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BC Premier Dave Barrett Showed the Canadian Left How to Make Change Happen

Dave Barrett won a reputation as “Canada’s Allende” by carrying out radical reforms in 1970s British Columbia. Lifelong Canadian labor economist Andrew Jackson, who was part of Barrett’s project, recalls a turbulent and instructive time for the Canadian left.

Dave Barrett can lay claim to having led the most radical and exciting government in Canadian history.

I abandoned academic work in 1979 to take a job with the British Columbia NDP caucus, partly because academic jobs seemed to be drying up, and partly because I wanted to engage more actively in politics. As a member of the small research group of the NDP caucus, I worked quite closely with a remarkable group of politicians. Many had been cabinet ministers in the Dave Barrett government of 1972 to 1975.

Famously dubbed “the Allende of the North” by Barron’s magazine, Barrett was at least as much a left-wing populist as a socialist. Barrett can lay claim to having led the most radical and exciting government in Canadian history. Elected in 1972 with a large majority of seats — but just 40 percent of the vote — Barrett’s was the first Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) or NDP government ever elected in the socially polarized, rough-and-tumble province of British Columbia.

This victory was the result of an unusual split between the right-wing parties. Their voters had traditionally united under one political banner of convenience to defeat the feared “socialist hordes” and contain the province’s traditionally strong and combative labor movement. Now division gave the BC NDP its chance.

“Are We Here for a Good Time, or for a Long Time?”

Barrett and most of his cabinet had spent many futile years in opposition to Social Credit and were determined to take immediate advantage of a rather fluky electoral victory. Having slid down the table in his stockinged feet, Barrett famously asked his cabinet at their first meeting, “Are we here for a good time, or for a long time?”

They decided to implement an ambitious progressive agenda, not to act with caution in the hope that greater restraint might bring a second term. Barrett’s government passed a staggering 367 government bills over the next three years, almost one every three days.

From the outset, the government, especially natural resources minister Bob Williams, was determined to raise much more in resource royalties at the expense of highly profitable corporations so as to fund social programs and public services. Through the mechanism of “thirty-second socialism,” natural gas had to be sold to a new Crown corporation before being exported at a high price markup, and there was an epic battle with the mining industry over the level of royalties.

Williams, a public-sector entrepreneur par excellence, saw no need to excessively defer to “free enterprise.” The government took over several forest industry operations and successfully operated them as Crown corporations to save jobs. It entered the tourism business by running a ferry to Seattle and a passenger train service, and it placed the auto insurance industry under public ownership, where it remains to this day. The government apparently even considered buying Rolls-Royce, which Williams considered to be a bargain.

I later got to know Bob Williams quite well. After I joined the NDP caucus research group in 1979, I was dispatched to meet and learn from him, and received a three-day briefing on natural resources policy sitting in the pub he then owned and ran in New Westminster. He put me in touch with Simon Fraser University economist Tom Gunton and several closet socialists who worked in the resource sector or the public service and were prepared to leak damaging corporate information to the NDP.

Buoyant resource revenues allowed the government to vastly expand programs that had been starved under Social Credit rule. Initiatives included pharmacare and a minimum income for seniors, much higher social assistance rates, greatly expanded social services, and a province-wide kindergarten program. In a change from top-down government and very much in the spirit of the 1960s, community social services were decentralized to locally elected community resource boards by social worker activist turned minister Norman Levi.

Labor veteran Bill King greatly expanded workers’ rights, including through the establishment of an innovative Labour Relations Board to take union-management issues out of the regular court system. He also greatly improved collective bargaining rights, with unions being automatically certified on the basis of signing up 50 percent of members of a new bargaining unit and provision made for arbitration of first contracts.

For the first time, public-sector workers received full collective bargaining rights. The government had a tense relationship with the labor movement, especially when high inflation sparked a wave of strikes in 1975. However, most of its labor law reforms, which the BC Federation of Labour had initially resisted, were soon on the legislative wish list of unions across the country.

Barrett increased the minimum wage by two-thirds in two steps to the highest level in Canada and applied it to women for the first time. With respect to environmental issues, the government fought a sustained battle with land developers to establish the (still-existing) Agricultural Land Reserve to block urban sprawl, invested heavily in transit (including the famous Vancouver Harbour SeaBus), blocked commercial development in Cypress Provincial Park near Vancouver, and created many new provincial parks.

It also tried to make forest industry practices more sustainable. But the government had a somewhat less stellar record on human rights issues, including equal rights for women. Rosemary Brown, a member of the legislative assembly who ran for federal leader against Ed Broadbent, was not shy of being critical.

Textbook Populist Socialism

The Barrett government’s agenda aroused deep concern in influential circles in the United States and was unacceptable to the province’s corporate elite, who were used to a compliant provincial government. The temporarily fractured opposition again united under Social Credit, now led by Bill Bennett, the son of former Social Credit premier W. A. C. Bennett. They crushed the government in the 1975 election and won reelection in 1979.

However, the NDP share of the vote was unchanged at 40 percent in 1975. Barrett went on to win an unprecedented 46 percent of the vote in 1979. This was an all-time high for the BC New Democrats, but not enough to win a majority of seats.

When I arrived on the scene after that election, Barrett was still in his prime, a brilliant and passionate if mercurial and slightly paranoid figure who was great fun to be with. He and many of the caucus came more from the old CCF socialist tradition, with a strong inflection of 1960s New Left politics, rather than from the mainstream labor tradition, which saw more moderate leadership as the path to electoral success.

As came to be par for the course in the neoliberal era, the left-wing instincts of most of the caucus were tempered by a desire to win over the undecided, supposedly middle-of-the-road voters. But Dave was Dave.

I recall accompanying him on a provincial tour including a visit to Kitimat, a highly diverse community on the Northwest Coast dominated by a combative labor movement based in the giant Alcan aluminum smelter and the nearby forest industry. At a fundraiser potluck dinner in a union hall, Barrett loosened his tie, threw off his jacket, and, Tommy Douglas–like, wowed the audience with a combination of vicious anti–Social Credit rhetoric and hilarious one-liners, leaving them alternately wildly applauding, sweating, and laughing profusely.

Dave was a textbook populist socialist, in sharp contrast to the much more decorous and sober governments led by Allan Blakeney in Saskatchewan and Howard Pawley of Manitoba in the same period. (Although the Blakeney government in Saskatchewan also made some quite radical moves, taking the potash industry under public ownership and establishing a Crown corporation, SaskOil, to ensure that the public would benefit from the exploitation of natural resources.)

Dave was inclined to operate by the seat of his pants. Allegedly, he had failed his written driver’s test the first time he took it because he thought it was made up entirely of trick questions. He had called the snap 1975 election in the hope of catching his opponents completely off-balance. This proved to be the case, but the NDP itself was no better prepared than Social Credit.

In the early 1990s, when Dave had become a federal NDP member of Parliament, I accompanied him to meet US Democrats such as House leader Dick Gephardt to discuss NAFTA. Dave totally avoided the substance of the issue, brandishing Canadian polls to make the argument that embracing free trade risked political disaster. The members of Congress would invariably ask him to leave the polls behind.

In my time with the BC caucus, we fought tooth and nail against Social Credit resource giveaway megaprojects, especially the Northeast Coal deal. It was championed by Social Credit industry minister Don Phillips, a combative politician who argued that subsidizing coal exports would expand the BC development frontier. He would shake his fist in the legislature and yell, “You’re wrong, you’re wrong,” when questioned by Barrett and other NDP members.

In fact, most of the coal companies involved were to close down a few years later, as the supposedly long-term contracts with the Japanese steel industry on which the development was based proved, against all assurances, to provide no protection from falling world prices. At Dave’s request, I worked closely with the crusading Vancouver Sun journalist Marjorie Nichols in exposing various Social Credit scandals and hidden subsidies to business.

Right-Wing Counterattacks

Alas, Social Credit was reelected in 1983 and quickly launched Canada’s first full-on right-wing legislative agenda, featuring an attack on labor and human rights and deep cuts to public spending. The administration abolished rent controls, employment standards, and the human rights tribunal, extended wage controls on public-sector workers, and severely restricted collective bargaining rights. As Rod Mickleburgh has written:

This was a revolution from the right. Fueled by the radical conservatism of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and Milton Friedman’s economic neoliberalism, the Socreds took aim at all those elements in society they had never liked. With no advance notice, a total of 26 repressive bills came down the chute in a single day, along with a harsh government restraint budget that dramatically slashed social spending.

The result was a massive upsurge of opposition from the labor movement and its community allies, brought together in Operation Solidarity, led by the passionate and emotional Art Kube, president of the BC Federation of Labour. There were enormous demonstrations. Close to a hundred thousand people marched on the streets of Vancouver. I recall a packed rally in Victoria at the hockey arena that opened with the singing of “O Canada,” whose words “we stand on guard for thee” took on a new meaning.

With public-sector unions striking or about to strike, labor as a whole began to move toward a general strike, only to see the Bennett government do a deal with Jack Munro, head of the International Woodworkers of America (IWA), the largest private-sector union in the province, over the opposition of Kube and most nonlabor parts of the popular coalition. The terms of the deal were not made public, but there were some modest changes to elements of the assault affecting unions.

In some ways, this saga was a prequel to the strikes and days of action that would erupt in Ontario in reaction to the similarly radical-right government of Mike Harris in the mid-1990s. The problem with political strikes is that they inevitably set up a confrontation with elected governments, who are better placed to claim the mantle of democracy as it is imperfectly understood, even though defense of basic labor and human rights is intrinsically important in a democratic society.

Elected majorities should not ride roughshod over basic rights in a truly democratic society. Indeed, the Supreme Court has recently extended protection of labor and human rights from legislative attack. But when right-wing and authoritarian governments are prepared to act with determination, it is hugely difficult to pressure them to reverse course. As I write, the newly elected Doug Ford government in Ontario seems set to go down a similar road.

In the mid-1980s, the Boag Foundation sponsored an international conference in Vancouver on the future of social democracy, which was, even at that relatively early date, seen to be fundamentally threatened by the political shift to the right epitomized by Reagan and Thatcher and their ideological soul mates in Canada.

Norman Spector, the ideas guy behind Bill Bennett’s counterrevolution in British Columbia, was to soon join the Brian Mulroney government as a deputy minister and later chief of staff to the prime minister. I mention this only to underline that the attack of the radical right on labor and the Left now dates back many, many years. The broad ideological consensus of the 1950s and 1960s, let alone the left radicalism of the 1960s, proved to be vulnerable and fragile in the period of economic stagnation and high inflation that began in the mid-1970s.