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.