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BC Politics

Dave Barrett: The Man Who Changed a Province

BC’s first NDP premier was a fighter, orator and champion of the underdog.

Tom Hawthorn 3 Feb

Tom Hawthorn is a Victoria writer whose latest book is The Year Canadians Lost Their Minds and Found Their Country: The Centennial of 1967. He is a frequent contributor to The Tyee.

Dave Barrett at the podium was a sight. He’d have left home in a suit and tie, but as he got worked up the jacket was removed and the tie loosened. In time, the shirtsleeves were unbuttoned and rolled to the elbow, Barrett bouncing on his feet as he prowled the stage, left hand on his hip, the right pointing like a gunfighter.

He was without doubt the most exciting orator produced in this province in the past century, by turns a rabble-rousing firebrand, an Old Testament scold and a Borscht Belt comedian.

Barrett promised an evening’s entertainment at a time when television’s limited choices were dreck or more dreck. People came out to see him as they might a revivalist preacher or an old rock ’n’ roller.

If you were poor, or unemployed, or working but not getting ahead, Fat L’il Dave, as he styled himself, was your champion. After 45 minutes of his act, you were prepared to join him at the barricades, to smite the evil bosses, to make sure you and your neighbours and all the other little guys got their damned fair share.

They passed plastic buckets at NDP meetings in those days, like church but for socialism, and they’d be heavy with coins and filled to the brim with paper bills as colourful as the speaker.

In the 1972 campaign, a tired W.A.C. Bennett and an exhausted Social Credit government flailed at the socialist hordes they promised were set to ruin the province. Bennett, the old man, accused Barrett, who seemed friendly enough, of being a Waffle, a member of a cadre so radical the Ontario NDP purged them.

“When the premier said I was a Waffle, I said he was a pancake,” Barrett said. “He said I was a double Waffle. I said he was a stack of pancakes. Now he says there are Waffles in our caucus. I say there are pancakes in his group. It’s sheer nonsense. The premier wants to avoid the issues. However, if he keeps this up, knowing how he feels about Quebec, I’m going to call him a crepe Suzette.”

Bennett and his amen choir in the press insisted Barrett was a Marxist. The slur didn’t stick in part because Barrett as a Marxist was always more believable as Groucho than Karl.

The podium pounding and the mocking voices were an oratorical style better suited to an overheated labour hall than the cool iciness of the television screen in a hushed living room. The needs of TV had changed the nature of campaigning and Barrett was slow to adapt. The NDP still held mass rallies in the evening, so working people could feed their families before coming out. In doing so, they might be covered on the 11 p.m. newscast but they’d have missed the one with the largest audience, the important one, at 6 p.m.

The old style — the free-swinging, off-the-cuff, speak-your-mind Barrett — was also his undoing. Like The Who on their several farewell tours, Barrett sought to regain the government he lost in 1975 with comeback tours of his own in 1979 and 1983. He seemed poised to return to the premier’s office in that last one. The elder Bennett had been replaced by his son, whom the cartoonists saw as Mini-WAC to his father’s Wacky Bennett, a stilted speaker with permanent five o’clock shadow, running a government of radio hotliners and used-car dealers and for which Pouilly-Fuissé and Top Hat escort agency became shorthand for salacious scandal. (One of his ministers, whose slicked hair earned him the nickname The Fonz, showed up for work one morning with a shiner administered by the husband of the woman with whom he had shared a bed.)

In 1983, the Socreds had little more to offer on the hustings than restraint. There was a recession and inflation was high, so they were going to slash spending, pretty much campaigning on the slogan, “Folks, we know you’re hurting, that’s why we’d like to offer you this poison.” Vote Socred for even more pain.

A reporter demanded to know what Barrett would do with the government’s restraint program. In a response that in hindsight was flippant or ill-advised, and turned out to be a disaster, Barrett said he would phase out the program of cutbacks. Bennett used the statement as proof the spendthrift NDP had learned no lessons, would spend like drunken sailors and could not be trusted with the provincial treasury in uncertain times, a warning captured by BCTV with new satellite technology and broadcast and rebroadcast throughout the province. The campaign turned in that moment and Barrett would never get his second chance at governing. He later conceded he should have dodged the question by saying he’d study the program.

Barrett died on Friday morning at 87. His wheedling, cajoling, inspiring voice had earlier been muted by Alzheimer’s disease as he spent his final years in a care facility in Victoria. “He cared deeply about his province,” his family said in a statement, “and devoted much of his life trying to make it a better and fairer place to live.”

Barrett was on the public stage for five decades. He was an MLA for a quarter-century, a Member of Parliament for five years, and a radio talk-show host. He headed two inquiries into the leaky condo fiasco. In 1989, he lost the leadership of the federal NDP on the fourth ballot to Audrey McLaughlin, whose merit was clear to a majority of NDP delegates (she was not Dave Barrett) but invisible to the voting public. Barrett himself would lose his seat in the subsequent federal election as the NDP earned fewer than a million votes and was reduced to a nine-seat rump.

For all his time in public life, Barrett has to be judged on three hectic, seat-of-the-pants years as premier during which his government passed 369 bills (by one count) or more than 400 (by another).

The giddy success of the 1972 campaign, during which the NDP won an overwhelming majority of seats as three so-called free enterprise parties split the non-social democratic vote, led to what was called “legislation by thunderbolt.”

He would be spanked by voters three years later, even losing his own seat to an underwhelming car dealer, yet much of the legislation that so rankled pundits and business leaders then is still with us today. Social Credit and BC Liberal politicians might have railed against NDP policies, but once in power they didn’t dare repeal them.

So, today, we still have legacies created four decades ago — public auto insurance through the Insurance Corporation of BC, as well as the Agricultural Land Reserve, designed to protect threatened farmland. There’s Pharmacare and the preservation of Cypress Bowl for recreation. A lowering of the drinking age (to 19) and neighbourhood pubs. The BC Day holiday. In downtown Vancouver alone, there was the Seabus, the preservation of the Orpheum Theatre and the building of Robson Square, a courthouse complex of constructed concrete by Arthur Erickson, a skyscraper on its back replacing the Socred vision of a towering black obelisk.

Barrett’s government dragged the province from the 19th to the 21st century. Banned pay toilets. Ended corporal punishment in schools. Stopped 12-year-olds from going to jail. Raised pensions for the elderly and increased support for the disabled. Hiked welfare rates and the minimum wage. Launched a daily question period in the legislature and recorded those debates in Hansard. Gave government employees full bargaining rights. Created a Human Rights Code. Altered the Labour Code so workers could organize more effectively.

Authors Geoff Meggs and Rod Mickleburgh listed 97 legacies of the government in their sympathetic and rollicking history, The Art of the Impossible: Dave Barrett and the NDP in Power, 1972-1975 (Harbour, 2012). They are still adding to their list.

Barrett elicited passions and it was hard to be neutral about him, which was by his design. A social worker, he sought to comfort the afflicted. If that afflicted the comfortable, so be it. He eased the discomfort some might have held for him with self-deprecating humour. Anyone who saw the stubby politician in midlife might have been surprised to learn of his earlier athletic pursuits. Asked why he stopped playing rugby, he insisted he had not done so but did seem to have swallowed the ball.

In one campaign, Social Credit aired a television commercial in which a man in a pinstriped suit is revealed to be wearing red shorts beneath his business attire. The unsubtle message: Those NDPers pretending to be pro-business sheep were in fact socialist wolves.

Barrett told a Vancouver Island rally he believed a prominent Socred cabinet minister was responsible for the ad campaign.

“I didn’t come here to discuss the colour of my underwear,” he told the audience. “I’ll leave that to your imagination. But I understand Grace McCarthy is behind this idea.”

He paused, looking stern. His tone was hushed, serious.

“I want to assure the people of British Columbia,” he said, his voice rising slowly to a crescendo, “that Grace McCarthy is one woman who will never see the colour of my underwear!”

Incredibly, there’s a second anecdote involving Barrett and his briefs. His official photographic portrait hanging in the Hall of Premiers in the Legislative Building was taken by Gar Lunney of Beautiful British Columbia magazine the morning after the shocking 1972 victory. The premier-designate is wearing a grey suit and a teal tie. His hair is slicked back and he offers a toothy grin. His eyes are glassy and tired. A painting in the background offers a colourful halo. In his biography, Barrett noted he was hungover during the portrait session and, in fact, was wearing no pants.

Barrett was born in Vancouver on Oct. 2, 1930, the youngest of three children, after Isadore, known as Izzy, and Pearl, to the former Rose Hyatt (rendered as Hait on the marriage certificate), a housekeeper before marriage, and Samuel Barrett, a twice-wounded Great War veteran. Gassed at Passchendaele, Samuel Barrett would eventually go blind.

Rose had been born north of Odessa in Tsarist Russia and Samuel was from Winnipeg, the son of a Russian immigrants. Both were Jewish, though the heritage found expression more culturally than religiously. Their union was an arranged marriage and not a happy one. Wed on Aug. 24, 1924, they would divorce on Jan. 22, 1954.

Sam Barrett ran a horse-drawn fruit wagon, patrolling the streets of east Vancouver on a bum leg from another war wound. On Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath, Dave joined his father in peddling fruits and vegetables. The boy also worked as a paperboy for the Star Weekly and the Vancouver Sun, laboured one day a week in the Sun’s mailroom, and on another day shook salt from hides at a packing plant.

He grew up on McSpadden Avenue in Vancouver’s east end, a street running one block between Commercial Drive to the west and Victoria Drive to the east, sandwiched between East Fourth and Fifth Avenues, intersected by interurban street railway tracks. The Barretts were at 1772, a modest house renting for $6 per month during the Depression and $20 during the war. A friend and classmate, William Esson, lived at 1724. He went on to become chief justice of the B.C. Supreme Court. The Iacobuccis also lived on the street and their boy Frank, seven years younger than Dave, became a justice of the Supreme Court of Canada.

The Barrett household insisted on education. In his memoir, Barrett: A Passionate Political Life, written with William Miller, Barrett recalls getting a phone call from his mother about his brother, a renowned marine biologist who had just earned a doctorate with distinction. She asked her son if he understand the message behind her call. “No, mom, what’s the message?” he asked wearily. She replied, “When are you going to go back to school and make something of yourself?” The call had interrupted a busy day; Barrett was sitting in the premier’s office at the time.

The Barrett household was political. His father was a Fabian socialist and his mother a supporter of Communist causes. One of Dave’s earliest memories is of parading with his mother in support of the besieged Spanish Republic, his head wrapped in a red-stained bandage to symbolize the plight of civilian victims of the civil war. He also helped her raise money for Norman Bethune’s ambulance service in China.

Barrett attended Laura Secord Elementary and Britannia High, where he earned a reputation as a nonconformist troublemaker. He chafed at being in army cadets and was kicked off the rugby squad. He got out of a term-long detention by agreeing to join the school’s operetta club, surprising himself by finding an outlet for theatrical tendencies of which he was until then unaware. Turns out he liked the stage and its spotlight.

As a youth, he haunted poolrooms and got a street education in “people using drugs, bootleggers, the seamy side of life.” After graduating high school, where his yearbook described him as a jokester, Barrett registered at Seattle University, a Jesuit institution where he was the only Jewish student in residence. He hung out in billiard halls and tobacco shops, gambling (with some success, including a 10-1 payday when Truman won election in 1948) with money his father sent him to cover rent. When his father found out about the gambling, he stopped sending money.

Barrett dropped out and returned home. Meanwhile, his father had opened a fruit market at 453 Powell St. between the Canada Café and Jim’s Hospital for Stoves. Dave made $150 that Yuletide selling Christmas trees from an empty lot across the street from his father’s store.

To earn tuition the next summer, he worked alongside Mexican migrant labourers in a cannery town near Walla Walla, Wash. The hours were long, the pay poor. White workers got to stay in a dormitory while the Mexicans slept in the field. He saw immigration officers rounding up the Mexicans at the end of the season and wondered if they had been cheated of their pay. When he returned to Seattle to collect his funds to pay for tuition, he found only half his pay had been deposited. Someone back in the company town had been skimming. Luckily for Barrett, he had retained all his deposit slips and got his money.

Meanwhile, on one of Barrett’s frequent returns to Vancouver he was invited by a friend to a beach party, where a young woman caught his eye. Barrett plied her date with beer until he fell asleep, taking the opportunity to introduce himself to Shirley Hackman, a pipefitter’s daughter who worked as a clerk. A sparkplug of independent temperament, she dated him on and off for two years, each seeing others, until she told him it was time to propose or move on.

He waffled. His parents were opposed. (Too young, said his father; she’s Anglican, wailed his mother.) Her parents were neutral, though unable to pay for the wedding. The young couple held a civil ceremony and a party with $300 scrounged from all sources. Days after their wedding, a pooling of coins resulted in the purchase of a 27-cent savoy cabbage for supper. “We’re broke,” the bride told her husband, “but we’re not poor. There’s a distinction.” Savoy cabbage became a staple of anniversary dinners.

After getting a sociology degree from Seattle University, he worked for the Children’s Aid Society in Vancouver, where his caseload consisted of 87 children in foster homes. He soon took a better paying job as a program officer in the young offenders unit at Oakalla, the aged provincial prison in suburban Burnaby. Low pay and bureaucracy frustrated him in both jobs, as he saw institutions serving their own purposes, not those of troubled youth in need.

He figured he needed further formal training, so moved his young family, including a son born 10 months after the marriage, the first of three children, to Missouri, where he studied for a masters of social work at St. Louis University, another Jesuit school. Barrett’s great influence was Thomas Aquinas, finding in his philosophy a means of placing the needs of the sovereign individual in the commonwealth of people. No Stalinist, he.

The young thinker also bristled with anger at bourgeois concepts of poverty and helping the poor, seeing in the economic system a structure deliberately punishing those without while rewarding those with. Altering that balance would become his life’s work.

A year spent as a probation officer in the juvenile court system in St. Louis County led to a job offer as supervisor of social training at the new Haney Correctional Institute east of Vancouver.

Barrett was not back in British Columbia for long when his zeal to reform the prison system led him to seek the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation nomination in the provincial riding of Dewdney, a sprawling constituency east of the city. When his bosses discovered he was seeking a political nomination, he was fired by then-attorney general Robert Bonner (a fellow Britannia graduate) for politicking while employed as a civil servant.

The news thrust Barrett’s face onto the front page for the first time. Supporters showed up at his door in Haney with eggs and vegetables to help the family until he found another job. The John Howard Society hired him to supervise their counselling services, so long as he promised not to campaign during work hours. With his newfound notoriety, Barrett won the nomination on his sixth wedding anniversary. He went on to defeat Lyle Wicks, the Socreds’ labour minister, in the 1960 provincial election.

Barrett won a seat in the next four provincial elections as the CCF reformed into the New Democratic Party. He was a loyalist to Robert Strachan, whose leadership was unsuccessfully challenged in 1967 by Thomas Berger, a lawyer who briefly served in the House of Commons before winning a seat in Victoria on his third try.

The Berger challenge was backed by organized labour and party members frustrated by Social Credit’s continued success at the ballot box. Strachan survived Berger’s coup attempt, only to retire the following year.

Barrett believed he had Strachan’s backing to succeed him as leader. But the 1969 leadership contest was one whose fissures can still be spotted in the party two generations later. Berger had labour delegates and party members mobilized by Dennis and Yvonne Cocke, whose organization would come to be known as the Cocke Machine. Bob Williams announced his candidacy late in the campaign as a compromise between Barrett-Berger. Even more shocking to Barrett was Strachan’s statement in support of Williams on the eve of the convention. Berger won on the second ballot, by 411 to 375.

Four months later, W.A.C. Bennett upset all predictions by handily winning re-election. Berger’s opposition NDP held their vote but lost four seats.

Berger’s electoral career was finished, though his great work as a Royal Commissioner on the Mackenzie Valley Pipeline Inquiry was yet to come. The caucus selected Barrett as interim leader and he was acclaimed the following year when no rivals emerged.

The 1972 campaign was a lark. The Socreds were in disarray and panicking as the voting date neared. Election night was a giddy celebration for long-suffering social democrats, led out of the wilderness for the first time in provincial history. A banner headline in the Vancouver Sun read: NDP, Barrett slay Socreds; Business takes news calmly.

Rest assured, big business in B.C. did not remain calm. Barrett’s success even led to a restructuring of political parties, as a revamped Social Credit absorbed the remaining elements of the old coalition partners, the Liberals and Conservatives. Barrett called a snap election early in his fourth year, a miscalculation as he had alienated labour with back-to-work legislation. He retained the party’s vote total from 1972, but the united opposition wound up with a majority and Barrett lost his own seat. He returned to the legislature in a byelection.

In 1983, during a heated, middle-of-the-night debate over the Socreds’ far-reaching restraint program, an Acting Speaker ordered the Sergeant-at-Arms to forcibly remove Barrett from the chamber, an unprecedented event, the more shocking for occurring at 4:35 a.m. The province seemed on the verge of becoming unhinged.

A few months earlier, Barrett addressed a mass audience in a light rain at a Solidarity rally on the expansive Legislature lawns. It was a larger crowd than had attended the Queen’s visit earlier in the year. Barrett told them they were “a coalition of humanity unlike any other witnessed in this province before.”

In the crowd was a young student working that summer as a waiter. “He had 30,000 people roaring, up and down,” Premier John Horgan recalled. “It was inspiring to me.”

Horgan marched over to the nearest NDP office. “I said, ‘How can I help?’” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the only bill he had, a 10-spot. “It was plucked from my fingers in a second,” he said.

As metaphor, that scene works for Barrett apostles as well as adversaries.  [Tyee]

Read more: BC Politics

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