1975: B.C.’S NASTIEST ELECTION CAMPAIGN

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(This debate on religion, featuring the four party leaders, Dave Barrett, Bill Bennet, Gordon Gibson and Scott Wallace, was a rare, boring event during the campaign.)

Forty years ago this month, all these things really happened.

The premier of British Columbia waited for the provincial election results with his wife and kids in a nondescript Coquitlam motel room behind closed drapes, the windows covered over by aluminum foil to discourage possible snipers. Plainclothes members of the RCMP prowled the corridors, making sure no one approached the premier’s room to try and make good on several anonymous death threats Barrett had received.

It was a fitting end to the nastiest, most laced-with-hysteria election campaign in B.C.’s long polarized history.

The man under police guard was Dave Barrett. For the past 39 months he had led the province’s first NDP government, transforming British Columbia from the iron-fisted, arcane administration of W.A.C. Bennett into a more modern era with a raft of unprecedented, progressive legislation. Now, it was up to the voters to decide if the NDP deserved a second term.

This time, Social Credit, under Bill Bennett, had united the right, whose fracture in 1972 provided Barrett with his large majority. And what a “right” it was. That thought of another “socialist” government caused  mouths to foam. Hysteria and nastiness were afoot in the land.

When, alone among B.C. newspapers, the Victoria Times endorsed the NDP, advertisers pulled their ads. Editor George Oake had garbage dumped on his lawn. Angry readers phoned him at home. One vowed to kill him. Another promised to make sure Oake was sent back to Russia. When his wife Lorraine answered the phone, she was told she was “dirty” and did not raise her children properly.

Fernie alderman Gus Boersma announced he was going to run for the B.C. Conservatives. A dozen local businessmen and clients warned him his insurance business would suffer, if he hurt Socred chances in the riding. Boersma withdrew. “There’s a fear campaign going on,” he told a reporter.

Another Conservative hopeful in Prince George, Alan Anderton, received threatening phone calls from people he identified as “right-wing extremists”, who ordered him to quit. As other Tory candidates dropped out, party leader Scott Wallace became furious. “Those people on the right screaming about the socialists having taken away individual freedom seem to be doing a pretty good job of it themselves, when they have the vindictiveness to blackmail you in the survival of your business,” he raged.

It happened to Liberal candidates, too. Don Carter, the party’s candidate in Kamloops, said local Social Credit members let him know his travel agency would suffer, if he didn’t withdraw. According to party president Patrick Graham, many prospective Liberal candidates were intimidated into staying on the sidelines. “Horrible calls are coming in,” Graham said. “We’re being called Commie bastards, and worse. I’ve never seen anything like this. Not in Canada.”

A government employee was punched and bodily evicted from a Social Credit rally, when he tried to yell a question at Bill Bennett. A meeting in Nanaimo was called off, after a telephoned bomb threat. At an all-party gathering in Steveston, non-Social Credit candidates were shouted down by a jeering mob that took up all the front rows.

A confidential federal government telex on the fate of B.C. Rail was stolen from an official’s briefcase. The telex wound up in the hands of Bill Bennett, who revealed its contents at a raucous Social Credit election rally.

During the campaign’s final, frantic days, outrageous ads appeared in newspapers across the province. “Thursday the election Is Freedom of Individual rights or Socialism”, read one, paid for by “A Group of Concerned Citizens.” The Canadian League of Rights rang out a warning against the NDP’s alleged desire to nationalize all major industries in the province. “Is your business…your place of work next?” A Social Credit riding association put the question in blaring block letters: “IS BRITISH COLUMBIA HEADED FOR THE FATE OF SWEDEN?” (The ad did not think this was a good thing.)

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With a day to go, Vancouver Sun columnist Jack Wasserman, who had himself been threatened for writing something critical of Social Credit, worried: “There is something Hitlerian about the atmosphere in which this election campaign [has been] carried out.”

Sensing he was going down to defeat, Barrett wound up his fiery campaign with a heartfelt plea to the people: “I have one last message. This land is your land…We must never go back.” The Social Credit campaign ended at the PNE, with MLA Bob McClelland riding in on an elephant.

Some of the hysteria carried over into the counting of ballots. A group of Social Credit scrutineers stormed into one of the tally rooms, demanding to put their own seals on the ballot boxes. When that was refused, they overturned tables before charging out, leaving behind broken glass and beer bottles. A returning officer at another riding was also harassed on election night. “It makes be boiling mad,” chief electoral officer Ken Morton told reporters the next day.

But the outcome was never in doubt. Thirty-five minutes after the polls closed, sitting in his depressing motel room, Barrett gave a thumbs-down gesture and observed: “We’re getting wiped.” The only laugh came from his 14-year old daughter Jane, who said: “If they bring back the strap, I’m quitting school.”

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Arguably the most exciting government in Canadian history was out, done in by doing too much too fast, gaffes and unsettling the powers and shakers of British Columbia in a way they had never been rattled before. But the unsurpassed legacy of the Barrett government’s brief time in office is with us still.

I itemized what they did during their scant 39 months for my book with Geoff Meggs on the Barrett years, The Art of the Impossible. The total came to 97. No government ever did so much in such a short period of time.

The Agricultural Land Reserve, ICBC, the most progressive labour code in North America, the best consumer protection legislation in Canada, the most far-reaching human rights code anywhere, with full-time human rights officers, rent controls, a Rentalsman, Mincome, Pharmacare, raising the minimum wage by 67 per cent, neighbourhood pubs, provincial ambulance service, the Islands Trust, independent boards of review for WCB appeals, Robson Square, preserving Cypress Bowl, B.C. Day, removing the sales tax from books, community health centres, B.C. Cancer Control Agency, buying Shaughnessy Hospital which became B.C. Children’s Hospital, the SeaBus, banning the strap, scrapping a proposed coal port at Squamish, the Royal Hudson and Princess Marguerite, saving Victoria Harbour from development, the B.C. Energy Commission, purchase of Columbia Cellulose and Ocean Falls pulp mills, providing full bargaining rights to provincial government employees, an end to pay toilets, to the relief of all, and on and on.

The Dave Barrett government (1972-1975), RIP.

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8 thoughts on “1975: B.C.’S NASTIEST ELECTION CAMPAIGN

  1. I ran in the 1979 Kamloops election and was the winner. Don Carter came to Kamloops a few months before, joined the social credit party but when he found out that he would not get the nomination, he quit and joined the Liberals. He received support from the Vancouver Sun (Ron Rose) yet to my knowledge made no complaint as you allege. Carter finished a distant 3rd and didn’t even have the grace to congratulate the winner. The fact is that Carter was never a factor. The contest was between the Socreds and incumbent NDP, Gerry Anderson from the outset. Incidentally, I was one of the first clients of Carter’s travel agency and remained such during the campaign.

  2. Thanks for writing, Rafe! I’m sure everything you say is true, but my information, and Carter’s quote, came from the Vancouver Sun of the day. I believe Carter wound up with 15% of the vote, or something like that. The big fear among many Socreds was the dreaded split vote, which gave Barrett his big victory in 1972. So many had a hate on for every Liberal and Conservative candidate for taking votes away from Social Credit, much in the way a lot of NDP-ers can’t stand Green Party candidates, altho without the threats that took place in the nastiness of 1975. You were Consumer Affairs, then Health, weren’t you? I seem to recall you praising the NDP’s consumer protection legislation….remember the storefronts?

  3. It’s a matter of semantics. The splitting of the vote was anticipated by the NDP who subsidized all parties to maintain the split. From 1952-72 the Liberals and Conservatives weren’t a factor and the Socreds and NDP controlled their solid segments. In 1974 it was obvious that the non NDP segment had to reunite, the same problem the NDP faced in 2001. Jarl Whist and I formed the Majority Movement which could only work – and it did – if BC was essentially a two party not a three party system. Once the question was posed in a tangible form, and Bill Bennett became the answer, of course the new majority party resisted what were now splinter parties. I don’t believe Barrett scared the public nearly so much with the Land Freeze (already partly in olace under WAC) or ICBC but goofy things like Ocean Falls, Barrett’s Beanery, Panco Poultry, Swan Valley Foods etc.
    There’s no doubt that passions ran high!

    • Well, Barrett hardly subsidized all parties, Rafe….the NDP simply provided funds for the opposition parties to hire staffers and have decent office space, unlike Wacky, who starved them…the Socreds gratefully accepted the resources, all the legislative reforms to avoid legislation by exhaustion, then did Republican-style filibusters and grandstanded about “not a dime without debate”…..ah well….B.C. politics….I think Barrett seriously underestimated Bill Bennett and never ever thought the likes of Garde, Allan Williams and Pat McGeer would go over to the Socreds, after they spent so many years lambasting the Socreds under Wacky….the mining royalties hurt the NDP a lot, plus Barrett’s seat of the pants style of governing….their purchases actually worked out well, only to be frittered away by those stupid BCRIC shares…it was only in 1983 that Bill Bennett really took an axe to a lot of stuff brought in by Barrett….and of course, Barrett held the NDP’s share of the popular vote from 1972……but the right wanted him out, out, out….Wacky’s “green belt” was pretty pathetic….and never really implemented….every time i fly into YVR over all that farmland that could be a sea of monster homes and condos, i give thanks to Dave Barrett and the NDP…..the best thing they ever did in government…well, after neighbourhood pubs….hehe…..

      • It’s long ago but I remember Barrett actually paying a stipend to each party. I agree re ALR – when we got into govt there wasn’t a suggestion other than Don Philips and Jack “Mein” Kempf that the ALR be touched. You grossly underplay what I did as Consumer & Corporate Affairs min – check with Tex Enemark. Did you know that we started the cottage wine industry so successful today? I have long publicly praised much of what Barrett’s accomplished. I also consider Bill Bennett as an outstanding premier. So do a lot of people who hated him at the time, Dave Barrett squandered a lot of political capital doing dumb things. If he had exercised control and shown some patience he would have been a great Premier – he scared the shit out of people not because of the ALR which standing alone was one thing but when he added Ocean Falls, Barrett’s Beanery, Panco Poultry, Swan Lake, people thought he was a wild eyed socialist who would use govt money to buy anything and everything. He has never been properly credited for Hansard, The Opposition chairing Public Accounts, trying to make sense of Estimates Debates.
        Letting Bennetget away with “not a dime without debate” on Estimates debate limits then fining him from being absent from the Legislature displayed such a lack of discipline that people were scared. His refusal to deal with Nimsick and Mining Royalties left the impression that he was a wildeyed socialist. He scared hell out of ordinary people.
        All this said to dispel the impression that in 1975 the fascist right unfairly stole the election from the just. I love Dave and was the only “bad old Socred” invited to his 80th birthday. But, godammit, where the NDP talked about fighting banks, licensing car dealers, leaning on the VSE, stopping tax discounters cheating the poor, saving the Skagit river from flooding by the Americans, stopping the wolf kill in the face of the ranching community which was almost all Socred, stopping exploration and mining for uranium, bringing in Homecare and Palliative care it was not they but this rotten old Socred that took the shit and got the job done.

  4. Raif, not sure you don’t under recall the response to the Land Commission Act. The media, led by an hysterical cadre of right wingers, went nuts, relentlessly calling Dave Barrett a commie, comrade Barrett and any other clever Soviet allusion they could think of. It was a feeding frenzy.

    There were cartoons depicting Commissar Barrett confiscating some poor citizen’s land, complete with background hammers and sickles . I even recall a Vancouver Sun quote from a Socred Minister who said “When the Soviet tanks rolled into Czechoslovakia i didn’t hear any NDP protests…”

    It was ugly.

    Rod objectively ( though thankfully half heartedly), delineates mistakes Barrett’s government made that might mitigate the awful treatment his government received. But there was no excuse. It was absolutely the worst sort of red journalism I have ever seen- early Fox news- ish

    Governments make mistakes, and are rightly brought to task for them. But Dave Barrett’s NDP government had no chance, regardless of what they did. Despite 36 months of some major accomplishments, in the end,it didn’t matter what they did – their vilification was total – an unrelenting, shock and awe media carpet bombing.That’s what defeated them, just as it has defeated other NDP governments in B.C.

    As for the list of your legislative accomplishments , they are admirable, progressive and appreciated. That’s why I always wondered why a sensible guy like you was a member of a party not renown for championing the kinds of initiatives you so diligently pushed.

    • I agree re the reaction. There were three reasons – there was no preparation. It was not a major, or even minor election issue, itwas badlyannounced and the right, fanned by the likes of Gaglardi, Philips etc created and created a dangerous hysteria. Moreover, no one knew what a “socialist” government looked or acted like. But this was 2 before the 1975 election and, strangely, was itself not all that big an issue. Had Barrett not managed to lose Labour he would have won – especially if he had bent on the mining royalties. Barrett lost in 1975 with precisely the same 39% he won by in 1972–
      For someone like me, the NDP was a tough sell. Though not a memer, I supported and encouraged my old classmate Tom Berger but for many reasons couldn’t support Barrett. Why became evident in 1976 when I got into constitutional affairs which Barrett treated as a comedy to be dealt with in oneliners. The Sask NDP to whom we became close simply wanted nothing to do with the BC branch.
      I was and remain a rebel and reformer by nature. Bill Bennett let me do my thing w/o disagreable restraint – personall I made the correct becision.

  5. Dave Barrett’s government made BC a more civil society, especially when you realize what went before.

    For example, before the BC NDP created the provincial ambulance service, the ambulance in Langley was operated by Henderson’s Funeral Home. Always struck me as a conflict of interest….

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