DAVE BARRETT ACCOMPLISHED MUCH IN 1972-75 DAVE BARRETT ACCOMPLISHED MUCH IN 1972-75
Roberta tottered on her heels through a crowd of tourists to a seat on the Seabus. She had an appointment with ICBC, about a fender-bender in the parking lot of a North Vancouver recreation centre (involving an ambulance, of all things). With a stressful week nearing an end, she looked forward to a getaway with friends in Whistler. It would be a nice break from her night classes in English Lit.
Roberta is a figment of my imagination, but the particulars of her day are not. The public services and infrastructure mentioned above were initiated during a three-year period in B.C., from 1972 to 1975. Most of us take these things for granted- the Seabus, the resort area of Blackcomb and Whistler, a province-wide system of community/ regional colleges, the B.C Ambulance Service, and more.
In a small window in time, the first NDP government in B.C. turned the idea of the common good into a commonplace. The two principals behind this massive shift were premier Dave Barrett and his Minister of Lands, Forests and Water Resources, Bob Williams. If Barrett was the heart of the new administration, Williams was the brain.
On B.C. Day, the former cabinet minister spoke at a small gathering on Cypress Mountain to honour the ailing former premier and celebrate the 40th anniversary of his government's election. (By the way, the B.C. Day holiday was also the Barrett government's doing.) Williams, now in his late 70s and still working as a consultant, recalls the night of the NDP victory, when he and Barrett sat in the back corner of the Only Café in the Downtown Eastside, scribbling down "a lot of the programs for the incoming government." Earlier that day, he heard a terrified caller to the Jack Webster radio show ask if the election could be annulled by a meeting at the Vancouver Club.
Williams recently scribbled down another list-21 major accomplishments of the Barrett government. These included the Agricultural Land Reserve, a ministry for consumer protection, a department of housing, Robson Square, a revamped labour relations act, ICBC, community health boards, the Burns Lake Nature Development Corporation, the Coordinated Law Enforcement Unit, the doubling of B.C. Parks from three million to six-million acres, and even a province-wide upgrade for ambulance service.
"Most people don't know that ambulances were low Cadillacs when I was young. And somehow you crammed the body in, and the attendants had to crawl in beside you." A team in Saanich designed "the modern ambulance, which became the standard for North America."
This people-friendly policymaking was the precise opposite of today's slash-and-burn ethos of privatization and profiteering. It generated both natural capital and social capital for the province, as well as the more mundane but essential variety. All impressive achievements by any measure. Yet when it comes to provincial history, what does the NDP reign conjure up in many minds? Expremier Harcourt's "Bingogate" and the fast ferries fiasco of the Glen Clark administration (a guy hounded out of office because of a wooden deck built by a neighbour, although no wrong-doing was found).
"At the end of our administration, some of us had come to the conclusion that our real job was to transfer power to the people," says the former MLA, who went on to help create Vancity's community and business programs. Williams still thinks about "decentralizing power, both economically and socially in this province" and enthuses about the staying power of economic cooperatives in northern Italy, where the state is secondary to local communities in supplying social services. This sounds nothing like the typical caricatures of socialism: the nanny-state's culture of victimization despised by radio shock-jocks, or the Stalinist-lite social engineering dismissed by right-wing think tanks.
Why has the extraordinary three-year period of the Barrett government gone down the memory hole? I suspect because it counters the media-mediated myth that socialist governments cannot deliver anything but debt, dependence and inefficiency.
The Barrett government's legacy is still with us, although much of it is being dismantled and sold for scrap. In a time of globalized kleptocracy, the odds seem to be stacked against progressive politics anywhere. Yet according to recent polls, the odds are also stacked against the current premier. Public knowledge of B.C.'s historical record surely can't help her.