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.

oct-17-1991-liberal-leader-gordon-wilson-on-the-campaign.jpg
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, and young pilot Gary Collins who won in Fort Langley. 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, 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. Fourteen 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.

What to expect in BC on Election Night… and more

Five weeks ago, Justin Trudeau launched his campaign to win a majority government with British Columbia destined to deliver the seats to put him over the magic number of 170. On Election Day, it might be BC that keeps his parliamentary plurality in tact, in a successive Liberal minority government.

The Liberals and NDP entered this election with 11 seats each in BC, while the Conservatives had the largest chunk at 17.

Party BC standings20152019
Liberals1711
Conservative1017
NDP1411
Green12
Independent01

In 2019, there were 32 seats in BC that stayed the course and 10 seats that switched hands, mostly at the expense of the Liberals.

Riding2015 winner2019 winner
Vancouver GranvilleLiberal – floor crossing to independentIndependent
Steveston – Richmond EastLiberalConservative
Pitt Meadows – Maple RidgeLiberalConservative
Cloverdale – Langley CityLiberalConservative
Mission – Matsqui – Fraser CanyonLiberalConservative
Kelowna – Lake CountryLiberalConservative
South Surrey – White RockConservative – Liberal (by-election)Conservative
Nanaimo – LadysmithNDP – Green (by-election)Green
Port Moody – CoquitlamNDPConservative
Kootenay – ColumbiaNDPConservative

This time, I expect much fewer seats to change hands in BC as the parties have stayed fairly close together in terms of popular vote. While they will likely have a plurality of the popular vote in B.C., the Conservatives will be challenged to reach their popular vote level from 2019 in B.C., thanks in part to the PPC. The Liberals may cough up a few points to the NDP, while the Greens appear to be doing the same and then some. The NDP may come out with the most gains in terms of votes and seats here. But they will likely be incremental gains.

Seats to Watch in BC

At the outset of the campaign, I listed the seats to watch in B.C. The sands have shifted a bit in five weeks, and I’ve narrowed the list for Election night. Here are the seats to watch tonight:

  • Burnaby North – Seymour – competitive three-way race between incumbent Liberal Terry Beech and NDP and CPC challengers. Lots of attention from the Leaders’ tours. In 2019, the Conservative candidate imploded during the writ period. The question can the Conservatives spring back and leap frog over the Liberals, or can the NDP harness Jagmeet Singh’s popularity and edge out the Liberals.
  • Nanaimo – Ladysmith – given the collapse of the Greens, incumbent MP Paul Manly is basically an independent without much help from his party. Nevertheless, he has fended off the NDP twice before and has a strong local organization. NDP leader Jagmeet Singh and CPC leader Erin O’Toole have visited the riding. A stronger NDP plus weaker Green Party is the recipe for an NDP win. A perfect Green/NDP split may allow the Conservatives to sneak up the middle.
  • Vancouver – Granville – Jody Wilson-Raybould vacated the seat throwing it back to the major parties. This riding is inherently Liberal, but the NDP and Conservative candidates have a business case with the NDP pressing hard among renters north of 16th and the Conservatives working single family home neighbourhoods. It should have been a lay up for the Liberals, but now looking like a toss up.
  • The Northeast suburbs – There will be a lot of action in three contiguous ridings from Port Moody to Maple Ridge. In Port Moody – Coquitlam, the three major parties were between 29% and 31% in 2019, with the Conservatives prevailing. This time, the advantage is to the NDP. In neighbouring Coquitlam – Port Coquitlam, Liberal MP Ron McKinnon faces a stiff challenge from the Conservative Katerina Anastasiadis. The Liberals won by less than 1% in 2019. This time, the Liberal saving grace may be the absence of the Greens, which took 7% last time. Potential Conservative pickup. And across the Pitt River, Conservative MP Marc Dalton entered the campaign with a three-way race. This election will likely rise and fall with party fortunes. If Conservatives win a plurality of votes in BC, this riding likely stays in their column. Likewise, if the Liberals or NDP win a plurality in BC, it could fall in their columns respectively.
  • Surrey – Liberal MP Ken Hardie faces a challenge from Conservative candidate and former MLA Dave Hayer in Fleetwood – Port Kells. If things start going the Conservatives’ way tonight in BC, this is one of those ridings that could fall into their hands. Next door, former Liberal MP John Aldag is trying to wrestle Cloverdale – Langley City from Conservative MP Tamara Jansen. Jansen won by less than 3 points in 2019, but this time, there is no Green, Elizabeth May endorsed Aldag, and the provincial ridings have gone orange – for the first time. Aldag could benefit from changing dynamics out there, but again, this riding likely goes with the flow based on party trends in BC. The NDP are hungry for Surrey-Centre in an effort to knock off Liberal MP Randeep Sarai. If it’s their night, watch this seat, but it will take a lot to knock off Sarai.

Overall, I do not expect a lot of seats to change hands in BC. Ten changed hands in 2019, and I would not be surprised to see only 5 or 6 change hands this time. Therefore, I don’t see a big change to party standings. My guess would be as follows:

  • Liberal: 9 to 11
  • Conservative: 16 to 18
  • NDP: 13 to 15
  • Green: 1 to 2

Nationally, I see a reduced Liberal minority tonight. Losses in Ontario and Atlantic Canada to the Conservatives and possible losses to the Bloc in Québec, but gains on the Prairies, particularly Alberta.

For the Conservatives to win more seats in Ontario and Liberals to win more seats in Alberta is good for Canada, overall. Both parties need better regional balance in their caucuses. I hope it works out that way.

The Conservatives have been beset by rearguard action from PPC and the untimely political disaster unfolding in Alberta. Throughout, Erin O’Toole’s leadership numbers have improved and he has been more competitive in the middle ground. It will be a big payoff if they do better than expected in vote-rich Ontario.

The NDP look strong heading into Election Day, but it could be an illusion of sorts. Almost every poll in 2019 had the NDP higher than where they ended up. Same thing in 2015. The reason is that they are much stronger with younger votes who do not vote at the same rate as older voters. Conversely, this is why the Conservatives end up higher on Election Day than forecast. Overall, the smaller parties tend to do worse on Election Day as they do not have the machine to get the vote out, like the major parties.

There may be a some micro-surprises tonight. The Greens could win a seat in Kitchener, after the Liberal candidate was fired during the campaign. It would be quite something if the Greens came out of this election with three seats.The Liberal candidate that was fired in Spadina may still win and would have to sit as an Independent.

Often times on election night, we say, “How did that happen?” Storylines could be surprising Conservative strength in Ontario or Liberals gaining seats there; a major shift in Québec; the PPC being much higher than expected; the NDP winning bushels of seats in the West that were not expected; or the Conservatives pulling away from the pack in BC. Whatever is the case, the voters are always right.

Key battlegrounds at-a-glance

Election 44 appears to be a close battle at the national level, but how is it playing out in Canada’s three largest provinces compared to the past two elections?

British Columbia – All three major national parties are competitive in B.C., with any of three capable of gaining a plurality of seats. Right now, current aggregated polling results via CBC’s Polltracker website show the Liberals holding steady compared to 2019, the Conservatives down slightly, and the NDP up (at the expense of the Greens, it seems). The upshot is that, in terms of seats, the standings of Liberals relative to the Conservatives would not change much in this scenario. For a major shift, one of the three parties needs to break from the pack.

Quebec is complicated, as usual. The Bloc is down and the Liberals, despite declining slightly, are holding their ground. The NDP and Conservatives are up compared to 2019, but at those levels, does not equate into significant seat gains. Plus du même?

Ontario is where the action is. To their detriment, Andrew Scheer’s Conservatives could not make gains in 2019 in this vote-rich battleground. This time, the Erin O’Toole Conservatives are running neck and neck with the Liberals, despite an uptick in support for the Peoples Party. Last election, the Liberals won Ontario by 9% and took 79/121 seats, almost the same as their majority win in 2015 when they won 80/121. Clearly, the Conservatives must make major gains here in order to win a plurality of seats. Flipping 18 seats from red to blue, everything else being equal, would lead to a tie in seats nation-wide.

The numbers in these battlegrounds will shift and move yet again. To borrow a golf saying, we’re now at “moving day at the Masters” meaning this is the time where parties will make their defining moves, or fall back. The next few days, including the debates, will set up the final round of Election 44. Who’s tee shot is going to land in the rough, who is going to be chipping from the sand trap, and who is going to drain that 44 foot birdie putt to win it all? It looks like the most important golf will be played in Ontario.

Floor crossings: a tradition as old as Canada itself

The floor crossing of Jenica Atwin from the Green Party of Canada to Justin Trudeau’s Liberals is noteworthy in one respect – it’s the first time a federal Green MP has crossed the floor to another party. It completes a ‘trade’ that happened 13 years ago when erstwhile Liberal MP Blair Wilson from British Columbia crossed to the Greens to become its first MP in Parliament. Atwin becomes the latest in a long line of Canadian politicians who have crossed the floor to sit with a different political party than the one they shared a ballot with in the previous election.

Newly minted Liberal MP

Not so long ago, a Liberal went Conservative. I had never heard of Leona Alleslev, the Member of Parliament for Aurora-Oak Ridges-Richmond Hill, before she switched from red to blue.

(This post updated from September 2018 version)

Most of the time, the end is nigh for that politician. Some are pushed by desperation. Some are motivated by pique. Others for genuine policy and ideological reasons. Some are able to make the change stick, as Alleslev did in the 2019 election when she was re-elected as a Conservative.

Floor crossing is older than Canada itself. Wikipedia informs us that, in 1866, an anti-Confederate politician in New Brunswick switched sides when he did not receive a desired cabinet post. We could go back to WWI when many Liberal MPs left Wilfrid Laurier and joined with the Unionist government under Robert Borden. Or to 1935 when British Columbia’s H.H. Stevens bolted the Conservative barn to form the Reconstructionist Party.

At times, a floor crossing can signal a sea change in politics. Réne Lévesque leaving the Quebec Liberal Party in the 1960s to form the Parti Québécois is one of the most momentous moves in Canadian political history. It led to the election of the first Péquiste government in 1976 and a referendum on sovereignty-association in 1980. Watch the documentary Champions to see Lévesque’s impact and his enduring rivalry with Pierre Trudeau.

a_365
Réne Lévesque: probably the most impactful floor-crossing in Canadian history (CBC)

In 1990, Lucien Bouchard spectacularly left the Mulroney government after the collapse of the Meech Lake accord, forming the Bloc Québécois and taking other Quebec PC and Liberal MPs with him, including Liberal MP Jean Lapierre. Bouchard led the Oui forces to the brink of victory in 1995, and shortly thereafter became Premier of Quebec.

The 1993 election saw the collapse of the Progressive Conservatives to two seats with Preston Manning’s Reform Party dominating Western Canada. After Jean Chrétien continually swept up in Ontario, PC Senator Gerry St. Germain was one of the first to attempt to unify the Conservative parties and changed his allegiance in the Senate from PC to become the first Canadian Alliance senator in 2000. Later, eleven Canadian Alliance MPs left caucus to sit as the “DRC” – Democratic Representative Caucus when they couldn’t get along with Alliance leader Stockwell Day, and included some political heavyweights like the first Reform MP ever elected, Deb Grey. The DRCs would morph into a coalition with Joe Clark’s (second-coming) PC caucus: the PC-DRC. Ultimately, most everyone got back together under the leadership of Stephen Harper after new PC leader Peter Mackay agreed to merge the PCs with Stephen Harper’s Alliance. Harper became the leader of the new Conservative Party and held Paul Martin to a minority in 2004 before winning his own minority in 2006. (Joe didn’t cross, he stayed PC until the end). The key point is that floor crossing influenced the course of events between 2000 and 2004.

In 2018, we saw Maxime Bernier jump out of Air Scheer without a parachute. It caused a rearguard action that hampered Scheer’s Conservatives as they readied themselves to fight the Liberals in the 2019 election. For Bernier, the impact of this Xtreme floor crossing was the sound of hitting political ground zero with an ear-splitting splat.

Some floor crossings reflect the ebb and flow of political tides.  Scott Brison was elected as a Progressive Conservative, but left when that party merged with the Alliance to form the modern-day Conservative Party. Brison became a senior Liberal cabinet minister. One can argue that he represented a shift in Canadian politics where some Progressive Conservatives migrated to the Liberals.  Many politicians, like Bob Rae and Ujjal Dosanjh, sat for one party, then came back to run for another party later, reflecting how they had migrated through the political spectrum.

Provincially, MLAs in both the Saskatchewan PCs and Liberals crossed the floor to the new Saskatchewan Party in 1997, which has governed the province since 2007. The PCs were extinguished and the Liberals are in the wilderness.

In 2002, Yukon NDP MLA Dennis Fentie left his party to join the Yukon Party. A month later he was leader and later that year he became Premier, serving until 2011.

The leader of the New Brunswick NDP from 2011-2017, Dominic Cardy, found himself as a New Brunswick PC MLA in the government of Blaine Higgs. In fact, he’s now the Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development and has been heralded for his role in advocating for a strong early response to COVID-19. In Cardy’s case, he didn’t “cross the floor” but nonetheless a rare sighting of a political leader switching sides and his experience going from the political hinterland to inner sanctum likely not lost on Jenica Atwin.

A candidate for the Liberal leadership in Newfoundland famously switched sides afterward. John Crosbie was a Minister of Finance under longtime Premier Joey Smallwood. Crosbie, and other younger Liberal MLAs, like Clyde Wells, chafed under Smallwood’s leadership and left Caucus, sitting as ‘Reform Liberals’. When Smallwood announced his retirement, Crosbie stepped up to run as Liberal leader. Smallwood came back to oppose him and won. Crosbie then left the Liberals to run as a Progressive Conservative, winning, and sitting in the new government of Frank Moores. He would go on to be elected federally in 1976, serve as Joe Clark’s Finance Minister, become a major contender for the 1983 PC national leadership, serve as a heavyweight in Brian Mulroney’s cabinet, and serve as Newfoundland’s Lieutenant-Governor. Quite a career for a party switcher! Clyde Wells stuck with the Liberals and would serve as Premier, famously scuttling the Meech Lake Accord promoted by his old caucus ally, Crosbie.

BC has had three significant floor-crossings that led to a restructuring of political support bases. Leading up to the 1952 election, Conservative MLA WAC Bennett left that party and migrated toward to the Social Credit Party. The leaderless party won the plurality of seats in 1952 and Bennett became its leader (and, ultimately, Premier) after the election. Bennett governed for 20 years.

mcgeer-williams-bennett-and-gardom
Seismic shift in BC politics when three senior Liberal MLAs join Bill Bennett and the Socreds in 1974 (Vancouver Sun)

Then, following his defeat in 1972, his son Bill Bennett, the new leader, recruited former Liberal leader and MLA Dr. Pat McGeer, Allan Williams, and Garde Gardom to join the Socreds, along with PC MLA Hugh Curtis. All four floor crossers would play major roles in Bennett’s government, which lasted 11 years. He also attracted former Liberal leadership candidate Bill VanderZalm to run as a Socred in 1975 too. Then, in the 1990s, there was a two-step process. First, four Social Credit MLAs left the former dynasty in ruins when they turned away from the fledgling BC Liberals under Gordon Campbell, to join the BC Reform Party in 1994. Their defection ultimately benefited the ruling NDP – Glen Clark would win a majority in 1996 while losing the popular vote. Campbell corralled the Reformers after 1996 and remaining Reform MLA Richard Neufeld crossed the floor to the BC Liberals, marking the formalization of a de facto coalition. Neufeld served as BC Liberal minister for seven years and the BC Liberals governed continuously for 16 years.

(A footnote to the 1975 example above is that Frank Calder, British Columbia’s first First Nations parliamentarian, lost his NDP nomination in the riding of Atlin leading up to the 1975 election. Having been first elected in 1949, Calder brought his winning ways to the Socreds and was elected yet again. Four years later, he lost by one vote to the NDP’s ‘Landslide’ Al Passarell. Passarell would later cross the floor from the NDP to the Socreds).

Some floor crossings backfire spectacularly. Arguably, the WildRose defections to the ruling PC’s under Jim Prentice destroyed the political careers of those MLAs, like former leader Danielle Smith, and boomeranged disastrously on the Prentice government. It looked too cute, too orchestrated – the overdog overdoing it. Belinda Stronach’s floor crossing to the Liberals in 2005 helped save the minority Martin government for a time, but arguably galvanized Stephen Harper’s Conservatives in the forthcoming election in 2006.

Some leave and come home again. The most famous example is Winston Churchill going Conservative-Liberal-Conservative. The aforementioned Jean Lapierre left the Liberals to join the Bloc Quebecois upon the election of Jean Chretien as Liberal leader. He returned to the Liberals under Paul Martin and was a senior cabinet minister in his government. Then there’s Joe Peschisolido who was a leading Young Liberal who drifted right and was elected as an Alliance MP then crossed the floor to the Liberals. After a stint out of politics, he was elected again as a Liberal MP in 2015 before his defeat in 2019. Gordon Wilson was Liberal leader in BC from 1987 to 1993. He left, with fellow MLA and wife Judi Tyabji, to form his own party, the PDA, and won his seat again in 1996 under that banner. He was recruited by NDP Premier Glen Clark to join the NDP cabinet in the late 1990s and then ran for the leadership of the NDP, unsuccessfully. Since 2001, he has been out of elected politics, but he did go ‘home’ again in 2013 when he made an intervention in that year’s election campaign in favour of BC Liberal Premier Christy Clark (who once worked for him) and against NDP Leader Adrian Dix (who once recruited him). Never dull in BC.

Some floor crossings weren’t meant to be. BC Liberal MLA John van Dongen left the BC Liberals over unresolvable disagreements. He joined the BC Conservatives, but within months, left them over unresolvable disagreements. Conservative MP Eve Adams defection to the Liberals on the eve of the 2015 election reeked of desperation. Her career was soon over, at least for now. A husband and wife both crossed the floor from the New Brunswick PCs to the Liberals in 2007, but by 2010 they were both out of politics. As noted above, one-term West Vancouver-Sunshine Coast-Sea to Sky Country Liberal MP Blair Wilson got into some hot water and would eventually leave the Liberal Caucus to sit as an independent. Just before the 2008 election, he migrated to the Greens to become their first ever MP in Canada. He failed in his bid for re-election, as a Green.

Some cross and never look back, like Scott Brison and John Crosbie. Dr. Keith Martin was elected as a Reformer in 1993 and ran for the leadership of the Canadian Alliance. He crossed the floor to the Liberals in 2004 and served as a Liberal until 2011. David Kilgour was a longtime Progressive Conservative MP. Even though John Turner was his brother-in-law, he stayed as a PC, but after Turner left, Kilgour crossed to the Liberals and continued from there.

Some floor-crossers are peripatetic.  Paul Hellyer was elected as a Liberal MP in 1949 and went on to be Minister of National Defence under Lester Pearson and a major contender for the leadership of the Liberals in 1968, placing second on the first ballot.    He fell out with Pierre Trudeau the following year and tried to form his own party.  He then crossed the floor to the PCs and in 1976, he ran for the leadership of that party.  He would return to the Liberals in 1982 and ran unsuccessfully for a nomination in his old seat in 1988.  He then formed another party, the Canada Action Party, and would try to merge it with the NDP.  At the age of 97, he may have another run in him, but for which party? (fun fact: he’s the longest serving member of the Privy Council)

There’s also the interesting case of Garth Turner. Elected as a Progressive Conservative MP in 1988 and ran for the leadership of the party in 1993. He lost his seat and returned as a Conservative MP in 2006. He defeated Liberal Gary Carr who had himself changed parties having been elected originally as a provincial Tory. Turner then fell afoul of the Conservatives, went independent, flirted with the Greens, and finally joined Stephane Dion’s Liberals before Lisa Raitt ended his political career in 2008.

Countless others have gone to sit as independents only to return later.  Some are sent because they were naughty, others leave because they’re mad but come back once they’re happy. BC MLA Blair Lekstrom left caucus over the handling of the HST but came back after a leadership change.  MLAs and MPs who never leave, and feel that they are team players, can often be annoyed and upset when those that leave are welcomed back.  If handled properly, it can be seen as beneficial to the greater good that they return.  Alternatively, it can be seen as rewarding bad behaviour.

Surrey MP Chuck Cadman was elected as a Reform MP and carried on as an Alliance MP, but prior to the 2004 election, he lost his nomination.  He ran as an independent and won.  In 2005, battling cancer, he was pivotal in keeping Paul Martin’s minority government in power during critical votes, against the wishes of his former colleagues. Liberal MP John Nunziata was bounced from the Liberal fold in 1996 after voting against Paul Martin’s budget. He showed them – he won re-election as an independent in 1997. They showed him – he lost to the Liberals in 2000. Gilles Bernier was a Progressive Conservative MP elected in the 1984 Mulroney sweep, but in 1993, the Rt. Hon. Kim Campbell would not approve his candidacy due to fraud charges (he was later acquitted). Bernier ran as an independent and won his seat. He was appointed Ambassador of Haiti by Prime Minister Chrétien. He managed to miss the 1993 PC wipeout and appointed ambassador. The benefits of going against the grain may have inspired his son, Maxime.

There’s Bill Casey who was elected three times a PC, and twice a Conservative before announcing he would not support the Harper government’s budget. He was bounced and ran as an Independent, winning 69% of the vote in 2008. A clear case of constituents agreeing with his reasons for opposing his party. He would resign his seat later, before returning in 2015 as a Liberal MP – making it four different ways he had been elected – PC, Conservative, Independent, and Liberal.

And, of course, there is Jody Wilson-Raybould. Considered a ‘star candidate’ in the 2015 campaign, and made Minister of Justice, JWR’s shocking confrontation with her then-colleagues over SNC Lavalin gripped Ottawa for months in early 2019, culminating in her departure from the Liberal Caucus. She won re-election as an Independent and appears intent to seek re-election on that basis.

Another ‘star candidate’ from BC, David Emerson, shockingly defected to the Conservatives days after the 2006 federal election effectively marking the end of his career in electoral politics.  The ink was barely dry on the ballots when he reversed course, causing much consternation among his former Liberal supporters. But it provided Stephen Harper with experience and depth in cabinet for two years and demoralized the Liberals, who sat out of power for nine years.  Emerson, like JWR, did not have any roots in the Liberal Party. It is with some peril that political managers recruit candidates from outside the party – those candidates do not ‘owe’ anyone and tend to be untethered to party loyalties. In JWR’s case, the reasons for her leaving the Liberals were front page news for months. It was not unexpected that there would be a break-up (in fact, she was bounced from the Caucus). Emerson, on the other hand, gave no hint he was leaving. He was approached, he agreed. The voters that elected him, and party members that supported him, were caught unaware. There is the old argument – “I can get more done in government than Opposition”, which is a reason provided by Jenica Atwin.

Alberta PC MP Jack Horner crossed over to Pierre Trudeau’s Liberals in 1977, joining the Trudeau cabinet.  There has rarely been a good time to be a federal Liberal in Alberta and this wasn’t one of them.  His constituents did not reward him for his efforts in the subsequent election. Following the Atwin switch, I talked to a grizzled old Prairie Liberal who was shuddering with Jack Horner flashbacks. The ‘betrayal’ of constituents by Horner was not unlike that felt by Emerson’s constituents in Vancouver-Kingsway. Around the time Horner ran into the arms of Pierre Trudeau, Winnipeg’s James Richardson, a member of PET’s cabinet, left the Liberal Caucus never to return, sitting as an independent. He tried to set up his own party then eventually helped found the Reform Party of Canada after he left elected life. My sources tell me his crossing was notable in that he told the Clerk, “I’m sitting over there from now on”. And off he went.

Many, many, many more floor crossings happen in the imaginations of political back roomers.  There is always the threat of a disgruntled MLA or MP taking off.  Most of the time, that representative is governed by some restraint.  The voters elected him or her largely on the basis of their party label.  Imagine you worked hard in support of your party only to find that the recipient of your hard work crossed no-man’s land to sit in enemy trenches?  Many would-be floor-crossers have surely taken a step back when realizing they would have to explain their actions to the volunteers who backed them.

To be accepted by the voters, the conflict usually has to be real and substantive and/or that representative must have a lot of personal credibility.  If it’s opportunistic, and imposed from the top, it’s not likely to go down well with the voters or the supporters of the sending and receiving party.  Not many like a turncoat, especially when they weren’t part of the process.

What floor crossings can demonstrate is the dynamic state of our political system.  In the ‘first past the post system’, parties are always in a state of constant movement.  Parties continually search for a plurality of votes and seats, and attracting someone who represents a set of ideas or representative of a community of interest is a way to grow a party’s base.  A floor crossing can give a tiny party a foothold in Parliament. Parties that fail to unify their members behind a common purpose can disintegrate, with floor crossings one such manifestation.  Unlike the United States, Canadian parties can rise and fall (and rise again).  There is much more fluidity.  Real policy differences – such as Quebec independence – can lead to dramatic changes and fracture coalitions.  Strong leadership glues coalitions together, unifying disparate elements.  When it comes down to it, elected representatives are just people, unbound to their party label.  They have the ability to exercise their free will.

As University of Manitoba Political Science professor Royce Koop puts it, “When an MP crosses the floor, it’s a beautiful reminder that in Canada we cast our votes for candidates, not parties”.

— with files from contributor Jay Denney

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

Jagmentum

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
Liberals

35%

17

17 (1 gain, 1 loss) 16
CPC

30%

10

8 (1 loss, 1 vacant) 8
NDP

26%

14

13 (1 loss) 10
Greens

8%

1

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

NDP

33%

6 5

4

Greens

24%

1 2

2

Liberals

21%

0 0

0

Conservative

21%

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.

Upshot:
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

Liberal

44%

8 7

6

CPC

26%

1 1 1
NDP

24%

4 4 4

Green

5%

0

0

0

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.

Upshot:
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

Liberal

40%

8 9

9

CPC

34%

4 2 2
NDP

21%

1 1 0

Green

4%

0

0

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.

Upshot:
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

CPC

37%

5 5

5

Liberal

30%

1 1 1
NDP

28%

3 3 2

Green

4%

0

0

0

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’.

Upshot:

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.

A deeper dive into the conditions for majority and minority governments

I was having a perfectly nice Monday morning doing what most normal people do – blog about obscure electoral statistics.  After posting about the minimum threshold historically needed to secure a majority in Canada, ink-stained wretch Vaughn Palmer entered the conversation on Twitter to make things more complicated.

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My point was that no majority government has ever been formed in Canada over the past century with less than 38.5% of the popular vote.  Fairly straightforward, but Vaughn wanted to belabour it.

So, fine, let’s get into it – when Jean Chrétien won a majority with 38.5% in 1997, he had some help.  The right was hopelessly splintered.  Despite a low popular vote, the Liberals had a 19-point margin over the second place Reform Party, the sixth-largest margin-of-victory, in terms of popular vote between 1921 and 2015. Plus, the Liberals annihilated the opposition in Ontario.  They won virtually every seat.  Let’s also remember the NDP was in the serious doldrums nationally in the 1990s.  It was easy street for the Chrétien Liberals.  Ridiculously easy.

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Of course, Vaughn couldn’t leave it at that.  He had to consult his groaning book shelves for more statistical peculiarities.

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By extending this barely-read Twitter thread, Vaughn was making me think I needed to do a deeper statistical dive.

And I did.  Is there a pattern between polarization and majority/minority governments?  After a pile of work, the answer is… not really.

Here is a chart that shows the combined amount of the top 2 federal political parties (popular vote) from 1921 to 2015.  The blue dots represent majority governments and the black dots represent minority governments.  Some majorities happen when there is low polarization and some

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The ‘extreme polarization’ occurred in 1925 and 1926 when William Lyon Mackenzie King and Arthur Meighen waged battle, and in 1930 when R.B. Bennett prevailed over Mackenzie King, peaking at 93% (combined votes of Liberals and Conservatives).  In spite of the polarization, Mackenzie King and Meighen both failed to win a majority, with the Progressives holding the balance of power.

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William Lyon Mackenzie King: “Majorities are hard”, he might have said.  He finally got one on his 5th try.

Extreme polarization flared up again in 1958 when the Progressive Conservatives and Liberals combined for 87% of the vote (mainly PC).  That’s the last time any two parties combined for over 80%.

The Liberal – PC oligopoly held between the 70% to 80% level from 1962 to 1988.  In the 1990s, all hell broke loose when the PC coalition shattered with the Bloc Québécois going on a five election run of 10% to 13% of the national vote, and the Reform Party devouring the PC’s starting in western Canada.  For six elections between 1993 and 2008, the top 2 level ranged from 58% to 66%.  Very low polarization with many parties receiving double-digit popular vote amounts.

In 2011, the top 2 level rose above 70% and was 71% in 2015.

While this is kind of interesting (to me) about federal polarization, it doesn’t really say much about likelihood of minority and majority governments.

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Vaughn then helpfully recounts how the BC NDP did better in the popular vote – losing – than when they actually won.  True, Glen Clark with 39% and Mike Harcourt with 41% won majorities, while Bob Skelly at 43% was crushed.  Difference was that Skelly faced a dominant Social Credit party while Clark and Harcourt faced a split opposition.

So, I looked at it further, putting aside family time and personal wellness, to deal with Vaughn’s haranguing.

In the past 29 elections, there were 12 where the #1 party won by about 12% of the popular vote or more.  All of those were majorities.

Then there’s a set of 8 elections where the winning party had a popular vote edge of about 7.5% to about 11.5%.  Half of those were majorities, half were minority governments.

Finally, there is a set of 9 close battles where the party with the plurality of seats won the popular vote by 7% to minus 4%.  Huh?  Yes, three governments in the past century lost the popular vote but won the plurality of seats – Mackenzie King in 1926, John Diefenbaker in 1957, and Joe Clark in 1979.  (I should add that Meighen won the popular vote and the plurality of seats in 1925, but Mackenzie King hung on with support of the Progressives, ultimately leading to the King-Byng Affair).  Of those 9 elections, there was only one majority: R.B. Bennett in 1930.

Moral of the story: in #elxn43, the margin between the two parties appears to be pretty close.  The public polls indicate a way lower spread than 7%, at this time.  History tells us that there is strong likelihood of a minority government if it is a tight race, especially if third parties have strongholds where they have a greater chance of winning.

I think we all knew most of that already, but Vaughn has succeeded in sparking a tour through dusty old election results.  Ah, it wasn’t so bad.

***

See below for stats:

Table 1: Results of top 2 parties (1921- 2015); sorted by difference in popular vote between party with plurality of seats, and second place party (pop vote)

Top 2 Margin Plurality 2nd Majority
1993 59.9% 22.55% 41.24% 18.69% y
1940 80.6% 22.08% 51.32% 29.24% y
1984 78.1% 22.01% 50.03% 28.02% y
1958 87.4% 19.92% 53.67% 33.75% y
1949 78.8% 19.50% 49.15% 29.65% y
1997 57.8% 19.11% 38.46% 19.35% y
1953 79.5% 17.41% 48.43% 31.02% y
2000 66.3% 15.36% 40.85% 25.49% y
1935 74.5% 14.84% 44.68% 29.84% y
1968 76.8% 13.94% 45.37% 31.43% y
1945 67.4% 12.16% 39.78% 27.62% y
1980 76.8% 11.89% 44.34% 32.45% y
2008 63.9% 11.39% 37.65% 26.26% n
1921 71.1% 11.20% 41.15% 29.95% n
1988 74.9% 11.10% 43.02% 31.92% y
2011 70.3% 8.99% 39.62% 30.63% y
1963 74.3% 8.68% 41.48% 32.80% n
1965 72.6% 7.77% 40.18% 32.41% n
1974 78.6% 7.69% 43.15% 35.46% y
2015 71.4% 7.58% 39.47% 31.89% y
2004 66.4% 7.10% 36.73% 29.63% n
1925 85.9% 6.39% 46.13% 39.74% n
2006 66.5% 6.04% 36.27% 30.23% n
1972 73.4% 3.40% 38.42% 35.02% n
1930 93.3% 2.29% 47.79% 45.50% y
1962 74.2% 0.25% 37.22% 36.97% n
1957 79.0% -2.00% 38.50% 40.50% n
1926 88.3% -2.45% 42.90% 45.35% n
1979 76.0% -4.22% 35.89% 40.11% n

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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 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.

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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.”

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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.

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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

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Tom Berger (UBC.ca)

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.

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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.

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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)

The Alberta Premier’s Liberal roots

In 1984, I chose to get involved in politics as a Liberal during a summer blizzard of Conservative voters.  The Liberals went down to a humiliating defeat and the Mulroney era was upon us.  Yet, despite being soundly trounced, a dedicated group of Liberals in Mission-Port Moody riding soldiered on, and from them I learned a lot about politics.

Two of those local Liberals that always made time for a young whippersnapper like me were Mart and Norma Kenney. My father explained that Mart and Norma were not just kindly local Liberals, but among the greatest Canadian entertainers of the 20thcentury.  Mart was a renowned Canadian bandleader and Norma Locke (as she was known) was a singing star of the Big Band era.  They were truly class acts.  Mart often talked about his grandson, Jason, who was getting involved in the Liberals too, in Saskatchewan.

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Mart Kenney

The Kenneys were strong grassroots supporters, regular convention-goers, and faithfully attended general meetings of local Liberals in church basements and community halls.  In 1986, I was gearing up for my first national Liberal convention, being held in Ottawa.  The main event was a leadership review that would determine if Rt. Hon. John Turner would continue as leader (he passed the test).  For Young Liberals, we would also elect a national executive.  Mart told me that Jason was going to make a run for one of the Vice-President positions and asked if I would help him out.  I would do anything for Mart, so I did.

As I recall, Jason faced off against an older, eastern Young Liberal who had much stronger connections.  It was an uphill battle and Jason lost.  I doubt it was close. Among my many convention badges was a sticker for Kenney affixed to my Turner scarf.

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Check out that Kenney sticker: bottom right (1986 LPC convention)

That was it for my career as a Jason Kenney ‘staffer’.  As time went on, Mart would share updates with me about Jason’s evolving political perspectives.  While he would work with Ralph Goodale in the 1980s, Jason migrated to the rising forces of prairie populism and taxpayer protest. By 1997, he was a Reform Party Member of Parliament at age 29.

Mart himself served as Councillor in the District of Mission well into his 80s. He had every honour you could imagine – Freeman of Mission, Citizen of the Year, BC’s Senior Citizen of the Year, Order of Canada, and I was honoured to support his successful nomination to the Order of British Columbia in 2002.  Both Mart and Norma are well remembered and honoured in Mission, as they should be. I was very lucky to know them.

The kid that ran for VP of the Young Liberals in 1986 is now the Conservative Premier of Alberta.  I have only watched his career from afar, and how he governs remains to be seen, but one thing I can say is that Alberta’s new premier can draw upon a strong family legacy of commitment to community and public service.

Book review: Claiming the Land tells the story of B.C. and the Making of a New Eldorado

Published in the Vancouver Sun, April 20 / 2019

It’s one of those stories you never heard about in school.

In late August 1858, two unlikely fathers of Confederation met on a grassy benchland, south of Camchin (present-day Lytton), to negotiate a peace during the heighClaiming the Land front cover.jpgt of the Canyon War, a bloody skirmish between miners (mainly American) and Indigenous people (mainly Nlaka’pamux).

Historian Daniel Marshall, winner of the 2019 Basil Stuart-Stubbs prize for outstanding scholarly book on British Columbia, writes in Claiming the Land: British Columbia and the Making of a New Eldorado how Nlaka’pamux Chief Cexpe’nthlEm (Spintlum) and Henry Snyder, a U.S. militia captain, negotiated a peace that averted major bloodshed and inevitable incursion by U.S. forces across the 49th Parallel to defend American citizens.

Leading up to 1858, Indigenous peoples had traded symbiotically with the Hudson’s Bay Company and had well-established trade routes with Indigenous neighbours to the south. As Marshall’s research shows, it was Indigenous people who were first mining gold. When news of this trade in gold spread to California, it sparked a mass movement of people north. Victoria and ‘New Caledonia’ were transformed overnight. Americans and other foreigners vastly outnumbered the small, resident British population and their arrival changed Indigenous societies forever.

The California gold rush was noted for its extreme violence toward Indigenous peoples. Such violence was well known to the Nlaka’pamux people and other First Nations, and to British officials like Governor James Douglas and the Colonial office. Marshall describes how London directed Douglas to protect the interests of Indigenous peoples and seek to prevent violence from foreign gold seekers. However, Douglas did not have the troops to back up his authority.

When the miners asserted their claims, with little or no regard to Indigenous or British interests, it was only a matter of time before there was conflict. Bloody battles between miners and Indigenous people took place along steep canyon banks. Miners, under attack, threw the bodies of their dead into the Fraser, where they washed up down river at Deadman’s Eddy. Tensions in Yale boiled over and miners’ militias sprung to action.

Marshall describes the climatic moment when two U.S. militias headed north up the Canyon to confront Indigenous opposition. Captain Henry Snyder led the New York Pike Guards and sought a peaceful compromise. Captain Graham of the Whatcom Guards sought to exterminate the Indigenous threat. Snyder and Graham’s militias both marched north on opposite sides of the Fraser. Then on a fateful August evening at Chapman’s Bar, near Spuzzum, Graham and a lieutenant were killed in a nighttime shooting. Were they killed by Indigenous attackers? Was it friendly fire from their own troops? There is insufficient evidence, but, as Marshall discusses, it was a turning point for peace.

Snyder’s ultimate destination was to meet with Chief Spintlum, who had great stature among his people. Preceding this meeting, the threat posed by the gold seekers was being debated by tribal leaders where Spintlum had to contend with pro-war elements in his midst. He pleaded for peace and prevailed. Peace may well have been a pragmatic choice — the salmon were running — a bloody battle would likely mean hardship and starvation. Against this backdrop, Snyder and Spintlum concluded a peace on August 21, 1858, in view of the Mighty Fraser.

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Dale Snyder, descendant of Capt. Harry Snyder, and Cecil Salmon, descendant of Chief Spintlum, commemorate the peace that ended the 1858 Fraser Canyon War at Spintlum Memorial, Lytton, BC (photo taken April 2018)

The vivid portrait painted by Marshall of August 1858 raises important historical questions. Had a bloody battle ensued, the Nlaka’pamux and their allies, such as the Okanagan and Secwepemc, could have struck devastating blows on the gold seekers. They had far superior knowledge of the mountainous battleground. What then? It would have likely precipitated a vengeful reaction from the U.S. government and American populace. U.S. troops present in Washington Territory, equipped with howitzers, would have marched across the as yet unmarked border and imposed their will, self-justified in protecting the interests and safety of the tens of thousands of American gold seekers.

Would the American troops have ever left? Marshall suggests not, as the defense of U.S. miners would have been a useful pretext to for troops to pour over a non-existent border; “54° 40′ or fight” was still ringing in the ears of the American public. And what would have become of Confederation if the dream of reaching the Pacific, blocked by . expansionism, no longer existed by 1867? The events in the Canyon War were history-making.

Snyder and Spintlum’s peace held; the Colony of British Columbia was proclaimed that year, while the U.S. soon plunged into Civil War, shifting its political focus away from the Pacific. British Columbia would join Canada on a promise of a new railroad, which would traverse the Fraser Canyon along parts of the Cariboo Wagon Road built for the Gold Rush.

Spintlum’s leadership may have been missing from the history books we read in the past, but it has always been alive among the Nlaka’pamux. In 1927, Nlaka’pamux leaders commemorated his leadership with a memorial where the Fraser meets the Thompson, not far from where the Canyon War ended.

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Dedication of Spintlum memorial at Lytton, circa 1927 (Courtesy of Lytton First Nation)

 

A new generation of textbooks and learning resources for B.C. classrooms also now includes this history. Meticulously documented, Claiming the Land: British Columbian and the Making of a New Eldorado belongs in libraries and schools among the history books that tell our country’s founding story. It helps fill a major gap in our historical narrative — the largely untold Canyon War and the central role of Indigenous peoples — the original discoverers of gold and their important role in B.C. being a part of Canada.

Mike McDonald is Chief Strategy Officer and partner at Kirk & Co. He blogs on B.C. history and current issues at Rosedeer.com.