THE LONG GOODBYE

So, farewell then, Dave Barrett. A month after the remarkable NDP leader passed away, it was time for the public to bid adieu, formally and informally.

The official state memorial in Victoria came first, followed the next day by what was more a gathering of the clans at Vancouver’s Croatian Cultural Centre, not that far from where Dave Barrett grew up on the city’s rough-and-tumble east side. Both events were packed, befitting the immeasurable contribution he made to the province of British Columbia during his short 39 months as its first socialist premier. (Unlike today’s New Democrats, he never shied from using the term “socialist”.) Beyond his political legacy, there was an outpouring of real affection for someone who had such a long career, was generous with his time and compassion and never ceased battling for folks on the bottom rung of life’s ladder.

“He believed in wielding power on behalf of those who didn’t have it,” said former NDP MP and MLA Dawn Black, in a strong speech to the Vancouver mourners. “He made them feel like they counted, that they mattered.” Said Simon Fraser University president Andrew Petter, hired, at 19 as executive assistant to Barrett’s Housing Minister Lorne Nicholson: “He was the only politician I know who would speak openly about ‘love’.”

Not surprisingly, each of the memorials was pretty much an NDP house. As Premier John Horgan observed, they were the sort of crowds where fund-raising buckets would have been passed around at the end, to be stuffed with coins and bills from those fired up by Barrett’s uplifting, passionate oratory.

Yet I was particularly struck by the words of our non-partisan Lieutenant-Governor, Judith Guichon, at the state memorial. I would hazard a guess that as a longtime Cariboo rancher, before her current vice-regal appointment, she would not have had much “truck or trade” with the NDP. Indeed, as part of the ranching community, she confessed to having grave doubts about the Agricultural Land Reserve when it was brought in by the Barrett government. Now, she observed, she considers the ALR a provincial treasure. “[Dave Barrett] displayed one of the true attributes of a leader; he made hard decisions,” said the Lt.-Govt, who made one herself last summer, when she gave John Horgan the chance to govern, rather than accept Christy Clark’s advice to call an election. “His vision far exceeded that of so many Canadians….The volume of bills, and the lasting nature of the changes wrought during the short duration of that first NDP government, is legendary.”

One of my political heroes, Bill King, also spoke in Victoria. King went from the cab of a locomotive to Labour Minister under Barrett and was arguably the best BC ever had. He presided over a bold new labour code that forever changed the nature of industrial relations in this polarized province, drawing interest and accolades from across North America. Tough as nails, King took no guff from anyone, whether it was the business community or segments of the labour movement, headed by the equally tough head of the BC Federation of Labour, Len Guy, who quarreled with King throughout because he felt labour should have got more. “Barrett,” King told the crowd, “was passionate, hilarious and at times impetuous. He was really a fireball.”

I missed Victoria, but did take in Vancouver, inwardly groaning at the long list of speakers despite assurances they would stick to their five-minute time limits. “New Democrats can’t say hello in under five minutes,” quipped John Horgan. But by and large they did, and the afternoon went by quickly, a warm, loving fitting tribute to what Dave Barrett meant to this province, and to the NDP.

(Premier John Horgan speaking during the Vancouver memorial for Dave Barrett)

I was glad that some recalled and rued Barrett’s defeat in his bid for federal leadership of the NDP in 1989. He lost on the fourth ballot to well-meaning but lack-lustre Audrey McLaughlin, in large measure because of a belief by eastern party members that the NDP had to elect a leader who spoke French in order to have any chance in Quebec. McLaughlin was bilingual. Barrett’s warning about the pending threat of western alienation was ignored. Under McLaughlin, the NDP was virtually wiped off the face of the map in the next election, a shellacking that almost certainly would not have happened with Barrett at the helm, one of the best campaigners the NDP ever had. (Barrett’s heads-up over western alienation turned out to be prescient, since the rise of the Reform Party was a major factor in the NDP’s poor showing, while the party went nowhere in Quebec. ) Horgan was one of those expressing regret at the party’s leadership choice. “Just think what would have happened if Dave Barrett had become leader of the federal party,” he exclaimed. Added Joy MacPhail, who was in the forefront of Barrett’s bid: “…the way he would have stormed the federal stage…I think to this day that he would have made the best leader.” The Ottawa press corps would have lapped up his humour and no-holds-barred, colourful presence.

But of course the major focus was Barrett’s unforgettable tenure as premier, which so changed British Columbia — almost all for the good. “He taught us that you could win by not compromising your views,” said former premier Glen Clark, no shrinking violet himself when he led the province. “He had an unshakeable belief that the power of government could be harnessed to make change.” Moe Sihota, the province’s first South Asian cabinet minister, referenced the historic election of black candidates Emery Barnes and Rosemary Brown and Frank Calder of the Nisga’a Nation in 1973. “He [Barrett] never thought that colour was a barrier.”

Andrew Petter remembered how the Barrett government was savaged by free-enterprisers, even those south of the border. A report on socialist BC by Barron’s Magazine called the premier ‘Allende of the North’. “He considered that a compliment.” (When Allende was shot in the Chilean coup that overthrew his democratically-elected, Marxist government, Barrett ordered the BC flag outside the legislature flown at half-staff.) “The lessons he taught me have guided me for the entirety of my adult life,” said Petter. “Dave, we would have been so much poorer without you.”

Dawn Black singled out two specific measures of the Barrett government that affected her personally. One was the banning of the strap, an enormously controversial move at the time. “I was strapped and I remember feeling so humiliated and feeling the powerlessness of a young person at the power of an adult.” She also pointed to the NDP’s often-overlooked role establishing the BC Cancer Control Agency. “I’ve had two kids with cancer. The [BCCA] provided them with the highest standard of care in the world, and that meant everything to me.”

(Speakers included, L to R, Gerry Scott, Andrew Petter and Joy MacPhail)

Somewhat to my surprise, the best summation of what Dave Barrett bequeathed to the province was delivered by BC’s forgotten premier, Dan Miller, who filled in as interim leader between Glen Clark and Ujjal Dosanjh. Miller moved from his job in Prince Rupert’s Cellulose pulp mill to work as Highway Minister Graham Lea’s executive assistant in Victoria.

Politics were different back then, said Miller. It wasn’t about brief sound clips and making the 6 o’clock news. It was about filling union and community halls to build support. “You had to fill the halls, and for that we had Dave Barrett. He was the only speaker I’d ever heard who could make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. He would read the audience, and then just take off.” On the night of Aug. 30, 1972, when the impossible happened and the unbeatable WAC Bennett went down in flames, bringing the NDP to power for the first time, Miller said the euphoria he experienced that night “has never been duplicated.”

Astutely, Miller likened the impact of the Barrett government to the profound changes that swept Quebec with the election of Jean Lesage and the Liberals in 1960, ending the long run of the socially conservative Union Nationale and its quasi-authoritarian leader Maurice Duplessis. What followed has gone down in history as Quebec’s Quiet Revolution. “In the same way, Dave Barrett brought BC into the modern era,” said Miller. He added, with a wry smile: “Although you might describe his revolution as a noisy one.”

Marc Eliesen, imported from Manitoba to restore some stability to the chaos that often overtook the Barrett government, said he once asked Shirley Barrett why she stuck around with a husband so often away and so consumed by politics. She replied: “I want to see what happens next.”

Dave and Shirley were married 64 years, their affection for each other undiminished by time or Alzheimer’s. But the disease took his father’s famous voice, not his spirit, said son Joe. “We knew he was there in gestures and smiles and the way he looked at us. With my mom, you could see the connection between them, even when the illness was very advanced. It was quite beautiful.”

Dave Barrett (1930-2018). We will never see his like again.

 

 

 

 

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REMEMBERING DAVE BARRETT AND THE SUMMER OF ’72

In the best of summers, Dave Barrett ran the best of campaigns. Up against the seemingly unbeatable W.A.C. Bennett, the NDP leader was as unruffled as the weather, relaxed and purposefully out of the media spotlight. Forty people at a small gathering in Houston, a brief visit to the distant mining town of Stewart, a mid-morning tea in mighty Yahk, mainstreeting in Revelstoke. It was all the same to Barrett, part of his strategy to defuse once and for all Bennett’s tried-and-true election fear mongering about the “socialist hordes”. Of course there were hard-hitting political speeches at larger public meetings, but none of them predicted victory. He simply refused to be a target.

When needed, there was Barrett’s trademark humour. An allegation  that he followed Marx was laughed off with “which one, Groucho, Harpo or Zeppo?” Bennett’s ongoing charge that he was part of the NDP’s left-wing Waffle movement, prompted Barrett to call the premier a pancake, then a stack of pancakes. When Bennett persisted, he threatened to call him a Crêpes Suzette, “knowing how he feels about Quebec.”

But the best joke he told on himself. In Prince George, he advised the audience that an astrologer, asked by a local Vancouver newspaper to assess various attributes of the four provincial leaders, had given him a good mark for “sexual proclivities”. Rather pleased, Barrett told the tittering crowd he phoned home that night and asked his wife Shirley if she’d seen anything interesting in the paper. “No, Dave,” she reported. “Just the same old lies.” It brought the house down.

On the last Saturday before the election, Dave and Shirley finished the evening at a social event in Surrey, dancing. His final campaign speech was a traditional tub-thumper before a roaring crowd of 1,200 in his home riding of Coquitlam. But Barrett preached love, not revolution. By the time voters went to the polls on Aug. 30, 1972, the fear was gone. Barrett and the NDP coasted home to an unimaginable victory. After 39 years of the CCF/NDP finishing second to the forces of free enterprise in election after election, the province had its first socialist government.

With the sad news of Dave Barrett’s passing last month, I found myself thinking back to that unforgettable time more than 45 years ago, when everything went right and British Columbia wound up with what was, during its brief 39 months in office, the most progressive and transformative government in Canadian history.

A refugee from Ontario, I was with my West Coast relatives that evening. They could not comprehend what was happening. Almost every Socred kingpin fell to virtual NDP unknowns. “Phil Gaglardi lost!” I remember my cousin screaming with disbelief and delight. The same incredulity prevailed at Social Credit’s anticipated victory gathering at the Bayshore Hotel. “These results can’t be right. They can’t be,” said one perplexed supporter. When Attorney General Les Peterson showed up, a woman rushed towards him. “At least you won,” she exclaimed. “No, said Peterson, “I lost. We all lost.”

At the NDP’s celebratory headquarters at the Coquitlam Arena, emotions were off the charts. Barrett’s mother Ruth, a former Communist who wrapped her young son’s head in bloodied bandages for a Spanish Civil War May Day float, gave him a hug and began to cry. The province’s new leader-to-be was serenaded to the podium with raucous renditions of “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow” from the delirious, overflow crowd. Veteran union official Rudy Krickan, who had worked for the CCF and then the NDP since the 1930’s, called it “the greatest night of my life”. One less sober celebrant, who seemed not to have paid much attention to consent, yelled: “I’m so happy I’ve kissed 23 women and 17 men.” Up in Lillooet, far from the bedlam in Coquitlam, legendary newspaperwoman Ma Murray, who loathed W.A.C. Bennett with a passion, declared she had never felt so happy in all her  73 years. The beaming Barrett headed home early, for a beer and bed, but not before pledging: “I will not let our hopes and aspirations down….The people of British Columbia have the right to expect a great deal from us and we must deliver.”

Delivery did not take long. The Barrett government got to work right from the historic September day they took office. Hansard and Question Period at last, a doubling of MLA salaries so members could be full-time legislators and increased funding for the Opposition. New ministers took on a whirlwind of assignments: public auto insurance, a new labour code, a complete review of health services, preserving farmland, the plight of First Nations in the province. The long-proposed Third Crossing between Vancouver and the North Shore was killed, in favour of a planned “seabus” across Burrard Inlet. Social Services Minister Norm Levi quickly grasped what being in government meant after years hammering away from opposition benches. He ordered the BC Hydro to restore service to a woman on welfare, whose hydro had been cut off for non-payment.

During a brief, 18-day fall session, the minimum wage was raised 33 percent to $2 an hour, teachers were given bargaining rights, budget responsibilities were restored to local school boards, a broad-based committee was struck to bring democratic reforms to a legislature that had operated under WAC Bennett’s one-sided version of the rules for two decades and most significant of all, the government brought in Mincome, guaranteeing seniors a minimum income of $200 a month. The pioneer program, unmatched anywhere in North America, is “the unfinished work of the socialist movement in its concern for people of all ages,” proclaimed Norm Levi. Pretty well the Barrett government’s first order of business, Mincome remained its most popular measure for all the time it was in office.

Meanwhile, as the days ticked by towards Christmas, Barrett was a whirling dervish of news and off-the-cuff announcements, captivating reporters with his availability, humour, espousal of socialism and denigration of greedy, capitalist speculators in rhetoric that seemed to get him on the front page every day. One scribe calculated that the roly-poly, non-stop premier had committed his government to 42 new polices during its first 55 days in office. By the time Guy Lombardo ushered out 1972 with Auld Lang Syne, Dave Barrett might have been the most popular premier in BC history.

It didn’t last of course. The bitter fights to preserve BC farmland from development, bring in public auto-insurance, tax windfall mining profits, dramatically increase spending on social services for the disadvantaged and enact a myriad other controversial measures aimed at making the province a more enlightened place to live evoked large protests and sometimes over-the-top opposition in the media.. The inevitable government gaffes,  coupled with more than a few missteps by Barrett, himself, did not help. By the time the NDP was voted out of office three years later, that early glow was but a memory.

Looking back, those faults pale in comparison with the rich legacy left behind, a legacy that is with us still. None is greater than the preservation of farmland throughout British Columbia. Forty-five years later, the Agricultural Land Reserve stands as a beacon to what a committed government can do to change a province.  (My list of the Barrett government’s 100 achievements, over those short 39 months, is available here (https://mickleblog.wordpress.com/2018/02/19/100-achievements-of-the-dave-barrett-government-1972-1975/). BC never had a more alive, activist government.

The summer of 1972 made it all happen. As he is remembered at a state memorial in Victoria and a gathering the next day in Vancouver, for all his  accomplishments and fighting the good political fight for so many years, that’s when Dave Barrett did the impossible. By “slaying the Socred dragon”, as the Vancouver Sun’s front page headline put it, and refusing a cautious, go-slow approach, he set BC on course to a modern future from which there was no turning back.