Brenda Eaton, chair of BC Housing, on the virtue of straight talk – and why she wouldn’t make a good politician
I approach the boardroom where I’ve arranged a one-on-one with Brenda Eaton with some trepidation. This is the woman who was hand-picked by Premier Gordon Campbell to reorganize the provincial government from top to bottom, who has served as second in command in the ministries of social services, finance and energy, and who currently sits on the board of Terasen Inc. and chairs the board of the BC Housing Management Commission. Obviously a no-nonsense bureaucrat with little time for idle chit-chat.
But as I enter the boardroom, I’m greeted with a disarming smile, and, far from the pinstriped suit I’m expecting, Eaton is wearing a neon blue silk shirt under a black jacket. Her hair is pulled back casually in a loose bun. On the table is a black nylon travel bag; an avid cyclist, Eaton explains that fitting her clothes in a pannier takes priority over sartorial splendour.
I begin by asking how she initially got into the civil service and learn that while some teenagers may dream of saving the planet or becoming technology billionaires, Eaton aspired to being a lifetime bureaucrat.
“When I was in Grade 11,” she recalls, “I went down to the then assistant deputy minister of finance; I went into his office and told him that one day I wanted to come and work for him, so I thought I should just introduce myself.” She breaks into laughter and has to pause to catch her breath. “Who aspires to work in the ministry of finance?” she asks incredulously. “I did!”
Eaton went directly from graduating at UVic to the provincial government, where she advanced to deputy-minister positions in multiple departments. In her role as secretary of the treasury board under the Glen Clark government, she was singled out by a subsequent auditor general, in a report about the pre-1996-election “fudge-it” budgets, as a beacon of honesty, resisting pressure to produce an optimistic report despite the gloomy numbers.
She then left the corridors of government to become vice-president of operations and CFO of what is now the Vancouver Island Health Authority, but was lured back to government when Gordon Campbell tapped her to head the Core Services Review following his 2001 election. With the overhaul of every government ministry, department and Crown corporation successfully completed, Eaton left government again in 2005 to chair BC Housing. In addition to that role, she currently sits on multiple boards, including that of Terasen.
Behind the easygoing demeanour is an inquisitive mind, drawn to challenges – such as the costly quagmires of socialized medicine and subsidized housing – that others would find daunting. “I love complex problems,” Eaton says. “I love complex systems and working out difficult issues with whole bunches of different people in different sectors.” While the outgoing persona has obviously won her friends and influence in high places, it’s clear that an underlying fascination with numbers and facts has been key to her career success. “I also like trying to use numbers or other forms of evidence and data in order to drive decisions,” she explains.
But more than mere reverence for facts and numbers, she seems hard-wired for honesty. “It’s particularly challenging in the public sector to feel comfortable speaking truth to power,” she adds. “I have opinions and I have things that I feel need to be said, and I couldn’t keep those to myself if I tried.” And that, she says, is why she never aspired to elected office: “I’d make a terrible politician!”