Dave Barrett: when true socialism shaped BC and made it more beautiful

by Bruce mason

Dave Barrett’s recent death has inevitably brought to mind the first-ever NDP Premier’s legacy of brilliant public policies, which helped make BC a better place for everyone, every day, including you and me.

However, today, at least two of his signature policies are threatened. Public auto insurance, ICBC, is wrecked and a write-off. And the Agricultural Land Reserve, designed to protect farmland, is being diminished with the largest-ever removal of farmland by flooding the Peace River Valley for Site C.

In three short years (1972-1975), the Barrett government passed 350+ bills, an average of one every three days.

Barrett and his caucus created the BC Day holiday, Pharmacare and citizens’ right to sue government. They forced politicians to reveal donors, launched a daily question period and were the first to record and publish legislative debate in Hansard (the traditional name for transcripts of parliamentary debates in the British Commonwealth).

They dramatically expanded parkland and halted mining in them, banned pay toilets, put a stop to spanking in schools and jailing 12-year-olds, lowered the drinking age to 19 and enabled neighbourhood pubs. In Vancouver alone, we have the Seabus program, the preserved Orpheum Theatre and Robson Square.

And Barrett accomplished so much more: North America’s strongest labour code, consumer protections, human rights legislation, increased pensions for the elderly, increased support for the disabled, assistance for tenants, higher welfare rates and implementing the highest minimum wage in Canada.

Ninety-seven legacies are listed in The Art of the Impossible: Dave Barrett and the NDP in Power, 1972-1975, by Rod Mickleburgh and Geoff Meggs, who is now NDP chief of staff in the current minority government. In many ways, Barrett was 40 years ahead of his time and, hopefully, we’re now catching up. “None of the things we did, not one, was radical. Not one. And in the light of history that’s even more evident,” Barrett explained.

Dave Barrett was the youngest child of Isadore, a communist, and Sam, a twice-wounded Great War veteran who was gassed at Passchendaele and limped behind a horse-drawn fruit wagon before opening a fruit market on Powell Street in Vancouver. He was also the first Jewish born – albeit educated at Jesuit universities in Seattle and St. Louis – and the first socialist to hold BC’s top elected position. A champion of the little guy, he was an MLA for a quarter-century, an MP for five years and later headed two inquiries into the leaky condo fiasco.

Referred to as “little fat guy” by the press gallery, he self-deprecatingly nicknamed himself “Fat Li’l Dave,” laughingly, saying, “They’ve called me a Marxist. I say, ‘Which one? Groucho, Chico or Harpo?’”

He took off his shoes to jump on the table at a first cabinet meeting, shouting, “Are you here for a good time or a long time?” Revolutionary, compared to the cautious, current NDP, which stresses “affordability “ and “’administration over activism.” In contrast, Barrett bristled at an economic system even he never imagined would cause today’s obscene inequity. Redistributing wealth more equally, rather than consantly growing economy on our finite planet, was his life’s work, which he acted on rather than endlessly study.

Worth recalling is his first trip to Ottawa when Barrett told then-prime minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau, “I didn’t come here to B.S.” A far cry from today’s contrived, polite federal-provincial relationship. Also worth remembering: in 1983 when he was forcibly dragged out of the legislature at 4:30 am for refusing to withdraw a challenge to a Social Credit restraint and austerity program. A first in the 112-year history of the chamber, characterized even now by whipped back-benchers and spineless cabinet members on short leashes.

“In my political career I’ve always been blunt, very blunt. As a consequence, either people love me or they hate me. There’s not much middle ground. That’s really how I operate,” Barrett recalled.

I remember late August in 1972: Watergate, the Arab oil embargo, rampant inflation and reactionary right-wing politics. When TV took over, it was the toy department of journalism. Dave Barrett’s landslide victory was on the tube, everywhere, including a pub where I witnessed folks buying rounds, passing joints and hugging complete strangers, well past closing time.

A few months later, on the evening of the long-awaited day when live music was finally allowed in bars, my band was hired to play music. A few measures into the first song, the bar emptied as people lined up at pay-phones to call friends and family. It was a joyous time, much like the NDP functions I later played at and the live, paid gigs on BC Ferries.

Imagine that. I mention culture because it too matters. And Dave Barrett, deeply rooted in NDP principles, was music to our ears. His honesty, bold vision, unapologetic action and passion gave us the hope and justice we now urgently need to hear and see from BC’s legislature as we run out of time in 2018.

2 thoughts on “Dave Barrett: when true socialism shaped BC and made it more beautiful

  1. The article says that the Barrett/NDP government lowered the drinking age to 19, also that they were elected in 1972. I feel pretty sure that the drinking age was lowered to 19 in 1969 or 1970, when I was 19 years old. I have a memory of getting a government issued ID card specifically so I could enjoy my newfound right to drink. I wonder if there is an error in the article?

  2. Hi Bruce,
    I enjoyed your tribute to Dave Barrett very much and it brought back a memory that I’d like to tell you about. My parents adored him because they styled themselves two of the ‘little guys’ he had built his political career around. They came to visit for a week during the hustings for the 1984 federal campaign. Mom and I decided we needed to go grocery shopping. Dad stayed back to watch Jack Webster-the other crusader and champion for people’s rights in BC who they also adored. I was living in Vancouver in the Kingsway-Fraser area. We saw two men standing on the corner of Kingsway and Clark Drive. They looked very familiar. As we got closer we recognized them as Dave Barrett and Ian Waddell. Well, my mom got so excited at seeing Mr. Barrett that she walked up to him and gushed, “If my husband were here right now he’d give you a kiss!” Do you think that ‘Fat Lil’ Dave’ was ever lost for words??? I’d say not very likely due to his razor sharp wit. But this one did it!!! His mouth flew open and we didn’t hear anything for a few seconds and then he said to mom, “Well, ma’ am, if your husband were here right now, I’d let him!”. I too adored Dave Barrett and Jack ‘Webbbbster’-not only did they help to liven the political atmosphere in our beautiful province but also brought forth issues to the public eye that sorely needed reform. Their legacies, especially that of Mr. Barrett, will remain bright shining spots amongst the long standing fractious history that is BC politics.

    Thank you for your insightful articles-I have been reading them for years.

    Yours sincerely,
    (Mrs.) Heather Podrow

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