Christy Clark springs out of her chair after she sees four kids waving at her through the restaurant window.
"Hold on a sec," the B.C. Premier tells me, gesturing to them to meet her inside.
She poses for photos with the four smiling elementary school pupils, who are on a family outing to Vancouver from the nearby community of Abbotsford in British Columbia's Fraser Valley.
We are two-thirds of the way through our lunch, seated in a corner of the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel's Arc Restaurant with a great view of the North Shore mountains. It's a convenient spot because it's across the street from her downtown Vancouver office. I remark that someone was bound to recognize her and want to meet her. "It's not that often that kids do," she says. "I kind of thought that I should reward that attentiveness."
Two years after the B.C. Liberals were re-elected with a majority government, Ms. Clark isn't showing any signs of rust when it comes to her campaign skills. Whether it's connecting with kids who are still many years away from voting or telling the server that she loves the soup of the day, her ability to launch a charm offensive won't be easy for Opposition NDP Leader John Horgan to counter in the next provincial election in May, 2017.
Ms. Clark's confident outward appearance masks her cautious attitude toward political life. "I never, ever take anything for granted in politics because I've lost before and it hurts," she admits at the start of our lunch, between sips of skim-milk cappuccino. "Losing sure teaches you a lot about humility and never taking anything for granted."
She recalls the 2013 B.C. election campaign, in which she led the B.C. Liberals to a surprise majority victory, but lost her own seat in the process. She later won a by-election in Westside-Kelowna, which put her back in office. "I'm never overconfident. I know you have to work every minute to succeed," she says.
It's a message that's no doubt resonating next door in Alberta, where the Progressive Conservatives under Jim Prentice were tossed out of office May 5 in a provincial election that saw Rachel Notley lead the New Democrats to an upset majority win. Ms. Clark got along with Mr. Prentice, who resigned that night as Alberta Progressive Conservative leader.
After the NDP's stunning win in Alberta, Ms. Clark said she is looking forward to meeting Ms. Notley to discuss her counterpart's position on the Trans Mountain oil pipeline expansion project that would cross into British Columbia. "Canada needs a strong Alberta," Ms. Clark said in a statement.
During our lunch before Ms. Notley's victory, I ask the B.C. Premier for her thoughts on another Alberta politician, former premier Alison Redford, who stepped down last year amid turmoil in her caucus. "Politics is a very tough business. Lots of politicians don't go out with glory around them, including many of my predecessors in British Columbia," Ms. Clark tells me.
She says she, too, has felt the sting of political colleagues who doubted her. "I can say that the two years that I was premier from 2011 to 2013, when everybody in the world thought that I was going to lose, some of the most pessimistic people about my prospects were inside my own caucus," she says. "None of those people decided to run again. It was a very difficult two years, when people don't believe that you can win."
The past two years have been personally enjoyable and rewarding, she says, with a group of Liberal members of the legislature who are loyal to her.
It can be tough for women in politics and business, says Ms. Clark, who was first elected to the provincial legislature in 1996. "It follows the same narrative that women in the corporate world outside of politics often hear, which is, you're not serious. You're all about just trying to look good, you know, photo ops all the time. You're not a good manager," she says.
Ms. Clark believes she can make the greatest impact by staying in provincial politics, and she is girding for battle in the next B.C. election. "I do see myself running in 2017," she says over a bowl of asparagus, fennel and pea soup. She says she isn't tempted to run federally.
Nevertheless, B.C. will be a pivotal battleground in this fall's federal campaign, she predicts. "If one party or the other wants to make a majority, I think it's going to happen here. British Columbia isn't always really in play in a federal election. I think we are now."
Christina (Christy) Joan Clark was born in 1965 in the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby.
Now 49, she reminisces about her middle-class upbringing. Her parents bought a home for $16,000 in 1959, a couple of blocks away from the Oakalla provincial prison. "The real estate agent said to them: 'Don't worry. They're going to close down the prison, like, in two years.' It was there my whole life there," says Ms. Clark, who graduated from Burnaby South Secondary School in 1983 – eight years before the prison closed.
"My mom always used to say to me: 'Don't worry. The best place to live is actually beside a prison because when people escape, they want to get as far away from the prison as they can, as fast as they can.' They finally did shut it down in the nineties. We were long gone," Ms. Clark says with a chuckle.
Her parents grew up on Vancouver's upscale west side but bought in Burnaby because Vancouver real estate was too expensive. "Not being able to live on the west side of Vancouver is a problem that my parents had in 1959. It's getting worse," Ms. Clark says.
She wonders whether her son Hamish, 13, will end up living in Vancouver. "I hope that my son will have a lot of choices ahead of him. I hope that he'll decide that he wants to live near where he works. That would be good. Maybe he won't live in Vancouver. Maybe he'll work in Surrey, maybe he'll work in Burnaby, maybe he'll work in Prince Rupert."
It's no accident that she mentions Prince Rupert. For the past couple of years, Ms. Clark has been touting B.C.'s fledgling liquefied natural gas industry as the province's ticket to economic prosperity.
Most of the major LNG proposals are focused on northwestern British Columbia, including Prince Rupert and Kitimat.
A looming global glut of LNG, however, poses a threat to 19 LNG proposals, a subject that's never far from her mind or voters'. A fan of the Vancouver Whitecaps, she recounts the time when a spectator approached her during a recent soccer game, expressing skepticism about the prospects of B.C. LNG. "He said: 'Well, you know, I hear this LNG thing isn't happening.' We chatted and stuff over a beer."
Ms. Clark remains optimistic that there will be three LNG plants operating in the province by 2020, exporting to energy-thirsty Asia. "It's going to be a huge transformative change for British Columbia," she says. "It's the future."
While LNG has been front and centre in the B.C. government's economic outlook, two plans to build oil refineries in northwestern British Columbia have also caught Ms. Clark's attention. One project planned for Kitimat is led by B.C. newspaper publisher David Black. A rival refinery proposal slated for the Prince Rupert area is being touted by her ex-husband, Mark Marissen, an executive with Pacific Future Energy.
Ms. Clark has recused herself from discussing any specific refinery venture in cabinet meetings, and she makes no exception with me. She does say that refineries in general could help reduce opposition to heavy oil pipeline plans.
As we wrap up our 70-minute meal, an admirer walks over. "Hello Madam Premier," he formally greets her. Such is life for Ms. Clark, who in four years has gone from scrambling to find political allies to being recognized across British Columbia. With the rotating door of premiers in recent years, she now ranks behind Saskatchewan's Brad Wall and Manitoba's Greg Selinger as the third-longest-serving premier.
We skip dessert, although she politely asks whether she can pinch a slice of dill pickle on my plate. Ms. Clark has learned to savour the moment.
As for her legacy, she has staked a lot on the LNG industry, which she hopes will transform the province's economy. But she could find herself in a difficult position during the 2017 election campaign if her bold LNG promises come up empty and British Columbia gets squeezed out by fierce global competition.
Ms. Clark is philosophical about leaving her mark. "I hope when I retire from politics, people – rather than saying I was a good politician – will say that I made a big difference. I hope that people will say that I did something that mattered."
Christy Clark, Premier of British Columbia
Place of birth: Burnaby, B.C.
Education: Graduated in 1983 from Burnaby South Secondary School. Took courses at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, the Sorbonne in Paris and Scotland's University of Edinburgh, but did not graduate. Her interests included political science and religious studies.
Family: Her former husband, Mark Marissen, is Pacific Future Energy's executive vice-president of communications and research; their son, Hamish, is 13 years old.
Recent favourite books: The Rise & Fall of Great Powers by Tom Rachman; Lawrence in Arabia by Scott Anderson.
Favourite TV show: True Detective.
Favourite entertainers: Frank Sinatra and the rest of the Rat Pack.
Favourite cuisine: Indian.
Favourite sports team: Vancouver Whitecaps.
Notable election: Led the B.C. Liberals to a majority win on May 14, 2013, but lost her own seat. She won later in a by-election in Westside-Kelowna.
On British billionaire Sir Richard Branson's joke in 2012, suggesting she kitesurf nude with him: "He was trying to get free advertising for his company. It did happen at my expense. I remember at the time saying if that's his best pickup line, I can understand why he chose the name of his company – he named it Virgin."
On running a red light in 2013 after her son dared her to at 5:15 a.m. with no traffic around, as documented by a reporter along for the ride: "A lot of people, if they were being critical, said: 'How dumb to do it with a journalist in the car.' And I guess my answer to that is we should all be honest about who we are. And I made a mistake."