Dave Barrett’s Rich Legacy to British Columbians

Published in The Tyee | August 18, 2012 | Circulation: 340,000 unique monthly visitors

Dave Barrett was a dangerous man.

It’s not just the former Premier’s critics who say that. One of his closest confidantes and cabinet ministers agrees, though for very different reasons. There’s no doubt, however, that his impact is still felt 40 years later.

“He always had great ideas while he was shaving in the morning!” laughed Bob Williams, Barrett’s Minister of Lands, Forests and Water Resources from 1972-1975. “We never knew what the idea would be when he came in.

“He was a very creative mind… He was the right guy in the right place at the right time. He captured the imagination of everybody.”

On this day four decades ago, Aug. 30, 1972, — when the New Democratic Party swept to power for the first time ever in B.C. and Barrett was thrown into the premier’s seat — the history-making leader was branded a socialist, radical, and even labeled “Allende of the North,” a reference to Chile’s elected populist leader (who, one year later, was killed in a U.S.-sponsored military coup).

Barrett’s government would go on to pass a staggering 367 bills during its tenure — creating everything from the Insurance Corporation of BC (ICBC) to the modern ambulance design now used across the continent (before, they used low Cadillacs and attendants were forced to crouch). From forcing politicians to reveal their donors, to the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR) and the BC Human Rights Board, simply put, Barrett’s caucus changed B.C.

When The Tyee last year invented The People’s Order of B.C. and invited readers to make their nominations, Dave Barrett was a top vote getter. Perhaps that did not go unnoticed in high places. In May of this year Premier Christy Clarkannounced Barrett would be among those receiving the Order of B.C. honour.

On Barrett’s lookout

Earlier this month a celebration of Barrett’s accomplishments was held near Cypress Provincial Park, a Barrett government creation. The man of honour himself couldn’t make it for health reasons, but surveying a cloud blanketed Vancouver from the so-called “Barrett’s View Lookout” on the road up to the park, Williams remembered the furor that erupted the day of their election. The media, he recalled, was incensed and alarmed by the NDP’s victory.

“‘This is a terrible thing!'” he remembered one radio show caller saying. “‘The socialists are inside the gates now. Can’t they do something about it? Can’t they have a meeting at the Vancouver Club and annul the election?!'”

“That,” Williams continued, “is the way it was.

“[Barrett] would usually answer any charge of being a wild-ass socialist with humour. That just dissipated the whole right wing’s argument that he was dangerous — ‘How could anybody this much fun be dangerous?!’ he’d ask.”

Barrett, now 81, is best known by his caucus colleagues for his sense of humour, and the way he would laugh in the face of adversity and attacks from the business community. It was a trait many likened to the oratory gifts of Tommy Douglas, the former federal NDP leader and so-called father of medicare.

“When we were called the Allende of the North, he got into the Legislature and admitted it: ‘I’m a red — I wear red shorts,'” recalled Harold Steves, a 35-year Richmond City Council veteran who served as MLA in the Barrett NDP caucus from 1973-1975. “So we printed a button saying, ‘I wear red shorts.’

“He treated these attacks with a good sense of humour. [Outgoing Premier] W.A.C. Bennett said, ‘The socialist hordes are storming the gates and taking over Victoria!’ So Dave said, ‘Well, we’re part of the socialist hordes.’ He just brushed it all off with a good sense of humour… When you deal with issues like that, it doesn’t put down your opponent — it dulls the criticism. He effectively said, ‘Yeah, I hear what you’re saying, but you’re being silly.'”

‘The world was 40 years behind us’

While his jokes were notorious, Barrett’s deeply serious side is less well-known. Steves remembers the Premier turning to him one day — when they were discussing their plan to outlaw oil supertanker traffic and offshore oil drilling — and making a remark he will never forget.

“He said to me, ‘I’m afraid it may already be too late,'” Steves recounted, before pausing. “We were 40 years ahead of time, but I think history may tell us that, in fact, the rest of the world was 40 years behind us.

“Are we too late? If what we were trying to do at the time had gotten more support in Canada and the U.S., we might not be facing the catastrophe we’re facing today. I think that was the message Dave had at the time, when he said we may be too late to stop, but we have to make an attempt to stop it from getting worse.”

Barrett was ahead of the curve on any number of other issues. To name just three, his NDP ended spanking in B.C. schools, introduced Hansard records to Legislature, and created a guaranteed income plan for senior citizens.

‘Acute sense of social justice’

As B.C.’s first (and only) Jewish premier — one of the very few in Canadian history, in fact — his awareness of oppression and discrimination was acute. He may have fought his opponents with a smile as he passed his expansive list of reforms still with us today, but in private he was an avid researcher on Nazism and Fascism.

“He had an acute sense of social justice,” Williams said. “The fact that he was Jewish, I think, made him very sensitive to the nature of discrimination of all kinds.

“There was a very serious side of him that wanted to understand what mass man could do — he was something of a scholar on the Nazis and their impact on the Jews, the gays and everyone else they destroyed. He had this really serious side to him, as well as his really open sense of humour.”

“Williams — who attended Vancouver’s Britannia High School two grades behind Barrett — believes Barrett’s education at Jesuit-run universities in Seattle and St. Louis also sharpened his political analysis and quest for social change.

“The day after the NDP’s first-ever victory in the province, Barrett called Williams in typical spontaneous and jovial style.

“I got a call from Dave: ‘Hey, Bob, we got it!'” Williams recalled, chuckling. “‘We gotta get together. I think you and I are the transition committee!… I’ll be at your house in half and hour.'”

And while so many of the Barrett-era reforms are taken for granted today — basic stuff, like the right of citizens to sue the government for wrongs committed — the NDP caucus’ steep learning curve changed them as much as they changed the province.

“Those years when we were in government were really very exciting,” Williams said. “But by the end of our administration, many of us came to the conclusion that our real job was to transfer power to the people.”

As the NDP appears to inch closer to power in the province again — soaring in current opinion polls — it’s a lesson those who remember the Barrett years hope the party hopeful for premier keeps in mind.

“What the NDP government did in 1972 — in that three-and-a-half years of electoral reform we brought to this province — was we left a legacy of hope that’s still with us,” said Steves. “We want to pass that on to [NDP leader Adrian Dix] and the present caucus to bring in when they become the government next year: please build on that legacy of hope we started back in 1972.”

With Dix’s promises of “modest” reforms under a New Democrat Legislature, will the radical vision of the Barrett cabinet resonate following next year’s election?

“The thing that I get from that, is that you have to get the fundamentals right,” Dix told The Tyee. “You have to do that: you have to be prepared to dream big.

“And, at the same time, we have to be modest in terms of the range of things we can do. But the things you do, they need to be important things. The Barrett government did important things. We need to learn that, and we need to be a little bit bold.”

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