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Corky Evans Unplugged

The retiring NDP maverick on the populist voter, Gordon Campbell, spitting out teeth and much, much more.

By Charles Campbell 1 May 2009 | TheTyee.ca

Charles Campbell is a contributing editor to The Tyee.

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Evans: "Wealth comes from labour and dirt." Photo by Charles Campbell.

It doesn't matter who gets elected on May 12. The B.C. legislature will be significantly poorer for the absence of Corky Evans. The three-term MLA for Nelson-Creston packed up his boxes for the last time in late March and shipped them home. He has plans to encourage blueberries and discourage bats.

In early March at Vancouver's Fraserview Hall and again on April 4 in Nelson, Corky was roasted and toasted. Those present will tell you that Corky actually did most of the roasting. Rafe Mair was one of the first to speak in Vancouver. After making his way gingerly to the stage, he warned the guest of honour that "the knees are the second thing to go." Then he declared: "If you're sharing the podium with Corky Evans, go first. For God's sake go first."

The evening was proof enough of that. Sure, the few not fully initiated in all things Corky learned a thing or two from his colleagues. About the minister of health who smoked. About the only New Democrat that Bill Vander Zalm said he could vote for. About the MLA who lost his teeth trying not to say the word "horseshit" in the legislature, when the word was already halfway out.

It was this last story that proved Mair's point. Long-time MLA Mike Farnworth said he saw the teeth come out. When Corky finally had his turn, he took those teeth and ran. "It's the most embarrassing thing that's ever happened to me," Evans said. "In a suit." Then he detailed, for about eight hilarious minutes, the very parliamentary lies that prompted him to forget where he was and begin to utter the word "horseshit." And how if you don't get your tongue to the roof of your mouth to finish the "t" when you're spitting out that word your teeth just fly right out instead. In Evans' case, they flew into his hand and back into his mouth before anyone noticed... except for Mike Farnworth, who happened to be sitting right next to him.

Carole James noted that, with or without his teeth, Evans is never one to stay within the message box. "One day," Evans said later, "you're going to be able to put me in a box. And talk about what a great guy I was when I was outside the box."

The evening wasn't all comedy, however. Evans finished his remarks with a simple warning worth remembering during times of "deleveraging": "Don't ever think that wealth ever comes from any place except labour and dirt."

Evans' last speech in the legislature, one of Hansard's rare must-reads, also veered recklessly into serious matters. He argued that the legislature is not a sideshow, and we should accord deep respect to our public servants. He talked about the importance of local control in a society that is still trying to shake off the vestiges of its colonial history. He talked about corporate monopolies, and he made a compelling case that socialists have a much greater respect for free markets and true competition than a great many capitalists.

Corky Evans won't easily be replaced. The Tyee spoke to him in late March as he prepared to bid the ledge goodbye.

Is it possible for us in an increasingly urban British Columbia to understand and act appropriately in support of loggers and farmers and, um, fisher people, who have a really direct connection to the land?

"I would say no, not without some kind of purposeful intervention. Years ago, I visited with a Christian group that took middle-class North Americans, primarily Caucasians, to Mexico to give them a short-term education in the history of colonialism and the church and agrarian issues in Central America. They did that because they thought that based on popular culture, it was impossible for them to have a sense of how the people they visited lived except for one based on caricature.

"Media almost without exception is generated from the city, analysis is generated from the city, economic interest is driven from the city, political spin is written in the city. The perception of rural people is the old urban mythology about the redneck stupid people incapable of managing their affairs and probably dangerous if left to their own devices, and probably in need of an imported wisdom from urban sources, in order to keep them from wrecking everything. That's nobody's fault. That's just the way colonialism works....

"That's why I have been espousing a partnership in control, in land-based management, wherever it is -- coastal communities for fish, or eastern communities for gas, or logging communities for trees. Some kind of partnership so that it isn't some sort of patriarchal power and weakness relationship, it's a sharing between regions."

A friend of mine once said that Vancouver only has one industry, and it's real estate. Do you think that's a fair assessment?

"No, it's a short-term assessment. And I don't think it's a fair long-term assessment. No. I would say it's money laundering."

A once famous but now obscure 19th century economist named Henry George argued more or less that land speculation is the greatest enemy of the public good. Do you agree with that?

"Not in British Columbia. In British Columbia, the people own the land. Here, the rich don't even have to speculate in order to control. In British Columbia, you can through political contributions or other ways that are relatively invisible, get control of the resources on the land without having to speculate on ownership of the land. Previous governments developed tenure relationships with resources rather than fee-simple land ownership, and the good reasons for that have eroded and now the tenure situation has eroded. That has resulted in, for example, logging companies having access to the resources without even having to pay the taxes on the land as a land speculator does.

"There's a long tradition of that kind of thinking -- I would call it Jeffersonian in its American incarnation, but a lot of people would say he got his ideas from Rousseau -- that the commons is the essential prop of democracy, that without a sense of agrarian community, economic freedom is impossible and democracy is a lie. That's kind of the underpinning of my view."

In your last big speech in the legislature, you drew a stark contrast between the "free enterprise" Social Credit and the "globalist" B.C. Liberals. Do you think most ordinary voters make the same distinction?

"No, I don't. I don't even think most ordinary New Democrats do. I don't think academics do. I have been trying for a long time to understand the shift in my time in public life in B.C., which I think has been monumental, and that's just where I land in how things have changed. I remember [Social Credit premier] Bill Bennett Jr., I think it was Tokyo but it might have been Hong Kong, where he advised the Japanese business community: 'You can buy our boards, but you can't buy our logging companies, because we don't want to cede control.' I remember Bill Bennett Jr. stopping an Ontario mining company from buying Macmillan Bloedel, because he believed that Ontario was just as distant a control agent as Tokyo. Today we don't give a rat's ass. You can buy anything. You can lease a railroad for 999 years. You can buy anything you want from anywhere.

"When tenure was invented in the free-enterprise time, it was a trade. I'm not sure it was a healthy trade, but that's an irrelevant issue. In exchange for tenure -- permanent access to resources without bidding -- you had to build a conversion plant and put resources through it. When I was a young man in my 20s, I objected to that in the Slocan, where I lived. I was in favour of the bidding system, where anyone who thought they could do the job could bid on logs and sell them to anyone, so there would be a free market. One of the old-timers at the local sawmill, it was called Triangle Pacific, he caught me in the lunchroom and he just reamed my ass out. He said, 'Do you know how we got cement foundations under our houses in this valley? We signed a tenure arrangement. Until the time of tenure, we lived in houses on skids, or houses you could walk away from, because there was no guarantee we'd ever get paid, or that the company would last long enough to meet its commitments. We were transient workers. Once we had tenure, we could put foundations under our houses because we weren't leaving.'

"In the globalist era, we trade access and control for nothing. In Castlegar, a company can buy the sawmill and never open it, and keep the [forest] tenure. They own the machinery. They don't have to run the machinery. But the idea that they would still continue to own access to an area the size of a small European country is making vassals of the people."

A lot of people in Vancouver struggle to understand why someone in Prince George or Nanaimo might vote Social Credit provincially and NDP federally, or NDP provincially and Reform federally. Can you explain that to them?

"A great many people who voted for me over the years voted for the federal Reform party. People don't vote based on some kind of poli-sci 101. They vote on culture. They vote for the person who they think probably won't steal and might understand them. Oftentimes provincially that was the NDP and federally the Reform party. In both cases it's a cultural thing, not a platform or policy-driven situation."

This Gordon Campbell guy, has he done anything right?

"Yes, I would say he has. I was very pleased by the commission that he put in place of regular citizens to consider how we vote. I was pleased that what they decided was put to a referendum, and the people got to decide whether they liked it or not. Those were good things. I've known New Democrat leaders who wouldn't have had the guts to let the people make up their own mind, even if they thought they could predict what the folks would choose."

Are you in favour of the kind of tax shifting that Gordon Campbell's gas tax represents?

"I don't think so, but I did like Liberal leader Stéphane Dion's plan. I thought it was kind of elegant. But the first time I heard about tax shifting wasn't from Campbell or Dion, it was from Joy MacPhail and Joan Sawicki, when Joan Sawicki was minister of the environment and Joy MacPhail was the minister of finance. I thought it was probably the first new, real idea of social democratic thinking that I had heard in my adult life. The gas tax, though, was ill considered in a blunt-instrument way. If you're going to ask people to shift their whole way of thinking, which is what we're talking about with tax shifting, moving away from payroll taxes and into taxes on consumption, you have to give them something positive. Some reward, some hope that this will make their life better. And to take an idea as beautiful as tax shifting and make people hate it before you've had a chance to convince them that it's in their interest, that's really unfortunate.

"But I'm glad that this coming election is the first I'll live through where both the political parties -- I'm not sure what the Green party position is, although I'm sure they have one -- have a pragmatic platform position on the need to address climate change. That's pretty cool. The fact that one is a gas tax and the other is cap-and-trade is pretty immaterial to me. It's a good thing that we're going to get to talk about it."

We need to do some pretty grand things to avoid calamity, in terms of protecting the capacity of the oceans, farms and forests to continue to meet our needs. Buying beets at the farmer's market can seem like a pretty pathetic symbolic gesture. What do you think it will take to create the big changes our situation requires?

"If you're asking how you can help farmers, buying healthy food grown by somebody you know is a wonderful place to start. And my observation of human behaviour is that once it starts, it leads in the best possible direction, and people don't stop, and they begin to question their own waste, and their personal relationships, and their idea of community. If you're asking about the large public policy questions, what it would take to make land-based resources sustainable and profitable, it would take breaking monopoly control of the beef industry, and the seed industry, and the logging business, and the fishing business.

"Ranching, farming, fishing, logging -- they experienced downturns, but if you were smart, you made money. Ranching is the best example. The price of beef today is 50 per cent of its average from 1935 to 2003. Why is that? Well, we used to have competition. There were 20, 30, 40, 50 mid-sized processing companies in Canada, and now there's, like, four. They can control to the price to the point where they can lower the price by 50 per cent.

"I was the minister of fish when we went through the Mifflin Plan [a 1990s federal buyout program that reduced the B.C. fishing fleet by 50 per cent and concentrated control of the remaining fishing licenses]. And what was that? It was to break the common property resource of salmon or cod or what have you.

"If you're asking what it would take to make things work, it would take breaking the monopolies, and it would take the public deciding that they want competition, free enterprise and creativity, and they don't want corporate control."

How much of an opportunity does the current global economic crisis present for the right kind of change?

"It's a huge opportunity, and either the right will use it to solidify international control by corporations, which will end up pretty much owning countries, or at some point, as happened in the 1930s, citizens will ask themselves what kind of capitalism they want to have. And people will decide to use their government to re-regulate and break down cartels, and monopolies and oligopolies, essentially the ceding of our land and life to the control of the few."

So far, the B.C. Liberals have taken this crisis, and based on superficial appearances, have used it effectively as a hammer to beat down the NDP as incapable of managing the economy in tough times. Has the NDP moved any closer to convincing people that it understands markets, to counter the Liberals' approach?

"I would say the answer to that is no, but I don't think they believe the Liberals have the answer either. They will search in the upcoming election for a party that has a vision of the economy that works. But no I don't think either political party has articulated that vision."

Will the NDP do that in this election?

"I honestly don't know. I don't know if either political party will. I have great hopes, but there's little pragmatic evidence that anybody will. The problem isn't that they're stupid, of course. The problem is that almost everything we know how to do has been proven to not work.

"In my parents' time, they got out of the Depression with make-work projects. With rural electrification and such. And it still didn't work, and they went and had a world war and got everybody employed. With guns and boots. But now there's climate change. You'd be a damn fool to say whatever we do to increase growth is positive, because a great deal of stuff we might do to increase growth is right off the table. Let's burn coal. Let's flood valleys. Those were decent options according to old-fashioned Keynesian pump-priming, but they're no longer acceptable because of our understanding of climate change. A world war wouldn't solve the problem, because they're no longer fought by soldiers, they're fought with technology. You could kill a million people, but you couldn't give them all a job.

"I don't think there's any political party that has a program to offer that fits with the times. Am I blaming Carole James or Gordon Campbell? I think this needs to be the first election where leaders say they don't know the right thing to do: 'We'll see to it that we get through this, but we won't wreck the place in our attempt to guarantee you the same level of income that you had 10 years ago.' Which is what we've always done. We've used democracy to promise people more. Less costs or lower taxes. Or higher incomes or services. It might be to promise people more is either a lie or requires activities that are anathema to the times."

In your last speech, you said you failed, except on one occasion, to have the people's equity listed in the budget documents alongside the people's debt. Can you elaborate on how you construe the people's equity and why it matters to account for it?

"I argued every year that in British Columbia, where the people own the land and the water and the dams and the universities and the bridges, that it was dishonest to suggest to people that they have debt. That they don't also have assets or equity. And in order for political parties or citizens to assess the value of a government, you had to have two pages in the budget documents -- one that listed the value of the resource base and the land and the infrastructure, and its resale value. The B.C. Assessment Authority is probably our most honest and independent assessment institution on the globe, doing work that is often argued with but is at least not corrupt, unlike almost every other country. It would be easy to have what the dams are worth, and the hospitals, and the roads, and have that alongside what we owe for those. When Paul Ramsay was the minister, he agreed with me. And they did that. If we had followed down that road for 10 years we'd have gotten pretty good at it, and we could argue it, and citizens would have some idea what they're worth.

"It is my belief that if you are born tomorrow in British Columbia you are richer than pretty much anyone in the world."

How has reporting in the legislature changed in your years of hanging around the place?

"The wonderful old-timers like Hubert Beyer are gone. There tended to be some grey-haired old guys who had some history and were interested in the process. They're gone. If they were still here, I don't imagine their employers would let them indulge them in their interest in the process. The press gallery are all fine people, and I would be pleased to have any one of them live next door to me, but they are not paid to report on the process. They are not paid to keep people abreast of the health or lack thereof of their democracy. They are paid to titillate or tell the superficial story or provide the clips. Often you see a person doing a good job in telling a complex story and you see the clip that results and it's obscene.

"I'm not sure I can claim it degenerated during my time. I think it was degenerating before I got here. And my bias is that the fault is not partisanship or capitalism or whatever you might want to blame. I think the fault is technology. I think television has pretty well destroyed our understanding of the news and done a great deal to wreck governance. I know that elected people are afraid to admit that they had something wrong, because of television, because of our ability to show a picture of someone saying the world is black and another saying the world is white, with a voice-over saying 'Watch Fred lie.'"

Where do you sit on the incredible shifting views of Gordon Campbell? Is he a person who's come to different conclusions because he's given an issue more thought? Because there have been a lot of flip-flops.

"I gotta say, I cannot offer you an analysis of how Gordon Campbell thinks. If you asked me... I will tell you a story. I was carrying my stuff out of this building last spring, and I met a cameraman that I know and we were talking on the back steps. He's been working here over 35 years. He told me [former NDP premier] Dave Barrett had been by a couple of days previously. And Dave said 'What do you think?' And the cameraman said 'This is the best opposition in the history of British Columbia.' And Dave said 'How can you possibly say that? They're ineffective as hell.' The cameraman said to Dave: 'What's the job of an opposition? It's to make the government change. I've never see such radical change in all my years here.' That's the opinion of a cameraman bullshitting with me on the back steps. But I'd say it's also the political science answer to your question.

"Governments evolve and leadership evolves only when it's encouraged to hear another side, and that's what's been happening. You can denigrate Gordon Campbell for flip-flopping, and I'll help you some of the time, but I'm hoping it's proof that when there are only two people in opposition, government becomes crazy and obsessed with its power. Now there's 30 [in opposition]. Even when we're relatively inept, it creates a more moderate operating environment."

You also said you had not managed "ever" to make food and farming a part of the political or electoral discourse in British Columbia, and that under all governments, B.C. remains last in Canada in support for food production. What support do farmers need and why?

"Farmers make their living based on their creativity, their ability to produce and market something. In other jurisdictions, the ability to produce something is assisted by government in infrastructure, like water, or education programs, or marketing, as Buy B.C. used to do. Marketing schemes put some power balance back into the relationship between the farmer and the super-giant Safeway, or what have you. In B.C., we don't do any of that. What farmers need is some people to assist them in their operating environment, at least to the level of other provinces or countries. I don't think farmers want a subsidy. When you subsidize the production of food, whether per acre or per ton, you tend to produce crappy food because you're being paid by volume rather than by quality. But they need assistance with everything that comes up that involves the state, zoning, environmental laws, transportation, marketing.

"I keep coming back to food distribution. It always frustrates me that in strawberry season I can't get local strawberries in 19 of 20 stores I might walk into.

"The ministry of agriculture used to encourage stores to buy and sell local products. And prior to the 1990s, the Crown engaged in anti-dumping activities. We still have all the legislation. Strawberries from elsewhere that were dumped into this market during our production season were tariffed. But now the strawberry grower would be stupid to assume that anyone would defend his market. British Columbia is presently governed by people who believe in appeasement rather than proactive defence."

You talked in your last speech about things you didn't do as well as you would have liked. There's one you didn't mention. Many people think you were on the wrong side of the sustainability issue as agriculture minister when the NDP acted to allow the Six Mile Ranch to be removed from the Agricultural Land Reserve for a real-estate development. How do you look back on that controversy?

"I think it's astute of you to identify that as something I didn't list. I certainly thought about it. I look back on that as an exceedingly unfortunate situation for me and my party. I still don't know what would be right. An MLA was allowed or encouraged to run for office espousing a position which appeared to run contrary to party policy. That person got elected, and you had the principle of mandate up against the principle of policy. I hope in the future my party doesn't get in that bind, and get itself in the position of having to cut the baby in half."

When you drill down into land-commission decisions on what to include and exclude, some of them are pretty complicated. Should no inch of land ever come out?

"I think that would be far preferable to the present situation where we defend land and abandon farmers. That situation is hypocrisy writ large. When you allow land out, you create unfairness and wealth. One solution is to get rid of the land commission and withdrawals. Another would be to create a recapture tax on the increase in the assessed value of land that is removed."

You said nice things about the premiership of Mike Harcourt -- that he was good at listening and balancing interests and basing policy on that, but that his approach didn't play well. What did you think of the leadership of Glen Clark?

"Glen is a genius, but his leadership was deeply, deeply flawed. And that's a function of immaturity. When I worked with Glen, I often thought that I was lucky because I had gone through family trauma, I had been fired from jobs, I had been broke. I'd had a lot of opportunity to learn about my own fallibility and capacity for failure prior to being elected. And by virtue of his genius and his energy, I don't think Glen had those opportunities. He never got fired. He kept moving ahead. He had the monumental disability of believing in his infallibility."

How did that manifest itself in his leadership as premier?

"You watched it. Leadership means knowing very well that you can't possibly do the job. And so being the leader means getting the best out of everybody around you. And way too often Glen thought he could do the job, and the person next to him wasn't all that necessary.

"But he certainly paid the price. When I found out that I could fail, there was nobody else except the other six guys by the crummy. When he found out, it was on national television, which is monumentally unfair. What's important is that we learn. And I don't think I ever met a political mind like Glen's, and Glen's mind with humility and understanding of his fallibility and his limits, he would be a great leader."

Do you regret finishing second in your bids for the NDP leadership?

"Do I regret losing? Well, ahhh.... No."

That's a surprisingly uncomplicated answer from Corky Evans. Why?

"I've had a wonderful life. I'm healthy and I get to go home with, I think, the respect of a bunch of people. And in British Columbia we tend to destroy leaders. Whether we keep them or throw them out of office, we certainly demean their humanity. I don't think I would be me if I had won. Of course, I would have had the great honour of doing the job. But you asked me if I 'regretted.' I would be stupid to have had a good life and regret not having a harder one."

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