending on health care – a 20 per cent, $2.4-billion increase over the next three years – the reality is that that is still less than what health authorities had asked for in prebudget consultations earlier in 2009. As a result, the health regions, each responsible for figuring out how to make do with less, are now going through a major cut-and-restructure effort. There’s a sense of disarray among people in health as jobs are shuffled, eliminated or consolidated and research money is trimmed because of the government’s mandate that front-line jobs be the first priority. The result is that Falcon has had to spend his early days in office defending the government when funding for small but publicity-generating items, such as addictions services or seniors programs, gets amputated.

The job also makes him the point man for some of the strongest, most vocal labour groups in the province: the doctors’ association, the nurses’ union and the health employees’ union. One former health minister jokingly called the job “f***ing hopeless.” Falcon has also commented wryly about the daunting task he’s been given. To the Vancouver Sun, when asked shortly after his appointment in June about his reaction to getting the health file, he said, “I don’t think the premier is used to seeing a grown man cry.” A couple of months later, he doesn’t sound any more phlegmatic. When I ask him whether he had expressed any interest in taking over the health portfolio, he answers instantly: “Who would be stupid enough to ask for health?”

But whether he wanted it or not, he’s got it. And now everyone around him is waiting to see what this minister, the one whose political heroes are the patron saints of union-busting and privatization, is going to do with this complex file. “This is going to be a big test for him,” says the man who will be his most careful observer and toughest opponent, the NDP’s heavyweight health critic, Adrian Dix. “The irony is, I think there’s a huge opportunity for him as well. There’s no question he’s got lots of political skill. He also has a vision and a defined personality in a government dominated by the premier. The big challenge will be to avoid the glib and show a serious side.”

Certainly if Falcon has any aspirations to be premier – a job that he acknowledges would be an interesting one to have for a person who, just theoretically, felt he had something more to accomplish – how he handles this file will demonstrate whether he’s got a chance at the job and what he might do with it if he got it. Will he use the opportunity to show off a kinder, gentler side that tempers his image as a hardline right-winger, the way that Housing Minister Rich Coleman has dramatically softened his image as a diehard Fraser Valley conservative by championing housing for the homeless in the past two years? Or will he charge ahead with a radical reform plan for health, one that will undoubtedly provoke a lot of shrieking from his opponents but that he believes is the right thing to do – like his heroes would have done?

Falcon has had a lifelong love affair with the idea that less government, less taxation and more private sector is better. He’s never been one to shy away from controversy or opposition. And he’s not someone who changes course easily. “Kevin has very consistent, deeply held principles, and he applies those to every decision. It doesn’t lend itself to flexibility. In some ways, it serves him very well. In other ways, it doesn’t,” says former deputy premier Christy Clark, who got to know him when they were both involved in student politics at SFU in the 1980s and crossed paths with him again when they were both in cabinet in the early 2000s.

If you look back over the years, it’s been that way for a long time. 

Kevin Falcon with Gordon Campbell

Kevin Falcon aboard a test train of the Canada Line, with Premier Gordon Campbell and International Trade Minister Stockwell Day, in March 2009.

In the book Born to Rebel, a Darwinian analysis of family dynamics, researcher Frank Sulloway makes the case that it’s the youngest children in families who are often the revolutionaries, radicals and explorers. While the older children typically take a more conformist path, the younger ones, in an effort to make their mark and compete for parental attention and resources, strike out in new directions.

Falcon was the fifth child in a family of six boys. The Falcon boys grew up in a small house in West Vancouver that their father, Brian – who sold vacation real estate in places like the Bahamas and Maui – and their mother, Jacqueline – a nurse – bought for about $30,000 in 1963. Back then West Bay, west of Dundarave, was the equivalent of a Maple Ridge suburb now: cheap because it was so far away. The boys all went to Vancouver College, the Congregation of Christian Brothers school in south Vancouver, which made a point of giving large families a break on tuition.

Kevin, who shared a room with two of his other brothers at one point, spent a lot of time playing sports with his brothers either on the North Shore where they grew up or near their family’s vacation property at Paul Lake near Kamloops. He still plays, and competes, with them. One day this past July, he raced up the Grouse Grind – one of his favourite activities – with two of his brothers. Mike, the oldest and originally the most famous brother because of his sports-radio program in Kelowna, came in at 48 minutes. David, the youngest, was next with 50. Kevin clocked in at 51, a time he blames on the hours he has to spend being a politician. 

His family wasn’t particularly political, he says. His father did take his right to vote seriously, so much so that even when he was afflicted by Shy-Drager, a syndrome that immobilizes the person, in the later years of his life, he insisted on voting, indicating his choice by blinking one for yes and two for no. But the Falcons weren’t a family that got involved in campaigns particularly. Instead, Kevin Falcon got a taste of politics when Bob Vickerstaff, the father of his best friend John, invited him to campaign for then MP Ron Huntington’s 1979 re-election in West Van.

Kevin Falcon meets with Lady Diana
Kevin Falcon speaking
Top: Dining with Lady Diana at Expo 86; bottom:
speaking at Doug McCallum's victory party after
McCallum's 1996 Surrey mayoral win.

Falcon’s political crank really got turned in the years that right-wing leaders were redefining politics. Thatcher was elected in 1979, Reagan in 1980 and, for a whole generation of young people, they became the new icons. They were especially so to the group that Falcon hung around with at SFU, where, in an unusual move, he had decided to go for his political-science degree in his mid-20s, after five years in the insurance world. The group, led by Mike Sporer, included such old West Van friends as John Vickerstaff and Steve Casson, who’d also decided to go back to university after time out, and the children of prominent Surrey businessmen, such as Laura Fisher (daughter of Larry Fisher of the Lark Group) and Ryan Beedie (future CEO of father Keith’s Beedie Group). Also among them were Ray Castelli, who went on to become Progressive Conservative prime minister Kim Campbell’s chief of staff, and Chris Gardner, now Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts’s main adviser and her head of intergovernmental relations. Sporer set a very intellectual and very libertarian tone for the group, along with an insistence on being consistent in their political line on any issue.

“It was a way of challenging the status quo and showing they were rebels. That was the milieu that Kevin was in, where to be a real Socred, you had to be a real libertarian,” says Christy Clark, who was active with the federal Liberals at the time but joined forces with the Sporer-Falcon group to oust the then reigning student executive in the ’86-’87 school year. 

Falcon’s group didn’t get to ride such a political high in subsequent years. The Social Credit party, under Bill Vander Zalm’s leadership, had a long, rocky patch and then imploded. After the NDP won power in 1991, the BC Liberals gathered up the survivors, but the party became an adulterated mix of right-wingers and centrists that was less attractive to ideological purists. People who might have thought about going into politics went on to other things. Sporer became a lawyer. Chris Gardner, a longtime friend and colleague of Falcon’s, also went into law and then left to work in Korea for eight years. Falcon went to work for six years, right after he graduated, for Northwest Investment Properties, a company that bought apartments in Alberta and converted them into market condos. But by the 1990s, he was back into politics, helping his university friends to organize the right in Surrey into a coherent new political group, the Surrey Electors Team (SET). Former longtime Surrey city councillor Judy Higginbotham remembers when they moved onto the scene south of the Fraser: “They were the baby Tories. Everyone always called them that.” In 1996 SET candidate Doug McCallum ousted longtime left-wing mayor Bob Bose, and a year later Falcon caught the attention of Liberal leader Gordon Campbell when he helped run the successful campaign for Gordon Hogg in a Surrey byelection (a race seen as a test of Campbell’s leadership after his failure to win the ’96 election for the Liberals). It was shortly after that that Falcon started to emerge as a public figure, when he was recruited to help organize an attempt to recall votes against NDP MLAs. By the time preparations for the 2001 election started, Falcon had moved from his longtime base in North Vancouver out to Surrey and was the premier’s pick as the candidate for Surrey-Cloverdale.

Falcon and Clark were the two youngest MLAs named to the cabinet when the Liberals finally came into power in 2001. Falcon became minister of deregulation, which he took to with gusto, promising to cut government rules by a third and telling horror stories about schoolchildren being forced to apply for permits if they wanted to bring a bullfrog or a garter snake to their elementary-school show and tell.

Inside cabinet he was known as the one who would always ask the uncomfortable questions, challenge received wisdom and even disagree with the premier, which Gordon Campbell seemed to be willing to tolerate. And Falcon makes it clear that he has little time for politicians who aren’t willing to take the kinds of strong stands he does: “For the life of me, I don’t understand why some people run for political office. I guess they just like to be elected and go to meetings.”

But he really made a name for himself in the years after he was named transportation minister in 2004. During that time, he drove through the biggest transportation plan ever. Much of that plan, outside the Lower Mainland, was ignored by critics. But the Gateway project, especially the twinning of the Port Mann Bridge component, made him reviled by environmentalists, transit advocates and almost every politician north of the Fraser River. Throughout it all, Falcon never wavered. 

In public Falcon didn’t appear to care how many people he enraged, behaviour that Clark says was consistent with his conviction that it was his duty to serve best those who agreed with him: “Kevin is fearless about taking on enemies because he believes he knows who his friends are and he doesn’t need any more of them.” 

He also developed a reputation as someone who shot from the lip, quick to dismiss those protesting his Gateway plan or to spring new ideas, like turnstiles, on the public and TransLink. He attracted attention when he joked that the Chinese government had a better system for building big projects (“It’s not like they have to do community consultations,” he said in a May 2006 speech that later made the rounds. “They just say, ‘We’re building a bridge,’ and they move everyone out of there and get going within two weeks.”) And he achieved enduring fame when he berated Vancouver police for shutting down the Second Narrows Bridge in July 2008 to deal with an elderly suicidal woman. He dismissed the idea of suicide barriers as a future solution, saying, “If people are trying to kill themselves, it is tough to stop them.” 

It’s those kinds of comments that have given critics a chance to pin the label “glib” on him. 

Kevin Falcon with Rudy Giuliani and Dianne Watts

Falcon alongside former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani and Surrey Mayor Dianne Watts in 2008.

The people who worked the most closely with Falcon on transportation issues have a different take on him. They say he was remarkable for the way he studied his material, questioned his staff about what the alternative points of view on issues would be and thought carefully before he made decisions. He also did the two things bureaucrats loved the most. He was able to get money for projects that had been stalled for years or decades. And when he was convinced by them that a particular plan of action was the right one, he stuck to it. 

Former TransLink CEO Pat Jacobsen says the Gateway project in particular was a test of his ability to do that. “The Port Mann Bridge was like a powder keg: it set off a whole debate between the north of Fraser and south of Fraser. It woke people up to how many people lived south of the Fraser.” But Falcon was willing to take the cannon fire from across the river as north-of-Fraser politicians, both right and left, shelled him mercilessly. “To have a minister who is relentless is very helpful,” says Jacobsen. “He was comfortable that, in the long run, the ends are more important than the controversy. Not every politician can do that.”

The deputy minister who worked with him for four years, Dan Doyle, more than agrees. “He doesn’t wilt under pressure and he doesn’t run from issues,” says Doyle, a career bureaucrat who worked with 17 transportation ministers during his time in Victoria before retiring and joining VANOC in 2006 to serve as executive vice-president of venue construction. In July he was named chair of the BC Hydro board. “Of all the ministers I’ve worked with, he’s the most articulate. And in 37 years there, he got more done than anyone.” Doyle absolves him of any crimes of intemperate remarks, saying Falcon puts in enormous time reading and studying different perspectives on an issue before he takes a position. Once he takes it, though, he wants things done fast. If the minister does have a fault, says the very politic Doyle, it’s that “he’s got to learn a bit of patience.”

Concerned Citizens billboard
Posing before a Concerned Citizens of B.C.
billboard in 1998.

Falcon’s patience will surely be tested in his new portfolio, which can’t be about the health equivalent of building new roads or bridges. Instead, as he admits himself, it’s about trying to change a huge system that is very invested in the status quo.

Falcon made a few gaffes out of the gate. In a conversational interview with the Sun in June, he said offhandedly that he thought people should have the right to get private care if they wanted – one of the most contentious topics in the health field. When that became a national news story, he called back to emphasize that he of course supports the position that the federal and provincial governments have taken in court, which is that doctors should not be able to charge money for medically necessary procedures. He’s not going there anymore, saying that he is still meeting with experts in the health field and reading before he makes any major decisions.

Part of Falcon’s more cautious approach with the health file might have something to do with the Falcon family’s own experiences with the health-care system. Falcon’s mother was a nurse for 30 years, mostly at St. Paul’s. His father had to have extensive nursing care during his years of illness with Shy-Drager (“We could never have afforded the care that he got if we’d had to pay,” says Falcon). And Falcon had recurring gastrointestinal problems that required occasional hospitalization in his 20s and 30s, the last bout just after he was first elected, that caused him to lose significant amounts of weight in short periods of time. 

Then there was what happened to his brother Greg, the boy just ahead of him in the family. In July 1986, Greg was out horseback riding with a couple of brothers, girlfriends and friends when he got knocked off his horse. He was taken to the Kamloops hospital with a severe head injury. Then, as he was being treated for the brain swelling, he had a reaction to the drugs he was being given. To this day, Kevin can remember the term: “toxic epidermal necrolysis syndrome.” It essentially meant Greg’s body burned from the inside out. Greg was flown down to the VGH burn unit where doctors told the family he likely wouldn’t live more than 24 hours. He lasted several weeks. And the whole time he was there, as the family came and went, a nurse was posted to the room 24 hours a day.

Today Kevin Falcon says there’s no question of anyone in B.C. wanting to destroy that kind of care to create an American-style health system. But he does want to make it more efficient and creative. He likes the pilot projects that the ministry has been doing in hospitals, where emergency wards that improve their performances in terms of reducing wait times and other criteria get rewarded with bonuses. He emphasizes over and over that he’s not going to make ideologically driven decisions about anything, in spite of his convictions. He’s a fact-based guy. “I will make my decisions after analyzing as exhaustively and responsibly as I can. Once I have the facts, I’m not afraid to make a decision.” That’s why he supports public-private partnerships when they’re advantageous to the government (on such big, risky projects as the Canada Line) and government-built projects when appropriate (such as the Pitt River Bridge). When it comes to P3s for hospitals, he says he’ll take the same approach. If they make sense, and he says that it did for the Abbotsford hospital, he’ll use a P3. If it doesn’t, he won’t. 

Kevin Falcon and wife Jessica Elliott

Falcon and new wife Jessica Elliott at their July 2009 wedding (the couple is expecting a child in January 2010).

But everyone – friends, political colleagues and political opponents – is waiting to see where exactly he’s going to go on the bigger struggles with the health system, a system whose costs continue to rise far above the rate of inflation or population increase. Many will say it’s simply unsustainable to think Canadian governments can continue paying for the level of health-care service they do now, as the population ages and technology keeps adding expensive new procedures. 

Falcon’s one-time idol, Margaret Thatcher, took pride in her unwillingness to change positions. “You turn if you want to, but this lady is not for turning,” she told a Tory convention in 1981 as she was being flayed politically, including by British economists, for her economic policies. On the other hand, Falcon, a voracious reader who is currently devouring health studies and books on the history of medical discoveries, has shown a willingness to study the information and change his mind in some cases. He says that when he first heard about the proposal for Vancouver’s supervised-injection site, Insite, he was not a fan. “My initial reaction was, I was appalled. I could not believe government’s going to get involved in providing drugs. But I gotta tell you, I read the reports and the reports are telling me it’s making a difference, and if it’s making a difference, I’m not going to get ideological about it.” 

Kevin Falcon on mountain bike
Falcon brothers
Top: Falcon racing his mountain bike in North
Vancouver in June 2007; bottom: four of the
Falcon frères.

As well, Falcon is not an ideological 20-year-old anymore. He’s not even quite the same ideological 38-year-old he was when he was first elected in 2001, the one who didn’t understand why his government was making any concessions to unions at all, since none of their members was ever likely to vote for a Liberal, and who thought bureaucrats were a waste of taxpayer dollars. Friend Steve Casson says he’s “certainly not as far to the right as he was. I would say there’s been a softening.”

Falcon himself, who on Facebook lists Jon Stewart’s caustic left-wing The Daily Show as his favourite TV program, admits he’s evolved: “I won’t lie to you. When I first came to the job, I probably had a lot of the sort of views many in the public would have: ‘Oh bureaucrats, What do they really do? There’s too many of them wasting our money.’ But I’ve really grown to appreciate the incredible professional civil service we have.”

To further support the case that people can change radically, the minister, after almost half a century of bachelorhood, got married on July 25 in a low-key backyard ceremony. He followed that with something almost unheard of for a cabinet minister with a demanding new file: he went on a five-week honeymoon in England and France, leaving his not-always-thrilled colleagues to defend the health-cut news that was trickling out. And Falcon and his wife, Jessica Elliott, a substitute teacher working on her master’s degree who is willing to go along with Falcon on his death-defying mountain-biking expeditions, have moved to a new house in south Surrey outside his riding and are expecting a baby in January. From his friends, there’s speculation that Falcon might decide in the next term that a stint back in the private sector, where the days are shorter and the travel demands are less, could have a certain allure. 

Still, every time I ask him what more he’d like to accomplish with his political career – say, become premier someday – he answers the same: “The attractive thing for me would just be what could be accomplished.” And when I ask repeatedly what he’d like to accomplish, it’s all about less government. “One of the things I’ve always fought for and believe in is the average working man or woman out there” – the Freds and Marys, he calls them – “who’s earning $40,000 to $50,000 and is just struggling to make ends meet. One of the things we have to be relentlessly driving toward is reducing the load of government on them.”

How will he do that? We’ll see soon. “I need a few more months to really feel comfortable, but the most important thing is this: We should never be afraid to innovate; we should never be afraid to make mistakes. Let’s not be paralyzed by indecision.”