I recall an era where progressive politics in Canada was both exciting and a little bit dangerous for the wealthy elite and the power brokers. One of the first politicians who engaged my interest as a young university student here in Edmonton was the irrepressible and courageous Dave Barrett, Premier of British Columbia from 1972 to 1975. His election in 1972 was the very first time an NDP government had taken power on the West Coast. Sadly, Dave Barrett passed away last year after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease. An excellent way to savour his career is by reading a fascinating account of the turbulent era when Barrett and his gang of political upstarts rocked the normally staid and conservative world of B.C. politics by defeating the well-financed Social Credit juggernaut of W.A.C Bennett. It is captured in the lively history by Geoff Meggs and Rod Mickleburgh, The Art of the Impossible: Dave Barrett and the NDP in Power 1972-1975. The book captures the profound differences between the social worker turned politician who is the flawed hero of the tale, and his seemingly impregnable opponent. W.A.C Bennett had won the previous five elections handily, having earlier developed the Social Credit party as a loose coalition designed to thwart the aspirations of a party of the left. The notion that a democratic socialist party might take power sent shock waves through the business and political establishment (which seemed to be one and the same).
He was an irrepressible force of nature, a passionate and unscripted leader, who found it natural to remove his shoes and leap onto the table at his first cabinet meeting. There, he asked his team whether they thought they were there for a good time or a long time. Against these considerable odds, Dave Barrett and the NDP slew the aging dragon in 1972, promising a number of progressive initiatives. Barrett certainly delivered, as his government enacted 369 bills in a little over three years. One of the most important was B.C.’s first-ever Human Rights Code. Barrett had vowed to assist the most vulnerable members of the province with laws that would protect their rights and the Code was one of a whole raft of laws designed to accomplish just that.
Barrett and his government transformed the province with his new laws. Government in B.C. lacked transparency; his government changed that. It introduced Hansard reporting of all debates, a daily question period and increased funding for opposition parties. These initiatives made meaningful the right to vote and to proper representation for ordinary citizens. Barrett brought in laws designed to increase economic equality and minimum standards of living for all citizens – including “mincome” for those over sixty, the highest minimum wage in the land, higher pension benefits and an improved workers compensation payment structure. He substantially increased legal aid funding.
The NDP in this hurricane season also developed a landmark labour code which greatly facilitated unions’ ability to organize and pursue their right to collective bargaining. The new government restored the right to sue the Crown. It established the first ministry of housing, which included a mandate to establish affordable housing. It preserved B.C. farmland for agriculture through the creation of the Agricultural Land Reserve and extended land protections in other areas, including provincial parks. The Mineral Royalties Act significantly increased royalties on minerals, so that citizens could better share in the province’s wealth. It created a government-run insurance agency to protect motor vehicle operators by reducing insurance rates.
In the Art of the Impossible, Meggs and Mickleburgh set out 97 accomplishments of the Barrett government, describing their list as subjective and likely incomplete. It is important, however, to also reflect on the vision and stance of Dave Barrett in power. He was an irrepressible force of nature, a passionate and unscripted leader, who found it natural to remove his shoes and leap onto the table at his first cabinet meeting. There, he asked his team whether they thought they were there for a good time or a long time. The message was that after so many years in the wilderness, the self-described “people’s party” needed to seize the day and refuse to hesitate or compromise. Their success can be measured in the number of laws and programs that remained in place even after they lost power in 1975, a result of a snap election call. The wisdom of the decision was debated by British Columbians many times in the years since.
Barrett had an unusual background for a political leader in B.C. in that era. He was Jewish, and the son of a radical mother, Isadore, and a CCF -supporting father, Sam. Barrett recalled in his memoir, Dave Barrett: A Passionate Political Life, the days when he would accompany his activist parents as they marched and collected funds for worthy causes. This passion for social justice created in Barrett a burning desire to protect the unfortunate and vulnerable and to work for political change that would protect the rights of ordinary citizens. His early political hero, Tommy Douglas, exemplified the way in which one could do this while employing a sense of humour. Barrett’s sense of humour, often of a self-deprecating kind, was legendary. In the unforgettable campaign of 1972, running on a shoestring budget, Barrett was able to defuse the tension caused by the inevitable warnings of doom by the incumbent with rapid-fire jokes. Attempts to brand him a dangerous “waffle” supporter (the hard left wing of the federal New Democrats) were met with the response that if he was a “waffle” then Bennett was a “pancake.”
An important theme of The Art of the Impossible is that Dave Barrett was, ultimately, a strong force for public good but perhaps 40 years too early. Barrett maintained that his agenda and his vision for change were not “radical” but rather designed to allow all citizens to flourish. A keen student of Thomas Aquinas and a believer in the social gospel, he would have been quick to assent to the brilliant French writer, Anatole France’s pithy observation that “the law, in its majestic equality, forbids the rich as well as the poor to sleep under bridges, to beg in the streets, and to steal bread.”
I recall the heady times in the 1970s when the world seemed to hold great prospects for progressive change in contrast to this century. In 1974, I travelled with good friends across Europe and encountered an amazing group of actors outside of Lisbon. This was the year of the Revolution of Carnations – the peaceful overthrow of their long-time dictator. A democratic socialist government had taken power and it was wonderful to discuss and debate late into the night the best way forward for both Portugal and Canada. Their manager, Jose, proved surprisingly knowledgeable about our Prime Minister, Pierre Trudeau, but I also put in a few words about the promising government in our western-most province. While the Barrett Revolution was to be stalled a short time afterwards, perhaps it is not too late to discover a way to build on his legacy.