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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

RACHEL NOTLEY, DAVE BARRETT AND HISTORY

ndp-leader-rachel-notley-wins-alberta-election I wasn’t there, but I bet a lot of tears were shed by Alberta NDP oldtimers last night at the party’s giddy, raucous ‘n’ rollin’  victory celebration in Edmonton. That was certainly the order of the evening on a similar dragon-slaying night long ago, out here in British Columbia. On Aug. 30, 1972, Dave Barrett, the 41-year old son of an East Vancouver fruit pedlar, led “the socialist hordes” inside the province’s gates for the first time, after nearly 40 years of repeated failure. Among the hysterical crowd greeting a triumphant Barrett at the Coquitlam Arena (it was a different time…) was veteran union official Rudy Krickan, who’d worked for the party since the 1930’s. His eyes moistening, Krickan told a reporter: “This is the greatest night of my life.” Barrett’s mother Rose, who put young Dave on a Spanish Civil War float in the late 1930’s, hugged her son with tears streaming down her face. 8378182 I’m sure there were similar moments in Edmonton, as Rachel Notley delivered her warm, impressive, heartfelt victory speech at the little more upscale ballroom of the Westin Hotel (in the old days of the Alberta NDP, election night gatherings could probably have been held in the hotel lobby…).

I mean, even a day later, who can really believe that the NDP has been elected in Alberta? (Surely some mistake, ed.) It’s insane, unworthy of even a lame April Fool’s joke. Calgary has gone from Cowtown to Maotown. As someone tweeted last night: snowballs in hell are alive and well.

Despite the passage of time, there are a number of interesting similarities between the stunning elections of Barrett and Rachel Notley, whose father Grant was head of the NDP in Alberta when his B.C. counterpart came to power. Both Barrett and Rachel Notley toppled political dynasties that seemed destined to last forever. W.A.C. Bennett had reigned over B.C. for two decades with barely a hiccup, and of course, Alberta’s Conservatives had been in power for a staggering 44 years, almost as long as the Vancouver Canucks have been without a Stanley Cup.

Both incumbent premiers waged disastrous campaigns. For them and their parties, after so many years, it was one election too many. Meanwhile, Barrett and Notley were note-perfect on the hustings. A mood for change swept over the electorate. By the end of 72-year-old W.A.C. Bennett’s bumbling re-election bid, the Socreds were desperately buying full-page newspaper ads proclaiming “young is a state of mind”. The ads pointed to a still-productive Picasso at 90 and Einstein working on his “unified field theory” into his seventies. Alas for Social Credit, there was no unified field theory to salvage the ‘72 election. “Wacky” went down in flames, as did Jim Prentice, who also seemed preposterously out of touch with ordinary voters.

Last-ditch, political scare tactics that had always worked in the past were lost in the gales of change. The unified free-enterprise vote splintered, and both Barrett and Notley were able to steamroll to power with substantially less than a majority of the popular vote. At one point last night, the Alberta NDP vote was a scant .2 percentage points higher than the 39.6% B.C. New Democrats received in 1972. (Late returns bumped it up to 40.6%.) And eerily, both Social Credit and Alberta Conservatives were nearly wiped off the electoral map with the same paltry total of 10 seats.

I also note that in their victory speeches, both Barrett and Rachel Notley began by paying tribute to and thanking the leaders they had sent into political oblivion. In Barrett’s case, his mention of W.A.C. Bennett evoked boos and laughter from the exultant crowd. “No, no,” admonished Barrett, over the din. “Any man who has served his province for 20 years deserves our respect, and I think we should recognize that.” Notley, in turn, graciously thanked Jim Prentice “for the enormous contribution he has made to this province…in many roles for many years.”

I found myself charmed by Rachel Notley’s wide, beaming smile. It seemed so refreshingly natural  and unstaged. I can see why Alberta voters flocked to her, rather than to her rather dour competitors. And yes, Barrett, too, was like that in victory. Here’s Allan Fotheringham’s description of the incoming premier as he strode towards Government House to be sworn in: “The new premier wore a continuing grin of simple pleasure. It was not a smug, greedy look. Just a boyish failure to subdue his true feelings.” Image 9 And now, the tough similarities. The way ahead for Notley, as it was for Dave Barrett, is fraught with potholes of the potentially-monstrous variety. Neither came close to a majority of the popular vote. If the free-enterprise forces get their act together, Notley could be a one-term wonder, as was Barrett. (Same with Bob Rae’s upset victory for the NDP in Ontario in 1990. They won a large majority with just 37.6% of the popular vote, then soundly trounced next time out.) In B.C.’s bitter 1975 election, the NDP actually held their share of the popular vote, but Social Credit, under the hardnosed leadership of Bill Bennett, knocked them for a loop by building an unsinkable anti-NDP coalition. The Liberal and Conservative vote basically disappeared. In a two-party race, Barrett and the NDP didn’t have a chance. They were out of office for the next 15 years, until the free enterprise forces split once more.

As did Barrett, Rachel Notley also takes over the reins of a resource-rich province with a caucus completely untested by  government. Who knows how they will perform? Barrett turned out to have some exceptionally capable ministers, several among the best this province has ever had. But he had his share of dunderheads and lacklustre performers, too. Along with more than one big blunder by Barrett, himself, these lesser-lights helped fuel perception of a gang that couldn’t shoot straight. Image 9 The reality was quite different. The Barrett government accomplished more in 39 months than perhaps any administration in Canadian history. It was done purposefully. At the new government’s first cabinet meeting, when not sliding up and down the large, shiny cabinet table in their stocking feet, they considered the question: Are we here for a good time, or a long time? As we know, they opted for a good time. “We discussed whether we were going to make fundamental changes in British Columbia,” Barrett wrote, later, “or whether we would try to hang on for a second term, rationalizing that we would get the job done next time around. We agreed unanimously to strike while the iron was hot.” Many thought they did too much too soon, without sufficient consultation. In the process, they alarmed the business community and a good chunk of the public. Their fate in the next election was sealed.

Yet their short time in office was far from all bad. Much of what that wild and crazy government did survives today. The “Barrett boys” fundamentally changed B.C., mostly for the better. So far, the approach of Rachel Notley seems a fair distance from Dave Barrett’s approach. Although both are certainly populists, early signs are that she is opting, not for the good time, but for the long time. While Barrett gleefully took on the big mining and forest companies, Notley is already talking to Alberta’s energy industry moguls, seeking to re-assure them of her desire to work together.

Meanwhile, the Alberta media must be licking their lips in anticipation of a story that keeps on giving. There will be tales galore, as there was during the Barrett government’s brief, Roman Candle launch and fall to earth. Everything seems so easy in opposition. Actual government is hard, requiring a steep learning curve. And so, to Rachel Notley and her merry band of green youngsters, i say: Welcome to the bigs. It should be a hell of a ride.

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HOORAY FOR ED!

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Long before there was Christy Clark and “her” Family Day, long before Manitoba’s Louis Riel Day and even long before the 1996 proclamation of National Flag of Canada Day, there was my Uncle Ed.

Relegated by political history to a trivia question at best (Who sent Ray Perrault packing to the Canadian Senate?), Uncle Ed remains a forgotten figure amid all the hoopla over the 50th anniversary of the good old Canadian flag.

Yet it was Ed Nelson who stood in the House of Commons in the late afternoon of Feb. 15, 1973 to introduce private member’s bill C-136. That bill brought forward by the guy lucky enough to have married my mom’s sister marked the first official effort to have Feb. 15 proclaimed as a national holiday in celebration of the Canadian flag.

If the parliamentarians of the day had had the wisdom to pass Uncle Ed’s bill, the hodge-podge of February holidays across the country would not exist, and we would be united in easing our mid-winter blues all at the same time with Canada Flag Day. It was a near thing, too. Bill C-136 came very close to passing. More about that in a moment. But first, a bit of background.

In 1972, Ed Nelson, wonderful high school English teacher, former first vice-president of the B.C. Teachers’ Federation and longtime member of the CCF/NDP, decided to give federal politics a whirl. He survived a tough fight to win the NDP nomination in Burnaby-Seymour. Then, as a political neophyte, he had to face the riding’s seasoned Liberal incumbent, Ray Perrault. Not only was Perrault a former leader of the provincial Liberal Party, he was loathed by the NDP for knocking off their beloved Tommy Douglas during the Trudeaumania juggernaut of 1968.

Yet, on election night, after a tense, nip-and-tuck count that lasted far into the night, the NDP got their revenge. My uncle upset the mighty Perrault by 289 votes. When he finally showed up at NDP headquarters, the roof nearly came off the place. The next day’s papers, hailed him as a political “giant-killer”. (After his loss, Ray Perrault was rewarded by Trudeau with an appointment to the Senate, where he spent 28 years during which, thanks to Allan Fotheringham, he became widely known as Senator Phogbound. All Uncle Ed’s fault.)

Alas, that night was probably the high point of my uncle’s brief political career. In politics, it’s not enough to be a good, decent guy like Ed Nelson. You have to be seen to be doing something — make the newspapers, create controversy with partisan sound bites, ask flamboyant questions in QP, and so on. My uncle didn’t really know how to do that kind of stuff. In the rough and tumble world of politics, diligently helping constituents with their problems, and making passionate speeches in favour of peace, women’s rights and Canadian unity didn’t cut much ice. In the next election, just 18 month later, he finished up the track, and that was that.

But he did have that one moment in the sun, when he moved second reading of his bill to “establish February 15 or the Monday following as a legal holiday, to be known as Canada Flag Day.”

Bill C-136 had been positively received from the beginning, rocketing to the top of the list of private member’s bills, which normally wind up where the sun don’t shine. In prior, all-party discussions, everyone seemed in favour. No less than parliamentary legend Stanley Knowles congratulated my uncle in the House “because if, as a new member, he should get a private member’s bill through during the first session he is here, what a future he has ahead of him. If I stick around long enough, I might have the same success.”

No one disagreed that a holiday between New Year’s and Easter was a good thing. During debate, however, the piling-on began. What about the Red Ensign and the Union Jack? Why not a day for John A. Macdonald? How about a general “Discovery Day” to celebrate all the country’s history?

The Honourable Member for Burnaby-Seymour responded to the foofaraw, thusly: “We Canadians are not normally flag waving, but I feel deeply that we should recognize the official flag of our country in a concrete way. Still further from my intent would be the encouragement of any jingoistic form of nationalism, because I believe that pride in our country and its institutions is best expressed by a quiet but deep respect for this symbol of our nation.” Nicely said, Uncle Ed. If only our current Prime Minister embraced that concept of quiet nationalism, without using the Canadian flag as a backdrop for his controversial, anti-terrorism polices…

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The upshot was that, instead of just my uncle’s bill proceeding to committee, three bills were sent forward. The other two proposed John A. Day and Discovery Day as potential holidays. Still, there was general expectation that Canada Flag Day was the holiday mostly like to be proclaimed.

Sadly, when Bill C-136 came back to the House of Commons, the earlier consensus to let the bill whoosh through was gone. “Yukon” Erik Nielsen, brother of The Naked Gun’s Leslie Nielsen, and a few other MPs denied the necessary unanimous consent to move the bill along to the next stage, and it died. More than 40 years later and more than 18 years after my uncle passed away, we still don’t have such a national holiday.

So, Happy Canada Flag Day, Uncle Ed. You were a man ahead of your time.

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(Ignore the goof on the left. That’s Uncle Ed on the right.)

PAUL ST. PIERRE, ANOTHER LEGEND GONE

 

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This is the way it happens, sometimes. On Saturday, I was out at Fort Langley, browsing through some shelves of used books at one of the community’s myriad antique stores, when I came across a few books by Paul St. Pierre. I leafed through them, trying to remember which ones I had purchased long ago, when his books were a staple in so many British Columbia homes. I hadn’t thought about the long-time Vancouver Sun columnist and sublime chronicler of the Chilcotin for years. I found myself wondering how he was doing, only to learn a few days later that Paul St. Pierre died the very next day in, yes, Fort Langley. Eerie.

He left behind a rich collection of beautiful prose that brought to life the vast, sprawling landscape of the sparsely-populated Cariboo-Chilcotin region of B.C., its rugged ranchers and First Nations people. From his books and columns, you got the feeling that no one ever said more than a few words at a time up there, and even those sparse sentences were uttered only around a pot-bellied stove or a fence post. But there was no shortage of colourful characters and gently unfolding stories. They were a natural for movies and CBC TV series, one of which first brought to prominence the legendary Chief Dan George.

However, I most remember Paul St. Pierre from his many years at the Vancouver Sun. It’s hard to imagine today, with the product that now arrives on our doorstep, that there existed a time when the Sun had the best roster of daily columnists in Canada, perhaps North America. There was Allan Fotheringham at the peak of his powers, Jack Wasserman — so much more than a nightclub prowler, the far-out, enviro-hippy Bob Hunter, essential Jim Taylor and lovely Jim Kearney in sports, and, if you liked Marjorie Nichols, she was there, too.

And there was Paul St. Pierre. Somehow, St. Pierre engineered one of the best columnist gigs ever. The Sun trusted him to almost never come into the office, while allowing him to write whatever he pleased about an area and people he loved. I’m not sure how his expenses worked, but he managed to wangle trips to his winter retreat in Mexico, too. Of course, Sun readers were the winners. Paul St. Pierre may never have written a prosaic column, in his life. No slouch with the pen, himself, Sun veteran Doug Sagi calls St. Pierre the finest writer to ever grace the newspaper, and his short story, Dry Storm, a Canadian classic to be compared with Hemingway, Twain “or any of them”. Highly-esteemed political columnist Les Leyne recalls tearing open bundles of the Vancouver Sun so he could read Paul St. Pierre’s column, before heading out on his paper route. There’s also this from the ageless Ron Rose, who went to work at the Vancouver Sun in the late 1930’s, never left, retired in 1985, and is still going strong at 94. Rose recounted these stories about the one-of-a-kind Paul St. Pierre on the occasion of his 80th birthday. They are also a reminder that newspapering was once fun, even away from the job. https://www.facebook.com/ronald.rose.980?fref=nf

As a young scribe at the Sun, I was too intimidated by St. Pierre’s stature to say much to him during his rare forays into the office. It was also unclear whether he was happy to be back at the paper, after being bounced in 1972 by the same Coast-Chilcotin voters, who had elected him as a Liberal MP during the Trudeau sweep of 1968. But I vividly recall his elegant shock of white hair, imposing sideburns, glasses dangling from a string as he strode imperiously through the newsroom, smoking one of those thin cigarillo things, and a face lined with character that spoke volumes about someone who knew how to live, while enjoying ever minute of it.

Paul St. Pierre (1923-2014), RIP. In the words of Doug Sagi: “Read and remember him.”

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(Vancouver Sun photo)

For those unfamiliar with his legacy, this YouTube vignette is excellent. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2S69u7hfpVU

And here is John Mackie’s piece in Tuesday’s Vancouver Sun:http://www.vancouversun.com/Obituary+columnist+went+road+beyond+story/10070550/story.html