REMEMBERING DAVE BARRETT AND THE SUMMER OF ’72

In the best of summers, Dave Barrett ran the best of campaigns. Up against the seemingly unbeatable W.A.C. Bennett, the NDP leader was as unruffled as the weather, relaxed and purposefully out of the media spotlight. Forty people at a small gathering in Houston, a brief visit to the distant mining town of Stewart, a mid-morning tea in mighty Yahk, mainstreeting in Revelstoke. It was all the same to Barrett, part of his strategy to defuse once and for all Bennett’s tried-and-true election fear mongering about the “socialist hordes”. Of course there were hard-hitting political speeches at larger public meetings, but none of them predicted victory. He simply refused to be a target.

When needed, there was Barrett’s trademark humour. An allegation  that he followed Marx was laughed off with “which one, Groucho, Harpo or Zeppo?” Bennett’s ongoing charge that he was part of the NDP’s left-wing Waffle movement, prompted Barrett to call the premier a pancake, then a stack of pancakes. When Bennett persisted, he threatened to call him a Crêpes Suzette, “knowing how he feels about Quebec.”

But the best joke he told on himself. In Prince George, he advised the audience that an astrologer, asked by a local Vancouver newspaper to assess various attributes of the four provincial leaders, had given him a good mark for “sexual proclivities”. Rather pleased, Barrett told the tittering crowd he phoned home that night and asked his wife Shirley if she’d seen anything interesting in the paper. “No, Dave,” she reported. “Just the same old lies.” It brought the house down.

On the last Saturday before the election, Dave and Shirley finished the evening at a social event in Surrey, dancing. His final campaign speech was a traditional tub-thumper before a roaring crowd of 1,200 in his home riding of Coquitlam. But Barrett preached love, not revolution. By the time voters went to the polls on Aug. 30, 1972, the fear was gone. Barrett and the NDP coasted home to an unimaginable victory. After 39 years of the CCF/NDP finishing second to the forces of free enterprise in election after election, the province had its first socialist government.

With the sad news of Dave Barrett’s passing last month, I found myself thinking back to that unforgettable time more than 45 years ago, when everything went right and British Columbia wound up with what was, during its brief 39 months in office, the most progressive and transformative government in Canadian history.

A refugee from Ontario, I was with my West Coast relatives that evening. They could not comprehend what was happening. Almost every Socred kingpin fell to virtual NDP unknowns. “Phil Gaglardi lost!” I remember my cousin screaming with disbelief and delight. The same incredulity prevailed at Social Credit’s anticipated victory gathering at the Bayshore Hotel. “These results can’t be right. They can’t be,” said one perplexed supporter. When Attorney General Les Peterson showed up, a woman rushed towards him. “At least you won,” she exclaimed. “No, said Peterson, “I lost. We all lost.”

At the NDP’s celebratory headquarters at the Coquitlam Arena, emotions were off the charts. Barrett’s mother Ruth, a former Communist who wrapped her young son’s head in bloodied bandages for a Spanish Civil War May Day float, gave him a hug and began to cry. The province’s new leader-to-be was serenaded to the podium with raucous renditions of “For He’s A Jolly Good Fellow” from the delirious, overflow crowd. Veteran union official Rudy Krickan, who had worked for the CCF and then the NDP since the 1930’s, called it “the greatest night of my life”. One less sober celebrant, who seemed not to have paid much attention to consent, yelled: “I’m so happy I’ve kissed 23 women and 17 men.” Up in Lillooet, far from the bedlam in Coquitlam, legendary newspaperwoman Ma Murray, who loathed W.A.C. Bennett with a passion, declared she had never felt so happy in all her  73 years. The beaming Barrett headed home early, for a beer and bed, but not before pledging: “I will not let our hopes and aspirations down….The people of British Columbia have the right to expect a great deal from us and we must deliver.”

Delivery did not take long. The Barrett government got to work right from the historic September day they took office. Hansard and Question Period at last, a doubling of MLA salaries so members could be full-time legislators and increased funding for the Opposition. New ministers took on a whirlwind of assignments: public auto insurance, a new labour code, a complete review of health services, preserving farmland, the plight of First Nations in the province. The long-proposed Third Crossing between Vancouver and the North Shore was killed, in favour of a planned “seabus” across Burrard Inlet. Social Services Minister Norm Levi quickly grasped what being in government meant after years hammering away from opposition benches. He ordered the BC Hydro to restore service to a woman on welfare, whose hydro had been cut off for non-payment.

During a brief, 18-day fall session, the minimum wage was raised 33 percent to $2 an hour, teachers were given bargaining rights, budget responsibilities were restored to local school boards, a broad-based committee was struck to bring democratic reforms to a legislature that had operated under WAC Bennett’s one-sided version of the rules for two decades and most significant of all, the government brought in Mincome, guaranteeing seniors a minimum income of $200 a month. The pioneer program, unmatched anywhere in North America, is “the unfinished work of the socialist movement in its concern for people of all ages,” proclaimed Norm Levi. Pretty well the Barrett government’s first order of business, Mincome remained its most popular measure for all the time it was in office.

Meanwhile, as the days ticked by towards Christmas, Barrett was a whirling dervish of news and off-the-cuff announcements, captivating reporters with his availability, humour, espousal of socialism and denigration of greedy, capitalist speculators in rhetoric that seemed to get him on the front page every day. One scribe calculated that the roly-poly, non-stop premier had committed his government to 42 new polices during its first 55 days in office. By the time Guy Lombardo ushered out 1972 with Auld Lang Syne, Dave Barrett might have been the most popular premier in BC history.

It didn’t last of course. The bitter fights to preserve BC farmland from development, bring in public auto-insurance, tax windfall mining profits, dramatically increase spending on social services for the disadvantaged and enact a myriad other controversial measures aimed at making the province a more enlightened place to live evoked large protests and sometimes over-the-top opposition in the media.. The inevitable government gaffes,  coupled with more than a few missteps by Barrett, himself, did not help. By the time the NDP was voted out of office three years later, that early glow was but a memory.

Looking back, those faults pale in comparison with the rich legacy left behind, a legacy that is with us still. None is greater than the preservation of farmland throughout British Columbia. Forty-five years later, the Agricultural Land Reserve stands as a beacon to what a committed government can do to change a province.  (My list of the Barrett government’s 100 achievements, over those short 39 months, is available here (https://mickleblog.wordpress.com/2018/02/19/100-achievements-of-the-dave-barrett-government-1972-1975/). BC never had a more alive, activist government.

The summer of 1972 made it all happen. As he is remembered at a state memorial in Victoria and a gathering the next day in Vancouver, for all his  accomplishments and fighting the good political fight for so many years, that’s when Dave Barrett did the impossible. By “slaying the Socred dragon”, as the Vancouver Sun’s front page headline put it, and refusing a cautious, go-slow approach, he set BC on course to a modern future from which there was no turning back.

 

 

Advertisements

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

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

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

 

 

IN THE BEGINNING…THERE WAS DAVE BARRETT

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

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

Image 13

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.”

Image 12

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

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

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

horgan-ndp-1

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

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