May 5th, 1993: the emergence of new leadership for BC

Thirty years ago, on May 5, 1993, a historically-significant event in BC politics took place. 

In front of over 600 supporters at the Hotel Vancouver ballroom, the Mayor of Vancouver bounded onto the stage, and announced he was seeking the leadership of the BC Liberal Party.

At 45 years old, Gordon Campbell was already doing in local government politics what no one had ever done, nor will likely ever do again – he was Mayor of Vancouver, chair of the regional district, and president of the Union of BC Municipalities (UBCM) at the same time. He had been mayor for almost seven years but the boundaries of local government could not contain him. He had restless energy for a new challenge, and this meant a challenge like no other.

Taking a step back, between 1952 and 1991, the Social Credit Party had governed for all but three of 39 years. When Campbell was elected mayor in 1986, the Socreds were enjoying a resurgence with leader Bill Vander Zalm, who triumphed at the polls a month earlier. However, the aging Socreds were not a great fit with the City of Vancouver nor were they a great fit with a ‘new era’ politician like Campbell. Elected as mayor in 1986, he had been careful to live up to the “Non-Partisan” aspect of the Vancouver NPA. While it was clear the NPA was not the left-wing party, it was a centrist blend of ‘free enterprisers’ – liberals, conservatives, and those simply there for good government. And as the Vander Zalm government imploded in the late 1980s, he was wise to steer clear of provincial politics.

And then in the 1991 B.C. election, the heretofore also-ran BC Liberals blew up the provincial political landscape. 

During the TV debate, BC Liberal Leader Gordon Wilson caught lightning in a bottle, precipitating the collapse of the tired Socreds and a fundamental realignment of BC’s political landscape. Mike Harcourt’s new NDP government – the first NDP government since 1975 – was greeted unexpectedly by an even newer BC Liberal opposition. 

Leaping from zero to 17 members, the BC Liberals were inexperienced in almost all respects. Wilson, who had been a tenacious one-man band out in the political wilderness, struggled as the leader after the election. The House Leader left caucus to sit as an Independent. The Caucus was a hotbed of unrest. By January of 1993, under huge political pressure, Wilson acceded to a leadership convention.

Wilson instantly sought to regain his leadership. Former BC Liberal leader Gordon Gibson put his name forward. Gibson had been the lone BC Liberal in the Legislature from 1975-1979 before the party slipped into sleep mode for 12 years, and had a family history in the party that led back to the 1950s with his father Gordon Gibson Sr. (‘Bull of the Woods‘) serving prominently as BC Liberal MLA and thorn in the side of the Socreds.

All eyes then turned to yet another Gordon, Mayor Campbell. An opening lay before him, but it was not as obvious as it seemed; Campbell was not a member of the BC Liberal Party. Many weren’t sure what he was in terms of partisan labels, though he was seen as a business-oriented, budget-conscious centrist that was in tune with the times.

But leading the BC Liberals? They had been in the political cold until only recently. The BC Liberal brand dated back to 1903, to the advent of party politics in British Columbia. BC Liberals had not governed since being vanquished by the Socreds in 1952 , its elected remnants had been decimated by floor-crossing MLAs in the 1970s, and the party had been further weighed down by its affiliation with the very unpopular P.E. Trudeau federal Liberal government in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Wilson picked up the leadership in 1987 after it had recently improved to 7% of the popular vote, but had no seats. Under his leadership, the party split from the federal wing before the election in 1991 and became an independent provincial party, a pivotal moment, and a precondition of its breakthrough and sustained success.  

Campbell contemplated taking on this brand and the shell of an organization. It had about 3,000 members, weak riding associations, an eclectic group of MLAs who were surprised to get elected, and the continued existence of the Social Credit Party on its right flank. In order to be successful, he would need to modernize the BC Liberal Party, demonstrate its independence from the federal Liberals, and make it a vehicle for ‘free enterprise’ in order to wrest power from Mike Harcourt’s NDP government. 

By 1993, there was a hunger already for change among non-NDP forces. Mike Harcourt’s NDP government was already taking on water. ‘Tax and spend’ budgets had angered voters in Campbell’s orbit. On April 5, 1993, Campbell headlined a tax revolt rally at Oakridge Mall that drew over 4,000 angry taxpayers. The issue was the NDP’s move to restrict the homeowner grant. It set off a brushfire. The Oakridge rally seemed to make the idea of an anti-NDP provincial groundswell more real. Memories of Dave Barrett’s one-and-done NDP government were fresh in the minds of seasoned politicos.

Campbell faced a fork in the road – actually more like a trident. There were three paths: (1) Lead the upstart BC Liberals; (2) Revive the Socreds which had a deeper organization and governing experience; or (3) Form a new free enterprise movement and bring the two other parties together. 

All options had flaws. 

The 1993 Socreds had a deeply damaged brand, lacked an urban sensibility, and were of another generation. A new party would be greeted with stiff resistance by both parties, and without any seats, would be on the outside looking in with no guarantees of gaining a foothold. Despite some brand baggage, at least the federal Liberals had been out of power for nine years, and antipathies toward the word ‘Liberal’ had faded. The BC Liberals had a relatively fresh sheet with the voters and were the Official Opposition, keeping them front and centre in Question Period for the foreseeable future. 

Thus, sometime in April 1993, Campbell decided to take the plunge and make it a race of the ‘Three Gordons’ (and a Linda, Wilf, Allan, and Charles). He had heard from many BC Liberals that pledged their support, mitigating fears that it would be perceived as a hostile takeover.  In fact, as a non-member, it was very important for Campbell to be invited, even drafted to run, and not press too hard appearing to want the leadership.  Party members came to him throughout April. Wilson, while admired for his breakthrough, never had a deep organization behind him and seemed even weaker now. Gibson was respected for his thought leadership and policy focus, but had been out of elected politics for 14 years and was not as well known in the general public. 

Campbell made it clear from the outset that he was running to be the leader of the BC Liberal Party and not looking to broker a coalition of parties.  He stated his view to the media, shaped by his experience in Vancouver, when he launched his leadership bid:

“I don’t think it’s a question of parties. Frankly I think that is obsolete thinking. It is not bringing parties together; it is bringing people together that will make a difference. I am not trying to lead the Social Credit party. I am trying to lead the Liberal party. I am not in favor of the Socred way. That would be a step backward. I am not seeking a coalition.”

Campbell was newer and fresh. He had no provincial political baggage, though much was made of his business community ‘Howe Street’ connections, similar to a federal political mantra of the time – ‘Bay Street vs Main Street’ – pushed by the federal NDP. The attack sought to convey that he was more interested in business elites than regular people. The BC NDP picked its theme early and hammered it for years, not to mention Campbell’s leadership rivals playing it up.   

Four MLAs from the 17-member caucus backed him from the beginning along with a cross-section of active BC Liberal members, federal Liberals, some Progressive Conservatives, but the added oomph came from two places – the NPA network in Vancouver, a highly effective political machine at that time, and from mayors and councillors around BC that he had met through his service with the UBCM. Campbell had built up friendships around the province that would belie charges that his support was too Vancouver-centric.

From the Hotel Vancouver, he headed straight to the airport and flew to Kamloops for an evening event on day one. Day two would see him hit the road to Williams Lake then onto Prince George. It was felt he needed to get out of Vancouver to campaign as soon as possible, to send a message. A campaign office was procured at City Square Mall, across the street from City Hall. The grande dame of Liberals in BC, May Brown, chaired his campaign, along with young BC Liberal MLA Gary Collins, who saw the need for the caucus and the party to evolve its leadership. From there, it was four months of relentless travel to sink his roots deeper in the party, and around the province. The NPA brought membership strength in the city, and the municipal network put meat on the bones outside Vancouver.

One odd aspect of this leadership process was that the rules had not been confirmed at the outset. There were existing rules, but the party executive expressed a strong preference to move to a universal ballot, instead of a delegated convention. In addition, it favoured an unweighted ‘one member one vote system’. This basically meant there was one ballot box; whoever got the most absolute votes province-wide would win. However, in order to effect these changes, there needed to be a party convention to approve the rules, with two-thirds support required.

On July 31st, BC Liberals convened at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Vancouver. The Campbell campaign favoured the executive’s recommendation for one member one vote, and the Gibson campaign advocated for regionally-weighted results, so that every riding was equal. 

One of 689 voting cards raised in the air

The Campbell campaign was not too concerned about regional weighting – it could win either way. It favoured one member, one vote, in part, to support the party recommendation, but also from a practical perspective of campaigning, it was very focused on membership sales wherever they could be found. Regional weighting would have shifted the focus to gaming out 75 micro-campaigns. The Gibson campaign felt regional weighting was the right way to go for its interests, given Campbell’s strength in the City, and its own regional perspective (and it should be noted that the BC Liberals and other parties now use regional weighting).

Next came what turned out to be a defining moment in the leadership race. There was a heated debate on the convention floor with a long lineup of speakers. Campbell and Gibson supporters were bedecked in t-shirts, with floor captains directing traffic. Campbell delegates were instructed to stay in place and not even consider leaving the room. At last, voting cards were raised, and a manual count tabulated. The vote was 460-229 in favour of the executive’s recommendation for one member, one vote (province-wide). 

As it needed two-thirds support, this meant it passed – by one vote. 

The crowd was stunned, then jubilation erupted among the Campbell delegates while Gibson delegates despaired. The chair of the meeting paused, then proceeded to the next item. No immediate demand for a recount was heard. The rules were set.  Campbell’s team had demonstrated considerable organizational strength at the convention and it carried through to the leadership vote.

By the time the vote was held on September 11, it was fairly clear Campbell would win. The membership of the party had grown to over 15,000, much of it driven by Campbell’s campaign. By that point, it was only a question of by how much, and whether it would need more than one ballot. 

This was a real issue facing Campbell’s team – what if it did need a second ballot? This was pre-Internet. The party was using a technology called “TeleVote” where members received a code in the mail and voted their first ballot choice by phone, then waited for the results by listening to the radio or trying to find it on TV. It was not a preferential ballot, as is used today in most leadership elections.

Had it gone to a second ballot, turnout likely would have dropped off a cliff. But it didn’t get that far. Campbell won the Battle of the Three Gordons decisively with 63% of the vote on the first ballot, with Gibson in second, and Wilson well back in third.

While the leadership race had been hard work, Campbell faced little resistance. He had a blank canvas. He could redefine what it meant to be a BC Liberal, and he did. The BC Liberals were shaping up to be a real contender, led by a four-time winner from the province’s largest city. But what he had just gone through was dwarfed by his challenge going forward.  

While there was goodwill from most in his caucus, and a gem in Fred Gingell who led the caucus in the interim, it was not Campbell’s team and it would take a while to learn to work together (Wilson, and his wife Judi Tyabji, left caucus immediately after the leadership vote to start a new party). Campbell matched up well against Harcourt, but it was NDP enforcer Glen Clark who would inflict political damage with relentless attacks and emerge as his main rival. Campbell had to raise money, find his way into the Legislature, win over old Socreds and Conservatives resistant to the BC Liberal brand, learn the cadence of provincial politics, recruit a campaign team, and help a 30-year old country lawyer in Matsqui take on the most experienced campaigner in British Columbia, and new leader of the Socreds, Grace McCarthy, in a titanic byelection battle.

The rest is history, as they say. Campbell encountered many obstacles and suffered setbacks. Winning the popular vote in 1996, but losing the election. It was a bitter pill to swallow, but he decided to gut it out, spending almost eight long, and, sometimes, miserable years in opposition. He triumphed in a 77-2 electoral landslide in 2001 and launched the ‘New Era for British Columbia’, the slogan of his winning campaign. The BC Liberal franchise from Campbell to Christy Clark would win the popular vote six consecutive times between 1996 and 2017 and earned majorities four consecutive times. 

Over time, the makeup of the BC Liberals changed, but from the time of his leadership win, Liberals who had fled the Vander Zalm Socreds or had never warmed up to them in the first place, were at the heart of contending for power, building a party where everyone on the non-NDP side of the ledger were welcomed. Candidates and staff with Liberal pedigrees, and liberal sensibilities, took key roles, alongside those with Socred, Progressive Conservative pedigrees, and conservative sensibilities. And many had no evident federal leanings at all. 

That new BC Liberal identity was being formed. It was a vehicle that occupied the centre/centre-right of the political spectrum, united mainly by economic and fiscal policy, and represented a foundation from which Campbell could move. While a formal coalition of parties never did happen, a de facto coming together of ‘free enterprise’ voters took place.

The new definition of BC Liberal would begin to mean something – not to everyone’s liking, and especially not to some die-hard Liberals who had campaigned for Wilson or were resistant to Campbell’s policy approach, but it was being legitimized to a plurality of voters in urban and rural B.C. The party left behind some of the idealists, and some unwilling to make necessary compromises to grow the party, and attracted the pragmatists and those wanting to be part of building something new. He was careful not to get drawn into federal politics, following an instinct that served him well with the NPA. He recruited a new generation of provincial politicians from all stripes. The class of 1996 was young, with the mainstream in their 30s and 40s, and he led them to government five years later.

Turning away from the Social Credit Party and building, essentially, a new party under the BC Liberal brand, under a young but experienced leader, ultimately was a winning model. The Party gained a new life in 1987 when Gordon Wilson took it on and delivered the miracle breakthrough. Campbell benefited from the shakeup in the landscape, and proved that he could take it to the next step, albeit later than he hoped. Christy Clark extended the life of the BC Liberal government for six additional years until 2017. 

What if? What if Campbell had not run for the BC Liberal leadership? The landscape would be very different today. Perhaps Gordon Gibson would have led the party from 1993 on; perhaps new Socred leader Grace McCarthy would have won the Matsqui by-election and the Socreds would have hung in there longer. Different circumstances may have kept Campbell out of provincial politics indefinitely or forever. Who knows? It’s hard to imagine Campbell being in any role in provincial politics other than leader.

Today, the BC Liberal brand has been relegated to the dustbin in favour of BC United.  Lessons can be learned from the BC Liberal rise to power, how it aligned with a new generation in politics, and the struggle to win.

Looking back, the BC Liberals had a remarkable 30-year period from 1987 to 2017. For almost 18 years during that span, Gordon Campbell led the party, serving close to a decade as premier. And it all started at the Hotel Vancouver on May 5th, 1993. 

Mike McDonald served under all three BC Liberal leaders who led the party from 1987 – 2017.  He worked for Gordon Campbell from 1992-2003, as Special Assistant in the Mayor’s Office, Campaign Director in the 1993 leadership campaign, and in various other roles in the party, Premier’s Office, and Government Caucus. He was Chief of Staff to Premier Christy Clark.

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The consequential by-elections of the past 50 years in British Columbia

Premier John Horgan called a by-election in Surrey South for September 10th

What happens in a by-election, anyway?  For a brief time, all of the political parties are focused organizationally on one place because someone resigned, died, or, worse yet, was recalled.  By-elections usually have low voter turnout and may appear to average voters to have little consequence to their daily lives. The host riding is deluged with professional campaigners and out-of-town volunteers that door knock the riding like never before then, when it’s over, they all go home.  By-elections are a pulse taker, a message tester, and a get-out-the-vote drill –  a political laboratory for political parties to try new things to apply in the next general election.  Sometimes, they are the doorway for a new political leader to enter the Legislature (or prematurely return to private life).

And while it seems that the Surrey South by-election is a non-event that won’t have any impact on the power balance in the Legislature, by-elections in British Columbia have often been harbingers of things to come.  In the past 50 years, there are many examples of by-elections influencing future events, especially in regard to the leadership of ‘free enterprise’ forces in BC.

1973: The Re-Making of the Free Enterprise Coalition Part 1

In 1972, Dave Barrett’s NDP put an end to 20 years of rule by W.A.C. Bennett and the Social Credit Party.  In September 1973, Bill Bennett was elected in the Okanagan South by-election, assuming his father’s seat.  However, this was not necessarily a straightforward dynastic succession. For starters, the by-election took place in the midst of a leadership race to replace Bennett the Elder.  If Bennett the Younger lost the by-election, it would have been a pretty hard sell that he could win the province.  Meanwhile, 33-year-old BC Conservative leader Derril Warren had led his party in the 1972 election from zilch to 10% of the popular vote, vote-splitting the Socreds and contributing largely to their defeat.  Now, a year later, Warren was still chasing the Bennetts in a ‘By-election Battle for Free Enterprise’ between the tired old Socreds and the surging Conservatives.     

1973 by-election set Bill Bennett on a path to power

In Bob Plecas’s biography of Bill Bennett, he described the view of the Vancouver business establishment that Warren was BC’s version of Peter Lougheed, the popular Alberta premier, who had taken the Alberta Progressive Conservatives from the wilderness to power in 1971, vanquishing the tired Alberta Social Credit dynasty that had governed for over 35 years.  Recounted Bennett in Plecas’s book, “I had to set the trap.  First of all, I had to wait and wait and wait, making it possible so he [Warren] could be drawn in”.  It was no sure thing that Bennett would win. According to Allen Garr in his book Tough Guy: Bill Bennett and the Taking of British Columbia, “Twenty-five Kelowna businessmen gathered at one of their regular watering holes to decide who they would back in the by-election, and they had two choices: Bill Bennett… and the new leader of the BC Tories [Warren]. The vote was twenty-two to three in Warren’s favour. When Bill heard about the decision he went on an arm-twisting mission against his old high-school buddies.”  When the Vancouver Province endorsed Warren as the best pick to take on the Barrett government, “ten thousand tear sheets were distributed across the riding.  It reinforced anti-Vancouver sentiment, the big-city-knows-best feeling that many residents feel.  Suits from Vancouver seldom understand the Interior, and the backlash hurt Warren,” wrote Plecas.

A day before the vote, Warren complained to Sun reporter Marjorie Nichols, “The people running the Social Credit show” had carried on a vicious personal campaign.  “One Social Credit campaigner said they had a tape… they didn’t say whether they tapped the phone or what.  They said they had a tape of me applying for a Social Credit membership but being rejected.”  

Bill Bennett prevailed, albeit with a modest 39% of the vote, holding off Warren who came in third with 24%, behind the NDP.  Bennett would go on to win the leadership, recruit five MLAs to cross the floor (3 Liberal, 1 Conservative, 1 NDP), recruit former BC Liberal leadership candidate Bill Vander Zalm, and lead a revitalized Socred-led free enterprise coalition to a decisive victory in the 1975 election over Barrett’s NDP.  In fact, the NDP’s popular vote barely changed but Bennett’s free enterprise unification plan, starting with the 1973 by-election, put most free enterprise votes under his umbrella.  Warren didn’t make it to the 1975 election and both the Conservatives and Liberals collapsed. As a post-script, Barrett lost his own seat in the 1975 election and would contest and win the 1976 Vancouver East by-election, which took place when outgoing cabinet minister Bob Williams made way to allow Barrett to re-enter the Legislature.  Barrett and Bennett would face each other two more times, with Bennett the Younger winning each time.

1981: The Roadmap to Victory

Mid-way through Bennett’s second term, the Socreds were flagging.  The 1979 election win was the most polarizing result in BC electoral history and Bennett realized his party would need to regroup and retool. Bennett dispatched his friend Hugh Harris to survey the landscape outside BC with a view to modernizing how the party fought elections, eventually gravitating toward the “Big Blue Machine” approach of the Ontario Progressive Conservative Party.

Harris brought back his learnings in time for the 1981 Kamloops by-election created when Socred MLA and Minister Rafe Mair resigned to pursue a career in talk radio. The smart money was on the NDP picking up the then-bellwether seat of Kamloops (“so goes Kamloops, so goes the province”).  

As Plecas describes, “The political machine that Bennett had built using Hugh Harris’s advice was ready for a test drive… For most of the by-election, Barrett was in New Zealand attending a world conference on socialism.  Every weekend of the by-election Bennett was in the riding spending day after day in the small towns that surround Kamloops.”  The modernized campaign model was “coupled with the efforts of thousands of volunteers, many who travelled up to the Loops for the weekend.  They out organized the NDP and worked door by door on the ground”.  Bud Smith, who had worked closely with Harris rebuilding the party, ran the local campaign.

Local Socred candidate Claude Richmond was propelled into office, aided by Harris’s blueprint, with a win that was arguably a template for the forthcoming 1983 general election.  The 1981 by-election win remains a part of free enterprise lore. 

1988-1989: Socred Death Spiral

In 1988 and 1989, the Vander Zalm government was beset by controversy and being beset by controversy is not a great time to face a series of by-elections where you have to defend your own seats.  First up was Boundary-Similkameen in June 1988.  Long-time MLA Jim Hewitt resigned. The riding had been Socred even before his time; not even the Barrett sweep in 1972 could wrest control of it away.  The NDP’s Bill Barlee stepped up to run, after previous unsuccessful attempts, and wiped the floor with the Socreds winning by 17%.  The win sent shockwaves through the Socred government.  A footnote to this race was Liberal Judi Tyabji winning 11% after a high-profile campaign.  BC hadn’t seen the last of Tyabji nor the new BC Liberal leader Gordon Wilson.

Next up in the Socred By-election Horror Series was Vancouver Point Grey in March 1989.  The circumstances of this by-election are historically important.  First-term Socred MLA Kim Campbell resigned to run federally after falling out with Premier Vander Zalm on the abortion issue (and other issues).  Campbell won federal office as a Progressive Conservative and was prime minister within five years, the first and only female prime minister in Canadian.  Back in Pt. Grey, the Socreds put up financial analyst Michael Levy while the NDP nominated Dr. Tom Perry in an upset over establishment NDP candidate Johanna den Hertog.  Perry trounced the Socreds, winning 53% of the vote.  (The NDP picked up a second win that night in Nanaimo where Jan Pullinger assumed the seat from outgoing veteran Dave Stupich, but there was little doubt about the outcome there.)

BC Liberal leader and Sunshine Coast resident Gordon Wilson parachuted into Point Grey as well.  His campaign did not lack for money and had high hopes given that the riding overlapped with the federal riding of Liberal leader John Turner, and received a boost from popular federal Liberal leadership candidate Jean Chrétien.  An interesting back story is that when Kim Campbell resigned in the fall of 1988, businessman Jack Poole was traveling BC meeting grassroots Liberals to assess the viability of reviving and leading the party. Though Wilson was leader, Poole and his team, which included former leader Gordon Gibson, were of a mind that there needed to be a fully funded, credible free enterprise alternative to Vander Zalm’s Socreds that was seemingly beyond the capability of a Sunshine Coast college instructor/pig farmer (Wilson). West side Vancouver Liberals were very keen on Poole, but over the fall, he got cold feet. After the federal election concluded, Poole ditched the idea, and Wilson swiftly announced he would run in Pt. Grey, over the wishes of the locals. I would say the Leader always has the prerogative to run, especially if he or she doesn’t have a seat, but in this case, it did not end up happily ever after. Wilson came a disappointing third with 20% of the vote (he would have their day in the sun later).

Onto the Cariboo for a by-election caused by the death of long-time MLA Alex Fraser, an institution in the region.  Like Boundary-Similkameen and Point Grey, Cariboo was a 2-member seat, an oddity of our system until 1986.  Fraser’s seat-mate was Socred MLA Neil Vant who was assuredly not an institution in the Cariboo.  Expecting to retain the riding, the Socreds had a hotly contested nomination meeting between auctioneer and Vander Zalm-loyalist Joe Wark and Quesnel Mayor Mike Pearce.  Wark won by one vote squeaker (337-336) at the Williams Lake curling rink, and remarked, “We have no room in the Social Credit party for rebels and that sort of thing”.  Pearce, who self-described as representing a “new style”, was probably more electable, in part because he was endorsed by Alex Fraser’s widow, Gertrude.  Wark was a ‘Zalmoid’ and bedevilled by Premier Vander Zalm’s decision to remove Alex Fraser from cabinet while he was battling throat cancer.  During the by-election campaign, Fraser’s widow suggested strongly that the NDP candidate, Dave Zirnhelt, would be just fine as MLA. Zirnhelt, a rancher and horse logger, had run as a Liberal in the 1969 provincial election before migrating to the NDP.  He would go on to wallop Wark with 56% of the vote and serve as a senior cabinet minister in the 1990s. More than Boundary-Similkameen, this result was a very bad omen for the Socreds.    Pearce would try again and got the Socred nod in the 1991 election in Cariboo North (the riding was split) and would lose to the NDP’s Frank Garden. The Liberals were confined to a meagre 3% in the by-election despite their authentic and good-humoured candidate Darwin Netzel. He would contest the 1991 election in Cariboo North and see his vote grow 6-fold.

Finally, and mercifully, the fourth and final by-election featuring a Socred-held riding was Oak Bay-Gordon Head, held on December 13, 1989.  Attorney General Brian Smith resigned his seat following a public clash with Premier Vander Zalm.  Smith was the runner-up in the 1986 leadership race to Zalm, but it didn’t take long for their working relationship to go off the rails.  The Socreds recruited a top-notch candidate, Susan Brice, then the Mayor of Oak Bay.  They could not have found a better candidate. Brice and her campaign manager, Frank Leonard, ran essentially a local campaign focusing on her strengths and downplaying the premier.  Said Brice, “People want greater tolerance from the government, the party and the Premier.” The NDP nominated Elizabeth Cull who started out as the underdog but was backed by a major organizing machine on the South Island that could taste victory.  The Liberals nominated an active party member, Paul McKivett, who ran a fully funded campaign with lots of volunteers too, and attracted support from Socreds who wanted to see the end of Vander Zalm. In fact, McKivett’s 9% was probably the difference in Cull’s 377 vote win over Brice.  There was a sense that Zalm would pack it in if he lost Oak Bay-Gordon Head and for 35 days he kept British Columbians in suspense.  In January 1990, he scheduled a province-wide televised address to reset his agenda and managed to survive a little longer in the job before being forced from office a year later.  Cull would go on to become Health Minister and Finance Minister in the Harcourt government.

Zalm escaped the hangman’s gallows in 1990 but would resign from office in 1991.

Each by-election loss reinforced the death spiral of the government.  Heretofore safe seats were coughed up.  Earlier in the decade, the Bill Bennett Socreds confidently won the Kamloops by-election demoralizing the NDP.  Now, later in the same decade and under a different leader, the by-election losses were crushing to the Socreds and helped create an inevitability of NDP victory.  Mike Harcourt would cruise to victory in 1991 with a majority government.  The by-elections also meant something for the third-party BC Liberals.  While their by-election results were underwhelming compared to the NDP, they were a training ground for leader Gordon Wilson.  His breakthrough in 1991, when the party went from zero seats to 17 and Official Opposition, was a result, in part, of their determination to hang in there and be in a position to take advantage of good luck and timing when it materialized during the general election campaign. Thus, as events turned out, the Socred death spiral benefited the BC Liberals every bit as much as the NDP. 

1994-95: The Re-Making of the Free Enterprise Coalition Part 2

The 1991 general election remade BC politics with the BC Liberals jumping to Official Opposition and the Socreds declining to third-party status.  While the BC Liberals now had the advantage, the question was not settled as to which party would lead free enterprise forces going forward.  By 1993, each party had a new leader.  BC Liberal leader Gordon Wilson lost his leadership to Vancouver Mayor Gordon Campbell, while Socred legend Grace McCarthy took on the task to rebuild the party she had helped save, with Bill Bennett, in the 1970s.

A pair of Abbotsford-area by-elections in 1994 and 1995 would settle the question of who would lead free enterprise – for the most part.  

One of the seven Socreds elected in 1991, Matsqui MLA Peter Dueck, decided it was time to force the issue and resigned his seat after having had spent time as an Independent MLA.  Meanwhile, BC Liberal MLA Art Cowie (Vancouver-Quilchena) resigned his seat to make way for Campbell.  Two by-elections were called for February 17, 1994.  Socred leader Grace McCarthy chose to run in Socred-friendly Matsqui rather than take on Campbell near her home base in Vancouver.  Campbell would cruise to an easy victory and the real fight was in Matsqui where the BC Liberals could put a stake in the heart of the Socreds for good.

In Matsqui local members of the BC Liberal Party gathered at a high school gymnasium to nominate their giant killer. Some BC Liberal insiders favoured a Vancouver lawyer and high school basketball star who had strong ties to the area, but a young country lawyer and school trustee upset those plans by winning 102 – 84 (back when nomination meeting results were disclosed). The task of defeating Socred legend Grace McCarthy was thus on the shoulders of Mike de Jong, then shy of his 30th birthday.  It was a new vs. old generational match up.  De Jong had a spirited team, led by campaign manager Dave Holmberg and wily ex-scribe Mark Rushton.  The Socreds dug in and had a deep supporters list to draw on though there was much attrition to the oncoming BC Liberals and bleeding to fledgling Reform BC (unaffiliated with federal Reform Party) and the Family Coalition Party.   A sidebar to the Battle of Free Enterprise was the NDP candidate situation.  Sam Wagar was nominated but it became known to the media that the government’s candidate in the Bible Belt was actually a witch.  Wagar, who practiced the Wiccan religion, was non-plussed, but it was apparently too much for the political managers at Party HQ.  Wagar was sent packing as a new candidate was conjured. So much for religious freedom.

It was a heated campaign in the depths of the Matsqui winter. All candidates meetings were tense and scrappy. BC Liberal plants took the microphone to ask McCarthy detailed local questions to make hay of her parachute candidacy. De Jong defeated McCarthy by a mere 42 (41.77% to 41.45%) votes in a dramatic win. As Vaughn Palmer reported, at about 10:15pm, de Jong showed up in his blue Miata sports car, “mounted the platform amid general delirium and shouts of ‘Banzai’ from an enthusiastic Japanese supporter”.

A key part of the story was also the other parties: Reform took 1,250 votes and Family Coalition Party took 275 votes, both making it harder for the Socreds to save their leader.

 An interesting recap of the byelection was written by reporter Chris Foulds in 2017.  

Mike de Jong has been around for a long time, but not as long as Vaughn Palmer!

The free enterprise question seemingly settled, McCarthy sailed off into the political sunset.  But the issue of who would lead the free enterprise coalition was actually still unsettled.   With the ink barely dry on the by-election results in Matsqui, Social Credit MLAs Jack Weisgerber, Lyall Hanson, Richard Neufeld, and Len Fox stunned BC Liberals and Socreds alike by joining the BC Reform Party, whose leader, Ron Gamble, had contested the Matsqui by-election.  Reform was a hot brand federally at the time and had no baggage provincially.  Weisgerber and co. wanted a fresh start.   This was a massive setback for consolidating and unifying the free enterprise vote. 

Fast forward one year to 1995.  One of the last remaining Socred MLAs, Harry de Jong, resigned to run for mayor of Abbotsford. This again set up a ‘Battle for Free Enterprise’.  This time, the BC Liberals nominated dairy farmer John van Dongen while BC Reform – now led by Weisgerber and the competing free enterprise alternative to the BC Liberals – put forward Rev. Bill Kilpatrick. In contrast to 1994, the BC Liberals brought a more modernized approach and more resources, spearheaded by newly recruited provincial campaign director Greg Lyle.  Reform BC had a strong brand that was aligned with historic voting patterns in the Fraser Valley.  Liberal?! In the Fraser Valley? That was a tough sell.  But the BC Liberals gutted it out with van Dongen winning by 291 votes after a late campaign controversy dogged Kilpatrick.   

Now, the free enterprise coalition question was mainly settled, again, so it seemed.  Mike Harcourt’s NDP government was in a tailspin and Campbell’s BC Liberals were way ahead in the polls. The NDP switched leaders, with Glen Clark taking the helm and reviving the party’s fortunes.   In the subsequent 1996 election, Campbell’s BC Liberals won 42% of the popular vote, more than the NDP, but had fewer seats, which is all that matters.  BC Reform had about 9% of the vote and 2 seats and played the spoiler, especially up country.  The BC Liberals had become the dominant free enterprise alternative, but not dominant enough to defeat the NDP.

1997-99: The Re-Making of the Free Enterprise Coalition Part 3

Never before had the NDP won back-to-back general elections in BC.  After the 1996 campaign, there was a sense of urgency that free enterprise forces needed to unify, however, there was still some disagreement that the BC Liberals were the best vehicle.   Glen Clark’s NDP government got off to a very rough start, but Gordon Campbell still had to prove that his BC Liberals could go the distance if he was going to get another shot.  From 1997-99, he faced a string of by-election tests – in his own party’s seats – that would settle the question once and for all.

First up was Surrey-White Rock.  Wilf Hurd, elected as a BC Liberal in 1991, decided to try his luck in federal politics.  Once an MLA is nominated as a candidate in a federal campaign, he or she must resign their seat in the provincial Legislature, even if they lose their federal bid (as Hurd did).  Former White Rock Mayor Gordie Hogg stepped up to contest the riding for the BC Liberals.  Hogg had encountered some negative publicity not long before dating back to his time as a provincial public servant in the Corrections branch, which created some nervousness among BC Liberals, but he had been a popular mayor. He was challenged by BC Reform candidate David Secord.  South Surrey-White Rock seemed like fertile territory for Reform – it voted strongly Reform federally and had the demographics that suited them (old and white).   It did not look like an easy win for the BC Liberals as they had been having a rocky year, but Hogg won the by-election handily, with 52% of the vote to Reform’s 26%. The NDP were an afterthought at 12% (no one expected them to contend). Campbell’s BC Liberals had passed this test.  Shortly after the by-election result, Peace River North MLA Richard Neufeld, elected as a Reform MLA in 1996, crossed the floor to the BC Liberals, helping to fortify the BC Liberals.

Next up was the Parksville-Qualicum by-election in 1998.  This by-election came about in the oddest of circumstances when BC Liberal MLA Paul Reitsma, a five-term mayor of Parksville elected to the Legislature in 1996, conducted a comically inept stealth mission on the letters to the editor pages. Concocting the identity of ‘Warren Betanko’, Reitsma fired in letters to the local paper under Betanko’s name that attacked his enemies.  The local paper got wise and outed Reitsma publicly one morning.  By lunchtime, Reitsma was out of caucus.  Not long after, local residents launched a recall campaign, which had never been successfully undertaken before (recall laws had only been in place for a few years).  The recall mechanism was viewed as impossible given the high bar to exceed, however, the good people of Parksville-Qualicum got busy with supporters of all parties backing the petition.  The petition was filed, but before the signatures were counted, Reitsma read the room and resigned his seat, paying a very steep price for his shenanigans.  Because of Gordon Campbell’s quick action to jettison Reitsma, the BC Liberals didn’t wear the scandal and got to work on finding a replacement.  

At the mid-point of 1998, the Glen Clark government was doing very poorly in the polls.  BC’s economy had gone from “first to worst” in Canada – a mantra of the BC Liberals – and the Fast Ferries were a monumental political disaster for the government.  To those not familiar, the government had commissioned three fast ferries, built in BC, that never worked properly costing over a half-billion dollars.  They were eventually scrapped.  The business community was very riled up as well and much more vocal against the government than they are today. Into the breach went former NDP MLA Leonard Krog who held Parksville-Qualicum between 1991-96 before losing to Reitmsa.  Krog was well respected locally and probably the best candidate possible for the NDP.  The BC Liberals had an open nomination race (remember those?) with six or seven candidates vying to be candidate.  In a packed auditorium in North Nanaimo, BC Liberal members chose shellfish farmer Judith Reid over a slew of credible candidates – a mayor, a councillor, a former president of Reform BC, a regional district director – a sign of a growing and healthy party.

Though politically inexperienced, Reid was a fresh face for the BC Liberals.  She was challenged by a hard-right Reform candidate that was supported by – he’s baaaack – former Premier Bill Vander Zalm.  The by-election was a long grind as the NDP waited until the last moment to call it, taking place December 14, 1998.  During the campaign, Krog complained that the Glen Clark government was an “albatross around his neck”.  Reid clobbered Krog 53% to 23%.  It was a decisive win in a seat that the NDP had barely lost in 1996.  Reform lost votes, falling further behind. The BC Liberal free enterprise train was speeding down the tracks. 

One more test.  In 1999, BC Liberal MLA Fred Gingell passed away after a battle with cancer.  Gingell, who had served as Opposition Leader between Gordon Wilson and Gordon Campbell, was a beloved figure in the party, and its conscience on finances and fiscal policy.  His riding, Delta South, was a BC Liberal stronghold under Fred and the opening drew a lot of interest.  Again, the Party unleashed an open nomination process that attracted multiple candidates and throngs of voting members. Local farming fixture Val Roddick prevailed on the final ballot, though was to set upon a somewhat crazy political path as Bill Vander Zalm had, by now, assumed control of the BC Reform Party and, as a resident of Delta South, he contested the seat.  BC Liberal free enterprise train? Bill Vander Zalm was prepared to stick up that train like Billy Miner and ride away with Gordon Campbell’s votes.

The by-election campaign was a tense affair as Roddick was very much the community candidate and not accustomed to Zalm’s showmanship nor the strong media interest from outside Delta.  Her campaign turned its guns on the former premier’s record and made the case for moving forward, not backward.  One of their ads warned against “Zalmnesia”. The BC Liberals brought in every available body and resource to get the job done and prevailed with 60% of the vote, almost double Zalm’s 33%.  Between the two parties taking up 93%, there wasn’t much room for others.  Though not expected to contend, the NDP government’s own candidate, Richard Tones, gained 2.44%, which may be a record for the lowest percentage every received by a government candidate in BC by-election history.  By the time the by-election took place, Glen Clark had resigned, the party was in shambles, and caretaker Premier Dan Miller was in place.   Credit to Tones for putting his name on the line and taking it for the team. That’s what party diehards do when things are grim.

About 18 months later, Gordon Campbell’s BC Liberals won 77 of 79 seats, and 57% of the vote, in the most lopsided win in BC electoral history.  The gauntlet of free enterprise tests in the 1990s would help them to a sixteen-year run in power from 2001-2017 and the undisputed free enterprise alterative. 

2011 Canary in the coal mine

Every term of government in the past 50 years, and before, has had at least one by-election take place as was the case between 2001-2005 and 2005-2009.  It’s worth noting that the election of the NDP’s Jagrup Brar in Surrey-Panorama (over Mary Polak) in a 2004 by-election increased the NDP caucus by 50%, from two to three and was arguably a sign that the NDP were on the comeback trail under new leader Carole James, which she proved in the 2005 campaign.  Notable about the 2008 Vancouver-Fairview by-election was the resignation not the vote.  First-time NDP MLA Gregor Robertson resigned to run for mayor, starting a ten-year run at City Hall, but also removed his green sheen from Carole James’s team prior to the 2009 campaign, which is remembered as an NDP fumble on climate change. 

The next real consequential by-election after the 1990s to take place was in Vancouver-Point Grey in 2011. When Christy Clark won the BC Liberal leadership, Gordon Campbell resigned his Pt. Grey seat, which he had held since 1996.  It was not a ‘gimme’ though BC Liberal support had always been pretty strong there.  Enter David Eby.  The activist lawyer was seen initially by some as being miscast for the riding, but the results show that he effectively mobilized NDP support among renters and environmentally-minded voters while the BC Liberal base – homeowners – was a diminishing percentage of the riding. 

It’s a tricky thing for a new leader coming from the outside to enter the Legislature – you need to find a dance partner.  In this case, the outgoing leader’s riding was the obvious place but it wasn’t a perfect fit.  Barely a month on the job as premier, Clark called the by-election for May 11th, 2011.  This was a very busy time for the Christy Clark government as it was trying to find its feet, while at the same time, hoping the by-election would take care of itself.  Meanwhile, David Eby was campaigning with laser focus.  As the results came in on May 11th, Clark trailed for much of the night, but a 635-vote cushion in the advance polls (counted last) gave her an overall win of only 564 votes.  This was a very close call and would have been a political disaster if Eby had won.  Yet she won and planned to represent the riding for a good long while.

The real consequence of the 2011 Point Grey by-election is not the close call, but what it represented.  BC Liberal support was draining out of the city.  A shift was taking place where urban voters were increasingly going NDP while rural voters were leaving the NDP to go BC Liberal.  In 2013, in the face of a dispiriting loss for the NDP province-wide, David Eby defeated Clark by over 1,000 votes in Point Grey.  The BC Liberals lost four seats in Vancouver and Capital Region combined, but made them up in the suburbs and rural BC that time.  By 2017, the urban shift would have deeper consequences for the BC Liberals.

2012 The Deferred Remaking of the Free Enterprise Coalition

In Christy Clark’s first year as premier, two of her MLAs resigned for greener pastures.  Iain Black vacated his Port Moody seat to head the Vancouver Board of Trade and Barry Penner gave leave of his Chilliwack-Hope seat to return to resume his legal career.  Neither by-election was particularly welcome as the BC Liberals knew they would be tough battles and divert much attention and resources.  Adrian Dix’s NDP salivated at the opportunity. 

As far as Port Moody goes, Dix shrewdly recruited former BC Liberal and Port Moody Mayor Joe Trasolini as the NDP candidate.  News of Trasolini’s candidacy added another two-hundred-pound sack on to the back of the struggling BC Liberals.  Meanwhile, in the ‘safe seat’ of Chilliwack-Hope, the BC Liberals recruited Laurie Throness, a former Chief of Staff to Chuck Strahl, a much-admired figure in the area.  Strahl really leaned into the campaign to support Clark and Throness, no small thing as the BC Liberals worked to fend off the rising BC Conservatives led by one of Strahl’s former colleagues, John Cummins. 

Throness did not have a very high profile in Chilliwack-Hope and did not bring a lot of volunteers, but he campaigned hard as one expects of a local candidate and benefited from Strahl’s backing.  He refused to ‘go negative’ on his key rival, BC Conservative candidate John Martin. The BC Liberal campaign, with its back against the wall, was trying everything and wanted to throw the kitchen sink at Martin.  The NDP’s Gwen O’Mahony would win the by-election with 42% of the vote, defying a natural law of BC politics – that NDPers could never win in the eastern Fraser Valley.  Throness and Martin split the vote with 32% and 25% respectively.  Over in Port Moody, Trasolini trampled the BC Liberal candidate Dennis Marsden (now an elected City Councillor in Coquitlam).  

The news was all bad but for two glimmers.  First, the BC Liberals finished ahead of the BC Conservatives in Chilliwack-Hope.  It could have been worse. Third place would have been very bad indeed.  Secondly, four days after the bruising by-elections, Alberta Premier Alison Redford made an improbable comeback, against the WildRose Party’s Danielle Smith of all people, to win a majority.  Redford had been given up for dead by the Holy Trinity of Pollsters, Pundits, and Political Scientists.  Her comeback made the idea of a Christy Clark comeback slightly more plausible. 

The real difference, though, is what happened later.  After the by-election in Chilliwack-Hope, Throness and Martin stayed in touch as they developed a respect for each other (recall that Throness wouldn’t go negative). As the BC Conservatives started to fall apart over the summer of 2012 (as third parties like to do), conversations started to take place about Martin coming over to the BC Liberals.  Incumbent MLA John Les provided a guiding hand.  When these whispers reached party HQ, a gift horse was not looked in the mouth. In September 2012, John Martin was announced as the candidate in Chilliwack, to succeed Les, and Throness would team up with him and run again in neighbouring Chilliwack-Hope. On switching parties mere months after the by-election, Martin, the master BBQ-er, quipped, “If anyone can make eating crow taste good, it’s me”.

John Martin made his move less than 6 months after the by-election

This event was a pivotal moment for the BC Liberals rebuilding the free enterprise coalition leading up to the 2013 general election.  Martin and Throness would both win their seats, Clark would win the province, and the BC Conservatives were pushed back to 5% and the sidelines ever more.  Over in Port Moody? Trasolini was a one-year wonder losing to BC Liberal candidate Linda Reimer. Over the longer-term, things didn’t work out as well for Martin and Throness, both losing to the NDP in 2020, who won in the eastern Fraser Valley for the first time ever in a general election. The party had considered allowing a nomination challenge to Martin but ultimately relented. Throness’s social conservative musings, which had not been much of a distraction under Clark’s leadership, burst into the general election campaign of 2020, disabling Andrew Wilkinson’s provincial campaign effort, and leading to him being removed as candidate.

2013 Back to the Cradle

Despite Christy Clark’s general election win in 2013, she lost her seat in Point Grey to David Eby.  She, again, had to find her way into the Legislature through a by-election.  

What might have seemed like a straightforward process, given her stunning election victory, was surprisingly tortured as it became clear that an ideal Lower Mainland seat was not going to present itself. 

One MLA who did understand the importance of securing a safe seat for the premier was Westside-Kelowna MLA Ben Stewart.   Clark accepted his offer to resign and entered the Legislature via a by-election from the ‘cradle of free enterprise’, forty years after Bill Bennett secured his seat there in 1973.

The consequence was the cementing of the Interior on the psyche of the government.  Not that that’s a bad thing, necessarily.  The Interior had rewarded the BC Liberals in the 2013 election with 18 of 24 seats.  Clark felt at home there, especially in Kelowna which had a tradition of strong support for free enterprise.  But the premier’s move up-country arguably contributed to the party drifting further away from the vote-rich urban areas.  It may have been only a few degrees of difference, but between 2013-2017, the government was losing ground in the Lower Mainland and would pay the price on Election Day. Had Clark taken a by-election seat in the Lower Mainland instead in 2013, would it have made a difference?  She lost power by the narrowest of margins, mainly on account of the party’s losses there.

As was the case when Dave Barrett ‘returned’ his seat to Bob Williams in 1984, Clark did the same for the honourable Stewart who returned to office in a 2018 by-election. 

2016 Making a Mark on Indigenous representation

While it did not have any bearing on general election results, the 2016 Vancouver-Mount Pleasant by-election was notable for sending the first First Nations woman, Melanie Mark, to the BC Legislature since the province came into existence 145 years before. The by-election was fait accompli as the NDP cruised to victory with over 60% of the vote. The real ‘race’ would have been the jockeying around the nomination once long-time MLA Jenny Kwan had decided to run federally the previous year. The NDP’s decision to go with Mark made history, and one year later, she was joined in the Legislature by two additional First Nations MLAs – Ellis Ross (BC Liberal) and Adam Olsen (Green). In the history of the BC Legislature, there have only been five First Nations MLAs, with Atlin MLAs Frank Calder, serving between 1949-1979 and Larry Guno (1986-1991) preceding Mark. Mark then became the first First Nations woman to serve in Cabinet. Her by-election competitors didn’t stop after losing to Mark. Green candidate Pete Fry went on to win handily as Councillor in the 2018 City of Vancouver election, while BC Liberal Gavin Dew threw his hat into the ring for the 2022 BC Liberal leadership race.

2016 by-election winner Melanie Mark with #3 Gavin Dew and #2 Pete Fry

2019 High Stakes and High Tide

It seemed unbelievable that an NDP MLA would resign his seat when the ‘GreenDP’ advantage in the Legislature was only 44-42.  Yet that’s exactly what Leonard Krog did in 2018 to run for mayor of Nanaimo.

Krog’s departure must have been a considerable headache for John Horgan’s government.  If they lost the by-election, the Legislature would be deadlocked 43-43 and the likely outcome would have been an early general election in 2019 and a potential ‘own goal’ of epic proportions.

Governments winning byelections is hard. Until Christy Clark won Point Grey in 2011, it had been 30 years since a governing party had won a by-election in BC. The BC Liberals lost three held-seats under Clark in by-elections so assuming the NDP would slam dunk Nanaimo defied history to some extent.

New BC Liberal leader Andrew Wilkinson was coming off a victorious referendum campaign where proportional representation was defeated.  He then recruited a strong local candidate in Nanaimo, Tony Harris, whose family is very well-known in the Harbour City.  Add to that that the Greens were putting up their own candidate, the daughter of the former pirate-mayor (yes), despite being in cahoots with the NDP on their confidence deal.

The NDP nominated federal MP Sheila Malcolmson who brought name recognition and local support.  It was all-in for the BC Liberals who saw the by-election for the opportunity that it was.  

Harris generated support and hope for the BC Liberals. On voting day, January 30, 2019, Harris delivered over 700 more votes than the previous candidate in the general election – this is rare.  By-elections usually have lower turnout.  Objectively, you might have expected to win it with that effort.

However, at some point in the campaign, it appeared the NDP went into a higher gear.  After all, Premier Horgan is an ‘Island guy’ and NDP roots run deep there (see history of Nanaimo riding). The Green vote collapsed from 20% in the general election to 7% in the by-election. The NDP held most of their raw vote and actually increased their percentage from 46.5% to 50%.  Harris increased the BC Liberal vote from 32.5% to 40% but that was little consolation.  Crisis averted for the NDP. 

Two weeks into the Nanaimo by-election was probably the high-water mark for Andrew Wilkinson’s leadership.  When the NDP won, the optimism that was felt (falsely or otherwise) dissipated and the BC Liberals went into a rut.  The mentality of forcing the NDP from office was replaced by settling in for a full-term of government.  They could never regain momentum, and were pummelled in Horgan’s early election call in 2020. Credit the NDP for staring down the existential crisis that the Nanaimo by-election posed and taking care of business. 

2022 Surrey South: Renewal or ?

Almost 50 years, and over 5,000 words later, we finally get to the 2022 Surrey South by-election.  Where will it stack up in terms of importance compared to a half-century of political tests?

BC Liberal leader Kevin Falcon has already taken care of one tidy bit of business, which was finding a seat after a nine-year absence from the Legislature.  Outgoing leader Andrew Wilkinson yielded Vancouver Quilchena, which was an easy lay-up for Falcon.  Gordon Campbell entered as leader via Quilchena almost 30 years earlier. 

With the resignation of BC Liberal Stephanie Cadieux, Falcon has an opportunity to bring forward new blood into the BC Liberals and is doing so with candidate Eleanore Sturko, an RCMP officer who is known for her work on LGBTQ and human rights issues.  The NDP has put forward Pauline Greaves, a community educator (Ph.D) who teaches business at Langara School of Management.  Greaves was a close runner-up to Cadieux in the 2020 general election, losing by a slim 4% margin. She’s playing the “I can be a strong voice inside government” card.

Surrey South is, in fact, the strongest of the nine ridings in Surrey – White Rock area for the BC Liberals. This should be a W.  In 2017, Cadieux took the riding by a margin of 18%.  In 2013, the BC Liberals won a majority of seats in the area before losing Panorama, Fleetwood, and Guildford in 2017 (key to the NDP taking power).  In 2020, the NDP advanced further taking former stronghold Cloverdale and narrowly losing in Surrey-White Rock to BC Liberal Trevor Halford, which would have seemed inconceivable prior to the campaign.  Cadieux and Halford were the last BC Liberals standing in the area until Cadieux resigned.  Falcon previously represented Cloverdale, next door, between 2001-2013 and was one of the top vote getters in the province for the BC Liberals.  This is political home turf for him and he and Sturko are backed by popular former mayor Dianne Watts. The BC Liberal path to power must travel through Surrey. 

The by-election will take place in an interregnum between Horgan’s announcement he is leaving and the installation of a new leader and premier, likely David Eby, on December 3rd. While Horgan remains popular in the Surrey area, especially with older folks, the real enemy for Falcon and Sturko is voter turnout.  By-election turnout is usually lower and a distracted and demotivated support base can lead to defeat.  It’s no consolation to hear afterward, “We thought you were going to win”.  In the final days of the by-election campaign, the BC Liberals have to grind away to get the vote out.

If Falcon’s BC Liberals prevail, they pass a test that they were expected to pass and get some new blood in the Legislature.  It will no doubt be a positive for them. 

For the NDP, a pick-up here would be very rare feat.  You have to go back to 1955 when Gordon Gibson Sr., MLA for Lillooet, put his Liberal seat on the line to back up his allegations of corruption under the Socred Forest Minister of the time, Robert Sommers.   Gibson lost to the governing Socreds in the by-election but he was proven right as Sommers was ultimately found guilty of corruption and went to the clink. (Gibson Sr. returned to the Legislature as a Liberal in the 1960s in a North Shore seat and his son, Gordon Gibson Jr., won a 1974 by-election in North Vancouver and contended the 1975 election as Liberal leader).

An NDP win in Surrey South would round out the Horgan era as a time where the NDP encroached deep into BC Liberal / free enterprise territory while keeping its left flank under control, and would be more about Horgan’s legacy than be a predictor of Eby’s future. Still, an NDP win here would obviously be good for them.

Another factor is the BC Conservatives who are running Richmond resident Harman Bhangu. There was no Conservative on the ballot in 2020 when Cadieux narrowly won.  Will Bhangu split the vote and cost Sturko? Earlier this month, Falcon punted Nechako Lakes MLA John Rustad from caucus over his team play and musings on climate change. Rustad has now appeared in support of Bhangu.  Will that make a difference? Could anyone in Surrey South pick Rustad out of a lineup? 

It’s hard to know right now where Surrey South will land on the scale of significance as harbinger of political events to come.  We usually don’t know until later. But there are stakes to be fought over and that will make it interesting on September 10th.

SEE post on Surrey South by-election result

  • A full list of BC by-elections can be found here.

Straight to the Top Job

Published in the Vancouver Sun, July 19/2022

It’s one of the oddities of our parliamentary system, that someone can become premier without first facing the voters as leader in the trial by fire of an election campaign.

The pending retirement of Premier John Horgan means a new leader chosen solely by the members of the NDP will go straight to the top job. 

John Horgan chairing the Council of Federation meetings, July 2022

Changing premiers has happened between elections many times and for a variety of reasons.

Retirement on their terms

Since 1903, when the party system came to B.C., only a handful of premiers retired while they still had political capital in the bank.

Richard McBride retired in 1915 after 12 years in office when his health and energies were on the wane. He left office in good standing with the voters of the day, but his successor, William Bowser, was defeated when he met voters at the polls the following year.

John Hart retired in 1947 after six years on the job, passing on the premiership to colleague “Boss” Johnson. Hart was the only ex-premier to go on to become Speaker of the Legislature. Two years later, Johnson won his own mandate.

Bill Bennett picked his moment in 1986, after the half-way point of his third term. Twelve candidates vied to replace him and, coming out of political retirement, Bill Vander Zalm prevailed and shortly marched on to his own majority win.

Passings in office 

In 1918, Liberal Harlan Brewster, only two years into his first term, came down with pneumonia heading home by train from Ottawa. Sick by Winnipeg, in peril by Regina, dead in Calgary. John Oliver replaced him and served nine years, but became very ill toward the end of his tenure. His colleagues pleaded for him to stay on while the burdens of office were lifted from his shoulders, but he died in office in 1927. John Duncan McLean’s government was defeated the following year.

Premier Harlan Brewster fishing on the Peace River before his perilous train trip

The leaderless winner 

The leaderless Social Credit Party went from zero seats to winning the 1952 election, with a leader who was from Alberta. Ernest Hansell, an evangelist and cartoonist, wasn’t on the ballot, but as head of the Social Credit League of Canada, he had top billing. Voters didn’t know who was going to lead the Socreds in the Legislature — and the government — until after the election. The new Socred MLAs soon met at the Hotel Vancouver and elected W.A.C. Bennett from among them. And so, a 20-year run as premier began.

WAC: Wasn’t the leader the first time, but re-elected as premier in 1953, 1956, 1960, 1963, 1966 and 1969

Unplanned retirement 

Liberal Duff Pattullo had been premier since 1933, leading the province through the Great Depression, but in 1941, he was dealt a minority. He wanted to press on, but his trusted ally, John Hart, announced his support for a coalition government and won the support of the Liberal rank and file. Pattullo resigned and Hart assumed office with Conservative support just two days after the attack on Pearl Harbour. His coalition government was re-elected in 1945.

A hat trick of resignations beset B.C. politics in the 1990s.

In 1991, Bill Vander Zalm resigned in disgrace after a damning conflict of interest report. Rita Johnston, B.C.’s first female premier, succeeded him only to be demolished by Mike Harcourt’s NDP later that year.

Harcourt seemed to have a bright future ahead of him, but an NDP scandal (“Bingogate”) that had nothing to do with him bedevilled the government. Low in the polls, Harcourt quit and Glen Clark took the helm in 1996, resurrecting NDP fortunes and, shortly thereafter, eking out a narrow win.

Clark’s administration quickly sailed into rough waters and took on water — lots of it. Clark resigned in 1999 giving way to Dan Miller, who is the only premier since 1903 to serve on an interim basis and never face the voters as leader. Miller stepped down when Ujjal Dosanjh was elected by NDP members to lead them into what was to become an electoral Armageddon in 2001. 

In 2010, not long after his third majority government win, and on the heels and highs of the Winter Olympics, Gordon Campbell announced his intention to resign after internal caucus dissent spilled out into the public. Christy Clark, who did not have a seat at the time, prevailed on the third ballot to be crowned premier, and went on to win her own majority mandate two years later.

Changing premiers between elections has happened for a variety of reasons, with successors having mixed results. Some are able to show change and renewal, while others were weighed down by their government’s baggage and jettisoned to the political scrap heap. In all cases, they became premier thanks to a relatively small number of people, whether it was the members of their caucus or members of their party.  This time, if David Eby is acclaimed, as some expect, not even NDP members would have a say, and he would not have to undergo the trial by fire faced by predecessors Bill Vander Zalm, Glen Clark, Ujjal Dosanjh, and Christy Clark.

Straight to the Top

John Horgan came to power on a confidence vote not long after the 2017 election and retires on his own terms knowing that he had more political capital to spend. In terms of popularity, he will be a hard act to follow. Once coronated, David Eby will have close to two years to govern, but he will be staring at the calendar as to when voters ultimately get to have their say.


30 years later: The Election that Changed Everything

British Columbians went to the polls on October 17, 1991 and changed BC politics forever.

It was the election of Premier Mike Harcourt’s NDP government and only the second time in BC history that the NDP had gained power. The election was hugely significant for the NDP as they governed for a decade. But its more profound impact was the realignment of the free enterprise vote in BC.

Gordon Wilson, BC Liberal leader in 1991 breakthrough election.

The Social Credit Party had governed for 36 of the previous 39 years, mostly with a Bennett at the helm. It had renewed itself during the first NDP term of office in the 1970s and emerged stronger under WR Bennett with a broader base of support. Bennett had revived the Socred coalition by attracting Liberals, Conservatives, and even an NDP MLA to run with him in 1975. The renewed coalition was maintained for three elections (1975, 1979 and 1983) in the most polarized elections in BC history. When the Social Credit chose a new leader in 1986, they chose Bill Vander Zalm. While he led the Socreds to victory one more time, their coalition would unravel under his premiership.

Starting in the early 1980s, a small group of Liberals worked to revive the provincial wing. From virtually no candidates in 1979, they ran close to a full slate in 1983 under leader Shirley McLaughlin, with parachutes attached to many Young Liberals. They garnered about 3%. Most federal Liberals (a vanishing species at that time) were supporting the Social Credit Party.

Undaunted, Liberals held a leadership convention in 1984 where former Member of Parliament Art Lee, the first Chinese-Canadian leader of a political party in BC, defeated Stan Roberts, who would go on to help establish the Reform Party of Canada. Lee would build a strong relationship with Liberal Party of Canada leader John Turner, who represented Vancouver-Quadra, and BC’s Iona Campagnolo who was president of the Liberal Party of Canada.   “A Liberal is a Liberal is a Liberal” was a mantra I heard at my first political convention in 1985, at the Empress Hotel, as a keen 16-year old.

When Bill Vander Zalm called the October 1986 election, on the heels of a very popular Expo 86, Art Lee managed to field a team of candidates in most ridings across the province. There was no TV leaders debate and little money so it was hard for Lee to make an impact. The Liberals placed their hopes on winning one seat – the Leader’s.

Bill Vander Zalm’s charisma trumped the NDP and its faltering leader, Bob Skelly, who famously fluttered at his opening press conference. The Liberals were squeezed out, but doubled their vote to about 7%. Hopes for a seat were dashed as they were shut out of the Legislature. Art Lee stepped down. On election night, BCTV cruelly reported that Art Lee was going to win his seat. Bedlam erupted at Liberal HQ in Vancouver. Out in Maple Ridge, we piled into an old black Lincoln and headed in for the ‘party’. Somewhere around the Sperling interchange, CKNW reported that someone had made an error and Art Lee was 5th! Cheers turned to tears at the Liberal election night party at the old Plaza 500. I ran into my new friend Christy Clark at the wake. We had joined the SFU Young Liberal Club that month.

Art Lee decided to move on from his unpaid, under-resourced, and under-appreciated leadership. By the time the BC Liberals got around to choosing a new leader on Hallowe’en Day 1987, there was only one candidate – Gordon Wilson. A political unknown to most, he had at least been elected to local office on the Sunshine Coast and put up a respectable showing there in the 1986 election. He was an outsider to the Vancouver-centric Liberal Party in BC. Yet he showed up and took on the mantle, though he wasn’t going to get much help from the city folk.

The focus for most Liberals in BC during that time was federal politics, with an election looming in 1988. While Wilson sought to get established, the Vander Zalm government started its meltdown with moderates fleeing. Ministers and MLAs would resign from cabinet and/or resign their seats. Around this time, a group of free enterprise supporters encouraged prominent developer Jack Poole (later the Chair of the 2010 Olympics) to take over the BC Liberal leadership as a response to the Social Credit Zalmplosion. While this is truly a story for another day, Poole would go through a due diligence effort, assisted by former leader Gordon Gibson, and organizers Colin Hansen and David McPhee, but ultimately decided not to seek the leadership. Gordon Wilson, who had reluctantly cooperated with the Poole potential candidacy, ventured forth unfettered when Poole left the scene. No one gave him much of a chance.

Wilson’s leadership in 1989 and 1990 could be described as persistent and tenacious, but also was met with setbacks. Byelection results were disappointing while the party was in a constant financial crisis. Federal politics intervened again as Jean Chretien succeeded John Turner in June 1990 after a lengthy leadership campaign.   One issue where Wilson and Chretien had common ground was over the Meech Lake Accord. Wilson was as a strong critic and aligned with Manitoba Liberal leader Sharon Carstairs and Newfoundland Premier Clyde Wells on the issue. This was a very divisive issue within the Liberal Party of Canada, but Wilson made a name for himself on this issue. However, the relationship with the Chretien team would become increasingly uneasy.

I was part of a group that strongly believed that the Party should split into separate federal and provincial political parties. The “BC” Liberal Party needed to be strictly provincial and put BC first on issues. During the Turner years, the party membership did not want to make the move, in part out of respect for John Turner and his commitment to BC. By 1991, the provincial wing believed it was in their political interests, and the federal wing believed it was in its financial interests. At a convention in Spring 1991, the parties decided to split. This was a defining moment in BC political history. Had this not happened, the BC Liberal Party could not have emerged as a ‘big tent’ political party. It was hard enough to attract non-Liberals to the BC Liberal Party in the 1990s, but it would have been impossible if the provincial party was not independent.

There is no greater boost for an opposition party than an imploding government. With many Socreds absolutely ruling out going to the NDP, and some NDP voters open to a liberal option (as they would never go Socred), the opportunity presented itself. The advantage of the Liberal brand, especially once it was detached from the federal wing, was its ability to push out from the middle in both directions.

Thus, a core group of party supporters decided to give it one last push. It was felt if we couldn’t break through this time, there was no hope for the BC Liberal Party ever. We had no money and not much of an organization. But we did have a leader who was quick on his feet and would work day and night to succeed, and we started to draw some candidates that helped with credibility. There were some good recruits like Linda Reid who would become the longest serving women in BC history, business executive Fred Gingell, young pilot Gary Collins who won in Fort Langley, and author/executive David Mitchell who had some media cachet. Clive Tanner had served as an MLA in the Yukon and Val Anderson was a former party president and United Church minister who was well known to Liberals. But we had many gaps. My volunteer job was to find candidates with my pal Christy, to fill out the slate. I would find them, Christy would close them. During this time there was an epic road trip, borrowing Clive Tanner’s van, to Prince George, the Cariboo, Kamloops, and the Okanagan. We met with candidates in hot tubs, recruited mustard manufacturers, dragooned university friends like Karen Bill and Kimball Kastelen, and found the lonely Liberal outposts in places where they had been in hiding. Clive is probably still paying off the bill from his car phone, a real novelty in those days.

We ended up with candidates in 71 of 75 ridings. That was enough to argue that Gordon Wilson should be on the debate. We were shut out of the debate initially because the NDP and Socreds didn’t want us there. So we launched a protest and had picketers in front of the CBC building. The pressure built and the network capitulated. We could not have asked for a better scenario – to have to fight to get on the debate and then win the fight. I found out we had made the debate when I was in Rogers Pass recruiting a candidate. Yes, our candidate was living in Rogers Pass, at the Glacier Park Lodge. She was a wonderful candidate and did respectably in Columbia River-Revelstoke, though our local Golden Liberal wouldn’t help sign the nomination papers in public – “Someone could lose their job by signing these”.

On debate night, party president Floyd Sully invited me to go to the CBC studios with him and be part of the team with Gordon Wilson. We showed up in his dressing room. I will never forget how calm he was. He was walking around, shirt off, listening but focused – his mind was elsewhere. Very calm. He had experience as an actor, which likely helped his preparation. I’m sure we were chattering away with miscellaneous advice that was completely off point and I’m sure he disregarded it. His media aide, John Stewart, prepared for the onslaught as there was a much bigger media hoard back then. Though the media didn’t know it beforehand, Gordon Wilson would be the story of the night and the election.

We watched the debate in the dressing room while it took place down the hall with no audience. When Premier Rita Johnston and Mike Harcourt were squabbling back and forth, Wilson nailed them: “This is a classic example of why nothing ever gets done in the Province of British Columbia”. Boom! I don’t think the media realized the full impact of that line when it was delivered, but they did realize that Wilson had made an impact. We were giddy in the dressing room. Floyd and I sprinted down the hall to the studio. I remember passing Mike Harcourt in the narrow hallway backstage – “Hey, how are you,” I think he said. Disciplined, cheerful, seemingly unruffled. Rita Johnston didn’t look too happy. Wilson was surrounded in the studio. He would never turn down a media interview after begging for attention for years. We were excited.

I had had this feeling once before when I helped the Manitoba Liberals in the 1988 election – the feeling of everything coming up roses. Sharon Carstairs had won her TV debate, and rose from one seat to almost win the election, settling for 20 and preventing Gary Filmon from forming a majority. Could this be the same? It was definitely on my mind that we could get on a roll, big time. There wasn’t a lot of time left in the election either.

Floyd and I thought we should head back to Party headquarters at 210 West Broadway. The office was closed so we walked in and our six-line switchboard was lighting up like a Christmas tree. We took calls, offers of help, crazies, you name it. We had finally been noticed.

An interesting thing about the 1991 campaign was that BCTV commissioned and ran nightly polls. Then, as now, BCTV (Global) led the evening news ratings, but back then it dominated the entire news landscape as well. Anchor Tony Parsons would come on at 6pm and announce the new numbers in their daily poll and, after the debate, the Liberals spiked up. The nightly polls were a self-fulfilling prophecy. Each good poll begat higher polling numbers the next time. As we rose, the Socreds were doomed. The Socred coalition was built on winnability. It became clear within days that the Liberals would be the party that would challenge the NDP.

As we headed into Thanksgiving weekend, there was a real likelihood we could win the whole shebang. The momentum seemed unstoppable. I remember talking on the phone with Clive Tanner, who was running in Saanich North & the Island (and would win decisively). We speculated about actually forming government. At that point, Clive, who was in the bathtub, contemplated electrocuting himself.

The NDP appeared to get a grip and turned their guns on us. Glen Clark showed his fangs and attacked our platform. A hastily organized press conference where Gordon Wilson and Floyd Sully (who had run and served as Finance critic) costed our platform was necessary. Vaughn Palmer provided a dose of the first scrutiny our campaign had had. Up until the final week, no one thought we had a chance so no one cared if our plan made sense or who our candidates were. I can safely say that many of our candidates would not have survived a modern-day social media screening process.

Vaughn has been around a loooooong time

Around that time, I was driving up Kingsway in Vancouver and came across Glen Clark’s campaign office. I walked in to collect some brochures. I was greeted warmly by a receptionist (best practice) and quickly self-identified as “undecided”. I was directed to a table of brochures and within 20 seconds I had Glen Clark interrogating me. “Hey, how are you? Undecided? Want a coffee?” Here he was in a safe seat and he was working for every vote. Of course, I folded like a cheap lawn chair from Zellers. I confessed my true identity and Glen switched gears to quiz me on Floyd Sully, who he debated on finance issues. “What’s he like? He seems intense.” Etc. In any event, that gives a glimpse how hungry the NDP were.

We had come from zero to somewhere. By the time Election Day arrived, I don’t think we thought we were going to win. But I did think something would happen, but how much would happen, I didn’t know. I would have been happy with four seats. That was always our dream, to just get a toehold. It was quite something to consider our party’s dismal history, and the prevailing conventional wisdom that we had no chance, then use our eyes and ears to understand what was happening right in front of us. It was hard to believe.

In the final week of the campaign, Christy and I transitioned over to Gibsons to help the leader with his local campaign. He had to win and we were there to help. On October 17th at 8pm, we watched the first tranche of early results in Sechelt where it looked like we would be Opposition and would eclipse the Socreds. Gordon Wilson was up in Powell River taking in the results, soon to jump a plane to Vancouver to celebrate with a lot of long-suffering and delighted Liberals. By the time the votes were all tallied up, we won 17 seats and 33% of the vote. We won historically liberal seats on the North Shore and west side of Vancouver, but we also took Saanich North, Richmond, South Delta, South Surrey, most of the Fraser Valley, and Kelowna. Places where Liberals had no business winning, until then.

It was clear that it would be quite a party that night. While Wilson made his way to the celebration, a crew of us from the Sunshine Coast were taken on a chartered boat from Gibsons over to Horseshoe Bay. It was a calm, warm night, cruising on moonlit waters before everything would change.

Volunteers from West Van picked us up in station wagons and drove us to the Villa Hotel in Burnaby. It was electric. My best friend Iain, who is a big guy, was drafted to bring Wilson into the room with another big guy, Jim. Peter Gzowski would comment on CBC the next morning about the “two gorillas” that brought the skinny, bookish professor, Gordon Wilson, into the frenzy.

As I walked in, I encountered a gruff old guy named Dick Kirby who was from Oak Bay. He was the most hard-working, dedicated volunteer you would ever find. At that moment I saw everything we had accomplished on Dick’s face – a sense of elation, satisfaction, and emotion.  It brought it all home to me suddenly because I knew how hard he and others had worked and the example that they had set for others.  The moment has always stayed with me because it was the essence of politics as we would like it to be.   When you are part of an underdog team that overcomes the odds like that, it is a really special bond. But when you add in the unselfishness of a guy like Dick Kirby, it is a joyful moment.   I will never forget that.

That’s where the story should end. It’s a good story.

Euphoria doesn’t last. Hard political choices are ultimately made. Emerging parties that surprise in a 28 day writ period must evolve in order to consolidate their gains.

The BC Liberals had to decide what they wanted to be if they wanted to govern. They would go through a tough process between 1991 and 1993, when they elected Gordon Campbell to succeed Gordon Wilson. They would go through another tough process between 1993 and 1996 when they failed to win. Idealism crashed on the rocky shores of reality. They would go through a brutal five-year process from 1996 to 2001 when the heat was cranked and the NDP tanked. The NDP would wait until the fifth year of the mandate to go to the polls and the electoral buzz saw. It was a long decade and a transformative evolution for the BC Liberals.

During that time, a modern political party was built one meeting at a time, one chicken-dinner fundraiser at a time, one local parade at a time, one vote at a time. The old saying comes to mind – the worst day in government is better than the best day in opposition. The hard work paid off with the greatest election win in BC history when the BC Liberals won 77 of 79 seats in the 2001 election.

The Party changed and evolved. It became a successful, regionally-balanced, modern political party that took a big-tent approach. It was a successful vehicle for the mainstream – winning the popular vote in six consecutive elections between 1996 and 2017. The 1991 election put Liberals back into the free enterprise coalition. While some would argue they were always there during the Social Credit years, by the mid 1980s, they had withered away. The realignment put Liberals back in the centre of the coalition, and by 2001, it was becoming truly balanced with most conservatives and former Socreds signing on.

Gordon Wilson created the opportunity. Gordon Campbell built the foundation, in painstaking fashion, and cemented it as the free enterprise coalition through eight grinding years in Opposition and three successive winning elections. Christy Clark renewed it and earned her own term, tapping into the 1991 experience, knowing that conventional wisdom can be defied, that the ultimate connection for leaders is with the voters, not the intermediaries, and that believing in oneself and the team around you is essential.

Yet, time caught up with the BC Liberals. By 2017, the Party was long past its scrappy origins and frenetic early years in government. Governmentitis crept in. Baggage accumulated. The extremely narrow margin in Comox that divided power from defeat ended a remarkable era for the BC Liberals – a rise from the ashes that begun on Hallowe’en night 1987 with Gordon Wilson taking the stage as leader, and ending in Penticton in July 2017 when Christy Clark took a walk on the beach and put a cap on it. Four years in the wilderness, ten striving years in opposition, sixteen years in power and four mandates.

Ironically, in the aftermath of 2017 and 2020 elections, the BC Liberal Party’s biggest challenge is to retain and recruit Liberals. It has come full circle.

All three of those BC Liberal leaders from 1987 to 2017 – Wilson, Campbell, Clark – taught us that it’s bloody hard work to create, build, and renew.

I’m honoured to have served all three. And I’m honoured to have worked alongside those behind the headlines that made it possible. It was quite a journey that would have ended early had it not been for the remarkable results of October 17, 1991.

BC’s photo finish: translating votes to seats

British Columbia will be fascinating to watch on election night. As advance polls open, there has been a struggle between the Liberals and Conservatives to emerge as a clear leader, while the NDP appear to be on the move post-debate.  The Greens maintain a strong presence on the Island that could be converted into a bushel of seats.

When you see these poll numbers bouncing around, how do they convert to seats?  I thought it would be ‘fun’ to play with numbers today.

Screen Shot 2019-10-11 at 5.11.30 PM.png

Four parties (and an independent) in the hunt for seats in BC. It’s that close, it seems.

In ‘BC Battleground’, I wrote about the key regions.  In particular, the Lower Mainland outer suburbs and Vancouver Island are very volatile.

A political sniffle can lead to an electoral coma for parties mired in three and four way battles.

When we forecast results, they are based mainly on the result of the last election, adjusted to potential 2019 scenarios.  When it’s all said and done, the seats normally follow a similar pattern.  The ranking of seats, party by party, doesn’t usually shift that much from election to election (a party’s best and worst seats tend to be consistent, such as the NDP in East Van, CPC in Peace River, or Liberals in Quadra). Over time, yes, coalitions shift and parties evolve, winning in places that are new, and losing in places that used to be strongholds.  That pattern usually takes a few cycles.

Assuming patterns are fairly consistent to 2015, we can look at how seat totals might play out based on popular vote.  This does not take into account special local factors.

Reminder that in 2015, the seat totals in BC were:

  • 17 Liberal
  • 14 NDP
  • 10 CPC
  • 1 Green

Scenario 1: Three-way tie, with Greens trailing in fourth

CPC Lib NDP Green
Vote% 26.5% 26.5% 26.5% 16.0%
Seats 12 13 16 1

Despite the three-way tie in popular vote, the NDP has an efficiency advantage, mainly based on winning, like they did in 2015, six of seven seats on the Island with about one-third of the vote.

Scenario 2: Top 2 CPC and Liberals, NDP third, with Greens trailing in fourth

In 2015, the Liberals won popular vote in BC by 5.5%.  This scenario has the CPC tying the Liberals, with NDP trailing by about same amount as 2015.

CPC Lib NDP Green
Vote% 28% 28% 23% 16.0%
Seats 14 14 12 2

Both Conservatives and Liberals vote breaks evenly into seats with NDP punching above its weight due to the Island.

Scenario 3: CPC lead over Liberals, NDP third, Greens trailing in fourth

If the Conservatives take a 4-point lead over the Liberals, the math starts to move.

CPC Lib NDP Green
Vote% 30.0% 26.0% 23% 16.0%
Seats 17 11 12 2

Seat pick ups increase in the outer suburbs of Vancouver for the Conservatives, levelling that region which the Liberals dominated in 2015.  The Liberals would hold most of their Vancouver-urban core seats.

Scenario 4: Liberals lead Conservatives, NDP third, Greens fourth

Scenario 3 is flipped to a Liberal 4-point lead, holding the NDP and Greens constant.

CPC Lib NDP Green
Vote% 26.0% 30.0% 23.0% 16.0%
Seats 10 17 13 2

Scenario 5: NDP falters, Greens rise

The previous four scenarios have the Green constant at 16%.  This scenario moves them to 20% and the NDP to 22%.

CPC Lib NDP Green
Vote% 27.0% 27.0% 22.0% 20.0%
Seats 14 14 10 4

The Island is very dynamic in terms of vote splits.  If the Greens rise over there (with 20% province-wide indicating a popular vote on the Island of over 35%), then NDP seats fall to the Greens, at least on the Lower Island.

Scenario 6:  One party blowout

It would take a 10%+ lead in the popular vote for any one party to grab 50% of the seats (21 seats).

Blue crush

CPC Lib NDP Green
Vote% 35.0% 24.0% 22.0% 15.0%
Seats 22 9 9 2

Big red machine

CPC Lib NDP Green
Vote% 24.0% 35.0% 22.0% 15.0%
Seats 5 23 12 2


CPC Lib NDP Green
Vote% 24.0% 24.0% 33.0% 15.0%
Seats 9 11 21 2

Green armageddon

CPC Lib NDP Green
Vote% 15% 15% 15% 50%
Seats 0 0 0 42

I mean, isn’t Green armageddon just inevitable?  Who doesn’t want unicorns and rainbows?

Local factors

The seat modelling ignores that Paul Manly won the Nanaimo-Ladysmith by-election for the Greens, that the Conservatives fired their Burnaby-North Vancouver candidate, that the Liberals fired candidates in Victoria and Cowichan last election, thus lowering their base for this model.  It also does not account for a candidate by the name of Jody Wilson-Raybould.  So, yes, local factors can confound the model, but the model overall speaks truth.  Due to our system, the votes have to land somewhere. When you see fortunes rise and fall in the polls, the seats will follow.

It seems that close.  We’ll see which scenario prevails.

The BC Battleground

British Columbia has 42 of Canada’s 338 seats. When the votes are being counted on the evening of October 21st, British Columbians may push one of the contending parties into a plurality, or even a majority.

In 2015, the Liberals won the most seats in British Columbia for the first time since 1968. Heading into BC on election night, the Liberals were three seats short of a majority. A record 17 Liberal seats west of the Rockies gave them a majority, and a comfortable one at that.

Table 1: 2015 BC results and current standings

Party Vote Seats At dissolution Incumbents seeking re-election



17 (1 gain, 1 loss) 16



8 (1 loss, 1 vacant) 8



13 (1 loss) 10



2 (1 gain) 2
Independent JWR 1

Between 1968 and 2015, the leading conservative/right wing party – whether that was Progressive Conservatives, Reform Party, Canadian Alliance, or Conservative Party – had the plurality of seats in BC 11 out of 13 times.  Through most elections, the blue team has been at the top while the NDP and Liberals flipped positions.  In the 1970s and 1980s, the Liberals were mainly in decline due to a strong sense of western alienation and atrophy of the party’s base in BC.  In the 1990s, when the NDP were in power provincially (and unpopular mostly), federal NDP vote plummeted while the populist Reform and Alliance campaigns surged – a populist crossover – demonstrating that BC voting is not strictly a left-right continuum.  The Liberals also gained during this time, but plateaued between 1993 and 2006.  As the NDP regained strength post-2001 (now out of power provincially), the Liberals slipped again, this time reflecting the party’s woes nationally. It all changed in 2015 when Justin Trudeau brought it full circle back to 1968.

Chart 1:  Popular vote and seats in BC from 1968 to 2015

Screen Shot 2019-10-06 at 9.26.43 PM.png

Liberal (red); NDP (orange); leading conservative party (blue): PC (1968-88); Reform (1993-97): Canadian Alliance (2000); Conservative (2004-15)

2019 context

The Conservatives will be looking to restore the historic pattern and win a plurality of seats, as they have consistently done over the years.  The Liberals hope to make the 2015 election a new, sustained pattern.

The NDP will be looking to BC for survival. With its gains in Quebec evaporating, the NDP is desperate to hold its remaining 28 seats in English Canada – half of which are in BC. 

The Greens have an opportunity to grow their caucus from two to five or more on Vancouver Island. Just like the Nanaimo byelection, it requires traditional NDP voters – and Liberals – to move over to the Greens.

BC’s regional picture

While BC has 42 seats overall, the federal election will play out in four regions that have unique battlegrounds.

The Lower Mainland has a majority of seats and is multiculturally diverse. Within the Lower Mainland, there are key differences, similar to core Toronto seats and the 905.  The urban core (Vancouver and adjacent communities) have different characteristics than the outer suburbs and Fraser Valley – different housing density, immigration patterns, and transportation habits, for example.

While both regions are more rural and less multicultural than the Lower Mainland, they have very different voting patterns. Vancouver Island leans granola and the Interior/North leans hardhat.

Vancouver Island

The Island’s seven seats may elect representatives from four separate parties. The NDP managed to win 6 of 7 Island seats with only 33% of the vote, a very efficient result, but one that puts them on the edge of major losses if they fall back in public support. The Greens proved this point in the Nanaimo-Ladysmith byelection, catapulting over the NDP to win their second seat.

Table 2:    Vancouver Island 

2015 Vote%

2015 Seats At dissolution

Incumbents seeking re-election



6 5




1 2




0 0




0 0


Elizabeth May is the safest MP on the Island.

Jagmeet Singh is not well known on Vancouver Island and is under significant pressure to hold the NDP’s remaining five seats. The NDP held off a strong Green charge in Victoria in 2015 due to the strength and popularity of MP Murray Rankin. He’s not running again and his successor lacks his personal standing. Of the NDP’s four remaining ridings, the NDP won two of them with 35% of the vote and the other two with 38% to 40%. They are all vulnerable to a Green surge that could either overtake them or split the vote and elect a Conservative, or even a Liberal.

The Liberals are keying on Victoria, a seat that Liberal David Anderson held between 1993 and 2006, and look longingly at Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, which erstwhile Reform/Alliance MP Keith Martin won for the Grits in 2006. Anderson and Martin had strong personal brands so it remains to be seen if the Liberals can win with lesser-known candidates.

The Conservatives are likely pinning their hopes on Courtenay-Alberni and North Island-Powell River. These ridings are more resource dependent and less urban, and overlap with areas where the provincial BC Liberals are strongest. The Conservatives will be in the conversation in Nanaimo-Ladysmith, Cowichan-Malahat-Langford, and Esquimalt-Saanich-Sooke, where vote splits could deliver a Conservative win with 28%-30% of the vote.

A Green ‘breakthrough’ would be a minimum of 3 seats.

A ‘successful’ NDP salvage mission would be maintaining a minimum of 3 seats. Holding 5 seats would be a remarkable accomplishment considering the low expectations.

The Conservatives need a minimum of two gains to contribute to a winning plurality nationally.

The Liberals will be happy with one seat. The action is elsewhere for them.

Vancouver Core

Thirteen seats in the western portion of the Lower Mainland, around Vancouver’s urban core including the North Shore, Burnaby, and Richmond, strongly favoured the Liberals and punished the Conservatives in 2015.

Table 3:    Vancouver Core  

2015 Vote

2015 Seats At dissolution

Incumbents seeking re-election



8 7




1 1 1


4 4 4






The NDP won four seats in this area due to a concentration of vote in historically strong seats. The Greens are not a contender in any seats on BC’s mainland.  If they get close anywhere, it would probably be West Vancouver-Sea to Sky-Sunshine Coast where they have some history of strong showings and the absence of an incumbent.

There is limited opportunity for the Conservatives to claw back seats in 2019 in this area, but Steveston-Richmond East will be highest on its list. It’s a rematch between the 2015 Liberal and Conservative candidates. Liberal MP Joe Peschisolido is a former Canadian Alliance MP and Reform Party candidate, a maverick, who has been an active campaigner in Richmond for almost twenty years.

The Conservative breakout opportunity would be winning Vancouver South and seats on the North Shore, but they have already punted their candidate from the winnable seat of Burnaby-North Vancouver, a costly loss where a smarter candidate strategy would have made a difference.  In the blue target riding of Vancouver South, the Conservatives are running former MP Wai Young (Young ran a distant fourth. Her breakaway civic party clearly cost the centre-right NPA a majority on Council and was decisive in enabling former Burnaby South NDP MP Kennedy Stewart to win the mayoralty with only 28.7% of the vote. Interesting footnote is that Young’s party released a poll from Hamish Marshall’s firm in dying days of campaign that showed Young only three points behind the NPA mayoralty candidate and Kennedy Stewart 14 points in the lead.  On election night, the NPA lost to Stewart by half a point while Young had less than 7% of the vote).

The Liberals are seeking to win Vancouver Kingsway from the NDP with well-known news anchor Tamara Taggart, but she needs national wind in her sails to knock off popular MP Don Davies.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh hopes to retain his Burnaby South seat and would appear to be in good shape. Svend Robinson is campaigning hard in Burnaby-North Vancouver, however, with the demise of the Conservative candidate, it’s hard to see how he overcomes Terry Beech and the Liberals. There is no orange wave yet in Metro Vancouver to lift the boats of NDP candidates in Metro Vancouver.

Then there is Vancouver Granville. Independent Jody Wilson-Raybould hopes to make history by being the first indigenous women re-elected in BC and to pull off the rare feat of being elected as an independent and the first to do so in BC since Chuck Cadman in 2004. Last election JWR and the Liberals took 44% of the vote with the NDP and Conservatives taking 27% and 26% respectively. JWR will need to take many NDP (and Green votes), along with Liberals who stick with her. How many Liberals will stick by their brand? Can the Conservative make it to 30% and win on a split? At this point in the campaign, it looks like JWR may have the largest pool of potential votes.

Overall, this area looks fairly static.

There are not a lot of gains in this area for the Conservatives. To win a plurality of seats in Canada, they need to win seats like Steveston. To win a majority, they need to win seats like Vancouver South and the North Shore. Right now, it looks like two seats is a realistic goal.

The NDP hope to hold their four seats but do not have a very good opportunity to add others.

The Liberals should be in a position to hold at least 6 of the 8 they won in 2015.

Lower Mainland suburbs/Valley

Further from the Vancouver core, there are a baker’s dozen of suburban and Fraser Valley seats stretching east to the Fraser Canyon. There are a lot of commuters, an especially strong South Asian population, and traditional conservative farming areas. You could call it BC’s 905, to some degree.

The Liberals picked the Conservatives’ pocket in this region in 2015, winning unexpected seats in places like Langley, Abbotsford, and James Moore’s old seat in Coquitlam, while gaining a new dominance in Surrey.

Table 4:             Lower Mainland suburbs/Valley

2015 Vote

2015 Seats At dissolution

Incumbents seeking re-election



8 9




4 2 2


1 1 0






The Conservatives used to ‘own’ Surrey so must claw their way back, but it won’t be easy. The Liberals took four seats handily in 2015.  Sukh Dhaliwal’s Newton seat is a fortress, while Surrey-Centre, Fleetwood-Port Kells, and Cloverdale-Langley City were all won with healthy margins and over 45% of the vote. In 2015, Dianne Watts preserved South Surrey-White Rock for the Conservatives in the face of a red tide in Surrey, but in a 2017 byelection, the Liberals stole the riding, leaving the Conservatives with only one seat west of Langley. Now, the Liberals may hold South Surrey-White Rock because they have a candidate advantage, and withstand what should be a Conservative pick-up.

Of all the regions in BC, this is the one where the Conservatives need to make major gains. Liberal wins in Coquitlam-Port Coquitlam, Pitt Meadows-Maple Ridge, and Mission-Matsqui-Fraser Canyon were won with 33% to 37% of the vote and are at high risk. The Conservatives will also key on Delta, but incumbent Liberal cabinet minister Carla Qualtrough is popular. The Conservatives can count on three Fraser Valley seats between Langley Township and Chilliwack.  Long-time MP Mark Warawa passed away recently leaving a vacancy, however, the Conservatives should have little difficulty winning the seat.

The NDP’s only MP in this region, Fin Donnelly, is retiring, opening up a three-way fight in Port Moody-Coquitlam. This will be a tough one for the NDP to hold. The Liberals and Conservatives both have an opportunity to win a new seat.

This will be the region to watch. It could go 7-6 or it could go 10-3 either way, and have a major impact on national seat totals. If Andrew Scheer becomes prime minister, he will have made major gains here.

The Liberals have very little history of winning seats in this region  Taking even half of the seats would represent a sustained shift in BC’s federal voting patterns.  Winning 4 or 5 out of 5 seats in Surrey would provide the Liberals with an ongoing power base that complements its traditional base in Vancouver.

As for the NDP, they have historically won seats in Surrey and northeast suburbs, but have been eclipsed by the Liberals.  They have not yet demonstrated they have the formula to flip the dynamic and may well be shut-out here on election night.

Interior and North

BC’s Interior and North holds nine of BC’s forty-two seats. This is an area where Conservatives should make their easiest gains, at the expense of the struggling NDP, and another potential pickup from the Liberals in Kelowna.

Table 5:  Interior/North

2015 Vote

2015 Seats At dissolution

Incumbents seeking re-election



5 5




1 1 1


3 3 2






Until they won in Kelowna in 2015, the Liberals had not held a seat in the Interior since 1979. BC’s Interior cities have gradually become more urbanized with stronger university presence over the years in Kelowna, Kamloops, and Prince George. A Liberal win in 2019 would make a turning point, and they hope to do the same in Kamloops with star candidate Terry Lake, a former BC health minister.

NDP seats in the South Okanagan and East Kootenay are very vulnerable. High profile NDP MP Nathan Cullen is retiring in Skeena-Bulkley Valley. However, this is a riding with different politics than the rest of the Interior and North – perhaps belonging with Vancouver Island region, and will likely stand as the lone NDP seat ‘beyond Hope’.


It should be a major disappointment for Conservatives if they do not take 8 of 9 seats in BC’s Interior. Given their struggles to make gains in urban Canada, they must clean up outside the major cities.

The Liberals hope to maintain its Interior beachhead in Kelowna. While they are making a spirited charge in Kamloops, a win there would be political gravy. The Interior is not a region that is critical to win in order for the Liberals to hold power.

NDP disaster would be losing Skeena-Bulkley Valley. A key part of holding that seat is the First Nations vote, where it is one of the highest in Canada (I’ll look at First Nations vote in more detail in another post). Holding its two southern Interior seats looks unlikely in the face of a Conservative challenge combined with a new leader that is struggling to make his impact in BC.

Provincial wrap-up

National momentum can make a big difference in BC where three and four-way fights may send an MP to Ottawa with 30% of the vote. Certainly, BC is a region where the Conservatives have a significant opportunity. If they are able to reach north of 35% of the vote and have more than a 5% lead over the Liberals, they could win a majority of BC’s seats.

It’s fair to say the Liberals have a candidate advantage this election.  Almost all of their incumbents are running and they are strongly contesting what they feel are winnable seats.  The Conservatives squandered Burnaby-North Vancouver and, overall, their BC team lacks recognizable figures.  Both parties can look back to 2004 when the Paul Martin Liberals, and BC master strategist Mark Marissen, put a lot of focus on gaining seats in BC, recruiting Ujjal Dosanjh and David Emerson, and issuing a ‘made in BC’ agenda. That extended to the 2006 election when the Conservatives won the federal election, but paradoxically lost some ground in BC.  It takes commitment and support from party leadership to recruit candidates and strengthen the ground game. 

As outlined in an earlier post, the Conservative pathway to power depends on winning in the neighbourhood of 75% of the seats in Western Canada. While Alberta and Saskatchewan are looking very good for Andrew Scheer, winning at least half of BC’s 42 seats will be a necessity.

As of today, the Conservatives are poised to make some gains, nibbling away at seats in the Interior and possibly on the Island.  The big question mark is whether the Conservatives can challenge the Liberals’ strong position in the Lower Mainland.

We can expect to see four parties, and quite possibly an independent, win on election night.  We can also expect to see BC play an important role in shaping the next government.

As of today, expect the parties to be in the following range:

Table 6:     Party ranges Island (7) Vancouver core (13) L.M. suburbs / Valley (13) Interior / North (9)
Liberal 0-2 6-10 3-10 0-2
CPC 0-4 0-5 3-10 5-9
NDP 0-6 3-5 0-3 0-3
Green 1-5 0 0 0
Independent 0-1

My general range estimates provide a universe of 24 seats of the Liberals, 28 for the Conservatives, 17 for the NDP, 5 for the Greens, and 1 for JWR.  Conversely, the floor for parties in BC looks to be 9 for the Liberals, 8 for the Conservatives, 3 for the NDP, and 1 for the Greens.  So, that’s a range of 21 (low) to 75 (high) seats across the party universes. Obviously, I’m hedging with two weeks to go, but in BC, it’s wise to hedge.  Given the nature of this campaign, a soft breeze one way or another may tilt three and four way races into the lap of our next prime minister, or into the lap of a leader – Mr. Singh or Ms. May – who will decide who is the next prime minister.  They both represent BC ridings – if BC doesn’t ‘elect’ a majority government at the polls, a BC leader will likely help ‘elect’ a new government at Rideau Hall or in the House of Commons.

50 years ago: Sweet triumph and dashed hopes on the campaign trail in B.C.

50 years ago this week, in the riding of Dewdney, an earnest 36-year old father of five stepped into a provincial election campaign, hopeful for a breakthrough for a new generation of politics. Instead, Premier W.A.C. Bennett outfoxed the opposition parties, earning an unprecedented seventh consecutive term.

It was W.A.C.’s greatest and sweetest electoral triumph, but it was also his last.

This is the story of that campaign, what led up to it, and how its outcome changed the course of BC politics. It’s also the story of Peter McDonald, Liberal, Dewdney riding.

My Dad.

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Front page of 4-page McDonald campaign brochure

Leading up to 1969

Politics were very lively in the 1960s. Federally, John Diefenbaker and Lester Pearson dueled three times between 1962 and 1965.

Unrest and tumult south of the border were in full view – civil rights, Vietnam, and, in 1968, the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy. Pierre Trudeau catapulted into the leadership of the Liberal Party of Canada on a wave of “Trudeaumania.”

The times were a changin’, but not so much in British Columbia.

The Social Credit government was clocking in at 17 consecutive years. Impatient politicians like 36-year old BC NDP leader Tom Berger, an accomplished lawyer, and 42-year old BC Liberal leader Pat McGeer, a prominent academic, sought to surf generational undercurrents into office against the man who seemed from another time – W.A.C. Bennett.

The response from this 69-year old, teetotalling merchant from Kelowna? The Good Life– a grand narrative of progress under Social Credit rule combined with blunt attacks on the Opposition as Marxist radicals.

Like many long-serving governments, they were young when they started but now looking old.

In the previous four elections, W.A.C. had faced NDP (and CCF) leader Robert Strachan. Each time, same result – a Socred majority. In six mandates, the Socreds had disposed of three CCF/NDP leaders, not to mention chewing through Liberal and Conservatives leaders as well.

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B.C. popular vote: 1952-1966

Though Strachan was 13 years younger than W.A.C., he was facing a challenge from a even younger generation within the NDP. In 1966, Tom Berger was elected MLA from Vancouver Burrard at age 32. He had already been a one-term Member of Parliament, president of the BC NDP, and built a reputation as a labour and aboriginal rights lawyer.

There was no doubt he was an up-and-comer.

Berger challenged Strachan in 1967. In a party convention, Strachan pushed Berger back and remained leader, but the damage was done – to Strachan, and ultimately to Berger too. The party was deeply divided. Strachan resigned as leader in 1969, setting up a leadership race between Berger, backed by Labour leaders, and Dave Barrett, first elected in 1960 and, like Berger, still in his 30s.

It was a hotly contested battle. Berger edged out Barrett, entrenching deep divisions. It was now Berger’s task to dethrone W.A.C., a man clearly of another era.

Meanwhile, the Liberals were also in the midst of a change. Outgoing leader Ray Perrault took on the leadership in 1959 and led the party through three elections. He restored credibility, electing a small but talented caucus – but the party was stuck on 20% of the popular vote. It wouldn’t budge.

Perrault opted to leave for federal politics and in 1968, pulled off one of the great upsets in BC federal political history, shockingly defeating national NDP leader Tommy Douglas.

A leadership was contested between two seatmates from Point Grey – Dr. Pat McGeer and Garde Gardom, with McGeer prevailing. The nephew of former Vancouver mayor/MLA/Senator/MP Gerry McGeer, he had a political pedigree and lengthy list of education credentials to match it. He entered the 1969 campaign, leading a strong slate of candidates,  sure it was their time for a breakthrough.

In the riding of Dewdney, stretching from the blueberry farms of Pitt Meadows to the corn fields of Agassiz, a young, small businessman was gearing up for his provincial run.

Peter McDonald engaged his passion for politics when he moved to Haney in 1959. He managed his brother’s federal Liberal campaign in 1965, was elected as Alderman in Maple Ridge, and was an active participant in Liberal conventions. He even had a chance encounter with Robert Kennedy during the 1968 primaries, further adding fuel to his political engine.

PMM launch.png

For years, he ran the Haney Liberal association, which had a strong and active membership. Now was the time to plant a Liberal flag in a riding that had swung in recent years between the NDP and the Socreds. Held by Socred cabinet minister Lyle Wicks in the 1950s, a social worker named Dave Barrett took a job at Haney Correctional Institute. He was encouraged to run by a visiting CCF MLA and then tracked down the local CCF stalwart (and renowned school teacher) Hank Tyson in a Haney parking lot to declare his interest. As Barrett became politically active, he was fired by the Social Credit government. It was front page news; Barrett went on to win the NDP nomination and ultimately dispatched Wicks in the 1960 election.

Barrett represented Dewdney until 1966 then moved to a newly-created seat after a boundaries change. That opened up Dewdney for George Mussallem, a local car dealer whose father, Sol, was a longtime reeve of Maple Ridge. Mussallem restored the seat to the Socreds in 1966 and was readying himself for re-election in 1969. The NDP nominated young lawyer Stu Leggatt.

For McDonald, winning would be a longshot, but the wave of Trudeaumania that propelled Liberals to their best-ever showing in B.C. was just a year old. They hoped a tired governing party would find that momentum irresistible.



Three images above are a one-fold, horizontal flip brochure for McDonald campaign (front, inside, back).  The candidate is clearly starting far into the future while the rest of the family is clearly delighted that the youngest child is asleep in his cradle. On inside flap, a copywriter’s line has double-meaning: “His wife, Helen, and their five children have provided Peter with justifiable reason to be concerned about problems facing Dewdney and B.C.” I’ll say!

The Good Life

W.A.C. headed into the 1969 campaign touting The Good Life. David Mitchell writes:

Screen Shot 2019-08-29 at 8.39.59 AMAfter seventeen years in power, Canada’s senior premier declared: “Today, British Columbia is the No. 1 haveprovince in the nation… No other government with only 2 million people can do what we are doing”. In the spring of 1969, in what was widely believed to be the kickoff for a provincial election, the premier embarked on a 10,000 mile grandstanding tour of the province showing audiences of all sizes a controversial government-commissioned film, a glossy review of the rise of British Columbia. Its title was – what else – “The Good Life”.

Underpinning TheGood Life were the benefits that flowed from natural resource development, industrial expansion, and fiscal restraint. While governments elsewhere ran deficits, W.A.C.’s governments ran surpluses. This message spoke to the Socred base of small businesses, farmers, and, generally, rural BC. In 1969, the outlying areas of the province had much more political clout than they do today.

The May 8, 1969, edition of the Vancouver Sun ran the transcript of The Good Lifein its entirety. It describes successes, industry by industry, from forestry to petroleum to tourism. W.A.C. describes new programs to assist young homeowners, and extolls the province’s health care and education system, and its parks and natural beauty. The 27-minute film closes with W.A.C.’s final exhortation:

“Through this great unity of purpose British Columbians have achieved the good life and we are on the way to become an affluent society. In this abundant life, God has given us a great trusteeship. He has given us an opportunity to serve our generation not only our generation but those yet to come. And for my part in that purpose I am truly grateful.”

W.A.C. took the film on the road, showing it to audiences across the province. Barely three years into his mandate, only he knew when the next election would take place. The other parties would be kept guessing while the Premier assessed the effectiveness of his publicity blitz.

A Prince George Progress editorial (June 4th, carried in the Hope Standard), sums up the skepticism toward the film and also its effectiveness.

“The Good Life” was shown at the Northern Interior Lumbermen’s Convention on Friday and in several occasions becomes obvious why it’s controversial… The film, which opens and closes with the Premier’s smiling countenance and expansive feelings about B.C. also tends to boggle the mind with facts and figures… All in all, however, the film does justice to the province and if there was ever a media capable of enticing immigrants from “those other provinces”, “The Good Life” is it.

 W.A.C.’s devotion to The Good Life message was impressive. Upon astronaut Neil Armstrong’s first footsteps on the moon, he remarked to the press gallery “he still thanks God for ‘the good earth’ and B.C. in particular – the province of the ‘the good life’”. In that same interview, he was asked about rumors of a potential fall election. W.A.C. said his mind “is only on that wonderful flight to the moon.”

He called the election the very next day.

The Electoral Standings

The parties entered the 1969 campaign much as they had in the previous four. The Socreds ranged from 39% to 46%; the CCF from 28% to 34%; and the Liberals were on a very small decline from 22% to 20%. For their part, the Progressive Conservatives had been vanquished.

The Campaign Kicks Off with Turbo-Polarization

“Bennett Lays His Good Life on the Line” is the above the fold headline on July 22nd.

The page one article quotes W.A.C. as saying Marxist socialism is masquerading under the name of the NDP and that he was staking his party on the “bread and butter issue” – the welfare of B.C. workers.

W.A.C. said, “This will be the election of the great switch. Liberals and Conservatives will be voting for us as they have never before… The issue is a clear-cut one between the NDP Marxian socialists and the free enterprise Social Credit.”

Berger retorted that the election announcement was a “hysterical outburst by a pathetic old man clinging desperately to office”.

McGeer was bullish: “I would certainly be satisfied with a minority government, although of course, everyone hopes to win a majority. There’s no region in which we’re weak. I know we’re going to astonish the press who have misread the situation entirely in terms of free enterprise and socialism.”

The Teams

 The Socreds had continuity at the top, but there was some churn in the team. Longtime Attorney-General Robert Bonner left politics in 1968. While a handful remained, many that started the Socred voyage in 1952 and been outlasted by their premier. Phil Gaglardi was back though. He had been bounced from cabinet for transgressions but hadn’t given up on politics.

The pirate mayor of Nanaimo Frank Ney had emerged to take on NDP MLA Dave Stupich. W.A.C. hoped to win Oak Bay with Dr. Scott Wallace and wrestle the seat from the Liberals. Former Vancouver mayor, and former Liberal candidate, Bill Rathie, was recruited to run against McGeer and Gardom. Football and broadcasting legend Annis Stukus contested North Vancouver-Seymour against Liberal MLA and broadcaster Barrie Clark.

Berger had only been leader since the spring. He had 17 seats, and would need another 11 for a majority. Two seats were for the taking in Vancouver-Centre, contested by Emery Barnes and lawyer William Deverell. The Party had won a byelection in Vancouver South and hoped for a second seat for Party linchpin John Laxton. Ridings with significant unionized workforces like Skeena, Alberni, and Rossland Trail were in Socred hands.

McGeer started with a base of six MLAs concentrated in  Point Grey and the North Shore, with one MLA in Oak Bay. Renowned UBC forest economist Peter Pearse ran in Vancouver-Little Mountain. David Zirnhelt, the high-profile head of the UBC AMS, ran in his home riding of the Cariboo. Mel Couvelier and Ian Stewart were regarded as strong candidates in Victoria. Rancher Mack Bryson was expected to make a strong showing in Kamloops, following in the footsteps of Len Marchand’s decisive federal win in 1968. Longtime Prince Rupert mayor Pete Lester signed on to McGeer’s team. Young candidates like Tex Enemark (Fort George) and Bob Plecas (Nanaimo) were recruited to fly the flag.

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Progressive Conservative leader John de Wolf was the only candidate for his party, running in  Point Grey.

 The Dewdney campaign

Looking back on the Liberal campaign in Dewdney, it was impressive. For a party that had not seen great results there for decades, Peter McDonald was all in.

McDonald pushed the issues with vigor. In a hand scrawled list, planned news releases included “School Taxation Cuts”, “North Shore Highway”, “Incentives for Secondary Industry”, “Blueprint for the Fraser Valley”, “Lougheed Highway”, and “B.C. Hydro”. Stories were targeted to newspapers in Haney, Mission, and Agassiz.

IMG_6462He championed water quality in the Alouette River, decrying it as unsafe for swimmers due to a pollution issue upstream from the provincial prison. Photos showed him collecting water samples that were sent to the lab, bolstering his claims.

IMG_6453News releases bombarded local media and he earned mentions in the Vancouver papers as well. Leader Pat McGeer came to the riding to make the rounds (“McGeer listens to Farmers’ Beefs”). Door knocking abounded. Lawn signs sprouted up.

McGeer HM PM

McGeer (centre) attending campaign event at McDonald home on River Road, Haney.  Helen McDonald (left), Peter McDonald (right)

Political campaigns always have an impact on the family of the candidate; it is very difficult for a candidate to run without his or her family’s full backing. McDonald had the unwavering support of his wife, Helen. Vertical strips from the Haney phone book were tacked to the wall by the phone. Each strip was a column of phone numbers that Helen would phone to seek support for Peter, while raising five kids 13 and under – including me, at 9 months old.


Shrine to the McDonald campaign on bedroom door

His oldest daughter, Sara, recalled the humiliation of riding in the Liberal parade car desperately trying to avoid being seen by slumping down low and avoiding eye contact with classmates.

McDonald was pulling out the stops – he just needed to wait for that Liberal wave.

NDP candidate Stu Legatt’s campaign ran newspaper ads with that old beauty of a slogan, “Time for a Change.”


MLA George Mussallem rolled out the Socred messaging: “Socialism has no place here” and “The Good Life is for everybody. We have the system and the government… Our future will be assured.”


 The Campaign – prosecuting the Marxists

 W.A.C. made his case for the Good Life. However, to sustain his attacks on the new, ‘city slicker’ ‘Marxist’ labour lawyer, Tom Berger, he needed a hook.

Shortly after his bruising leadership campaign against Dave Barrett, Berger said he would nationalize BC Tel. It wasn’t planned, but the policy had been floated by NDP MLAs during the leadership race. It gave W.A.C. an opening. W.A.C. had formed state-run companies BC Ferries and BC Hydro – but in 1969, this was apparently a step too far.

Five days into the campaign, Berger was on page two of the Vancouver Sun explaining his BC Tel promise. That old saying comes to mind, “If you’re explaining, you’re losing.”

According to Pat McGeer’s book Politics in Paradise, Bennett blamed many circumstances on Berger. A wildcat transit strike in Vancouver: “Wasn’t that a terrible thing for Berger to call the bus strike?”

Berger’s own messaging played into Bennett’s strategy. Geoff Meggs and Rod Mickleburgh recount in their book The Art of the Impossible that NDP billboards and newspaper ads featured Berger in a suit carrying a briefcase, with the headline “Ready to Govern.” Berger had told the NDP convention, “The time has come to form government.” Bennett responded with, “Strike pay with Berger or take-home pay with Bennett”.

Having an NDP leader talking about governing was exactly what Bennett wanted. Combined with having Berger on the defensive over BC Tel, he was successfully polarizing the election ensuring that enough voters would reinforce the old premier rather than risk a ‘radical’ NDP government by voting NDP or vote-splitting by voting Liberal.

A key distinction between W.A.C. Bennett’s campaigns and those that followed to current day is the perception of whose side the parties are on. W.A.C. ran against the elites. He nationalized the ferries and the electricity company, and built major hydroelectric dams.

He may have been older, outdated, and not with the times – but he put himself on Main Street, B.C – not a natural place for the labour lawyer or  the Point Grey academic from Point Grey.

The Campaign Takes Shape

There was no leaders’ debate. Opinion polls were forbidden during the campaign. All parties had large rallies around the province where hundreds would attend, often punctuated by heckling.

There was a lot of print media coverage, but it was difficult for the opposition parties to lead the narrative. In a post-election article, Vancouver Sun columnist Allan Fotheringham tabulated that during the campaign, his paper devoted 537.5 inches of type to the Socreds on page one, compared to 273 inches for the NDP, and 159.5 inches to the Liberals. Columnists devoted three times as much ink to the Socreds as the NDP and very little to the Liberals.

Presumably, the Socreds had a much bigger war chest as well, not to mention the Good Life campaign that preceded the campaign.

Regardless, the media –as the media does – generated coverage that built the sense it was a hot race. From afar, the Regina Leader-Post said, “This will be no cut-and-dried contest.” The Toronto Globe & Mail opined that, “Many Canadians, in and out of British Columbia, would rejoice in Mr. Bennett’s defeat”, comparing him to Quebec separatist Réne Levesque. The recent election of Ed Schreyer’s NDP government in Manitoba fueled speculation.

In the first week of the campaign, the Socreds had an unexpected issue in Rossland-Trail. Robert Sommers, who had served as Minister of Forests (and also two years of a five-year jail term for bribery and conspiracy in the issuing of forest management licenses) attempted a political comeback by challenging the Socred incumbent. The drama played out over the first week of the campaign, but ended July 28thwhen Sommers protested the rules and withdrew from the race. A threat to run as an independent did not materialize.

The leaders criss-crossed the province, with a majority of seats outside the Lower Mainland. In fact, it was reported by Canadian Press on July 30ththat McGeer was shadowing Berger’s tour through itinerary a day later.

That same day, W.A.C. struck hard: “Mr. Berger has said himself he’s a Marxist socialist, though he’s trying to back away from it now. He’s scared everybody including himself.” Nine days in, W.A.C. was still on his core message. Ten days in, the Vancouver Sun’s lead editorial was “Mr. Berger and the telephone company…”

On August 7th, W.A.C. continued his focus on making the choice between “Bennett or Chaos; free enterprise or the heavy hand of state socialism”, he charged. That same day, the Province editorial page dedicated more time to Berger’s BC Tel “takeover.”

With 15 days to Election Day, reporter Bob McConnell wrote that, at that point of the campaign, W.A.C. had not toured. While he had traveled to a First Ministers’ conference, when he was in B.C., he was in his riding “sketching out the issue (free enterprise versus Marxian socialism)”.

He had made some promises such as second mortgages at lower interest rates, increased old-age pension supplements, and more spending. None of his cabinet ministers had made any major speeches or policy statements and the party seemed to be relying “mainly on a fat budget for radio, TV, and newspaper advertising.”

Once W.A.C. was on the road, he made waves. In a noisy Salmon Arm rally on August 13th, he said that an anti-Trudeau demonstration in Vancouver was organized by Berger. Amidst the noise of the hecklers, W.A.C. charged, “You can see it here tonight – that’s their tactics.” The Vancouver Sun devoted an article below to Berger’s denial. Berger said, “We have found no one listens to Bennett any more and no one believes him. These attacks make me angry… but I’m not going to reply in kind.”

With 9 days to Election Day, McConnell reported that NDP strategists were “flatly predicting victory,” stating they would hold their 17 seats and pick up another 11 in places like Rossland-Trail, Prince Rupert, Alberni, Dewdney, Nelson Creston, and Vancouver-Centre. The NDP sources claimed they had stronger volunteer support than previous campaigns. Socred strategists responded that they too had unprecedented volunteer support and while Berger and McGeer started touring early, the Socred’s “big guns are just starting to open up.”

At a rally of 800 supporters in Kamloops, W.A.C. promised that ‘Flyin’ Phil Gaglardi would return to cabinet full-time, a rare promise of cabinet-making on the campaign trail. For his part, Berger announced that former NDP leader Bob Strachan would serve his as a “senior cabinet minister” if elected.

On the streets of Vancouver-Centre, NDP candidates Emery Barnes and William Deverell were campaigning aggressively to unseat the two Social Credit incumbents. A post-campaign feature in MacLean’s profiled the duo.

 Liberal Hopes

As the campaign wore on, the Liberals were in desperate bid to stay relevant. They were not without their successes.




A 700-car parade of Liberal supporters was held in Kamloops, which, by any metric, should be a sign of victory.

McGeer said the Liberals could win a minority government with 21 seats and that eight seats were “swing” seats, which could give him a majority. He even provided a list, which included Dewdney.



In Dewdney, news releases trumpeted a three-way race. “All our surveys indicate that at the present time the election is a toss-up in Dewdney”, announced the McDonald campaign. “People are dissatisfied with the high-handed, arrogant practices of the Social Credit government.”


McDonald brought in legendary newspaper editor Ma Murray for a rally late in the campaign, garnering a strong turnout in Haney. Not only did Ma entertain the crowd, she held court at the McDonald household until the wee hours of the morning regaling supporters with her stories while enjoying her drinks.

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McDonald and legendary news editor Ma Murray (Haney, 1969)

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The after-party with Ma Murray, which lasted into the wee hours of the morning.  Ma with promotional posters distributed by campaign volunteers Julia & Sylvia McDonald

The Liberal pitch was that the Socreds couldn’t last forever and a Liberal alternative was needed to keep the NDP out of power. Said McDonald, “Mr. Bennett’s present campaign policy, if successful, would put an NDP government into office in the election after this one.” He was right. But in the meantime, the message wasn’t getting through.

One example of the Socred grip was a generous donation McDonald received from a small businessman. However, not long after, he saw the same man leaving the office of George Mussallem, where he had given an even larger donation. When challenged as to which campaign he was supporting, the small businessman remarked, in effect, “Pete, you’re a nice guy, but you’re not going to win.”

And the water pollution issue that McDonald was making as a centrepiece of the campaign? The Socreds had thwarted him before the campaign even started. The source of the pollution identified, dealt with, and proclaimed safe, with a helpful front page letter to the editor from the local MLA.

safe water.png

In the outback, Liberals were realistic. In his book, Bill Bennett: A Mandarin’s View, Bob Plecas wrote about his experience as a 24-year old Liberal candidate in Nanaimo. He said he was told by the local newspaper that no matter what he did, including “standing on his head to give answers at all-candidates meeting”, he would get no coverage.

In the final analysis, Plecas said he had more relatives than votes. One headline he did receive in the Nanaimo Daily Free Press was, “McGeer’s Election Tour to Bypass Nanaimo.” McGeer would make it to Nanaimo late in the campaign.

The Final Week

In the homestretch, W.A.C. was returning to his core theme: “NDP Menace to Liberty”. While campaigning on the Sunshine Coast, W.A.C. took on the labour bosses: “It will be a dark day when the workers of this province follow their bosses on political things… I appeal to the union wives. Do you want the good wages you’re getting now? Or strike pay with Berger? Because there will be chaos.”

 Berger was promising to develop a rapid transit system for Vancouver and the Lower Mainland over a new Burrard Inlet crossing. He wanted commuter trains running on existing rail tracks, and BC Hydro (which then ran the bus system) to begin planning a subway system. At an Island rally, Berger promised public auto insurance.

With four days to go, a Canadian Press story quoted W.A.C. as saying, “This is not a campaign. This is just the tour of the province; I’m just a tourist.” He said he was enjoying the campaign “more than any other I’ve ever been in”.

In a separate CP news item, Berger was, again, responding to W.A.C.’s attacks. This time, W.A.C. had said an NDP victory would be like the Russians invasion of Czechoslovakia. Berger called the attacks “absurd.”

Berger pressed on with more campaign planks. On August 25th, he promised a new housing fund to provide first mortgages for home buyers at lower than federal CMHC interest rates.

Berger spoked at a rally of 7,000 in New Westminster. He said, “We’re ready to form a government. I’m calling for unity. I’m calling for mandate. I’m calling for victory.” Manitoba Premier Ed Schreyer voiced his support for Berger and noted that Manitoba has had a publicly-owned telephone company since 1912.

Vancouver Centre candidates Herb Capozzi and Evan Wolfe joined 250 of their campaign volunteers to build a playground at a low-rent housing project in their riding, with donated material. An interesting tactic in a close race.

On the eve of Election Day, Canadian Press reported that election strategists for the three parties were reconciling themselves to a potential minority government. All parties publicly predicted majorities.

Election Night

It was a resounding win for W.A.C. and the Socreds and a crushing loss for the NDP. While not totally unexpected, the Liberals’ optimism was dashed.

Social Credit           46.8%           (+1.2%)        38 seats (+6)

NDP                           33.9%           (+0.3%)        12 seats (-5)

Liberal                     19.0%           (-1.2%)         5 seats (-1)

Riding by Riding results

The 69-year old premier not only secured a 7thmandate for the Socreds, he increased the popular vote and added six seats to assume a dominant position in the Legislature. He defied expectations. He said, “Our cup runneth over.”

While holding the popular vote, the seat count was a disaster for Berger, losing almost one-third of his Caucus, including his own seat. The Liberals were stymied and lost their only seat on Vancouver Island, Oak Bay.

In Dewdney, Socred George Mussallem cruised to an easy victory with 51% of the vote. NDP Stu Leggatt took 37% while Liberal Peter McDonald accounted for 12% of the votes.

Front page headlines:

Vancouver Sun: Socreds Flatten Opposition

The Province: Bennett tightens his grip

Victoria Daily Times: Landslide Win for Bennett

Another Vancouver Sun A1 piece was headlined 7 Straight for Old Master. Sun reporter Dave Ablett writes, “The old man has run out of ideas, they said. And his anti-socialist extremism seemed totally out of place in the sophisticated 60s.” However, according to W.A.C.’s son, Bill, “My father said two weeks ago that it was the easiest campaign he’d run.”

After the Campaign


Tom Berger (

At age 36, Tom Berger was done with party politics. Without a seat, he resigned he party
leadership and essentially turned it over to Dave Barrett. Three years later, Barrett would be the premier, decisively defeating W.A.C. Bennett. He ran a very different campaign than Berger, focusing on opposing not governing, and using humor to disarm. Berger continued in law, as lead counsel for the Nisga’a in the historic Calder case, went to the bench, and has enjoyed a celebrated legal career receiving many accolades.

Many NDP candidates who lost in 1969 would be successful in 1972, such as Dave Stupich, Emery Barnes, Bill King, Harold Steeves, and Norm Levi. NDP candidate William Deverell went on to become one of Canada’s best-known novelists.

Pat McGeer continued on as Liberal leader initially, but by 1972 he had stepped away, to be succeeded by David Anderson, then a first-term MP from Victoria. With Anderson, the Liberals regressed. Ultimately, McGeer, his seatmate Garde Gardom, and West Vancouver MLA Allan Williams would cross the floor to the Socreds and join W.A.C.’s son W.R. Bennett for the 1975 campaign, where the Barrett government was defeated. The troika of erstwhile Liberals played senior roles in the younger Bennett’s cabinet.  Gardom went on to be Lieutenant-Governor, McGeer continues, with his wife, as an esteemed medical researcher at UBC.


W.R. Bennett (2nd from right) with his troika of Liberal MLAs (L to R): Allan Williams, Pat McGeer, and Garde Gardom (Vancouver Sun, 1974)

Liberal candidate Bob Plecas (Nanaimo) would enter the public service and play a major role in the senior ranks for decades. Victoria-area Liberal candidate Mel Couvelier would go on to serve as BC Liberal Party president and Mayor of Saanich, but would ultimately gravitate to the Socreds, running for the leadership in 1986 and served as Finance Minister. Cariboo David Zirnhelt would return to politics as an NDP candidate in the 1989 Cariboo byelection, scoring a major upset over the Socreds, a major event for the NDP on the way to victory in 1991.  He served as senior cabinet minister in the 1990s.

1969: Changing the course of BC politics

The 1969 campaign had two significant impacts.

First, it changed the NDP. Berger’s divisive leadership campaign, which consumed most of the 1966-1969 period, was all for naught. The outcome put the party in Dave Barrett’s hands, who would lead the party in the next four elections – significantly, winning the first in 1972. Under Barrett, the NDP reached record levels of popular vote.


Barrett’s 1969 brochure

Second, the ’69 campaign had a major impact on the Liberals too. The loss of a seat, and modest dip in popular support were big disappointments. The futility of trying to win as a free enterprise alternative was reinforced in 1972. Within five years of the 1969 election, three Liberal MLAs, including McGeer, dramatically crossed the floor to the Socreds.

In reality, the Liberal formula was flawed. They had not broadened their appeal beyond the “silk stocking” seats of Vancouver and Victoria and lacked a populist appeal. McGeer, an “egghead,” embodied the traditional Liberal base, which Liberals failed to break out of federally or provincially for a generation.

It wasn’t until Gordon Wilson channeled W.A.C. by running against the elites that the Liberals returned to prominence in British Columbia. Gordon Campbell reconstituted the coalition against the ‘Marxist socialists’ that had defined B.C. politics since 1941.

Then there are the little things. In the 1968 Oak Bay byelection, W.A.C. sought the election of a Socred in a seat held by the Liberals for many years. At a rally at Oak Bay High, W.A.C. pleaded, “How many years does a premier have to wait?” Socred Peter Pollen (future mayor of Victoria) was defeated by Oak Bay mayor and Liberal candidate Allan Cox. One year later, Socred candidate Dr. Scott Wallace defeated Cox in what Pat McGeer called “the biggest upset” of 1969. It was certainly upsetting to him.

However, it would soon upset W.A.C. One of only 38 MLAs, Wallace was a mere backbencher and his ideas for health care reform were shot down by the government. By 1971, he had crossed the floor to the Progressive Conservatives, giving them their first MLA in 15 years. Combined with a new, vigorous leader, the Progressive Conservatives would help destroy the Social Credit campaign in 1972. In the end, W.A.C. may have wished Oak Bay voters had waited a little longer.

Thus the stage was set coming out of 1969 for both a stronger NDP and reaction to a stronger NDP – a realigned and consolidated free enterprise movement. By 1975, Barrett had already been premier, and W.A.C.’s son, Bill Bennett, was about to begin, with the former leader of the Liberals at his side.

A candidate’s ending

Like many candidates, Peter McDonald gave it his best shot. “You can’t win if you don’t run” is an argument I have certainly used while recruiting candidates over the years – and his possibilities were much better than other longshot bets that did pay off (like the Liberals in 1991).

And like many candidates, he got it out of his system; he never ran again.

Disappointment at the result, sure, but there’s nothing he could have done. The Liberal opportunity to win in Dewdney would have seemed hopeless after the 1969 campaign – and it was for a generation.

It was the discovery of a box of election materials in the basement that sparked my interest in politics. I could not begin to understand the lists, brochures, and newspaper clippings. It was like another world, one that I would fully embrace once I began to comprehend.

It was a tremendous benefit to me as a young person starting out in politics to have had a father that ran for office, without much chance of winning, but running out of passion and purpose. Much like it was for my friend, Christy, whose dad, Jim Clark, also ran for the Liberals during that era.

As I reflect back on campaigns past, it’s also a reminder that candidates make contributions, even if they don’t have a chance of winning. They drive issues. They hold the leaders accountable. It’s a noble endeavor to run when you are likely not going to prevail.

A further example I took from this campaign was the collegiality. While I was only eight months old during the 1969 campaign, in later years I would often hear my Dad speak about George Mussallem and Stu Leggatt. They were friends. He had a deep respect for both. Despite the polarization and rhetoric at the leadership level, at the local level, there was mutual respect.

Late in the campaign, Dad was going down to defeat. On what I imagine was a sunny August day, he set out to knock on doors on Nicomen Island, a farming community east of Mission. He was greeted like a hero. It seemed like no one had ever bothered to visit farming families there before. He was welcomed into homes for tea and cookies, there were back slaps, and a feeling that support had been won.

On election night, as dismal results flooded in, McDonald leaned over to his brother Harold and said, “Just wait for Nicomen Island to come in.”

Well, the good people of Nicomen Island overwhelmingly voted Socred that day, saving only one vote for McDonald.

Nice guy, that Peter McDonald, but it seems those Nicomen Islanders were enjoying The Good Life and sure as hell didn’t want any Marxist Socialists.

At least, that’s the story I heard.

(Originally published in The Orca)

A local take on the Burnaby South by-election

Guest Shot – by Adam Pankratz.  2015 Liberal candidate in Burnaby South.

Burnaby South has been in the news a lot lately. Burnaby? In the news? Not something we used to read very often, but Burnaby residents have gotten used to the spotlight lately. Whether it’s Kinder Morgan in the north, or Jagmeet Singh in the south, Burnaby’s ridings have been the focal points of several major news stories for 2018 and 2019.

Political observers are talking about how Jagmeet Singh will fare in his bid to gain a seat and become an MP as he deals with turmoil within the NDP. Win or lose Mr. Singh will face serious headwinds…but lose and he’s finished. Will the voters of Burnaby give him his victory and a chance to lead the NDP into the next general election in October?

Kinder Morgan – it’s the issue everyone wanted to talk about 6 months ago, and Jagmeet Singh opened his candidacy by attacking the “leaky pipeline.” I said then that Mr Singh missed the mark with Kinder Morgan, which is a minor issue in Burnaby, and not one that would decide the by-election here. The current situation in Burnaby, despite all the attention heaped on it through the summer and fall, is that no candidate is focused on Kinder Morgan. Burnaby residents are ultimately practical and realistic on Kinder Morgan, as are most Canadians. Responsible resources extraction is necessary for the Canadian economy and the residents here recognize that. It is a very loud minority who made it the issue it was.

What the candidates have all zeroed in on is the major issue in Burnaby of housing. It is the issue which sank Derek Corrigan, the four-term mayor of Burnaby, who lost to current mayor Mike Hurley last October.  Once again, the issue is front and centre. Like all the Lower Mainland, Burnaby is expensive and residents here want to see more action taken at all levels of government.

These issues are in many ways similar to the ones I came across doorknocking and speaking with residents during my 2015 federal election campaign. During that election there was also serious concern about the Harper Government and their impact on Canada’s image and sense of ourselves as a compassionate society. Canadians want a government that listens to them and understands their concerns and Burnaby residents are no different. That is why I always thought, and still do, that Mr Singh’s major challenge this by-election is gaining local credibility with Burnaby voters.


Pankratz campaign: won Election Day, but could not overcome strong NDP machine delivering support to the advance poll.

Mr Singh clearly thinks Burnaby is an NDP slam dunk or he wouldn’t be here. History is on his side, but will Burnaby voters deliver what Mr Singh expects? “All Burnaby” ridings (that is, ridings entirely within Burnaby, not split over city boundaries) have gone NDP for over 40 years. Mr. Singh and the NDP clearly are hoping for a repeat of the voting pattern in October.

There is, however danger in this. Burnaby is changing and the 2015 general election proved that. In that election Burnaby North Seymour went Liberal and in Burnaby South the incumbent Kennedy Stewart narrowly hung on to best me by 547 votes. But the larger gamble the NDP and Mr Singh are taking is assuming that Burnaby residents are the same as they were 40 years go (they aren’t) and thinking they will readily accept a candidate who parachuted in, with no community connections.

I believe Burnaby residents want an MP who knows the community and understand them. I remember distinctly that the most common response to our team in 2015, an election in which we doorknocked for over a year prior to Election Day, was “No one has knocked on my door since Svend was our MP.” “Svend” is, of course, Svend Robinson, who served Burnaby for 25 years as MP. Like him or hate him, Svend was someone who understood Burnaby, worked tirelessly to be present locally as an MP and develop personal relationships with his constituents. Svend’s rival at the time, Bill Cunningham (Liberal) and successor (Bill Siksay) also had deep, long standing relationships with Burnaby. Burnaby misses this. It is no doubt one of the key reasons our election campaign did so well in 2015, despite the entrenched NDP history. Local wins here. The fact that recent NDP representative Kennedy Stewart resigned as MP and immediately began touting that he was from Vancouver and always wanted the job of Vancouver Mayor has only deepened the desire of Burnaby residents for a long-term MP intent on local priorities and issues.

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Svend: Knocker of Doors, also now on Twitter (photo: CBC)

What can we expect of this by-election?  At the outset my opinion, bluntly put, was that Jagmeet Singh should have lost Burnaby South decisively. However, current events have conspired to make that loss seem unlikely.

Due to the close race in 2015, the story everyone (sensibly) made was that this would be a tight race between the Liberals and the NDP. However, the former Liberal candidate, Karen Wang, was forced to resign due to comments she made on WeChat regarding Mr Singh. This botched campaign start, followed by the scramble to replace her has hurt Liberal credibility locally. Now, the national Liberal scene is being shaken by the SNC-Lavalin affair. Does this mean the Liberals are cooked in Burnaby South? No, but they have made their lives significantly more difficult than it ought to have been.

One party not being talked about at all is the Conservatives in Burnaby. They have flown under the radar in this by-election despite strong results in 2011 (40%) and even 2015 (27%), given the circumstances. In my mind they were a dark horse contender until the People’s Party of Canada was founded. This long shot is now essentially non-existent.

The PPC is running an ostensibly strong candidate in former local school trustee candidate from 2018 Laura-Lynn Tyler Thompson. Ms Thompson has been controversial for her anti-SOGI comments and stance on similar issues, yet still received over 15,000 votes in the 2018 municipal election. While campaign signs don’t mean anything at the ballot box, it’s hard not to notice the disproportionately high amount of PPC signs around Burnaby, given the party is supposed to almost be a fringe joke nationally. If Ms Thompson can rally her supporters from 2018, I would watch for the PPC to seriously surprise people and perhaps even see Burnaby South legitimize the PPC as a minor party.

Jagmeet Singh meanwhile continues to be at best an unknown, enigmatic figure for most Burnaby residents. He talks in bland platitudes, doesn’t have a clear stance on anything and equivocates when asked direct questions. At his first press conference he claimed to be “All in on Burnaby.” He isn’t. His strategy seems to be “Burnaby will vote NDP no matter what.” Past that, it’s hard to see any notable impact he has made on the community or its residents.

In the end, despite his lack of connection to the riding and lack of understanding as to what makes Burnaby tick, I foresee Mr Singh and the NDP pulling this one out on the basis of history. The Liberals did themselves no favours in the run up to or first half of the by-election and simply have too much ground to make up. The Conservatives will be split by the PPC and fade away.

So the surprise is that the Liberals and Conservatives do not look like they can take advantage of a weak NDP leader with no connection to Burnaby, while the upstart PPC might have a boost that puts fuel in its tank.  Politics is always interesting in BC.

By-election primer: a stroll through 150 years of Nanaimo politics

Premiers. Coal barons and coal disasters. Firebrands.  Death.  Champions of the working class.  Champions of Women’s Suffrage. Party leaders. Cabinet veterans. Speakers. Underdogs.  Coalition Makers.  Scandal.  Crushed Grapes. “The Greatest Canadian”. A pirate.  A less than sober coronation.  As we look toward Nanaimo’s January 30thbyelection, I graze through the history of one of BC’s most intriguing ridings.

How Victoria was Crowned by Nanaimo

When former Vancouver Province ace reporter and award-winning author Don Hauka steps out his front door in the Royal City and gazes south, he likely has trouble mustering kind thoughts about one of Nanaimo’s earliest representatives who influenced the course of history, while under the influence.

Hauka lives on 5thStreet in New Westminster.  The street is much wider than other streets because it was to be the boulevard leading up to the provincial legislature that was supposed to be built there when the colonies of Vancouver Island and British Columbia united in 1866.

Captain William Hales Franklyn, representative from Nanaimo, was a former ship’s captain who wound up in the Harbour City after having thrown one of his passengers into irons. He favoured New Westminster as the capital of the newly unified colony.  Victoria was regarded by Nanaimoites as its “cruel stepmother”.   According to

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Franklyn: Quite a spectacle

famed BC historian Margaret Ormsby, he intended to make a strong statement in favour of the mainland capital, but on the day of the debate, he was a “little shaky” owing to some refreshments consumed. His seatmate, Victoria supporter William George Cox, seized on the opportunity.  The ship’s captain rose reading from his prepared text comparing New Westminster on the Fraser River to Calcutta on the Hoogley River, arguing that New Westminster would enjoy Calcutta’s prosperity.  However, as he finished the first page, Cox shuffled the papers to put page one back at the top, which Franklyn re-read, repeating his parallel to Calcutta.  This happened a third time and hilarity and mayhem ensued.  In the meantime, Franklyn had put his spectacles on the table whereupon Cox removed the lenses from their frame so that Franklyn “could not see the Hoogley or anything else”.  The House was in an uproar as the hapless Franklyn twisted in the wind.  Speaker John Helmcken, a firm supporter of Victoria’s bid, moved a recess then, when the House reassembled, he ruled that Franklyn could not make a second speech.  Victoria went on to win the vote 13-8 and the rest is history.  Franklyn was removed from his post not long after by a disappointed Governor Seymour who favoured New Westminster.  And 150 years later, Don Hauka is not prepared to forgive Franklyn’s bumbling nor Victoria’s treachery.

Sheesh, all that before Confederation.  What about the next 150 years?

With the Nanaimo byelection taking place January 30th, it caused me to reflect on Nanaimo’s history in provincial politics.  The following is a glimpse – a few stories and a little colour.  I am not pretending to be an expert when it comes to Nanaimo’s history, but I lived in the area for over 15 years and certainly find it interesting. I encourage comments to add insight and missing facts, especially where I have missed the mark.  There are few riding histories that I’m aware of that connect modern-day politics to BC’s beginnings as a province.  Nanaimo is a good place to start.  Political junkies, enjoy.

(A quick note on ridings. The names have bounced around over the years.  There has always been at least one core Nanaimo riding and sometimes two or three that represent the area. The name ‘Newcastle’ was used for many decades in riding names and is tied to Newcastle Island in Nanaimo, which in turn drew its name from the heart of coal mining in the UK.  For this post, I relied heavily on the Electoral History of British Columbia 1871-1986 and refer to other sources throughout the post)

A future Premier elected right off the bat

In the first election as a province, Nanaimo elected a premier.  He wasn’t the premier then and there, but John Robson would ultimately become premier of BC and have its highest peak and one of its most famous streets bear his name.

Robson was a lively force.  A newspaper editor, he was cited by contempt by Chief Justice Matthew Baillie Begbie, and was a burr under the saddle of Governor Douglas.  He moved his newspaper from New Westminster to Victoria and sold it to the rival Daily British Colonist (precursor of today’s Times-Colonist). He was a strong supporter of BC joining Confederation, and when BC joined in 1871, he ran and won in Nanaimo with 57 votes to his opponent’s 33.  He only served one-term representing Nanaimo but he went on to an important career in provincial politics representing other areas, ultimately assuming the premiership in 1889.  He died in office, in 1892, when he hurt his finger in the door of a carriage during a visit to London and succumbed to blood poisoning.

Robson was one of two premiers who represented Nanaimo during their career.

Democracy and the Dunsmuirs

Nanaimo before and after Confederation was a coal town. There are many good books and sources about Nanaimo’s coal history, especially by author Jan Peterson, who has written six local histories. In fact, I would defer completely to Peterson on any historical points.

An excerpt from a column in the Times-Colonist by Peterson describes the origins of coal in Nanaimo:

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Coal Tyee: He brought coal to the attention of the HBC (BC Archives)

A chance encounter between Snuneymuxw Chief Che-wich-i-kan [or Ki-et-sa-kun] and a blacksmith in Victoria set the wheels of development in Nanaimo in place. Che-wich-i-kan, historically referred to as “Coal Tyee,” had gone to Victoria to have his gun repaired. He commented about black stones being plentiful in his area. This conversation was repeated to HBC authorities, who then invited the chief to bring some of his black stones to Victoria. In return, he would get a bottle of rum and have his gun repaired free. The date was December 1849. The following spring, Coal Tyee returned with a canoe laden with coal. A company clerk, Joseph William McKay, was quickly dispatched to Nanaimo.

The Snuneymuxw negotiated a treaty with the Crown in 1854.  According to the Snuneymuxw First Nation website, “In order to access the coal, the Colonial authorities knew that under British Common Law, and as a matter of practical reality, they had to conclude a Treaty with the Indigenous owners of the land, which in coal-rich Nanaimo were the Snuneymuxw. The goal of treaty-making was to achieve, through recognition and respect of Snuneymuxw, access to the coal deposits.” (A few years ago, Vancouver Island University created the Centre for Pre-Confederation Treaties and Reconciliation to further explore issues related to the 1854 treaty).

From there, Nanaimo became a coal town with the Hudson Bay Company benefiting, along with the companies that followed.  Today, underneath Nanaimo there are coal tunnels and shafts in every direction, remnants of the Age of Island Coal.

Another local book, When Coal was King, by VIU professor John Hinde, outlines the rise of the Dunsmuirs.  Robert Dunsmuir and his wife emigrated to Vancouver Island from Scotland in 1850 as an indentured miner for the HBC.  The voyage to the west coast Screen Shot 2019-01-16 at 10.41.08 PM.pngtook months and numerous members of the crew deserted to take part in the California Gold Rush.  Thus, son James was born at Fort Vancouver on the Columbia in 1851.  Dunsmuir’s uncle worked for the HBC in Nanaimo and there he went.  When his uncle’s contract expired, he tried to convince Robert and his family to return to Scotland.  They decided against it and stuck it out in Nanaimo.

He laboured for almost twenty years, prosperous but not extravagant.  He discovered the Wellington seam in 1869 and formed his own venture, beginning production at new pits at Wellington in the Nanaimo area, in 1871. By the 1880s, Dunsmuir was dominating the coal industry on Vancouver Island at a time when coal was the world’s dominant fuel. On August 13, 1886, John A. MacDonald drove in the Last Spike of the E&N Railroad at Shawnigan Lake, built by Dunsmuir, which Hinde calls “the deal of the century”.   The railroad was the subject of considerable political controversy, which Dunsmuir shrewdly exploited.  Vancouver Island today in many ways remains the architecture of the Dunsmuirs.

Historian Jean Barman writes, “The Dunsmuirs’ total concern with profit extended to their treatment of employees.  The accommodation rented to workers was primitive, lacking even running water… Death and injury were commonplace because of company negligence”.  The Dunsmuirs’ approach of hiring cheaper labour and working conditions led to confrontation, which was dealt with ruthlessly.

Dunsmuir had a rags to riches story and his riches were astonishing for that time. Dunsmuir would move to Victoria and build Craigdarroch Castle as his residence.  Though his political base and wealth derived from the coal pits of Nanaimo, his influence went much further beyond.

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Craigdarroch: What would Robert Dunsmuir have thought of spec taxes?

One of his key managers, and son-in-law, John Bryden was elected to succeed Robson in 1875. Bryden resigned due to business pressures the next year, but would return to elected office in 1894 and 1898.  He was a Dunsmuir man and strongly advocated for the coal industry.    A summation of his political career is found in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography:

His electioneering statements and legislative voting record indicate that he was in favour of economic development, an advocate of temperance, opposed to gambling, unwilling to extend the franchise to women, and above all a rigid supporter of the right of employers to hire Chinese labourers. Although he received public criticism for his support of capital in general and the Dunsmuir empire in particular, Bryden seems to have been well respected by his election opponents.

In his capacity as shareholder, he launched a successful constitutional court action that allowed the Dunsmuir empire to continue hiring Chinese labour, which were paid much lower wages.  This was one of many issues that sparked labour revolts.

Robert Dunsmuir himself was elected in 1882 along with William Raybould when the seat carried two members.   Dunsmuir immediately joined the Cabinet of Premier Alexander E.B. Davie.  There were no conflict-of-interest laws in those days.  Dunsmuir’s business interests continued unabated, as did his political power, though sons James and Alexander took on more responsibilities with the business and it thrived.

In the 1888 session, Dunsmuir was accused of favouring BC’s annexation to the United States.  MLA T.B. Humphreys (Lillooet) went as far as moving a motion of censure.  The matter was deflected to a select standing committee, which exonerated Dunsmuir.

Dunsmuir’s political success left Nanaimo mineworkers and labour activists “dejected”, writes Ormsby, which is understandable.  The polarization between the richest man in British Columbia, and his organization, versus mineworkers marching toward increasingly radical politics, was growing. It would manifest itself in terms of strikes, riots, and arrests for many years, but it would soon show itself at the ballot box.

However, Robert Dunsmuir would never taste defeat.  He died in 1889.  In fact, Raybould also died during the same term of office, probably the only time in BC history that both members (of a two-member riding) died.

It would be a short wait before Labour forces made their mark at the ballot box. And it wasn’t the end of the Dunsmuirs in politics either.

Nanaimo: the origins of BC’s Labour politics

Remembering that party politics were not formalized in BC until the election of 1903, there were basically three types of candidates – those who supported the Government, the Opposition, or Labour.

The first Labour MLAs elected to the BC Legislature were elected from Nanaimo in 1890.  Thomas Forster won Nanaimo in a tight three-way race 160-157-154.  Thomas Keith was acclaimed in the adjacent Nanaimo City riding.  The Electoral History of British Columbia (1871-1986) states:

Forster and Keith were both nominated by the Miners’ and Mine Labourers’ Protective Association (MMLPA) and campaigned on the “Workingmen’s Platform” of the Workingmen’s Campaign Committee (Nanaimo Free Press, 19, 28, and 31 May 1890).

In 1894, Labour candidates had a setback.  With three Nanaimo area ridings in the 33-seat Legislature – North Nanaimo, South Nanaimo, and Nanaimo City – all three Labour candidates were shut out. This election marked the return of Dunsmuir’s son-in-law John Bryden to elected office, and also saw the election of William Walkem, a physician who had narrowly lost in 1890.  Walkem’s brother, George, had served as BC premier from 1878-1882.

While Bryden was returned in 1898, Walkem was defeated handily in South Nanaimo by Ralph Smith, a Labour-Oppositionist candidate, which meant he had the backing of Labour and those that also opposed the government.  Smith had run in 1894 but had lost to Bryden.

The election of Bryden at the same time as the election of Labour MLAs demonstrates the support that each side of the management-labour divide had in the City overall – a divide that has ebbed and flowed over Nanaimo’s history.  Of course, when looking at early voting results, it’s important to be mindful that the electoral franchise was very limited during those days.  These early results are completely absent of female participation, among other restrictions.

Ralph Smith’s story is an interesting one. He was a coal miner from Newcastle who

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Mary Ellen Smith: her family’s political career started in Nanaimo

emigrated to Nanaimo in 1891.  His victory in 1898 in Nanaimo was followed by a massive win in 1900. Shortly after that election, he decided to seek federal office in 1901
and would ultimately serve as a Liberal MP. He returned to provincial politics in 1916, from a Vancouver riding, and served as Minister of Finance under Premier Harlan Brewster, but he died in office.  Prior to his death, a provincial referendum resulted in 65% (of men) voting to extend the vote to women.

His wife, Mary Ellen Smith, ran in his vacant seat and became BC’s first MLA and first female cabinet minister in the British Commonwealth.

But back in Nanaimo in 1901, Smith’s departure opened the door for one of the most significant politicians in British Columbia – James J. Hawthornthwaite.  Elected as one of the first Labour-backed MLAs in BC history, he would co-found the Socialist Party of British Columbia.

He came to BC in the late 1880s and found his way to Nanaimo to work as a real estate agent for the New Vancouver Coal Mining and Land Co. Ltd.  Its owner, Samuel Robins, was a bitter rival of the Dunsmuirs.  Hawthornthwaite was influenced by Ralph Smith, who was then secretary of the Miners’ and Mine Laborers Protective Association, and would marry the daughter of Mark Bate, Nanaimo’s first mayor who served 16 terms between 1875 and 1900.  Bate is the focus of one Jan Peterson’s local histories.

Hawthornthwaite was elected as a Socialist, along with neighbouring MLA Parker Williams. The two of them enjoyed electoral success between 1903 and 1912.

Hawthornthwaite was the “socialist intellectual”, says historian Allen Seager. His politics would diverge with his former ally Ralph Smith but “his approach did not alienate him from the mining population; his speeches earned him great applause at public meetings”, writes Hinde.  Williams, on the other hand, was a Welsh miner and trade unionist.  He made his way west finally settling in Cedar.  While Hawthornthwaite focused on Socialist theory, Williams “concentrated on wages, safety, and the right to organize”. Hinde writes that William was “unpolished and crumpled”; one local writer declared, “No amount of grooming and combing would transform Parker Williams into Beau Brummell”.

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An interesting source on BC’s radical roots

In the 1903 election, the first that political parties contested in British Columbia, the Socialists were centre stage.  The Conservatives led by the youthful Richard McBride held 22 of the 42 seats, the Liberals 17.  The two Nanaimo Socialists held two seats, along with other independent Labour allies in the Legislature, which gave them an important role with a government that had a thin majority.

Author John Hinde describes Hawthornthwaite and Williams as “evolutionary” rather than “revolutionary” Socialists.  Hinde continues, “The main weapon in the Socialists arsenal was the ballot, the ‘Gatling gun of political power’”.

Hawthornthwaite’s bio in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography supports this view of evolutionary change:

Hawthornthwaite’s contributions were far more constructive than revolutionary and had included rudimentary farm security legislation in 1901 and a workmen’s compensation act in 1902. When Conservative premier Richard McBride* took office in June 1903, he had only a small majority so he turned to Hawthornthwaite for support. Thus, Hawthornthwaite was able to push for additional legislation, including improved safety standards and labour reforms in the mining industry. The premier used members of the socialist caucus to sound out the opinion of the popular class on a narrow range of issues. In return, Hawthornthwaite and his associates eschewed detailed criticism of McBride’s policies of development. There were limits to such arrangements. For example, McBride allowed members of the socialist caucus to lead the fight for women’s suffrage, but applied no party discipline to bring it about, though he personally supported enfranchisement of women as part of his “white B.C.” policy. In addition, administration of labour legislation sometimes made a mockery of the reforms enacted during McBride’s premiership. Hawthornthwaite’s correspondence shows that the enforcement by government officials of different parts of the Coal Mines Regulation Act depended on his persistent efforts and those of other elected officials. Nevertheless, and although accumulated grievances in the Vancouver Island coalfield would later boil over into violent confrontation, for a time the socialist alternative of a “strike at the ballot box,” the slogan of the socialist Western Clarion(Vancouver), had unexampled success.

In 1907, McBride won 26 seats, a stronger majority, though the Socialists ran 20 candidates and elected three, including the two Nanaimo MLAs.  Hawthornthwaite would resign his seat in 1908 to contest the federal election in opposition to Ralph Smith, who was running with Wilfred Laurier’s Liberals.  Smith won, but Hawthornthwaite won back his provincial seat in the subsequent byelection.

In 1909, McBride dominated with 38 of 42 seats.  But yet again, Hawthornthwaite and Williams prevailed, holding between them as many seats as the decimated Liberals.

Then in 1912, McBride did it again.  He won 39 of 42 seats.  The Socialists held two seats in Nanaimo, Parker Williams, but this time, it was John Place not Hawthornthwaite that was Williams’ seatmate.  As a sidenote, the Nanaimo MLAs split from the Socialist Party of Canada at this time, and moved to a different banner – the Social Democratic Party.  Hawthornthwaite moved on to other business interests, which drew criticism from some Socialists, and he also had a close friendship with McBride.

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Parker Williams (Vancouver Sun)

Williams had a different style than Hawthornthwaite.  A Vancouver Sun profile in 2017 included some vignettes from his political career:

Following a bitter coal miners’ strike on the Island between 1912 and 1914, he not only went after the Conservative premier, Richard McBride, and Attorney General William Bowser, he went after their parliamentary colleagues for toeing the government line. “What do you expect from 40 spineless shrimps of the 5-, 10- and 15-cent politicians who sit in the House and do the bidding of McBride and Bowser?” thundered Williams. “They care not what happens to the people so long as the party machine works well.”

One of his finest moments came in January 1914, when he shamed the government over the death of a young man who had been sentenced to a year in prison over a protest during the coal strike. Badly treated in prison, the boy fell ill, but his parents weren’t notified until after he died. “I ask for the stunned mother and father no sympathy from this House,” said Williams, his voice choking with emotion. “They will carry their agony to their grave. But this I shall say: that the root of all this sorrow and this suffering will be found in the incompetency, inadequacy, callous and domineering methods of the government in handling this situation from the beginning.”

World War I intervened and the politics of British Columbia would change. In the 1916 election, William Sloan of the Liberals gained a Nanaimo seat while Williams was re-elected in Newcastle.  The miners vote was beginning to be diluted by demographic change. Williams would resign a year later to take a provincial appointment and who ran to replace him?  Hawthornthwaite stepped back in.  This would be his last term.  It was said that he had been stirred politically by the Bolsheviks and may have met Lenin in his travels.

In Politicians of a Pioneering Province, former Vancouver Province reporter Russell Walker described Hawthornthwaite:

At times we had the pleasure of reporting genuine orators. One such was James H. Hawthornthwaite, Socialist, Cowichan-Newcastle… When [he] rose to speak there was invariably marked attention on all sides.  He spoke almost with a bite to his words, sometimes with a harsh, choppy delivery, no doubt for emphasis. But smooth sentences flowed like lube oil under pressure, and if the Socialist member for Cowichan-Newcastle had been enunciating Liberal party policies, Premier Oliver could have called a general election any time and been sure of a majority.

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In 1920, in the riding of Cowichan-Newcastle, Hawthornthwaite would be defeated by Federated Labour Party candidate Sam Guthrie, thus ending his political career.

Sam Guthrie was just getting started.  The Scottish miner was a union leader during the Great Strike of 1913 in Ladysmith.  Ladysmith was a coal mining town, directly linked to the mines at Extension, near Nanaimo.  While there was no loss of life during the strike, there were assaults, lootings, and property damage.  Fifty men were sentenced to prison, including Guthrie who received a two-year ticket to Oakalla, but was feted as a labour martyr upon his return.  Guthrie’s true labour credentials bested Hawthornthwaite in 1920, but Guthrie lost in 1924 to a Conservative.  He returned to the Legislature as a CCF MLA from 1937-1949.  The local NDP club in the Ladysmith area was called the Sam Guthrie Club for many years.  (A news clipping from 1974 outlined the Club’s activities, but in a related item, apropos of nothing, the Ladysmith Chronicle reports on Leonard Krog having his new hubcaps stolen and replaced with old hub caps.  Some might claim the parallel to missing his cabinet post in 2017 and having it replaced with caucus chair. )

The rise of Labour politics in Nanaimo is discussed extensively in this article by Allan Seager.

Back to the Dunsmuirs

With all this talk of Socialists, we must take a moment to return to the election of the second Premier of BC who represented Nanaimo, James Dunsmuir, son of Robert Dunsmuir and heir.  Unlike Robson, he was premier while representing Nanaimo. He would also serve as the Province’s Lieutenant-Governor.

Wikipedia summarizes it well enough:

Dunsmuir entered provincial politics in 1898, winning a seat in the provincial legislature, and he became the 14th Premier in 1900. His government attempted to resist popular pressure to curtail Asian labour and immigration, not for humanitarian reasons, but to ensure a cheap labour pool for business. It also promoted railway construction and accomplished a redistribution of seats to better represent population distribution in the province.

Dunsmuir visited England and the United States in 1902,  but disliked politics after his return and resigned as Premier in November 1902. In 1906, he became the province’s eighth Lieutenant Governor. He retired in 1909 and lived out his remaining years at the baronial mansion that he had constructed at Hatley Park.

In fact, Dunsmuir’s first win was in Comox in 1898, another coal producing area.  He contested South Nanaimo riding in 1900 and won by a mere 24 votes (249-225) over the Labour candidate, reflecting the divide in the community. It also represented the fact that the Dunsmuirs did have support to counter opposition from mine workers and rival mining interests.  He went from there to the Premier’s chair in the final term of the BC Legislature before party politics took hold in 1903.

Says Dr. S.W. Jackman in Portraits of Premiers, James Dunsmuir became Premier “more or less by default”.  Premier ‘Fighting’ Joe Martin had the largest faction following the 1900 election, but could not command a majority.  The Opposition leader, Charles Semlin, had lost his seat.  Jackman writes, “Dunsmuir had gone into politics somewhat


James Dunsmuir: the reluctant, but very rich, Premier from Nanaimo

reluctantly, was one of the few candidates who might possibly become Premier with any sense of real honour and dignity… He was certainly no politician – in public his manner was somewhat cold, and rather reserved.”  He took office on June 16, 1900. His administration was not especially noteworthy and he did not particularly enjoy his duties.  His secretary, R. Edward Gosnell observed, “The fates threw him into prominence which, by choice, he would have avoided.  He had neither a liking nor an adaptability for public life…”.  Jackman opines that Dunsmuir “ought never to have been a Premier at all; he did not like the job for he was totally out of his element, he hid not understand politicians and he never properly grasped the methodology of legislative government.  In a way, he was a typical example of … the rich tycoon”.  He resigned in 1902 following a triumphant trip to King Edward VIII’s coronation where he and his wealth were embraced in high circles. He would be appointed Lieutenant-Governor in 1906 and serve to 1909.

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Hatley Castle (Royal Roads): The house that James Dunsmuir built

I should note, given that I lived in the area for 15 years, that James Dunsmuir founded and named Ladysmith.  The town was laid out in grid format to be a bedroom community for miners, who would commute to the nearby Extension mines by rail.  The coal was shipped out via Transfer Beach in Ladysmith Harbour. During the time that the town was being built, the British won a key battle in the Boer War – the Battle of Ladysmith.  In a fit of patriotism, Dunsmuir declared, “I shall call this place Ladysmith!” (I’m imagining that part).  In any event, the streets of Ladysmith bear the names of Boer War generals like Baden-Powell, Methuen, and Roberts, for a battle taking place in faraway South Africa. It hearkens back to a time of unquestioning support of the Crown and Mother England.

 The era of the Liberals in Nanaimo: 1916-1952

Nanaimo has always been a left-wing, workers’ paradise!

There’s a hiccup in that narrative.  While we have extensively covered the coal-dusted ground upon which Socialist-Labour pioneers like Hawthornthwaite, Williams, Place, and others trod, there was an extensive period where the Liberals triumphed.

Two MLAs dominated Nanaimo politics during that time: William Sloan and George Pearson. Sloan had been a Liberal MP in Comox-Atlin (Comox-Atlin, what a riding!) from 1904-1909, stepping aside to make way for another candidate.  He resurfaced politically in the 1916 election in Nanaimo.  He was a minister of mines, fisheries, and provincial secretary for Liberal governments that served during the entirety of his provincial career.  He died in 1928.  His son, Gordon Sloan, would serve as the province’s Attorney-General under Premier Duff Pattullo and lead Royal Commissions on forestry in later years.

Succeeding Sloan was George Pearson, who represented Nanaimo from 1928 to 1952. Pearson won six consecutive times.  The first win was in an election where his Liberals were hammered. After 12 years in power, it was time for a change, and Simon Fraser Tolmie’s Conservatives took the reins.  Pearson and the Liberals would return to power in 1933.  The George Pearson Hospital in Vancouver was named for him as was the Pearson Bridge in Nanaimo.  He served as Minister of Labour and was particularly adamant in his support for the internment of the Japanese population following the attacks on Pearl Harbour.

According to Margaret Ormsby, George Pearson played a key role ending the Liberal government of Duff Pattullo, and the formation of the Coalition government that ruled from 1941 to 1952.  The day after the 1941 election, which was a minority Liberal government (21 Liberal, 14 CCF, 12 Conservative, 1 Independent), Pearson “argued that the Premier no longer controlled a majority of members in the House”.  Shortly thereafter, the leader of the Conservatives, Pat Maitland, called for a coalition government, which he said should include the CCF.  CCF leader Harold Winch, now Opposition Leader, rejected the idea.

Pattullo called a cabinet meeting with his post-election cabinet, but Pearson refused his offer to make him Minister of Education and Provincial Secretary, indicating that he felt there should be “an arrangement” with the opposition parties to form a stable government.  Then Finance Minister John Hart said he favoured a coalition.  As events unfolded, the Liberals announced a convention. A resolution hit the floor proposing the creation of a coalition government, which was carried decisively. Pattullo rose and left the hall. Pearson “worked his way to the front of the room” and nominated John Hart.  Pattullo resigned as premier and Hart formed a coalition government, with Nanaimo’s Pearson at the centre of the action.

While Sloan and Pearson were triumphing during this 36 year stretch in the Nanaimo riding, the Cowichan-Newcastle riding to the south had a different tradition. As mentioned, Sam Guthrie represented the riding from 1920-1924 then as a CCF MLA from 1937-1949.  Guthrie lost to Conservatives in 1924 and 1928, and in 1933, lost to an Independent Conservative, Hugh Savage.  This is a footnote of history as Savage was backed by an organization called the OGM or Oxford Group Movement, noted in BC’s Electoral History 1871-1986.   Guthrie’s final campaign was also in 1949, losing not by a whisker, but to Andrew Whisker, a Coalition candidate.  By my count, Guthrie made it to the ballot 8 times, winning half the time.

During this time of Liberal wins in Nanaimo, it seems strange that the fledgling CCF did not gain a foothold in the city that spawned Socialist MLAs during the Conservative floodwaters of the McBride era.  The CCF’s first contested election was 1933 and it served as BC’s Official Opposition between 1933-1937, and from 1941-1952 during the Coalition years.  Yet, the CCF could not win in Nanaimo.  Even a young accountant named Dave Stupich could not pull it off in 1949, losing to George Pearson.  It turns out the ‘NDP town’ was never a ‘CCF town’.  Not at all.

We wuz robbed !

Given the ProRep referendum, you can wonder why anyone from the NDP would support electoral reform when you look at the sad tale of 1952.

Quick history lesson: Coalition government rigs the rules thinking that by giving voters a second and third choice, this will be good for Liberals and Conservatives, who were back to contesting elections under their own labels in 1952.  You see, they wanted to gang up and stop Harold Winch’s CCF at any cost.  Then, along came the Socreds.

When the first preference votes were counted in the 1952 election, Winch’s CCF led in 21 seats to the Social Credit’s 14, in the 48 seats Legislature.  A clear win.  The Social Credit had never fully contested a BC election before.  The Liberals and Conservatives were eclipsed by populist alternatives. However, this time, the election wasn’t over at the first count.  In Nanaimo and the Islands, as it was then called, Stupich held a 369 vote lead over Progressive Conservative Dr. Larry Giovando.  However, when the Liberal was dropped from the ballot, Stupich’s lead melted away and Giovando won by a margin of 5,144 to 4,581.

Not only did this delay Stupich’s political career, it had an enormous impact on BC. This was one of three seats that slipped away from the CCF while the Social Credit gained five seats through successive counts.  The final count was 19 Social Credit, 18 CCF, with the rest split between the Liberals, Conservatives, and an Independent Labour MLA (who was not partial to joining with the CCF).  Paddy Sherman’s Bennett describes the machinations that followed.  The Socreds did not even have a leader during the 1952 election.  W.A.C. Bennett was elected leader by a vote of the new caucus afterward.  Bennett then jousted with the Lieutenant-Governor and gained power, against the strenuous objections of CCF leader Harold Winch.   I wrote this all up in a previous blog post: “History tells us, be careful what you wish for”.

But for one seat, the CCF would have likely been invited to govern, especially when they had won the popular vote by a significant margin.

Then in 1953, it happened again to Stupich!

Stupich had a big lead on the first count, with Socred Earle Westwood second, and Giovando third.  Clearly the Liberal voters preferred Giovando to Stupich because he vaulted to second and then edged Stupich by 18 votes on the final count.  Robbed again!

The Socreds won a majority in the Legislature this time.  The Progressive Conservatives were reduced to one seat – Giovando.

You have to think Stupich was quite delighted to see W.A.C. Bennett scrap the preferential balloting system and go back to first-past-the-post.

Dr. Larry Giovando was a well-respected physician in Nanaimo.  In the Legislature, he doubtlessly had a lonely time as the sole Progressive Conservative.  He assailed W.A.C. over “fancy bookkeeping”, though Sherman notes that Giovando would leave the PC’s “in a huff”.

1952 also saw the election in Cowichan-Newcastle of Robert (Bob) Strachan. He held the seat, and variations of it, until 1975.   He was the longest serving Opposition leader in BC history (1956-1969).  He left politics in 1975 for an appointment as BC’s Agent-General in London.  Like many trade unionists, he had emigrated from Scotland and found his way to resource communities in BC, where he would rise to be a union leader.  He had a long tenure in Opposition, where he endured four straight general election defeats.  He was the basketball equivalent of the Washington Generals to W.A.C’s Harlem Globetrotters.  But Strachan hung in there for a term in government under Premier Dave Barrett, and was Minister responsible for the creation of ICBC.

Now that first-past-the-post was back in play, it should have been time for the CCF to prevail in Nanaimo.  After all, they were winning elsewhere on the Island.  It turns out that Nanaimo continued to be a free enterprise paradise.  Social Credit’s Earle Westwood, who lost in 1953, prevailed over Stupich in 1956 and 1960.  These marked Stupich’s fourth and fifth losses to start out his political career. In 1960, the CCF won 16 seats in BC but they could not crack Nanaimo.  In that campaign, Nanaimo lawyer Ted Strongitharm ran for the Progressive Conservatives.  His son, Bruce, was a longtime Chief of Staff to the BC Forests minister, and showed me the campaign brochure where his Dad promised to build a pedestrian bridge to Newcastle Island.  Now, there’s an idea!  Strongitharm would mentor a young lawyer at his law firm – Leonard Krog.

During the 1950s and the 1960s, the Liberals and the Progressive Conservatives tried to revive their fortunes.  How long could this Social Credit Party last, anyways, before people returned to the old brands?  The Progressive Conservative leader for three of those elections, Deane Finlayson, was from Nanaimo, though he didn’t contest seats there.  Finlayson was a 33-year old Nanaimo insurance agent, who had managed Giovando’s successful 1952 campaign, when he became leader prior to the 1953 election. The Party was desperate to dump outgoing leader Herbert Anscomb and after party heavyweights like George Pearkes declined, the youthful Finlayson stepped up.  He ran in Oak Bay in 1953, a by-election in Victoria in 1953, and in North Vancouver in 1956 and 1960, as leader.

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Deane Finlayson

The results were dismal, though the assessment of Finlayson has always been sterling.  He had a reputation for honest speech, was commended for his WWII service in the RCAF, and had a lifetime of community service.  In business, he developed the Island’s largest mall, Woodgrove, and built much of Hammond Bay, in the Nanaimo riding.  In the process of adding Finlayson to this post (which was a terrible oversight), I found a thesis outlining the demise of the Progressive Conservatives: From Rule to Ruin, for you political junkies out there).  Finlayson’s biography is here.

Like many Socreds of that age, Earle Westwood was a small businessman and local leader.  A funeral home operator, Mayor of Nanaimo, and School Board Chair.  He served in cabinet under W.A.C. in ministries such as Trade and Industry, Commercial Transport, and Recreation and Conservation.  He was from a pioneering Nanaimo family.

Finally, in 1963, under the banner of the NDP, Dave Stupich wins. Avenging his near losses, he edged Earle Westwood by 18 votes.

It wouldn’t get much easier for Stupich in the short-term.  Enter the Pirate.

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The Pirate: Frank Ney

At the time of the 1966 election, Frank Ney was a Notary and co-owner of Nanaimo Realty. He had already been involved in countless community initiatives.  I’m not sure when it started, but he is renown for dressing up as a pirate.  (He would also chair the committee in 1967 that led to Nanaimo’s world famous bathtub races).  He replaced Westwood as the Social Credit standard bearer and took on Dave Stupich.  As often happens in politics, the luck evens out.  Stupich won another nail-biter, this time by 45 votes.

Now Mayor of Nanaimo, Ney returned for a rematch in 1969.  He defeated Stupich by 469
votes and went on to serve as both mayor and MLA concurrently.   The Liberal in the 1969 race netted 722 votes.  Did he play a role in defeating Dave Stupich?  I don’t know, you would have to ask him.  Screen Shot 2019-01-16 at 10.19.07 PM.png

That young whippersnapper’s name is Bob Plecas.  50 years later and he’s still causing a ruckus in BC politics.

So, to recap the amazing political success of the lefties in the main Nanaimo riding, between World War I and 1970, lefties (ie. Dave Stupich alone) won two out of 16 elections.  They did much better in the southern Cowichan-Newcastle riding, winning almost all of the time, but in the main Nanaimo riding, it was hardly the Socialist stronghold that it had once been in the early 1900s.

At that point, the screen goes dark for free enterprisers.

The Barrett Years to the End of Stupich

Sporting a .250 batting average heading into the 1972 campaign, Stupich had Ney walk the plank, winning by 4000 votes, joining in the tide that swept in BC’s first NDP government.  The Pirate carried on as mayor, serving 21 years in total.

Stupich was chosen as the Minister of Agriculture with a mandate to protect farmland. In their biography of the Barrett government The Art of the Impossible, Geoff Meggs and Rod Mickleburgh write, “Stupich seemed like the ideal man to lead the change.  An accountant with a degree in agriculture, the Nanaimo MLA was a Barrett loyalist, a veteran of the legislature, and a former agriculture critic with a wealth of contacts around the province.”


Interesting account of Stupich and the creation of ALR, and an overall good read.

Stupich was quick out of the gates and announced that legislation to protect farmland and compensate farmers would be ready for a fall session in 1972.  Says Meggs/Mickleburgh, “Stupich not only failed to seek a cost analysis of the compensation pledge – an astonishing oversight for an accountant – but began to execute a deliberate strategy of public statements designed to lock Barrett and the cabinet into a compensation plan before either had a chance to review the bill.”  It was a daring or reckless move by Stupich, depending on your view.

Stupich made an “extraordinary keynote” to farmers that fall stating, “My advice to developers right now is not to gamble by investing their money in farmland.” Stupich asserted that a freeze had been put on rezoning agricultural land (which was not true).   His comments triggered a province-wide rush to rezone. On December 21, with Barrett out of town, an “angry cabinet” was convinced by Stupich to freeze the sale of all agricultural land until further notice.   Continuing to borrow from Meggs and Mickleburgh’s account, NDP heavyweight Bob Williams later described the ordeal as a “tough, bitter battle” to rein in Stupich.  The internal debate revolved around compensation, while the external debate was plunging the new government into major controversy.  The end result was the Agricultural Land Reserve (ALR), an enduring legacy of the Barrett government.

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Dave Stupich: 44 years running for office in Nanaimo

By 1975, the ALR had been implemented which Meggs/Mickleburgh say did much to restore Stupich’s reputation as a policy-maker.  1975 was a year of great change in BC politics.  The Social Credit Party was in a revival led by the younger Bill Bennett with Grace McCarthy barnstorming among the grassroots. Polarization intensified and ‘fear of the NDP’ drove moderates into the arms of the Socreds.  Three Liberal MLAs joined Bennett’s team along with one Progressive Conservative MLA, and, ultimately, one NDP MLA too.  The drumbeat became louder for a ‘snap election’ to catch the opposition off guard.  In fall 1975, Barrett readied his team and shuffled his cabinet.  Stupich was appointed Minister of Finance.  The snap election was called, but when the votes were counted in December, the Barrett government had been trounced. Stupich won with a reduced margin, defeating future Nanaimo mayor Graeme Roberts.

The loss was devastating for the NDP, but it cannot be said that they coasted during their term in government.  They had a very active and aggressive agenda, which was halted abruptly when they were defeated.  Dave Barrett lost his seat and plans were made to return him to the Legislature. Vancouver East MLA Bob Williams agreed to step aside, with Stupich playing a key role, arranging financing to cover off Barrett while he was out of a job, and to help compensate Bob Williams after he had resigned.  How? Through the Nanaimo Commonwealth Holdings Society (NCHS).

The NCHS was a Nanaimo institution that was built on bingo proceeds.  Stupich, an accountant, engineered it into a political fund that supported NDP.  It operated like a parallel political fund to the NDP itself.  Rod Mickleburgh described its purpose in a Globe & Mail article (2000)reporting on the testimony of Dave Barrett, where it was used for many purposes such as Williams’ compensation, funding political activity, Barrett’s federal leadership campaign, and Stupich’s leadership campaign.  The NCHS mess would not catch up with Stupich until much later.

Stupich consolidated his hold on the riding with smashing wins in 1979 (5,000 votes) and 1983 (4,000 votes).  It was a time of ever-increasing polarization as the third and fourth place parties (Liberals and PCs) melted away with voters essentially being forced to pick sides between the NDP and Socreds.  In Nanaimo, most chose the NDP.

What are the reasons for Nanaimo being a competitive playing field in the 1960s compared to being an NDP stronghold in 1970s and beyond?  Was it demographics? Riding boundary changes? Sophisticated organizing and party machinery?  Social Credit alienating labour? All of the above?

Maybe it was a bit of Tommy Douglas’s magic?  The former Saskatchewan Premier was the first leader of the NDP, though he lost his Saskatchewan seat.  A seat opened in Burnaby-Seymour and he carried on through the 1960s.  He lost that seat in 1968 to


Dale Lovick edited this book of Tommy Douglas speeches

Liberal Ray Perrault. Around the time, Nanaimo’s NDP MP Colin Cameron died in office. Douglas won the byelection and served until 1979 when he retired.  He was voted “The Greatest Canadian” in a CBC competition and is often called the “Father of Medicare”.  Regardless of one’s views, he is a leader that was held in high regard by other parties, and revered in his own.  Some years later, when I was campaigning for Bob Rae’s bid to be Liberal leader, I asked former Nanaimo NDP MP Ted Miller if he would support Bob, who he served with in the House of Commons.  Though Ted’s wonderful wife Patti was a strong supporter of Bob’s, Ted told me, “I can’t do it to Tommy”.  Such was his respect for the man.

During Stupich’s fifth term of office, Dave Barrett resigned as NDP leader. He had lost his third successive rematch to Bill Bennett and it was time to go. A wide-open NDP leadership race broke out and Dave Stupich jumped in as a candidate. The party broker and backroom financier was 63 years old and representative of a bygone era in the NDP.  He was not the default ‘establishment candidate’ nor was he ‘change’. He placed fifth on the first ballot and fourth on the second, far behind the leaders.  He was eliminated on the third ballot, and watched the Party crown Port Alberni’s Bob Skelly, a compromise choice it would soon regret.

Stupich continued on as NDP candidate in the 1986 election.  Nanaimo had become a 2-member seat.  Malaspina College professor Dale Lovick joined the ticket and the two of them easily prevailed in an election that saw Socred Bill Vander Zalm romp to victory over Skelly.  This time, the NDP would acclaim Mike Harcourt as leader.  Not long after, during a time of great optimism for the NDP’s federal chances, Stupich resigned his seat and ran federally, winning handily. The opportunity for the NDP did not pan out, but they did well in BC.  A disappointed Broadbent resigned, with Stupich backing Dave Barrett’s federal leadership bid.  He lost and the party leadership went to the unsteady hand of Audrey McLaughlin.  The NDP would be reduced to a small rump group in 1993 and Stupich would lose his seat to the Reform Party’s Bob Ringma.  At age 72, he had been retired from elected office.

Stupich’s exit from provincial politics created a 1989 byelection to replace him. The NDP put forward Jan Pullinger, a relatively unknown candidate then.

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Tough Guy McNabb

The Socreds could not have landed a better candidate – Larry McNabb, a popular former coach of the Nanaimo Clippers, and a former pro hockey player in the Western Hockey League.  McNabb was tough as nails.  Don Cherry (“Grapes”) recalled fighting McNabb.  The Cow Palace in San Francisco had a banner stating, “Larry McNabb: Heavyweight Champion of the WHL”.  The two paired off and McNabb broke his hand on Cherry’s head.  Cherry recounts it here.  However, on the streets of Nanaimo, McNabb was no match for the NDP, especially when he was weighed down by Premier Bill Vander Zalm’s unpopularity.  Pullinger knocked out McNabb and served twelve years in office, including various posts in Cabinet.   She and Dale Lovick married during that time, and were a political power couple in the Nanaimo area.

It was during Stupich’s federal term of office, 1988-1993, that the NCHS scandal reared its head.  Mike Harcourt had led the NDP to power in BC in 1991 with a strong majority government. In 1992, a whistleblower by the name of Jacques Carpentier went to the Nanaimo RCMP with his concerns about the misuse of charitable money by the NCHS.  As the story unfolded, the scandal engulfed the NDP.  Stupich had been at the heart of the party for a long time, and it seemed that he had solved a lot of NDP problems with available cash.

A forensic audit was ordered which was a political disaster.  The Harcourt government flailed in the controversy, with Opposition Leader Gordon Campbell leading the charge along with a press gallery that was generating headlines.  In 1995, Harcourt, who had nothing really to do with the scandal, announced he would not run again.  He took the fall.  A leadership convention was called and Glen Clark was elected leader.  Bingogate was erased from the headlines as Clark launched a blitzkrieg on the BC Liberals who had enjoyed a hefty lead in the polls.  The political debate was reordered to traditional business-labour, class war themes, rather than scandal.

In Nanaimo, Dale Lovick sought his third term in office amidst the controversy. He was closely aligned with Stupich. Nanaimo Mayor Gary Korpan ran for the BC Liberals.  There was much optimism among the Liberals of storming the NDP bastion, but on election night, not only did Glen Clark win a majority government for the NDP, Nanaimo returned Lovick to the Legislature comfortably.

The NCHS scandal deepened.  Stupich was charged with 64 counts of theft, fraud, forgery, and breach of trust.  He eventually would plead guilty and serve two years less a day under electronic monitoring.

A 1999 CBC item, outlining one way how the NDP was embroiled in the scandal, demonstrates how far Stupich had fallen in the graces of the NDP. Then-party president Bruce Ralston said the party was misled by Stupich.  He said, “It’s painful… not a particularly proud moment for the NDP… but we have apologized, various premiers have apologized…”

Following his death in 2006, Lovick said, “When I think in terms of Dave and his career, I think in terms of great tragedy. Here was a guy who, until a series of events late in his political career, was universally admired and respected. How sad his career ended as it did. He did more good than bad, that’s for sure.”  Stupich’s former colleague Alex MacDonald, Attorney-General in the Barrett government, told the Bingogate Inquiry, “He put up a hotel and a senior citizens’ home, a tower with the bingo rooms. Nanaimo wasn’t hurt by the actions of Dave Stupich; it was helped.”

Such were the conflicted feelings that many in Nanaimo and throughout the NDP felt.  From the time a 28-year old Stupich sought office in 1949 until 1993, he was a central figure in Nanaimo politics.  He had friends across the spectrum.  He was a regional ‘boss’ like few others in the province.  During his time, Nanaimo became an ‘NDP town’.  It came crashing down on Stupich, but the NDP barely missed a beat.

1991 – 2018

Dale Lovick served until 2001.  He was regarded as one of the most talented NDP backbenchers.  NCHS probably held him back during the Harcourt years.  He became Speaker in 1996 then was appointed to Cabinet in 1998.  He was quick-witted in the House, a good debater, and never had to sweat during his three election wins.

In 1991, riding boundaries changed and a considerable chunk of North Nanaimo was included in the Parksville-Qualicum riding.   Nanaimo lawyer Leonard Krog ran for the NDP, sweeping to victory as part of the Harcourt win.  In reality, the opposition to the NDP was split in that riding between a disorganized BC Liberal campaign and the dying Socreds.  Krog served in the backbench, along with Lovick, and Pullinger.  The central Island did not make the cut in the Harcourt cabinet.

In 1996, five-term Parksville mayor Paul Reitsma won the BC Liberal nomination and edged Krog by 483 votes, winning the only seat for the Liberals north of Victoria on Vancouver Island.  Reitmsa scrapped with regional NDP politicians in local newspapers.  At some point, he had the not-so-bright idea to write phony letters to the editor under the pen name of “Warren Betanko”, a name that will live on forever.  When the Parksville newspaper broke the news that its MLA was forging letters, Reitsma was on the run.  The morning the story hit, I talked to his constituency assistant.  “Will probably blow over”, I said.  By noon, Reitsma was out of the Liberal Caucus.  Citizens across the spectrum rallied to form a recall campaign. Over 60 days, Reitsma felt the heat. Rather than be the first MLA in Canadian history to be recalled, he resigned.

The NDP probably saw this an opportunity to win back Krog’s seat, and he was convinced to run.  Krog had a reputation in his first term as being a bit more outspoken than your average backbench MLA.  He was their best shot.  However, the Glen Clark government was becoming very unpopular as the economy struggled and a litany of scandals and controversies plagued them.  Meanwhile, Gordon Campbell and the BC Liberals were getting their act together.  Just like 1975, the non-NDP public was starting to pull together behind one party. Seven candidates vied for the nomination and on a Saturday afternoon, close to 1000 people jammed Dover Bay Secondary to elect Judith Reid over a host of more experienced candidates.

Reid was a shellfish farmer from Deep Bay in the north end of the riding.  No elected experience, she was an unconventional choice.  She was an independent in BC Liberal clothing, which worked to her advantage. While Krog could demonstrate his superior knowledge on policies at that point, Reid won the community with her earnestness, and a deeply held view to not elect the NDP.  Reid trounced Krog 53% to 23%.  The result was a declarative statement on the true state of the NDP’s political fortunes.  Less than a year later, Glen Clark was out of office.

In 2001, BC voters spanked the NDP hard, with Campbell’s Liberals winning 77 of 79 seats, including all 13 on Vancouver Island.  Reid had a massive win in Parksville-Qualicum-North Nanaimo (57%), while political newcomer Mike Hunter, a fisheries executive who had recently moved to Nanaimo, defeated Krog in what was seen as a safe NDP seat.    Reid was made Minister of Transportation and served until 2004.  During her time, she oversaw the sale of BC Rail, which became a political firestorm. Though the controversy, and resulting investigations, did not touch Reid, she decided not to run again in 2005.  She was exited from Cabinet to make way for new blood that would be running for re-election.  Hunter served his term in the backbench and was seen as a strong constituency MLA.  But by 2005, the NDP had roared back to life. New leader Carole James put a new face on the troubled brand and gave Campbell a run for the money.  While the Campbell Liberals were re-elected, the Nanaimo riding returned to the NDP fold with Krog winning the rematch with Hunter 52% to 34%.  In the Parksville-North Nanaimo seat, Nanaimo Councillor Ron Cantelon succeeded Reid as BC Liberal MLA.

Cantelon and Krog were both easily re-elected in 2009. By this time, a chunk of south Nanaimo was added to the north end of the Cowichan Valley, becoming a strong NDP riding with Doug Routley as MLA.  Cantelon was instrumental in coordinating provincial funding for Nanaimo area projects like airport expansion, the creation of Vancouver Island University, and funding for the port and convention centre.  In the 2000s, North Nanaimo was becoming as much of a political base of the BC Liberals as South Nanaimo is for the NDP, thanks in no small part to their relentless organizer Jack Doan.

After serving a stint in cabinet as Minister of Agriculture, and as caucus chair, Cantelon retired in 2013 clearing the way for a prized recruit for Christy Clark – Michelle Stilwell.

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North Nanaimo MLA, and Gold Medallist, Michelle Stilwell

A paralympian multiple gold medallist for Canada, Stilwell presented a young, energizing face for a party that needed to show a new look.  Stilwell became part of a narrative that helped propel Christy Clark to her 2013 election victory.  Starting off as caucus chair, Stilwell joined the cabinet as Minister of Social Development and Social Innovation, winning re-election in 2017 – the last remaining BC Liberal MLA on the Island.

Krog had a surprisingly tighter margin in 2013.  Then running the BC Liberal provincial campaign, I can attest to the fact that we simply could not find a candidate in Nanaimo to contest Krog, or the riding to the south.  They were the 84thand 85thout of 85 ridings to confirm candidates. Once he joined the race during the writ period, former Nanaimo Chamber of Commerce president Walter Anderson put forward a good showing narrowing the margin to nine points.  Pretty good despite few resources and no lead-up time.  Had we had our act together, we might have been able to win in 2013.  In 2017, Krog’s margin widened again in a campaign that saw the BC Liberals running against the tide.

Following the turnover in government in July 2017, Krog was left out of John Horgan’s cabinet.  At that time, Krog had 17 years of experience in the Legislature and had served as Attorney-General critic.  There were lots of other cabinet contenders on the Island and his gender worked against his chances too.  Some say his lack of enthusiasm for the leadership of Carole James, which had split the caucus years earlier, may have been a factor.  Whatever the reason, Krog was out.  The logical conclusion was that he would become Speaker in a very contentious situation. However, the unexpected elevation of Darryl Plecas to that role closed off that option.  Krog stayed on the backbench.  In 2018, as we all know now, Krog announced he would seek the mayor’s chair in Nanaimo.  My previous blog post on the Nanaimo byelection discussed Krog’s surprising decision.  Surprising because of the razor thin governing majority for the NDP and that it would be a Nanaimo MLA – of all things – that would put the government’s survival on the line by resigning.

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His Worship (photo: Nanaimo Bulletin)

He’s mayor now and the byelection is on.  Krog’s batting average as candidate for MLA is .625 – five wins, three losses.  Not too shabby.  The span of his provincial political career is up there with Stupich, Pearson, Strachan, Guthrie, Williams, and Hawthornthwaite.  Though his most important work may be ahead of him at Nanaimo City Hall, a task for which he was fully supported by his potential successor, BC Liberal byelection candidate Tony Harris.  Krog won big for mayor, over a strong candidate too.  Why has Krog been popular? I would argue that he has always stayed close to the community and approachable, with his integrity never in question.  Tough act to replace.

And… ?

This historical stroll through Nanaimo’s political history has been surprising to me, a political nut who lived in the area for fifteen years.  My research, which was a full-scale mobilization of underappreciated works on my bookshelves, exposed my ignorance regarding vast parts of Nanaimo’s and our province’s history.  While excessively long, this blog post actually gives short shrift to major events that defined the city, such as the activism around the coal mines, and also the development of a strong small business community that paralleled the strength of the unions for much of Nanaimo’s history.  Happily, there are some great books and articles on these topics that deserve a lot of attention.

What can be said about Nanaimo is that it has been populated by some real originals from all parts of the spectrum. Nanaimo politicians have often spoken their minds over the years.  They’ve had their elbows up and they have strived to make their mark.  Is Nanaimo an NDP town?  Demographically, it shouldn’t be a slam dunk, but tradition over the past 50+ years has been powerful.  Stupich helped build the tradition, while Lovick and Krog consolidated the party’s hold.  Since the NDP was formed, it has won 13 of 15 times in the core Nanaimo seat.  It’s also a matter of boundaries – shift that riding to the north, and drop a little to the south, and the NDP loses its advantage. Nanaimo’s history plays out to this day on a north-south axis.

As much as Nanaimo grows and changes, the coal still lies beneath the surface. Nanaimo’s politics run deep.  The byelection gives voters a chance to consider Nanaimo’s identity.  Will they go with a candidate that speaks to a tradition of independence, or stay with a party that it has loyally backed?  The wildcard – the Green candidate, the Pirate’s daughter– presents an option to take the tradition in an entirely new direction.

Some advice.  Whoever does become the MLA, keep an eye on your spectacles.

Thanks for reading.

(Featured image: EJ Hughes, Steamer at the Old Wharf, Nanaimo)

Additional content:

Adding feedback from Bruce Strongitharm, who’s father Ted Strongitharm ran for the Progressive Conservatives in 1960.

I remember the election as if I was 13, oh wait I was 13. My dad’s big race was against the Liberal candidate Hugh Heath ( his wife later became a liberal senator) because everyone new either the Social Credit or CCF were going to win. Alas Heath won the mini race. I had fun though. My dad would take a van with a speaker on top and stop at a residential street corner and do his campaign speech followed by door knocking. Wasn’t always well received. The leader of the Conservatives then was my dad’s good friend Deane Finlayson (my younger brother is named after him) also lived in Nanaimo but ran in North Vancouver I think. He didn’t win either. The bridge is still a good idea. There major item on the brochure that Mike left out was “getting rid of the one man rule”.

The math of the Nanaimo by-election

What can we expect for turnout in the Nanaimo by-election?

I took a look at five competitive by-elections since 1989 – government-held seats where both the government and opposition had a good chance to win.

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In all of these cases, there should have been ample incentive for both government and opposition to win and, therefore, work hard to get their vote out.

By-election turnout as a percentage of the previous general election ranged from 40% to 89%.  None of these examples, nor any example of any by-election in recent memory, saw a higher turnout than a general election.  Therefore, it is pretty safe to say that fewer people will vote than the 2017 general election even though Press Gallery sage Keith Baldrey calls it “pivotal” and NDP candidate Sheila Malcolmson calls it, “The most important by-election in BC history.”

The NDP pulled off by-election upsets in 1989 and 2012 when they over-performed declining turnout.  In both cases, they had more votes than the previous general election.   Part of that was motivating their supporters and part of it was winning votes from non-traditional supporters.  In two other cases, the NDP still won by-elections from the BC Liberal government even though they had fewer votes compared to the previous election (in which they lost).

Poor old governments.  They have a tough time in by-elections.  In these five examples, the government of the day had between 30% and 75% of the votes from the previous election.  In Oak Bay in 1989, 75% should have been enough to elect Susan Brice.  Campaign manager Frank Leonard probably thought he had the votes.  But NDP candidate Elizabeth Cull really brought the vote out in an anti-Vander Zalm tide.  (It didn’t help the Socreds that Liberal Paul McKivett grabbed 9% either – a story for another day).

The 2011 Pt. Grey by-election is a good parallel for Nanaimo.  Here was a newly elected leader of the governing party, Christy Clark, seeking her way into the Legislature.  I can say, as her then-Chief of Staff, that I never seriously contemplated losing this by-election.  We were too darn busy at the time to think about losing.  Yet, with our campaign only garnering 68% of the votes from the previous election, and NDP David Eby garnering 78% of the previous campaign’s NDP votes, it became uncomfortably close.  If Eby had taken 90% of the votes of Mel Lehan’s 2009 effort in Pt. Grey, he would have won then, instead of 2013, and created a major problem for me.

In 2017, the Nanaimo riding results were as follows:

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So, you can expect there will be less than 27,399 that vote in this by-election.  According to recent history, we might reasonably expect a range of 69% (Pt. Grey) to 85% (Chilliwack-Hope) of the previous election, or a range of about 18,900 to 23,300 voters.  If 40% share of the popular vote is a win, because of a strong Green in the race, then 7,600 to 9,300 votes might be enough to win.  Maybe less if this emerges as a three-way race.

A more recent example is the ProRep referendum.

A total of 19,938 Nanaimo riding residents voted, with a majority (10,785) voting for First-Past-the-Post.  Perhaps that’s the floor for the by-election turnout.  I will leave it others to speculate what 10,785 First-Past-the-Voters might be thinking about BC politics right now.

Why does this matter?

Because when turnout declines, as it surely will, in this by-election, motivating supporters becomes more important.  The three main parties will work very hard to motivate their support base.

The NDP base may not be as strong as some assume.  First of all, Leonard Krog is not on the ballot.  How much of the vote was NDP and how much was Leonard Krog?  We’ll soon find out.

Secondly, Sheila Malcolmson’s support as NDP MP was not as strong as some assume.  She only received 33% of the vote in the past federal election.  I haven’t crunched the numbers, but I think she did better south of the current provincial riding than she did within.  That may have been more of a problem with Tom Mulcair’s flagging fortunes than anything, but the fact remains that Malcolmson did not have huge coattails of her own.

You might crunch the 2017 numbers and say, “The NDP still have a pretty big cushion”.  You would be right.  But go back to 2013 and look at those results.  It was a lot closer between the NDP and BC Liberals. How much of a difference will Andrew Wilkinson and Tony Harris make in favour of the BC Liberals, and how much difference did Leonard Krog make for the NDP?  We’ll see.

For a deeper dive on BC by-election turnout, see my 2016 posts: A Deeper Dive on By-election Turnout and Turnout goes Underground.