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.

 

 

100 ACHIEVEMENTS OF THE DAVE BARRETT GOVERNMENT (1972-1975)

From 1972 to 1975, the province’s first socialist government, headed by the NDP’s Dave Barrett, changed the face of British Columbia. Their time in office was a frenzy of action and legislation, passing more than 350 bills and taking many other measures, which left a legacy that has helped shape us ever since. With Dave Barrett’s recent passing, some might want to refresh their memories, or learn for the first time, just exactly what his government did – and of course they were hardly perfect. But given Given the cautious, go-slow, poll-driven legislators of today, it is a remarkable record, during a mere 39 months in office. Herewith, taken largely from The Art of the Impossible, the account of the Barrett government by Geoff Meggs and me, is a list of its Top 100 achievements. Amazing.

  1. The Agricultural Land Reserve.
  2. The Insurance Corp. of BC, which brought publicly-owned auto insurance to the province.
  3. A provincial ambulance service, with licensed paramedics.
  4. Hansard.
  5. Daily question period.
  6. Greatly increased funding for opposition parties.
  7. Chair of the Public Accounts Committee given to a member of the opposition.
  8. Doubling of MLA pay to $25,000 a year.
  9. Minimum wage raised from $1.50 to $2.50 an hour, highest in the country.
  10. Mincome, providing a guaranteed, minimum income for those over 60, the Barrett government’s single most popular measure.
  11. Pharmacare for seniors.
  12. Boosting welfare rates 20 to 40 percent. Total spending on human resources went from 8.5 percent to 15.1 percent of the budget.
  13. Restoration and sprucing up of the crumbling legislative building.
  14. Provincial sheriffs service.
  15. Banning use of the strap in public schools.
  16. Neighbourhood pubs.
  17. Lifting of arbitrary ceiling on teacher wage increases.
  18. Ending a ban on beer and liquor and advertising.
  19. Buying two pulp mills, two sawmills and Panko Poultry to save them from going out of business. Except for the chicken plant, all subsequently made money.
  20. Full collective bargaining rights, including the right to strike, for government employees.
  21. The most far-reaching Human Rights Code in Canada.
  22. A breath-taking labour code, the most far-reaching in North America, which took picketing disputes out of the courts for the first time and greatly facilitated union organizing.
  23. A powerful new Labour Relations Board, with unprecedented jurisdiction over labour matters. It was an outstanding success.
  24. First-of-a-kind legislation dealing with strikes in essential services, directing the LRB to determine which services should be maintained during strikes by fire, police and/or health care workers. This allowed employees in these critical areas to strike, but with restrictions.
  25. Establishing the Islands Trust to protect the Gulf Islands against uncontrolled development.
  26. A government funded art bank to purchase BC art.
  27. The BC Energy Commission to regulate private utilities and monitor oil and gas prices.
  28. The BC Petroleum Corp., cutting the government in on profit from export sales of natural gas, dubbed “thirty-second socialism” by Attorney General Alex Macdonald.
  29. Elected community resources boards.
  30. BC Cancer Control Agency.
  31. Dramatic expansion of community colleges.
  32. Pay toilets canned.
  33. Restoration of the right to sue the Crown.
  34. BC’s first ministry of housing, charged with encouraging affordable and co-op housing through the government-purchased Dunhill Development.
  35. Rent contols.
  36. Appointment of a rentalsman to oversee tenant rights.
  37. Refurbishing of the Royal Hudson steam locomotive for rail trips between West Vancouver and Squamish.
  38. Amalgamation of both Kelowna and Kamloops.
  39. Purchase of the Princess Marguerite, to keep the beloved Victoria-Seattle ferry in operation.
  40. Purchase of Victoria’s inner harbor waterfront.
  41. BC’s first Indigenous school board, run by the Nisga’a Tribal Council.
  42. Greatly expanded daycare facilities and increased subsidies.
  43. Farm Income Assurance Act.
  44. Mandatory kindergarten.
  45. Reduced teacher-student ratios.
  46. End of province-wide exams for Grade 12 students.
  47. Annual federal grant of $700,000 for French immersion restored to the school system.
  48. Purchase of 1.1 million BC Tel shares, in an unsuccessful attempt to secure a seat on the board. Later resold for a good profit.
  49. Ban on non-union grapes at all government-owned institutions.
  50. Union wages mandated for all publicly-funded construction projects.
  51. Independent boards of review to decide Workers’ Compensation Board appeals, previously left to the WCB, itself.
  52. Improved WCB pensions.
  53. New, government-owned manufacturing plant in Squamish to build BC Rail boxcars.
  54. Killing proposed Third Crossing between the North Shore and Vancouver and using the savings for expanding public transit.
  55. The Seabus (began operation under Social Credit).
  56. Cancellation of proposed downtown Vancouver government office tower, resulting in Arthur Erickson-designed Robson Square.
  57. Ending logging of Cypress Bowl and preserving it for recreation.
  58. An independent board of governors at BC Institute of Technology.
  59. A police commission to set policing standards in the province.
  60. Legislation requiring elected and appointed officials to disclose their financial holdings.
  61. Increased funding for the arts.
  62. Expansion of provincial parks from 7.1 to 9.4 million acres.
  63. Putting a stop to logging and mining in provincial parks.
  64. The BC lottery.
  65. Financial aid to enable the City of Vancouver to purchase the historic Orpheum Theatre.
  66. Creation of a large provincial park to stall plans by Seattle City Light to flood much of BC’s Skagit Valley by raising the High Ross Dam.
  67. BC Day.
  68. Full-time human rights officers.
  69. A BC Human Rights Commission.
  70. Closure of residential Willingdon School for troubled girls and Brannan Lake Industrial Centre for boys, which Barrett considered, amid so much else, his proudest achievements.
  71. BC Ferries ship-building.
  72. Large increases to legal aid.
  73. The province’s first consumer services ministry, and Canada’s strongest consumer protection.
  74. Significant financial assistance for an Indigenous fisheries co-op in northwest BC.
  75. Legislation allowing BC to establish its own bank.
  76. Quashing a proposed bulk-loading coal port for Squamish.
  77. Removal of succession duties from farms that pass from parents to their children.
  78. Allowing civil service pension funds to invest in stocks..
  79. Provisions for handing public complaints against police.
  80. Boosting mineral royalties and increasing the governments take from windfall profits resulting from a spike in world metal prices.
  81. Burns Lake Development Corporation, giving district Indigenous groups a share in the local forest industry.
  82. Provincial Status of Women Office.
  83. Hiking corporate taxes from 10 to 12 percent.
  84. Higher renters’ grants.
  85. Ramping up royalties on coal from 25 cents to $1.50 a ton.
  86. Removal of the sales tax on books.
  87. Amassing $38.8 million in profits from Crown corporations.
  88. Timber Products Stabilization Act, enabling government to regulate the price of wood chips sold by sawmills to pulp mills.
  89. Banning the export of raw logs.
  90. Assistance for BC industries with a $100-million fund administered by the BC Development Corporation.
  91. Community health centres.
  92. An air ambulance service.
  93. Establishment of Whistler as a resort municipality, the first of its kind in Canada, along with a land freeze and development study.
  94. Investment in Kelowna’s Sun Valley Foods.
  95. Municipal assessment reform.
  96. Abolishing extra billing by doctors.
  97. Sexual Sterilization Act
  98. Acquisition of Shaughnessy Veterans’ Hospital, later to become BC Children’s Hospital.
  99. Funding of women’s shelters, rape relief centres and women’s health collectives.
  100. Revamping the province’s family court system.

 

 

IN THE BEGINNING…THERE WAS DAVE BARRETT

Image 7Watching the joyous, almost giddy swearing-in of the province’s new premier and his gender-balanced cabinet, I couldn’t help thinking of BC’s very first transition of power to the NDP, so long ago the Vancouver Sun had two full-time labour reporters. That historic ground-breaker took place way back in 1972, or five years before David Eby, the province’s new Attorney General, was born. July 18 was only the third such right-to-left tilt in BC history. Of course, that’s three more than the zero Stanley Cups won by the hapless Canucks, and just enough to keep politics interesting and a semblance of two-party democracy alive in BC’s polarized environment. No wonder John Horgan couldn’t keep that big goofy grin off his face. But the circumstances could not have been more different than the first official visit to Government House by an NDP premier-in-waiting. No live TV, no tweets, no hoopla from First Nations dancers. Very little buzz at all. Yet it was a pivotal moment for the province, never to be the same again. So, for David Eby and “all you kids out there”, return with us now to that thrilling day of yesteryear, when NDP leader Dave Barrett succeeded the indomitable W.A.C. Bennett as premier of British Columbia.

Given the NDP’s string of 12 consecutive, electoral defeats, going back to the formation of its CCF predecessor in 1933, it was a day many thought they would never see in their lifetime. Against all expectations, however, the party’s 13th campaign proved lucky beyond imagining. On August 30, 1972, Bennett’s 20-year grip on power came to a decisive end. The NDP won a stunning, landslide victory that few, beyond Barrett and a few canny observers, saw coming. The hysteria, bedlam and sheer outpouring of joy at party headquarters that night was off the charts. The “socialist hordes” were inside the gates at last.

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Yet such was the strange, almost surreal, nature of the times, like Monty Python’s depiction of the dull life of Ralph Mellish, suddenly, nothing happened. Barrett had no idea when he would actually get to be premier. The shattered, 72-year old Bennett said nothing about how and when the transfer of power from Social Credit would take place. An eerie, political silence descended on Victoria. Unsure of protocol, for much of the next two weeks, Barrett sat at home in Coquitlam, twiddling his thumbs, waiting for a summons to Government House. Finally, on the morning of Sept. 15, Bennett officially resigned, and the long-anticipated, formal phone call from Deputy Provincial Secretary Lawrie Wallace came through. The boyish, joke-cracking, 41-year old social worker, son of an East Vancouver fruit peddler, would be sworn in that afternoon as premier of British Columbia, the first Jew and the first socialist to hold the province’s top elected position.

Still, given the absurdly short notice, Barrett had to hurry. He scrambled his wife and kids into the family Volvo and headed off to Tsawwassen for the ferry to Swartz Bay. The premier-to-be’s vehicle took its place in line with everyone else. Once on the other side, Barrett realized he didn’t know exactly where to go. Fishing a dime from his pocket, he used a pay phone at the ferry terminal to call Government House for precise directions. “I think he reached the gardener,” Shirley Barrett laughed later. Barrett parked the car in the visitors’ parking lot, and the family sauntered happily up the driveway. Barrett’s tie flapped casually in the breeze, his teenaged sons grudgingly wearing jackets, but tieless.

The new premier was sworn in before a few officials and associates, family and the media. As he signed the book, a photographer asked him to “look up, Mr. Premier”. Sun columnist Allan Fotheringham reported that Barrett displayed a look of surprised delight at hearing himself addressed as “premier” for the first time. Afterwards, he lifted a glass of champagne and proclaimed: “This breaks a 20-year fast.” Outside, queried how he felt, the province’s 26th premier replied: “I feel a little more honourable.”

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An hour later at the legislature, the province’s first socialist cabinet was sworn in. Fotheringham watched Barrett, closely. He wrote: “[He] wore a continuing grin of simple pleasure. It was not a smug, greedy look. Just a boyish failure to subdue his true feelings.” It was if he knew already his government would fundamentally change the province. There would be no hesitation, no turning back.

Four and a half decades later, it was the turn of another NDP leader to take the oath of office. This was a far more public, more high-spirited swearing-in than the low-key ceremony that ushered Dave Barrett into office. The ornate room at Government House was packed, befitting a date for the transition set well in advance, rather than by the back-of-the-envelope whim of Wacky Bennett. TV networks carried the ceremony live. First Nations dancers were front and centre. All 40 NDP MLA’s were there, brought to the august residence in a rented bus. “That’s the way I roll,” said Horgan.

The atmosphere could not have been more happy and relaxed. Lieutenant-Governor Judith Guichon, who made the critical, pressure-packed decision to reject Christy Clark’s request for an election and call on the NDP to give government a whirl, got into the spirit of things. After Horgan, while taking the first oath of office, awkwardly stopped at “I’, without repeating his full name, she quipped “He’s a quick learner”, when he got the second and third oath right. Her Majesty’s Representative also gave Agriculture Minister Lana Popham an affectionate hug, after Popham inked her name in the ceremonial book. It was that kind of affair.

horgan-ndp-1

Now comes the hard part, of course. Governing is never easy, especially when so many are out to get you. But Horgan has wisely copied one of the positive pages from the Barrett playbook: bring in simple and popular measures that help those who need it most right off the bat. Besides quickly increasing the minimum wage and welfare rates, the Barrett government enacted as its first order of business a guaranteed “mincome” of $200 a month for the province’s senior citizens. The first program of its kind in North America, it remained the most cherished of all the far-reaching moves by the NDP over the next 39 months. Mincome, said Social Services Minister Norm Levi, represents “the unfinished work of the socialist movement in its concern for people of all ages”.

On his third day in office, Horgan hiked disability assistance and welfare rates by $100 a month, the first welfare increase in more than 10 years. It was a good start.

 

 

 

 

SOLIDARITY FOREVER?

Thirty-three years ago, the newly-relected Social Credit government of Bill Bennett brought down the most dramatic, yay outlandish, budget and “restraint” package in B.C. history. What happened next is detailed here in an essay I wrote a year or so ago.

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On July 7, 1983, Bill Bennett and his Social Credit government, freshly elected to a third successive term in office, unleashed a revolution in British Columbia. This was a revolution from the right. Fueled by the radical conservatism of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and Milton Friedman’s economic neo-liberalism, the Socreds took aim at all those elements in society they had never liked. With no advance notice, a total of 26 repressive bills came down the chute in a single day, along with a harsh government restraint budget that dramatically slashed social spending. Rent controls were abolished. Landlords were given the right to evict tenants without cause. The Human Rights Commission was shut down, its workers fired on the spot. The Employment Standards Branch was killed off. Scrutiny of Crown corporations was wound up, while the government tightened its grip over local school board budgets and community colleges, including course content. And on and on.

The worst of the onslaught focused on workers and unions in the public sector. Under Bill 2, they lost the right to negotiate almost anything except wages and benefits, even as wage controls were extended indefinitely. Bill 3, designed to pave the way for a wave of firings, wiped out job security and, incredibly, gave all public sector authorities the power to terminate workers without cause, regardless of seniority. (The first list of government employees to be fired included the names of B.C. Government Employees Union executive members John Shields and Diane Woods.) This was, indeed, “Black Thursday”.

The legislative barrage came at a dire time for the labour movement, already weakened by yet another NDP defeat at the polls and the sudden death earlier that year of Jim Kinnaird, the tough, able Scot who had headed the B.C. Federation of Labour since 1976. Kinnaird’s stopgap successor was Art Kube, a portly, relatively unknown, Canadian Labour Congress staffer with little real union experience.

Yet the fightback was immediate and intense. In fact, there has never been anything quite like the concerted Operation Solidarity protest that swept the province through four turbulent months during the summer and fall of 1983. The popular, union-led uprising against Premier Bennett’s Restraint Program brought B.C. to the verge of a general strike, involving hundreds of thousands public sector workers, with B.C.’s powerful private sector unions waiting to join in the moment anyone was punished for walking off the job. Resistance was further powered by an unprecedented coalition between the labour movement and community advocacy groups that had seen so many of their own rights trampled. Kube, his belief system forged in the social democracy of his native Austria, was to prove an adept leader and strategist, who steered this unlikely coalition until the wheels fell off at the very end.

George Hewison of the Fishermen’s Union was first off the mark. He called a meeting. Instead of the usual suspects, more than a hundred people showed up. They decided to hold a demonstration. Two weeks later, 20,000 people marched across the Georgia Viaduct. The rally featured IWA leader Jack Munro’s enduring observation on whether the numerous protest signs referring to “fascism” went too far. “If it looks like a duck, and it walks like a duck, then it’s probably a goddamned duck!” he thundered. The crowd roared back.

Kube soon coordinated union action, bringing Fed affiliates and their bitter, independent Canadian union rivals together for the first time, under the banner of the astutely-named Operation Solidarity.

Social activists also threw themselves into the struggle. A myriad opposition groups sprang up. One left-wing lawyer complained his practice was going to seed. “All I do is go to meetings.” Kube harnessed this activism into a separate Solidarity Coalition, hired several organizers, funded the rambunctious Solidarity Times newspaper, and convinced the Coalition they were equal partners with the protest’s potent trade union arm.

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Demonstrations and wildcat strikes, including a lengthy occupation of the Tranquille mental health facility in Kamloops, soon spread throughout the province. Twenty-five thousand swarmed the lawn of the legislature. Elsewhere, even in Social Credit strongholds, protestors rallied in the hundreds and thousands. But nothing topped the day tens of thousands public sector workers booked off and crammed every nook and cranny of Vancouver’s Empire Stadium. Just when it seemed the old stadium was completely jammed, in marched hundreds of uniformed firefighters, led by their famed marching band. It was a chilling, emotional moment that no one who was there would ever forget. Hope and optimism were in the air.

But Bill Bennett refused to buckle, deriding protestors as losers re-fighting the last election. Despite heroic, marathon efforts by NDP MLAs to stall the legislation, one by one the bills were pushed through.

Solidarity leaders gambled on one more demonstration, this one in mid-October, organized by the Coalition. The turnout stunned those on both sides of the battle. An estimated 80,000 demonstrators thronged the downtown streets of Vancouver. It remains the biggest protest in the city’s long, stormy history. It was time to move to the picket line. Solidarity hatched a war plan, calling for a series of escalating public sector walkouts, culminating in an all-out general strike.

Two weeks after the huge October protest, 40,000 members of the BCGEU walked off the job – legally – while their negotiators demanded the turfing of Bill 2 and an exemption from Bill 3. A week later, thousands of public school teachers and other education workers defied the law and hit the bricks on an illegal strike, seeking similar job protection. Municipal employees and the province’s critical ferry workers were next in line, set to strike on Monday, Nov. 14.

Finally, the government got nervous. They began to talk seriously about issues that had inflamed B.C. for months. Norman Spector, Bennett’s right hand man, parachuted into round-the-clock bargaining with the BCGEU at the B.C. Labour Relations Board. Spector also met secretly with B.C. Federation of Labour heavyweights Jack Munro and Mike Kramer.

The end came in a series of dramatic events that concluded less than 12 hours before the threatened ferry workers’ strike. The BCGEU won a deal containing wage increases, the death of Bill 2 and a Bill 3 exemption that recognized layoffs by seniority. It was a victory of sorts, and BCGEU negotiators brought out the champagne at their union headquarters in Burnaby. It was now a union show. The Solidarity Coalition and its causes, which had been such a part of the four-month protest, were shunted to the sidelines. “How can they celebrate when they’re selling out human rights?” lamented one Coalition leader, bitterly.

But before the picket lines came down, Operation Solidarity still wanted a pact with Bill Bennett to confirm their limited gains. With Kube home sick, Jack Munro flew to Kelowna to “negotiate” with the Premier. Sensing Solidarity’s desperation, however, Bennett refused to make any public statement committing the government to anything. Over the phone, Kube told Munro to “get the hell out of there”. Munro stayed. With the unanimous support of Federation executive members back in Vancouver, he soon stepped onto Bennett’s darkened porch and announced an end to Solidarity’s magnificent movement. Not with a bang, but a whimper.

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(Vancouver Sun photo)

Privately, the government agreed to Bill 3 exemptions throughout the public sector, keeping money saved by the teachers’ walkout in the education system, and consultation on a few social matters. Yet this seemed a pittance to those who had had such high hopes for so many months. Instead of a victory celebration, there was bitterness and confusion. People felt betrayed. Operation Sellout buttons became popular. Jack Munro was vilified, both inside and outside the trade union movement. Perhaps it was unrealistic to expect union members to strike and sacrifice their own pay cheques for non-monetary, non-union social issues. But this was never articulated to the Solidarity Coalition, which was left out in the rain by the final agreement.

In the cold light of dawn, however, there were still significant achievements to be noted. Nowhere in Canada outside Quebec had a strong, militant labour movement been able to stop a government’s anti-union agenda in its tracks. In the end, after all its bluster, Social Credit completely capitulated on Bills 2 and 3. That clear triumph is often forgotten amid all the unhappiness over the so-called Kelowna Accord. Bennett, himself, was heavily damaged politically. He chose not to run again. The extent of the historic fightback also dampened public enthusiasm for his right-wing, neo-con Restraint Program, few elements of which survive today. It also ensured Bennet would never be hailed a conservative folk hero, except perhaps by the Fraser Institute, as were Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. For all of that, we can thank Operation Solidarity. And the Solidarity Coalition.

(and here’s what I wrote for the Globe and Mail on the 25th anniversary of the Kelowna Accord http://www.theglobeandmail.com/news/national/back-from-the-brink-25-years-later/article20389444/)

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“FEELING THE BERN” IN THAT OTHER VANCOUVER

IMG_3949The 74-year old, white-haired politician advanced to the podium, and the roof nearly came off the Hudson’s Bay High School gymnasium. No wonder. For nearly four hours, thousands of us had been standing in line, braving a cold, miserable rain, without even knowing whether we would be among the 5,000 or so lucky enough to make it inside. Our little group, friends after sharing the miserable ordeal outside, scraped through by the skin of our chattering teeth, but the doors soon closed on thousands more.

As the cheers continued to cascade down from the packed, rickety benches of the high school gym, Bernie Sanders leaned forward and shouted in his hoarse, Brooklynese. “All I can say is: WHOA!” The roar got louder. “It sounds to me like the people of Vancouver and the state of Washington are ready for a political revolution.” Clearly they were, along with millions of other Americans across the country, who have been rallying in such astonishing numbers to the political phenomenon that is Bernie Sanders.

While the headlines and pundits focus on the truly frightening Donald Trump, Sanders has been going about his business, undeterred by numbers that show him with little chance of wresting the Democratic Party nomination from the well-connected Hillary Clinton. He pursues his quixotic quest with no sign of flagging enthusiasm, urging the crowd to register and show up for the coming caucuses to determine convention delegates for the State of Washington.

Now it was our turn for the Bernie Sanders Socialist Revival Hour. The rally in Vancouver showcased just how much the Sanders campaign and its captivating slogan “A Future to Believe In” remains full of vigour. A pleasant but otherwise nondescript, mid-sized city just across the Columbia River from Oregon, founded by the Hudson’s Bay Company, Vancouver is hardly a hotbed of political activism. Yet people began lining up at the crack of dawn for Sanders’ early afternoon appearance. “There are a lot of people here I never thought would show up for a political rally,” one soaked, early arriver told a reporter. Indeed, that has been a feature of the Sanders campaign from the beginning. Many of those flocking to his side are first-timers from well outside the traditional political spectrum. Millennials, in particular, were everywhere in the sea of Gortex and hoodies that stretched in all directions outside the school. “Maybe we can start a revolution,” said the young nursing student ahead of us in the rain-lashed line.

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And maybe they can. Later that day, 25,000 showed up to hear Sanders in Seattle, another 10,000 in Spokane. Campaign organizers have now audaciously booked Seattle’s 45,000-seat Safeco Field for another mass public gathering. So far, Sanders has scored victories in 11 primaries and caucuses, securing a total of more than 900 delegates. Not bad for a Noam Chomsky-loving, self-proclaimed democratic socialist in a country where, until recently just to be branded a liberal was considered political death. It’s really quite amazing.

Few, maybe not even Bernie Sanders, saw this coming when he announced his bid for the Democratic nomination last year. “The general consensus was that we were looking at a coronation, that there was an anointed candidate,” said Sanders. He paused. “Well, ten months have come and gone, and it doesn’t look to me like that’s the case….” The fired-up crowd erupted in a frenzy of sign-waving and cheers.

As the primaries pile up and the convention nears, Sanders has not watered down his radical rhetoric and progressive policies one bit. There is no move to the mushy centre in search of undecided voters. His targets remain the billionaires, Wall Street speculators, multi-national drug companies, the corporate media “who talk about everything except the most important issues facing the American people”, “militarized” police forces… The list is lengthy. His platform is pitched at the young and the powerless, low-wage earners struggling to make a living in a land, said Sanders, where corporations pack up and move, if they can make even a few dollars more somewhere else. The “real change” the United States needs is unlikely to come from “Secretary Clinton”, he asserted bluntly, with her millions in campaign donations from Wall Street and trusts that include the fossil fuel industry and big pharmaceutical companies.

He laid it all out in a direct, forceful 45-minute speech, short on humour and niceties, long on all the ills of American society and, in the words of Lenin, “What Is To Be Done.” Wild applause greeted every point he hammered home.

Like an old-time blues shouter, Sanders asked: “Are you ready for a radical idea?” The “Yes!” was deafening. “We are doing something extremely unusual in American politics,” he confided. “We are telling the truth.” And what is that truth? Sanders didn’t mince words. “The truth is that the ruling class of this country is so powerful that a handful of billionaires believe that with their billions they have a right to win elections for the wealthy and the powerful…But we say ‘no’ to the corporate billionaires on Wall Street. We are a democracy, and we are not going to allow billionaires to take it away from us.”

Despite the USA’s deep-seated history of red-baiting and anti-communism, Sanders is thriving with a socialist message that hasn’t changed all that much in the 40 years he’s been preaching it, a perennial lone wolf from the left. Yet suddenly, out of nowhere, people are listening and lapping it up. He has tapped into a lot of the working-class anger that has also helped propel Donald Trump to his current, scary prominence. The difference is that Trump’s poisonous brand is exclusive, while Sanders’ message is resolutely positive and inclusive. He wants a fair deal for everyone.

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Sanders ploughs forward, undeterred by the legion of mainstream critics. “I’ve been criticized for saying this, so let me say it again,” he told us, drawing a rare laugh from the audience. “Every country in the world guarantees health care to all its people. Yet 29 million Americans still have no health insurance. Many others are being forced to pay huge sums for their coverage, while the drug companies keep ripping us off,” Sanders said. “I believe health care is a right, not a privilege. Medicare for all!” The declaration drew one of the loudest responses of the day. “Bernie! Bernie”, chanted the crowd. The chanters included the woman beside us who had shared her umbrella during our lengthy wait in line. She had asked about Canada’s health care system, after telling us that full coverage for herself, her husband and two kids would cost a thousand dollars a month. So her husband is doing without. These are the people joining the Sanders crusade. Left behind by the powers that be, they feel no one cares for them but Bernie.

In Vancouver, they were almost all white, befitting the city’s demographics, and predominantly young, like the teenaged couple sitting in front of us who interrupted persistent smooching to raise their right hands in a fist whenever Sanders said something they liked, which was often. “We’ve received more votes from people under 30 than Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton combined,” trumpeted the junior Senator from Vermont.

Progressive promises piled up throughout his speech.

  • a nation-wide, minimum wage of $15 an hour.
  • a tax on “Wall Street speculation”.
  • an end to “corporate tax loopholes”.
  • an end to the War on Drugs (deafening whoops).
  • fixing a “rigged economy” that has the top one-tenth of one percent owning “almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 per cent”.
  • “comprehensive” immigration reform.
  • taking on the fossil fuel industry to combat climate change and enhance sustainable energy.
  • diversifying police forces “so they look like the people they’re policing”.

And finally, most popular of all, judging by the prolonged ovation it received: free tuition for all public college and university students. “Last I heard, getting an education is not a crime or a punishment,” said Sanders, to ringing cheers. “We need the best educated work force in the world. So why are we punishing young people with crushing debt by the time they graduate?”

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Not since the hapless, 1948 run by Henry Wallace of the Progressive Party has there been such a radical, presidential platform from the left. Although it would undoubtedly be premature to write him off completely, Sanders remains a long shot to win the Democrat nomination. But he has tapped into a deep yearning for meaningful change among Americans struggling to survive, while the rich grow ever wealthier. No one seems deterred by the term “socialist” any more. As one of Sanders’ pollsters told the New Yorker, explaining millennial support for his candidate: “What’s their experience been with capitalism? They’ve had two recessions, one really bad one. They have a mountain of student-loan debt. They’ve got really high health care costs, and their job prospects are mediocre at best. So that’s capitalism for you.”

Sanders has already forced an increasingly worried Hillary Clinton to tack leftward on a number of issues, and he is showing signs of cutting into her strong support among Afro-Americans. According to the latest Bloomberg poll, “feeling the Bern” has totally erased Clinton’s once enormous lead in popular support, and the two are in a dead heat. The remarkable journey launched by that old leftie codger has a ways to go yet.

 

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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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