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.






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.


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.






E01JEC Newspaper readers in Nisch, 1914. Image shot 1914. Exact date unknown.

E01JEC Newspaper readers in Nisch, 1914. Image shot 1914. Exact date unknown.

As regular readers know by now, I remain a big fan of newspapers, despite their ever-diminishing state. Why, just this weekend, I found all sorts of goodies distributed among their varied pages. The treasures are still there. You just have to look a bit harder and be a bit more patient these days. This being both the end of B.C. Day and the end of the full moons, I thought I would share a few. rnewspapersok1. I hadn’t quite realized before that the state most affected by climate change is not media-saturated, rain-starved California, but, of course, Alaska. So far, this summer, wildfires have burned through more than 20,000 square kilometres of Alaskan forestry, a swath larger than all of Connecticut. Other bad stuff, too. An excellent story from Saturday’s Vancouver Sun, written by the Washington Post’s environment reporter, Chris Mooney. 2. The legendary Mark Starowicz, former editor of the McGill Daily and part of so many great things at CBC (As It Happens, Sunday Morning, The Journal, Canada: A People’s History) reflects on the Mother Corp’s decision to kill its in-house documentary unit: “There’s a sadness that comes form the realization that the institution has been totally starved. Starved. The price is extraordinary in what’s not being produced.” 3. In his newly-published autobiography, NDP leader Tom Mulcair says it took him a while to learn that “not every shot has to be a hardball to the head.” 4. North Korea has hopes of becoming an international surfing destination. 5. It’s possible to write about Nantucket without a rhyming couplet in sight. 6. Photography doesn’t get any better or more imaginative than this. Amazing series of photos by the Globe and Mail’s John Lehmann, featuring artists from B.C. Ballet in locations and poses you won’t believe. 7. The per-night price of a room at the storied Hotel Vancouver this weekend was $849. 280715-MATT-WEB_3389347b 8. Lord Sewel’s favourite bra is orange. 9. Stephen Harper once wondered out loud: “Why does nothing happen around here unless I say ‘fuck’?” 10. In the week before Sunday’s election call, the Conservative government announced nearly $4 billion worth of government projects across the country. 11. PostMedia columnist Stephen Maher reminded us that when Stephen Harper was head of the National Citizens’ Coalition, he challenged election spending limits imposed on so-called third parties all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. Now, that same Steve guy is justifying his early election call to give his party the chance to drown the country in their own ads, over fears of alleged big bucks being spent by those once-lauded third parties that might sway voters, too. images-2 copy 4Only these third parties are “big unions and corporations…staffed by former Liberal and NDP operations,” the Conservative Party warned its members last week. 12. It has taken Russell Brown less than three years to rise from law school professor to a seat on the Supreme Court of Canada. Apparently it didn’t hurt to have blogged in 2008 that he hopes Stephen Harper wins a majority, and that the Liberals “just fade away” by electing a leader who is “unspeakably awful”. 13. The word “terrorism” is now being used openly by Israeli authorities, including Benjamin Netanyahu, to describe recent attacks by extremist Jewish settlers on unarmed Palestinians. 14. The Bay Area (San Francisco et al) has two dozen transit agencies, each with its own system, funding sources and fare structure. And we complain about TransLink…. 15. Surrey’s Adam Lowen is close to a first in baseball history: going from pitcher to hitter and back to a pitcher, all in the major leagues. Story here: 16. On Aug. 1, 1959, Premier W.A.C. Bennett fired a flaming arrow at a raft piled high with voided government bonds from a distance of five feet. He missed. Luckily, a well-prepared Mountie, hidden at the back of the raft, managed to light the paper bonfire, and lo, one of the province’s most outlandish political stunts, dubbed by Paul St. Pierre “the biggest thing” since the cremation of Sam McGee, became part of B.C. lore. (Thanks to John Mackie.) 17. Premier Christy Clark orders a crackdown on gun violence in B.C. That should be easy….

A spill response boat works to clean up bunker fuel leaking from the bulk carrier cargo ship Marathassa anchored on Burrard Inlet in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday April 9, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

A spill response boat works to clean up bunker fuel leaking from the bulk carrier cargo ship Marathassa anchored on Burrard Inlet in Vancouver, B.C., on Thursday April 9, 2015. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Darryl Dyck

18. Get this. According to an independent review: When a large, toxic fuel spill began fouling English Bay last April, Canadian Coast Guard staff were unsure of their roles. What????? Then, when Port of Vancouver said they couldn’t see the spill and were taking water samples, the private sector response team thought the Port meant they were “standing down”, passed that on to the Coast Guard, who then de-escalated their alert. Further delay resulted from cellphone and computer problems. Oh yes, and once they finally did figure out what to do, there were not enough Coast Guard staff around, since a bunch of them had been busy doing something else in “Granville Channel”, wherever that is. As a result of this Comedy of Errors, which would have done Shakespeare proud, review author John Butler concluded: “The response was delayed by one hour and 49 minutes due to confusion of roles and responsibilities, miscommunications and technology issues.” This is what federal cabinet minister James Moore at the time called a “world class” response. 19. Sally Forth continues to be unfunny, and Rex Morgan, alas, unreadable. 20. Baseball in Toronto is fun again. Oh, and i’m still working my way through the Sunday New York Times. j-seward-johnsons-statue-of-newspaper-reader-at-princeton-uni-garden



That Christy Clark can sure be a funny premier. And I don’t mean Hamish jokes. Take the recent flare-up over who gets to build that farm-flooding, massive Site C dam in northeastern B.C. Please…

Until Monday, attempts by the province’s once-powerful construction unions to secure a fair crack at the work had received no more than the bureaucratic equivalent of a bucket of warm spit from the powers that be at BC Hydro and the Liberal government’s own representatives. Not only was Hydro insisting on a construction site open to union and non-union contractors, which was not all that surprising, the Crown corporation wanted to ban the building trades from even trying to organize dam workers who were not unionized. Unions? Unions? Don’t need no stinking unions.

It was all very reminiscent of the distaste for union labour that prevailed during the 10-year premiership of Gordon Campbell. Egged on all the way by Phil Hochstein of the strident, anti-union Independent Contractors and Businesses Association, the once-effective network of skilled apprenticeship programs, which had strong union involvement, was essentially gutted during the Campbell years. As the dire shortage of skilled workers became increasingly acute, however, Christy Clark recognized the situation for the disaster it was and brought construction unions back into the apprenticeship fold. Not only that, our hard-hat premier seemed to strike a non-Shirley bond with the union trades folk, who have shared a podium with her often enough to cause some disquiet in the ranks of the NDP. Under Gordon Campbell, they couldn’t get the time of day.


So, when Hydro unveiled its anti-union model for the multi-billion dollar Site C project, Tom Sigurdson, executive director of the B.C. and Yukon Building and Construction Trades Council, wasn’t too concerned. Surely, everything could be resolved with a bit of straight-forward palaver. After all, wasn’t he a friend of the premier?

But Sigurdson underestimated who was driving Hydro’s policy. Many have ties going back to the administration of Gordon Campbell (see above), none deeper than those of Hydro boss Jessica McDonald, who was Campbell’s deputy minister and a powerful force “behind the throne” from 2005 to 2009. Susan Yurkovich, executive vice-president for Site C, was a member of the Liberals’ 2005 election campaign committee. Jobs Minister Shirley Bond served prominently in Gordo’s cabinet throughout his decade as premier. And right there in CC’s office is chief of staff Dan Doyle, a key government architect of the 2010 Winter Olympics, and chief political adviser Chris Gardner, a longtime political associate of treasured Campbell cabinet minister Kevin Falcon, when both were active in Surrey.

When he privately pressed his concerns, Sigurdson might as well have been wearing an old Adrian Dix campaign button for all that he got from this group. Union, schmunion.

Finally, with considerable fanfare, the building trades announced on Monday that they were taking BC Hydro to court, on the not-inconsiderable grounds that the Corporation’s restrictions on union organizing and the right to strike flew in the face of recent decisions by the Supreme Court of Canada.

Still, there was Shirley Bond later in the day defending Hydro and its need for “more flexibility” (code for weakening union rights). “We have to make sure that these projects move on time.”

At that point, who should awake from her deep, satisfying slumber, but the premier, herself. What hast thou wrought, she roared at her now cowering staff and ministers and BC Hydro honchos. Whereupon, in the delightful words of columnist Vaughn Pamer, she delivered “an extraordinary swat up the side of the head to Hydro” for its flagrant attempt to outlaw union organizing at Site C.

“I don’t believe that’s legal, I don’t believe it’s right,” quoth Clark, channeling her inner Jim Sinclair. “I believe they should have the right to organize and BC Hydro can’t take that away.”

And lo and behold, after completely stonewalling the building trades on that very point, the relevant cabinet ministers and Jessica McDonald suddenly agreed with the premier. The clause too far will be withdrawn. Imagine that.

What’s that line in Solidarity Forever? “For what force on earth is weaker than the feeble strength of one?” Well, if that force is Christy Clark, sometimes it’s not too feeble, at all. It’s a funny old B.C. world.

Christy Clark



10. Our MLAs have earned “a sacred trust to represent democratic values: Respect for each other and tolerance for differences of political beliefs….While we may disagree with the person speaking, we must always…respect their right to speak.” I guess they left out the asterisk that this refers only to Green Party MLA Andrew Weaver. Keep those nasty NDP jokes coming, Premier.

9. “A near-record 2.3 million British Columbians are working.” Since it’s not a record, that means fewer are working today than before. Nice try, government spin-meister.

8. “Thousands of British Columbians shared their input on a new transportation plan.” Not bad for a province of 4.6 million. Certainly better than the efforts of those puny, elected Greater Vancouver mayors representing 2.5 million people.

7. “B.C.’s mining and energy sectors provide good-paying jobs across the province, from rural communities to corporate offices in Vancouver.” Well, knock me down with a hard hat. Who knew?

6. I’ve long been worried about British Columbia’s absence from the world map. How can all those rich Chinese tourists find us, if we’re not on the map? Now, it seems, I can rest in peace. “B.C.’s technology and green economy are putting B.C. on the world map…” And to think, reporters claimed there was no news.

5. “Perhaps no sector has attracted more excitement and investment than natural gas.” PERHAPS????? “Liquefied natural gas could create a hundred thousands and the revenues to eliminate our debt.” COULD????? How did those cautionary, weasel words slip in?

4 (a). For those who think humour is a lost political art: the Lieutenant-Governor reminded us that “most notably, the provincial government and teachers’ federation set aside more than 30 years of discord to reach a negotiated agreement. The longest in history.” Laugh? I thought I’d die. Those spoilsports who point out this happy event occurred only after a bitter teachers’ strike that was also the longest in history are just that. Spoilsports. Detentions for all of you.


(b). Not only that. “Now there is an opportunity to work together on our shared priorities: students and student outcomes.” Court case? Court case? Don’t need no stinking court case!

3. “We can never forget there is only one taxpayer.” What, in the entire province? Jimmy Pattison, take a bow.

2. I’m not sure how reporters missed this grand ambition, but this year, British Columbia is going “to contribute to Confederation like never before.” While B.C. may have contributed a lot in the past by…….hang on…just a second…., you ain’t seen nothing, yet. Alas, details of this mighty contribution are still sketchy. So far, it seems to be nothing more than gloating by residents of Vancouver and Victoria about cherry blossoms, crocuses and daffodils in mid-February, as the rest of the country is buried in snow.
Unknown-11. And the number one thing I learned from last week’s Drone from the Throne, once again, folks: Vaughn Palmer is a very funny columnist. Clink the link below for Mr. Palmer’s take on the Throne Speech.
Happy Budget Day!


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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…


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.)



As I survey the battered, teacher-government battleground, I’m reminded of Oliver Hardy’s oft-repeated words to his bumbling accomplice Stan Laurel: “Well, here’s another fine mess you’ve gotten us into.”

For indeed, it is a mess, more of a mess than any of the many previous confrontations between the province’s 30,000 teachers and whoever holds the reins of power in Victoria. In my view, the teachers have legitimate grievances, but they have managed to wind up on an indefinite picket line against a government which, for the first time, is prepared to leave them out there, while gratefully pocketing millions and millions of dollars in salary savings.

At the same time, the war of words between the parties could drive a smiley face to despair. Christy Clark and Education Minister Peter Fassbender seem to do nothing but enhance teacher bitterness with every public utterance, while B.C. Teachers’ Federation president Jim Iker resorts to tiresome rhetoric (“Christy Clark’s lockout”….zzzzz) and pointless complaints about such irrelevancies as the government’s alleged failure to engage in “24/7 bargaining” on a pivotal weekend before the all-out strike. The only saving grace of the surprisingly long time it’s taking to corral a mediator is the refreshing silence that has fallen over the combatants.

Over at the bargaining table, the BCTF has, as usual, persisted in demanding unachievable gains long past their due date. All that does is give the government, which has been more inflexible than the teachers, the easy public relations out of costing teacher demands into the stratosphere. Nor is the situation helped by the BCTF tradition of allowing union members to sit in on most negotiating sessions, which often produces more grandstanding than actual bargaining. On the other side, the government, for all its demands that the teachers get real, barely budges on anything, despite Christy Clark’s stated willingness to bargain until the end of time…

The latest descent into the Twilight Zone was the ham-fisted attempt to involve miracle mediator Vince Ready. His name was trotted out and highly publicized before he’d even been asked if he were available. There’s little doubt Ready would have dropped everything and ridden in on his white horse, if he felt a settlement were within sniffing distance. But after talking to Jim Iker, and then to government negotiator Peter Cameron, he told the parties he was “too busy”.

I blame the government for most of the turmoil, beginning with that fateful, unilateral decision in 2002 to wipe out class size and composition limits from their negotiated contract. The stout defense of the move by a certain Education Minister, Christy Clark, is available here.  Since then, B.C Supreme Court Justice Susan Griffin has twice ruled the government acted illegally and ordered them to undo the damage. So far, the government has done almost nothing to comply. Instead, the government has treated those court decisions as little more than some sort of esoteric inconvenience, reminiscent of the province’s long-standing, cavalier attitude towards aboriginal title, maintained until the courts finally forced the cold, hard, expensive reality upon them. Not only that, the same government that ignores the courts has the nerve to constantly hound the teachers’ union to be reasonable at the bargaining table.  Yet few, beyond the usual suspects, seem to call them to account for this audacious display of chutzpah.

Once again, however, the BCTF has trouble doing itself any favours. Replete with negotiators who are elected, rather than hired, the union has a long history of being difficult to deal with. In part, this is because those perceived to be moderate or open to compromise or too close to the philosophy of Rodney “can’t we all get along” King run the risk of being drummed off the executive at election time. With the public sector pattern staring them in the face, the teachers have come down mightily on their basic wage demands, but on other issues, they still find it difficult to compromise, holding to the belief that negotiations are about getting what we deserve, rather than striking a deal both sides can live with.

And the union has stuck to its strike strategy devised early in the year – Phase One, no administration meetings. Phase Two, rotating walkouts. Phase Three, all-out strike. – despite aggressive new tactics (lockouts, wage cuts) by the government and no willingness to legislate them back to work. This appears to be putting more pressure on teachers, themselves, than the folks in Victoria. With no election until 2017, the government is sitting back, seemingly waiting for the teachers to surrender.

While that may be good for the government’s obsession with balancing the budget and its long-held dream of bringing the militant BCTF to heel, it’s hardly good for education in this province. Those are real teachers on the picket, not leaders of the BCTF, which get all the media attention. The increased stress and workload they experience in the classroom is real, too. But there is little recognition of this by the government, little appreciation that the responsibilities of teachers are different from other public sector workers. There’s no reward, no attempt to make teachers feel good about what they do. Instead, it’s mostly sanctimonious sound-bites about the need for the teachers’ union to be “reasonable”. And of course, that means being “reasonable” on the government’s terms.


The other night in the bar, I bumped into a teacher after their big union rally at Canada Place. She was a reminder once again, if such a reminder were really needed, how committed and passionate most teachers are towards their duties and their charges in the classroom. “Despite what Christy Clark says, it really is about the kids,” she told me, with that earnest look teachers have. She was referring to a recent unfortunate comment by the former education minister and current premier. “It’s all about money – It’s never about the quality of education,” Clark warbled on the radio. “We’re never talking about the kids.” I wonder if the premier knows, or even cares, how much anger and resentment that kind of remark causes among the thousands of good, solid teachers this province has entrusted to educate our young people.

My teacher in the bar explained how the downsizing of resources to assist students with special needs shortchanges her regular students, as well, because of the extra attention she has to give those few others. “We need help. That’s what I’m fighting for,” she said. “I’m worn out. If it was just for the money, I wouldn’t be on strike.”

But sadly, she holds meagre hope the dispute will end in victory, despite voting ‘yes’ for a strike. “The government used different tactics this time. They played hardball, and we didn’t seem to notice,” she said. “We just went straight ahead, as if nothing had changed.” When I suggested that had put them on an indefinite walkout at the end of the school year, with no strike pay and little pressure on a resolute government that is replenishing its coffers every day the strike goes on, she sighed in agreement.

That’s the tragedy of this unfortunate, protracted dispute. It really isn’t about the obdurate BCTF and a hard-nosed government, determined to spend as little on education as possible to maintain its self-proclaimed bottom-line. It’s about all those individual teachers in the classroom, to whom we entrust the education of our young people.  While it’s tempting – very tempting — to blame the stridency of the BCTF for everything, there are two sides in this war, and for most of the past 12 years (the Carole Taylor-engineered contract the lone respite), the B.C. government has been engaged in its own offensive, taking a hard line on class size/composition, trying to provoke a strike (according to Madame Justice Griffin) and doling out minimal pay increases, when they are doled out at all.

Yet, as my teacher in the bar noted, the BCTF’s strategy in this latest showdown appears to have left union members in a precarious situation. Government negotiator Peter Cameron, who honed his bargaining skill in days of yore as a militant union leader, has arguably outmaneuvered the BCTF.

It would be remiss, however, not to point out that it’s hardly an easy situation for the BCTF. Cameron holds almost all the cards. On wages, he merely has to stick to the bargaining mandate already imposed by the government and accepted by other public sector unions, adding nothing more than a few nips and tucks here and there. I think even I could do that. And on the more critical class size/composition matter, the government has simply held firm to its original offer. Cameron would have given his prized sweater collection to have had a deck stacked so much in his favour during the days he negotiated against the province’s tough mining companies.

Teachers deserve better.