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Mike Harcourt's Bold Predictions

B.C. is set for a huge jump in city funding and perhaps even a breakthrough on treaties says the former premier, a powerful insider on both fronts.

Charles Campbell 7 Dec

Charles Campbell has worked as a writer and editor with the Georgia Straight, the Vancouver Sun and The Tyee, and teaches at Capilano University.

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Two years ago, Mike Harcourt nearly died. Today the former premier has recovered remarkably from a broken neck to re-emerge as one of the most powerful officials in British Columbia. In two areas vital to the province’s future — settling treaties and funding cities — Harcourt is a key player, with tantalizingly optimistic statements to make on both fronts.

Harcourt is a federally appointed commissioner on the British Columbia Treaty Commission and is Prime Minister Paul Martin’s chief advisor on his much touted “new deal” for cities. He spoke to The Tyee last week in a Vancouver hotel restaurant, ostensibly about his recovery, documented in his new book Plan B: One Man’s Journey from Tragedy to Triumph (Wiley).

But with the TransLink board about to approve the controversial Richmond-Airport-Vancouver rapid transit line, conversation quickly veered from the past to the future.

High on RAV

He defends the RAV line as absolutely necessary and right because of its potential to increase its capacity. He’s glad Vancouver got rid of streetcars, and he wishes we’d moved much faster to build out Vancouver’s automated light rail system. Those views are heresy in certain circles, as awareness grows about the value of street-oriented systems that cater to the short trips most transit users take.

We’ve seen the consequences of the SkyTrain systems we’ve built so far — ridership shortfalls, huge cost overruns, cuts in bus service, hikes in fares, delays in buying much-needed new buses. But Harcourt predicts a cure for these ills after more than a decade of watching the Liberals hoard money in Ottawa: huge piles of federal cash.

Harcourt believes that money, added to what he describes the most generous transit funding in North America, will allow us to dramatically improve all elements of our “half-assed” system. “If you’ve got a complete system, it transforms Vancouver,” he says. “It’s going to happen. People are in a fool’s paradise out here.”

Expects golden era for cities

Harcourt believes cities are now at the top of the federal agenda, now that the feds have struck a deal with premiers on new health funding. And he attributes a good measure of the credit to the lobbying of a most unlikely duo — NDP leader Jack Layton, when he was a Toronto councillor and head of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and former Vancouver NPA city councillor and federation finance committee chair George Puil. “I think the new deal for cities and communities is going to transform the way we look at cities. There’s going to be an unprecedented investment.”

Harcourt also remains cautiously optimistic about the treaty process in B.C. “I think the next two years will tell the tale. I think we’ve had 10 years to get through the fear and loathing”

However, he sees three major impediments: overlapping native claims, lack of provincial resources at the treaty table, and most importantly the federal government’s refusal to negotiate with bands that are litigating. “I don’t know of any other civil or criminal area where you don’t litigate and negotiate at the same time, and then settle on the courthouse steps.”

Fifteen treaties in view

Harcourt notes that a handful of treaties are close to or have been concluded under Campbell government, and with 44 of the 70-odd bands in B.C. at the table he believes there’s the potential for about 15 treaties in the next three to five years. “Then it’s going to be clear to First Nations what treaties are, and you can choose whether you want to go there.”

Harcourt says we have to get back to first principles. “We want to create a new relationship based on mutual respect. What flows from that is mutual certainty, decreasing the risk for investment and the creation of probably” — hold your breath for this bit of optimism — “$100 billion to $150 billion of economic activity in the next 20 years. It’s going to be the biggest economic megaproject in this province’s history.”

Harcourt always moves quickly from “could be” to “will be.” The same determined optimism marked his recovery from his accident, documented with co-author John Lekich in Plan B.

‘The hanging tree’

It was November 30, 2002, when Mike Harcourt took a long fall from his Pender Island deck down a sandstone cliff to a tidal shelf, and landed face down in the water. First his life was at stake, then his ability to walk. Today he golfs and plays tennis. “I’ve gone from about 80 to 81 percent in the last two months. It’s like the old Vince Lombardi, three yards at a time in a cloud of dust.”

But amid the book’s early pages describing the accident, there are words about the other fall. In 1995, he resigned as premier in the wake of the NDP Bingogate scandal; in which the NDP fund-raising arm was found to have skimmed charity funds raised through gambling in the 1970s and ’80s. The knock on him was that he couldn’t make the tough decision — pick the fall guy, any fall guy, and make him pay for a scandal that had little to do with his government.

“I’d rather not hurt anybody, even in politics,” says Harcourt in the book. Then he slams not Gordon Campbell or the Liberals but the media and some members of the NDP and the trade union movement for their response to Bingogate. “They didn’t want a trial or whatever. They just wanted somebody to suffer some consequences, to be hung from the hanging tree.”

Demonized by Collins

In a book that’s mostly about what’s right — with our health care system and with the human spirit — Mike Harcourt is most succinctly defined when he declares what’s wrong.

In fact, the memory of politics seems to shake him more than his accident, as he pulls apart a muffin and a Danish and lets his coffee get cold. “Being a New Democrat in B.C. is like being black in Alabama,” he says. He feels he was always just a step ahead of “the dragon’s breath.”

Today Mike Harcourt is still working in the public’s service, but “without all the hassle.” It’s not entirely the life of a black in Alabama, notwithstanding Finance Minister Gary Collins, who once compared B.C. under the NDP to Cuba and demonized Harcourt at the B.C. Liberals’ annual convention.

And what does Harcourt think of a government that insists it has not privatized BC Rail or expanded gambling, in keeping with its election promises? And of a leader who said he doesn’t think he was smiling in that mugshot?

“I’m not going to be the Don Cherry of B.C. politics. My politicians anonymous group requires it,” he says. Then he adds, with characteristic deference, “I find it a problem when people don’t do what they say they are going to do, whoever it is.”

Charles Campbell is a contributing editor to The Tyee.  [Tyee]

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