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.

 

 

 

 

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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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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CANADA’S BOOK QUEEN COMES TO TOWN

IMG_4788 Like many, I presume, I have a love-hate relationship with the big box Chapters bookstore downtown at Robson and Howe. Stocking the main floor with almost everything BUT books, bringing in the flag-waving American Girl franchise to what is supposed to be a Canadian bookstore, and, worst of all, the shameful relegation of books by local and B.C. authors to a shelf way at the back on the third floor with a title “Local interest” do not exactly warm the cockles of my heart.

On the other hand, it’s the only bookstore that isn’t a used bookstore in downtown Vancouver, it has lots of natural light, and I buy lots of books there. Plus, of course, so-called “bricks-and-mortar” stores fend off the increasingly worrisome dominance of the book trade by the new robber baron of our age, Amazon. So I was not a happy reader to discover that Chapters’ Robson store will be closing to the public at the end of May, driven out by sky-high rent brought on by Nordstrom’s coming mega-store across the street. The big bucks are in retail, not, alas, in books.

Unless Chapters is able to find a new location in short order, this will leave Canada’s third largest city without a downtown bookstore, a development that would speak volumes about where our strange, soulless society is heading. Just what Vancouver needs, another Sport Chek.

Luckily, perhaps, we have Heather Reisman, the boss lady of Indigo, which owns the Chapters chain. (More on that, later). Still a professed book believer, she came to Vancouver this week to scout out locations for a new bookstore in the ‘hood. And (insert blare of trumpets here) she held a public meeting at the store Monday night to bring us up to date on her company’s plans and actually listen to us store-users.

I was more impressed by this corporate mogul than I expected to be. With no fanfare or introduction, Reisman simply walked up the front and began talking to us. She provided information, personably answered questions and even asked our opinions about stuff, no matter how unlikely our raised or lowered hands would factor into the company’s cold, hard decision-making. In turn, we were polite, friendly and inquisitive, as only life-long book buyers can be. Okay, there were a few cranky questions (guilty, my lord…), but not many. IMG_4790 Here are some of the things we learned. All quotes are Reisman’s, unless indicated.

  1. The current Chapters store is 53,000 sq. ft. “That’s a bigger store than we need.” The third floor was added by Chapters in an effort to head off Indigo’s charge into the bookstore business. When Indigo prevailed and took over Chapters, they were stuck with the excess space. “What we need is 30,000 sq. ft….While the rent was sustainable, we could sustain that amount of space, but they doubled the rent.” Goodbye, Chapters on Robson.
  2. Indigo is committed to opening a new bookstore downtown. In the meantime, the company would like to find temporary space, while searching for a permanent location. Reisman said one spot they looked at was the second floor of a new office/retail building nearing completion at Thurlow and Alberni. Dismissive at first glance, Reisman said IMG_4802 she was having second thoughts. When people said they wouldn’t mind the extra walk, she observed: “We gotta re-look at that…We could be there a month after we close.” She said they also looked at another location she would not identify. Why does Indigo want a new space so quickly? “The notion of leaving you without a bookstore in downtown Vancouver is concerning to us.”
  3. Reisman was positive about her company’s future. “Indigo is growing. We are hugely committed to the business. We are not looking to close stores.” She agreed physical bookstores have challenges, but pointed out that e-reading has leveled off (17%) and some former e-readers are beginning to buy physical books, again. At the same time, young adult readership is “exploding”. On the down side, although Indigo’s online business is growing, so too, of course, is Amazon’s. She derided a fellow in the audience who said he came to Chapters to browse, then went home to order the books he liked online. “If you browse here and buy elsewhere, that hurts our ability to keep bricks and mortar stores….If you buy more online, then we are in trouble.”
  1. Yes, there are lots of other products for sale at Indigo bookstores. “It’s not exactly a bookstore anymore…but it is still the centre of what we do. I love to be surrounded by books, but we want to extend products for the consumer.” The add-on formula is working, Reisman said. “It’s why we’re doing better. We need other products to enrich us.” She avowed: “We are a passionate bookstore. We do not want the bricks and mortar stores to go away.”
  2. Nor is all gloom and doom. Business at the company’s physical bookstores had single digit grown last year. Its online business had double digit growth. “We’ve had a nice kind of growth.”
  3. If you prefer the name Chapters to Indigo, you will soon be out of luck. Reisman said they kept the name on stores bought up by Indigo “because some people love their Chapters.” But now: “Slowly and surely, we are going to change all the names to Indigo.”
  4. Odds and ends: Indigo is looking to enhance its in-store rewards program. Toys in bookstores? “We are one of the few toy stores downtown, and we are very committed to our toy stores.” Does Reisman really read all those books that become “Heather’s picks”? “Yes! I read them all. My picks are books I have read and loved like crazy. Magazines? “Sales have gone down a bit, but we’re starting to do better. We’re holding our own.”
  5. Image 22AND NOW THE BIG ONE! Yours truly, modest co-author of the best-selling, prize-winning tale of the Dave Barrett government, The Art of the Impossible, complained about the lack of prominence Chapters gives to local and B.C. authors. “If you can find them, they are way at the back of the third floor, categorized as ‘Local Interest’. Is that acceptable?” Surprisingly, Reisman agreed this was bad. She noticed the same thing in another of her bookstores. “For sure, we have to look at that.” I’m not holding my breath, but it was something.

Finally, here’s a take on the pending closure of Chapters on Robson by the “alternative” folks at Rabble, who celebrate independent bookstores, though comparing the two is really apples and oranges. Long may both survive. http://rabble.ca/blogs/bloggers/bound-not-gagged/2015/02/vancouver-chapters-closing-what-does-this-mean-big-box-books

ATTENTION, CHRISTMAS SHOPPERS!

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I realize this is a bit shameless, but heck, you write a book, you want people to read it. So it is with The Art of the Impossible, the rollicking saga of B.C.’s first ‘socialist’ government (NDP-ers used the word proudly in them there days…), under the sometimes wild, sometimes wonderful and always larger-than-life leadership of Dave Barrett. Today, we have a government that can’t even bother holding a fall session of the legislature, the only province in Canada with that dubious distinction. At least there’s no need for a Christmas break, since the legislature has been mothballed since the spring. (“Passing laws is so hard…”). I mention this only because it is such a contrast to the frenzied, non-stop activity of the Barrett government.

In just 39 short months, the NDP passed an astonishing 367 bills, an unprecedented pace of more than two a week. And much of the legislation was transformative, radically changing British Columbia from the bizarre backwater it was under W.A.C. Bennett, despite all those roads, dams and bridges, to a modern, progressive province. Many of the legacies of the Barrett government are with us still.

Of course, Barrett was far from perfect. He made mistakes that hurt him and his government. The Art of the Impossible doesn’t shy from detailing them. It’s a warts-and-all tale. What I and my old journalist buddy, co-author Geoff Meggs, set out to do was to bring that exciting, colourful era to life, and give substance to a chapter of B.C. history that most previous chroniclers had dismissed as some sort of disastrous blip. It was far from that. There’s never been a government like it.

Anyway, it’s Christmas, folks. So, if you’re short a last-minute gift for someone who hasn’t yet read it, who has any interest at all in politics or B.C. history or just a good read, full of unforgettable characters and events, why not pick up a copy of The Art of the Impossible?

Our yarn won the Hubert Evans Prize at the B.C. Book Awards earlier this year for the province’s top non-fiction book in 2012. I would also add that this book, now in its second printing,  has been enjoyed by readers of all political stripes. Here are some reviews.

http://www.geoffmeggs.ca/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Barrett_REVIEW_in_BCBW1.pdf

http://thetyee.ca/Books/2012/11/19/Dave-Barrett-Biography/

http://www.straight.com/life/art-impossible-reveals-why-ex-ndp-premier-dave-barrett-governed-hurry

http://www.vancouversun.com/entertainment/books/Book+chronicles+remarkable+changes/7667970/story.html

By the end of the book, see if you agree with me that there is an eerie similarity between the so-called Chicken and Egg War that heavily damaged Dave Barrett’s credibility and the current Senate scandal that has embroiled Prime Minister Stephen Harper.

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THOUGHTS OF CHAIRMAN JACK

I talked with Big Jack Munro a few days before he died. It was pretty tough going. The big booming voice that had bellowed from the podiums of hundreds of meetings was down to a whisper. His legendary fire was just about spent. But some things had not changed. His endearing, infectious chuckle was still in place, despite the pain of his illness. And, 40 years after I first covered him for the Vancouver Sun, Jack was still calling me Rob.

As I write this, there’s a hard, blowing wind and a majestic full moon over Long Beach, where I am for the weekend. My thoughts on the long life and extraordinary times of Jack Munro are all a-jumble, trying to process the legacy of the most dominant labour leader this once-militant province ever had, and the multitude of different things he did during his wild, 82-year ride through life. (How many remember that Munro went to the Forbidden Kingdom  in 1974 with then Premier Dave Barrett and MacMillan Bloedel CEO Denis Timmis, trying to sell Maoist China on buying B.C. timber?  Crazy.)

I will write more about Jack Munro, and in particular his controversial role that dramatic Sunday night in Kelowna almost exactly 30 years ago, when Bill Bennett, the premier of the province, and Munro, a union man,  met face to face in the premier’s living room to hammer out an end to the very real threat of a general strike. It was as dramatic a moment as it gets, even in B.C., and  arguments still rage today about the pros and cons of their so-called Kelowna Accord.

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But for now, let’s hear from Jack Munro, himself. These observations by Brother Munro are from an interview I did with him just last August for a story on the relatively sad state of the B.C. labour movement. Whatever one’s thoughts on Jack Munro, and he was not “the good guy” on every issue, no one can deny his commitment to the cause of working people, and his genuine sorrow and anger at the decline of union influence. It’s all here.

Take it away, Jack.

MUNRO: Everybody delights in kicking the hell out of the labour movement. It’s having a tough time. Everybody’s struggling. The  world is somewhat upside down. I think we’ve lost some really important values. Too many people have forgotten that it was the labour movement that was able to bring about changes in our society, in our way of life, in our social consciousness.

But we’re no longer headed up, we’re headed down.  You listen to these commentators. Every damn thing that goes wrong, with wages and whatnot, they blame the workers. Cut the workers’ play, cut this, cut that, cut the benefits. If workers get money, they spend it. They buy things. They keep our economy going. And to drive the bloody people that keep it going down to the bottom is absolute insanity.

MUNRO: Society is a helluva lot worse without unions. Absolutely. But I don’t know what the hell’s happened. Maybe unions have been too acquiescent. They don’t get any awards for that. The economy is this and that, so they go a couple of years with no wage increase, or 1 and 2 per cent, and the bosses think that’s just great. So they concentrate even more on keeping wages down. They think, ah, we’ve got ‘em now. They pile on. It’s very frustrating for a guy like me, very frustrating.

MUNRO: Leading a strike is tough. When the IWA went on strike, all the staff went on strike pay, too. So we had the same hardship as the members. It’s emotional. You lie awake at night. You know people are hurting, but you can’t give up. If you give up, it’s going to be worse. You have to keep on.

MUNRO: We’re trying to get more worker-type history into the schools. Right now, there’s nothing teaching kids in school about how the hell we got here. Governments and entrepreneurs encouraged expansion and development. They opened the doors. Workers walked through and did a hell of a job, developing industries and systems and that sort of stuff. But nobody’s being taught that. So with our Labour Heritage Centre we are trying to remind people and society that workers have made an important contribution. If no one knows something, they don’t understand it. If unions don’t come back, society is in big trouble.

Amen, Brother. It’s hard to believe he’s gone.

My old colleague Doug Ward, like myself an ex-labour reporter who covered Jack Munro, has written a good synopsis of his  turbulent career.

And I am left with one last memory. As I hung up the phone this week from my final conversation with the big guy, Jack Munro made sure to remind me: “It’s been a good life, Rob.”

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BC LIBERALS SING DIFFERENT TUNE ON TREASURED ALR, NOW THAT ELECTION IS OVER

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The Agricultural Land Reserve is one of those magical creations that materialized because of courageous, far-sighted, politicians, who thought beyond votes and the next election. The province’s first NDP government, under Dave Barrett, established the ALR 40 years ago, because they believed it was the right thing to do, at a time when prime farmland was being gobbled up by developers at a terrible rate.

There was virtually no precedent anywhere for banning such a vast expanse of agricultural land from being sold for non-farming purposes, and the Barrett government had to weather a storm of furious protests from farmers, developers, and political opponents.

But a funny thing happened on the way to wiping out the NDP’s radical proclamation, once the “socialists” were thrown out of office. The public liked the ALR, and, over time so, too, did farmers. When Social Credit leader Bill Bennett was campaigning to unseat the Barrett government in 1975, he found it politically prudent to promise not to dismantle the Agricultural Land Reserve, despite his party’s earlier, fierce opposition.

The ALR, which has done so much to preserve the liveability of the Fraser Valley and save the Lower Mainland from the ghastly fate of the huge swath of farmland that once surrounded Toronto, is still with us, basically intact despite a long string of so-called ‘free enterprise’ governments. (Of course, the ALR also stretches beyond the Fraser Valley to all corners of B.C.,  ensuring that the relatively small, land area suitable for agricultural in this mountainous province is kept for its noble purpose, everywhere.)

In a wonderful twist of fate, Richard Bullock, the current chairman of the Agricultural Land Commission that presides over the ALR, was one of those protesting outside the legislature against the NDP’s farmland freeze.

Today, few are more passionate about the Agricultural Land Reserve than the successful Okanagan orchardist. For an article I wrote last year celebrating the ALR, Bullock told me that he thought the days were over, when farmers and developers with dollar signs in their eyes would live in hope of getting their land out of the ALR. “We’ve been down that road too long,” he said. “People have got to get it through their head, that if they buy a piece of agricultural land, they are going to be selling it as agricultural land.”

Now, out of nowhere, with no hints by the Liberals during the recent provincial election, the ALR may be facing its gravest peril since it came into being in the 1970’s.

Energy and Mines (!) Minister Bill Bennett, who has rarely seen a government regulation he likes, is presiding over a “core review” of government services, which, for some reason, also includes the Agricultural Land Commission and the ALR.

Last August, Bennett demonstrated his grasp of the issue with his provocative observation that “people who are sitting on a piece of land that is covered by rocks and trees, land that should never have been in the ALR boundaries in the first place, are constantly being turned down when they want to use their own private land…for the purpose of maybe a small subdivision, or maybe they want to put a small campground on it, and they’ve been flummoxed by the land commission for years.” The minister provided no examples of ALR land “covered by rocks and trees”. Talk about the fox in charge of the henhouse.

Recent disclosures are even more worrisome. Last week, the Globe and Mail’s Mark Hume revealed the existence of frightening cabinet documents that propose a dismantling of the ALC as an independent body and changing its mandate to include the government’s “economic priorities”, as well.

Then, we learned, again courtesy of the redoubtable Hume, that none other than the Agriculture Minister himself, Patrick Pimm, had personally lobbied the ALC to have a chunk of farmland up by Fort St. John hived out of the ALR, so its owner could build some rodeo grounds. Pimm was properly rebuked by the ALC for his political interference in the affairs of an independent commission.

The Liberals seemed to understand that principle in those halcyon, pre-election days last March, when they were desperate to keep the guns blazing against the NDP and its leader, Adrian Dix, who, yes it’s true, lobbied the ALC on behalf of then-Premier Glen Clark to have the Six Mile Ranch taken out of the ALR back in the late 1990’s.

I have before me a document entitled B.C. Government Caucus Information Resource, dated March 7, 2013. It’s all about ALR talking points. Among the “key messages” Liberal caucus members are asked to hammer home is point three: “Unlike the NDP, we have never politically interfered with the independence of the Agricultural Land Commission.”

The Liberals further trumpet their budget commitments to bolster enforcement by the ALC and support its “increased oversight” of the ALR. Wait, there’s more. The same budget increase will also enable the ALC to “continue with East Kootenay boundary review”, the document noted.

Oh, well. That was so eight months ago. What have we today, now that the election is safely passed?

The core review that seems to go against everything in the Liberals’ March “information resource” is continuing full steam ahead, Mr. Pimm remains Agriculture Minister, the owner of the ALR land he lobbied for went ahead and built his rodeo grounds anyway, defiantly daring the ALC to do something about it, and the ALC’s East Kootenay boundary review has been halted in its tracks, pending the vaunted core review.

For those concerned about the fate of the precious Agricultural Land Reserve under the post-election Liberals, these are worrying times, indeed. Be afraid. Be very, very afraid.