A socialist in the land of plenty

Dave Barrett’s rise from son of a fruit peddler to top banana

Allan Fotheringham June 1 1973

A socialist in the land of plenty

Dave Barrett’s rise from son of a fruit peddler to top banana

Allan Fotheringham June 1 1973

The Canadian political mosaic is complete. There has been a certain fascination in the pattern discernible through six years as voters turned over the political leadership of Canada, province by province, to a new generation. There were the classical Canadian political routes — Hatfield of New Brunswick and Campbell of Prince Edward Island rooming together at Dalhousie Law School in Halifax, both sons of prominent politicians. Regan of Nova Scotia, married into a political family, another of Dalhousie’s renowned products. The civil-service cool Blakeney of Saskatchewan, Dalhousie and Oxford.

The wealthy, well-bred Lougheed of Alberta, with his Harvard confidence. Schreyer of Manitoba, the farm boy with four university degrees who doesn’t like to be pictured smoking because it might offend his stolid constituents. Davis of Ontario, the milk-fed model of Middle Canada. Moores of Newfoundland, the casual scion of a family fishing fortune, Bourassa of Quebec, the aristocratic technocrat, polished at Harvard, Oxford and married to money.

Then, on August 30, 1972, eccentric British Columbia became the last province to make the change and the one with the most startling choice — a lumpy free-enterprise socialist whose formative years were spent immersed in the American free-enterprise dream. Dave Barrett, a Jew schooled by Jesuits, could not be further from the cloistered halls of Dalhousie and Oxford. Seattle University (Seattle?) was his tutor. St. Louis University (St. Louis?) left its mark. His conversation is sprinkled with references to Jefferson and FDR, not Laurier and King. It is indicative — and wonderfully British Columbian — that the new premier of the zesty, rich province that views the rest of Canada so condescendingly has never even been to Montreal.

Dave Barrett’s past is almost a mirror image of the American log-cabin political cliché. He’s a Depression baby from the strongly socialist East End of Vancouver, the heart of the most militantly socialist province. The son of a fruit stand peddler, he takes joyous amusement in his “ordinary” qualities: “My IQ is 92 on a hot day.” As if in confirmation of the almost Hollywood quality to it all, he helped pay his way through college with a variety of jobs, including running Yo-Yo contests and working in the college cafeteria.

Both his brother and his sister are now American citizens. A nephew is a Vietnam veteran. One of his sons was born in the U.S. and has dual citizenship. Schooled in the practicality and informality of American Catholicism, Barrett has an American casual approach that mystifies conservative Canada. His wholesale shucking of pomp and ceremony in his first months in power (“I didn’t come here to bullshit,” were his first words on meeting Pierre Trudeau, “let’s get down to business”) is as much a U.S. influence as it is the usual socialist dislike of trappings.

If not exactly from the slum or the ghetto, he is certainly the only one of the 10 Canadian premiers who is from the wrong side of the tracks. What is normal in American politics is unusual in Canadian. Dave Barrett is unusual.

There is, first of all, the problem that he doesn’t look like a 1970s premier. There are 205 pounds clumped on that fivefoot-nine, 42-year-old frame. A spreading — well, billowing — double chin oozes out from beneath the lively dark eyes and wavy hair and frequent grin that in its most expansive widths actually rivals the celebrated smile of the man he succeeded, W. A. C. Bennett. As he pads about his office in his stocking feet, his trousers are hitched beneath his paunch in fine, comfortable working-class fashion. (The Vancouver Sun's male fashion editor, pained at what he sees, has pleaded in print that the Premier for heaven’s sake, should keep his suit jacket buttoned at formal occasions so BC’s most famous belly will not be exposed. On that astonishing August night last year when Barrett demolished the 20-year reign of Social Credit and captured 38 of BC’s 55 seats, his mother raised her face to the TV cameras and the world and intoned with some

A socialist in the land of plenty

Dave Barrett’s rise from son of a fruit peddler to top banana


small degree of satisfaction: “My little fat boy did it.”)

There is another disconcerting factor: the little fat boy comes on like Jonathan Winters half the time. “What’s your first nationalization project?” the reporters asked him. “The Russian hockey team.” Patronage? “There won’t be a pork barrel in this government, only a corned beef barrel.”

A Canadian politician with a sense of humor? Not the dry, sardonic asides of Trudeau, not the heavy, telegraphed jokes of Diefenbaker, but a steady stream, all day long, of oneliners, puns, topical references and satire — all delivered with the timing of Flip Wilson and the obvious self-enjoyment of George Burns. He’s the common man’s Eugene Forsey.

The image of the wisecracking fat boy clung to Barrett right up until that August upset when he became BC’s first socialist premier. “People are continually underestimating me,” he complains, leaning back in his chair and waving to the government stenographers peering down at him from a quadrangle window 30 feet away into his renovated office where the drapes are now always kept open. (“When I walked in here after Bennett left I expected to see the Wizard of Oz hiding behind a screen, breathing smoke and flames. That’s the way he operated.”)

The underestimation goes back to his high-school days, when the little lumpy fat boy earned the nickname Fluke for inexplicable successes.

“It’s weird, it’s really strange,” says a lifelong friend, schoolteacher Joe Warnock. “Dave always had this tremendous luck — in rugby, basketball, pool — anything. Finally I came to the conclusion that it wasn’t luck. He just had a very unorthodox way of doing things. It looked awkward. He’d kick a ball and we’d watch and say, ‘But you can’t do it like that.’ And he’d score.”

There are those in the Social Credit ranks, still stunned at having their comfortable majority position knocked down to a miserable opposition of only 10 MLAs, who claim the old Fluke qualities have returned, that Barrett somehow burrowed into the soft underbelly of an unsuspecting electorate grown accustomed to 20 years of socialist failures at the polls.

The thought — now think about this — of British Columbia voluntarily plunging into socialism is almost too incredible to contemplate. This is not, bear in mind, a Saskatchewan at the end of a Depression. This is ebullient, lusty British Columbia — the richest province in the realm after Ontario and the province in which the crucial quality-of-life quotient is probably higher than in any other province in Canada.

It is certainly the first Canadian “have” province to choose socialism, and it may be the first affluent electorate in the world voluntarily to give a landslide mandate to a socialist regime. When you stop to think about it, the whole thing is so, well, flukish.

The point is that the fat little boy, as always, in his awkward, lumpish manner, knew what he was doing. When an NDP victory in fact appeared possible in 1969, when Wacky Bennett’s long-practised arrogance at last seemed just a little too arrogant, the NDP leader was a clever, ambitious but rather cold Vancouver lawyer, Tom Berger, who now sits as a member of the BC Supreme Court. He frightened BC voters, as the brittle brilliance of Stephen Lewis frightened Ontario voters in 1971. When the NDP went down to a humiliating defeat in 1969, with Berger losing his own seat, the unorthodox boy was already a nine-year veteran of the legislature, a nine-year expert in observing the considerable skills of W. A. C. Bennett.

In 1972 the little fat boy, by now the leader, frightened no one. In a shrewdly conceived campaign, he ordered all NDP candidates and campaign workers to refrain from making optimistic predictions, to refuse to be drawn into reporters’ seatguessing games.

Barrett roamed the province, standing sideways to his audiences, opening his jacket and explaining that his magnifi-

cent belly was a product of the govern-

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BARRETT from page 33

ment-subsidized restaurant in the legislative building. “Socialism is good for the politicians in Victoria but it’s obviously too dangerous for you.”

His platform style, mocking his own non-hero dimensions, has elements of Fiorello LaGuardia to it, combined with some of the theatrics of John Diefenbaker. When Bennett called him a member of the Waffle, in reference to Barrett’s signing the original Watkins Manifesto, Barrett retorted by calling Bennett a “pancake.” And he threatened that if they wished to get into a debate on Quebec he’d call him a crepe suzette.

The mocking tactics — rather than direct assaults — seemed to flummox the [ 71-year-old Bennett, who relishes the old toe-to-toe style that enabled him to destroy the previous four NDP leaders.

It was a masterly campaign, kept under control all the way by one of those supposedly fuzzy-minded social workers who hides his deep humanity behind a line of banter.

The interesting sociological point is that Barrett, despite his background, did not become a socialist until his long immersion in the American experience.

Before the turn of the century grandfather Isaac, an immigrant from southern Russia, was chairman of the Independent Jewish Political Club in Winnipeg. Father Sam, who was gassed at Passchendaele and is now completely blind, was a veteran of the Winnipeg General Strike; he also roamed to California and became a member of the famous Wobblies, the Industrial Workers of the World, before settling into Vancouver’s ethnic bowl, the East End.

Sam the Banana Man became a bit of a legend with his fruit stand in those tough Depression days, giving away bananas at the end of the day if he felt he’d made enough money. Today 76-yearold Sam Barrett, resident of a home operated by the Jewish Home for the Aged, credits those door-to-door rounds as a junk dealer and fruit peddler with giving young Dave some of his understanding and affection for people.

Premier Barrett laughs that expansive laugh, launching into entertaining nostalgia. “Here’s my goddam old man selling goddam bananas. Freezing his goddam ass. So cold he’d peel a banana and the skin would go ker-chunk!” Barrett’s conversation is full of ker-chunks! “He’d have a bottle of Scotch in the glove compartment. He’d tell the cop on the beat to get in the car to get warm. I’d think, ‘Get warm in a ’38 Ford?’ The cop would come out waving his arms and blowing. I could never understand it.”

We’re doing the nostalgia trip one night in the dining room of the stately Empress Hotel in Victoria, the opulent beamed ceiling reflecting the candlelight while the blue-rinse tourists, lined up at the roast beef buffet, whisper and point

guardedly toward our table, and Barrett is reminiscing about the East End with his Lands, Forests and Water Resources Minister, Bob Williams, who also was raised there. The East End is exactly what it sounds like — the crowded, unattractive working-class area where the immigrant groups settled, a million miles in ambience across Vancouver from the beaches and bluffs of Point Grey and the leafy crescents of Shaughnessy Heights. It could be a section snipped out of Moose Jaw or Hamilton, isolated from the rest of lush Vancouver.

In Barrett’s hands that East End back-

ground takes on something of Leo Gorcey and the Bowery Boys, the fruit peddler’s son and his pals massed on the sidewalk outside the police station, with one of their arrested members inside, all chanting: “Comes the Revolution — every cop has to have a BA.”

Barrett remembers with glee the East End Saturday matinees. When Mussolini came on the screen the East End kids booed. When Hitler came on the screen they booed. And when Mackenzie King came on they booed. The good guys and the bad guys were distinct in

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BARRETT continued the East End and the CCF were the good guys. Most of all, Barrett remembers tough, disciplined Britannia High School. “We had a football team and 10 sweaters — ripped to pieces — for 12 guys. And we were supposed to play rugby against West Point Grey. We were there under that ‘British Influence’ and we were all treated as if we were middleclass English schoolboys. Incredible.”

As we were crossing the Empress lobby, Bob Williams and I stopped to talk to Geoff Andrew, an old academic figure from the University of BC, and we introduced the new premier. Andrew hasn’t changed a hair from the days 40 or 50 years ago when he and Mike Pearson and the rest of the academic-mandarin elite had their Canadian roughness polished at Oxford. The man’s tweeds, his manner, his accent still have that unmistakable stamp. As we walk away, Dave Barrett says, “I can’t dig that Oxford crap.” The East End sears deeply.

Perhaps it was that aversion to meeting those well-dressed West Point Grey rugby players again at UBC that led Barrett off to Seattle University, a small Jesuit college in the American city 150 miles south of Vancouver, hitchhiking home in college breaks, working after school in Seattle on a jackhammer and throwing bundles of papers off the back of delivery trucks. (“The voters of BC

almost lost their future premier several times to that Seattle traffic.”)

At Britannia, Barrett had clowned his way through; at Seattle he continued the pattern, spending hour after hour playing basketball in the gym. It wasn’t until his final year, when the scholarship of the Jesuit fathers began to have some effect on him, that Barrett became serious

about his studies and life. He was particularly influenced by two Papal encyclicals, the Rerum Novarum of 1891 and Quadragesimo Anno of 1931. In the former, Pope Leo XIII asserted that labor is not a commodity and gave his backing to both labor legislation and trade unions. In the latter, Pope Pius XI reaffirmed the rights of labor within the Catholic church.

“Along with Pope John’s Pacem in Terris,” says Barrett, “here are three

Christian statements that are profoundly and fantastically progressive — remarkable even by today’s standards.

“You’ve got to realize this was the early 1950s and Joe McCarthy was on the rise. Truman had just fired General MacArthur. There was actual pressure on Catholic universities to stop discussing communism in the classroom.” One day a plane dropped leaflets on the Seattle U campus that read: STOP THE


Barrett’s ambivalent public image is apparent again when the subject comes around to his own religion. Depending on his mood, on who is interviewing him, he calls himself an agnostic, a humanist, or “a gastronomical Jew: I eat gefilte fish and corned beef sandwiches.” He does not take himself or his lapsed religion too seriously — that attitude is reserved for the human race.

(It was an interesting aspect of both journalism and politics to observe the uneasy newspaper treatment of Barrett in the days following his election. The press, which had never revealed to the public Barrett’s religious background, announced that he was the first Canadian provincial premier “of the Jewish faith” or of “Jewish extraction.” It moved Pierre Berton to write a letter to

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BARRETT continued

the Globe and Mail, pointing out that current press practices were liable to accomplish what Hitler tried to do — make “Jew” a dirty word.)

Despite his East End background and his family influence, it is intriguing to note that it was not until he emerged from Seattle U with a degree in philosophy and those Papal encyclicals stirring his conscience, that he became a confirmed socialist. There were two tugging forces on him at home. The genial Sam, a Fabian type of socialist, taught his son to love people. But his mother (now Mrs. Rose Gordon — his parents have long been divorced) was far more radical and committed to action. When Dave Barrett was seven, his mother wrapped his head in Mercurochromed bandages and put him on a float in a Spanish Civil War protest parade. Neighbors used to roll bandages to be sent to Dr. Norman Bethune in China.

“I’m not a Christian,” says Canada’s newest premier, “but in my view it’s difficult for people not to end up as democratic socialists if they apply Christian principles.”

For him, applying those principles after Seattle meant a brief, outspoken social worker position with juvenile delinquents at Oakalla prison back in Vancouver. He was the first in Canada to establish the principle of allowing prison athletic teams outside the walls to compete. (Later, he had a group of inmates win third prize in the BC One-Act Drama Festival.)

He applied to the UBC School of Social Work for his master’s program but again there was that, well, Englishy cast to the Canadian education system. “The social work department said I hadn’t finished my high-school French. Can you imagine? That’s so typical of social workers.

“I really love social work. But I’m not so crazy about social workers.”

So it was back to the more open American society, with the Jesuit brothers at Seattle helping him get into the prestigious social work school at St. Louis University despite his “mediocre” scholastic record. But by now Barrett is a more serious young man, having been married to the former Shirley Hackman of Vancouver, a shy Anglican girl with enormous eyes who loves to paint. By the end of his first year at St. Louis, Barrett is president of his class and winner of the first scholarship of his life — the $800 tuition that means he can continue for another year.

Father Henley, dean of the graduate school, summoned the Canadian to his office. Barrett sat nervously while the scholar walked around him several times, saying nothing.

“Finally,” recalls the Premier, “he said, ‘You can go now.’

“What did I do?” blurted Barrett.

“I just wanted to take a look at the first Jew who ever got money out of the Catholics.”

It was the time in St. Louis when an ambitious young politician by the name of Tom Eagleton was starting his rise through civic politics. Barrett was the first student ever to be allowed to do field study work in the St. Louis County Juvenile Court.

On his first day he fumed and fidgeted and demonstrated in the back of the courtroom as he heard a Judge Noel Weinstein sentence youth after youth to Booneville, a Missouri detention home notorious among social workers. Judge Weinstein finally adjourned court and called Barrett into his chambers.

“What’s bothering you?” he asked.

“You can’t send those kids to Booneville,” Barrett burst out.

“And who,” said the judge, “are you?”

The upshot of it all was that Weinstein took out his wallet, handed the mouthy social worker student $50 and ordered him to deliver a report in a week on Booneville — which Barrett himself had never seen.

Barrett delivered a devastating report and, he recalls with quiet satisfaction, “Weinstein never sent a boy there again.”

By the time Barrett got his MA, he had five scholarships and an offer from an impressed Judge Weinstein, by now a Barrett fan, to finance the young Canadian and his family through three years of law school. There was also a proud Sam Barrett, who once called his son a “bum and a tramp” for playing hookey, arriving on the train for graduation ceremonies.

“Am I still a bum and a tramp?” said Dave, BA, MA, class president, as he met his father at the train station. “No, sir,” replied Sam the Banana Man, and they embraced;

It is perhaps no surprise that Dave Barrett’s long immersion in the American dream only served to increase his socialism, his compassion. His decision to turn down the flattering St. Louis offer was as much a result of his pessimism about the American political process as it was his longing for the waters and mountains of BC. (“It gets awfully dry in St. Louis; boy, did we miss the ocean.”) It is a measure of Dave and Shirley Barrett’s feeling for the atmosphere of BC — this is the man, remember, who’s never been to Montreal—that they always spurn the 20-minute plane ride between Victoria and Vancouver, insisting instead on putting their green Volvo on board one of the BC ferries for the leisurely two-hour cruise through the Gulf Islands.

He has tremendous respect for the American people but little for their political system. “It is just government by the Establishment. It’s not real de-

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BARRETT continued mocracy. A guy like me could never run for office down there. He simply couldn’t afford it.”

Barrett’s insight into the imperfections of the U.S. free-enterprise dream extended back into the Jack Kerouac era when he hitchhiked about during university days, spending one summer “in Dante’s Inferno”—a Jolly Green Giant pea cannery where Mexican migrant workers were housed in tents while Barrett and his white colleagues were provided with concrete barracks. The Jewish boy from Vancouver’s East End says, “It was my first real experience of what people go through in racial discrimination.”

He speaks eloquently of the frustrations of the American left. “The Americans have a tremendous history of radical movements. But the problem is they don’t have direct access to power. Canadians do.”

His political heroes reflect his background — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson for his approach to democracy, Franklin Roosevelt for his adept use of power, Truman for making a major demonstration of separating the military from the state. The only one he mentions in the Canadian-British tradition is John Diefenbaker, for his appreciation of the parliamentary system.

The use of power. That is what fascinates Barrett. Perhaps it is a legacy of being tutored by Jesuits. When he returned to the BC penal system from St. Louis and could stand the civil servant frustrations no longer, he decided the only way to correct penal inadequacies was to go after power himself. The man in power, Attorney-General Robert Bonner, fired him for speaking out as a civil servant. “Oh yes, he was waiting for me,” says Barrett, speaking of the legislative session following his election in 1960. “He cut me up in 412,000 little pieces and sprayed me against the wall.”

In his 12 years in opposition in the legislature, he was dismissed by many as a mere clown, someone who enjoyed the slanging, bantering game with W. A. C. Bennett rather too much. “Irony, sarcasm, satire — I’ll use them all, anything to get attention.” One day on one of his favorite ferries he was delighted to encounter Dick Gregory, the U.S. black comedian-turned-social-critic; one can imagine the attraction. Barrett spent the rest of the ferry trip with him and had Gregory sit in and watch the legislature.

Alan King, the American Jewish comedian, has said, “The thing that has kept our race alive for 2,000 years is the ability to get mad — and then to make fun of it.” One sees Dave Barrett in that light.

Dr. Laurence Peter, the author of the Peter Principle, knew Barrett when both worked in the BC prison system and he says, “The thing I liked about him was

that he hid his hostility so well. So many people of his background can’t help but show their bitterness. He handled his hostility well.”

For all the clowning, Barrett says, “If there’s oné thing I’ve learned from Bennett, it’s how to kill. The time to hit a politician is when he’s down.”

Such as the night in 1971 when Barrett asked the same question 67 times of Socred Attorney-General Les Peterson, just out of hospital after a stomach operation. Bennett sat watching the struggle of wills until 1.10 a.m. when the Socred majority voted to eject Barrett from the legislature for a week. It was the first time in Commonwealth history an opposition leader had been barred from the House and Barrett did not get much press coverage (a chap called Trudeau chose the same night for a secret wedding in Vancouver). But Barrett got what he sought: a demonstration that he could beat Socred heir apparent Peterson in a fight. Barrett maintains it was that night that Bennett realized his days were numbered. Peterson is no longer a factor in BC politics.

It’s an unusual political'combination the little fat boy has — a sense of power along with a strong sense of compassion. As well as shoving the grasping labor unions off to arm’s length within the NDP hierarchy as soon as he took over, he moved instantly to use the surpluses piled up by Bennett to guarantee a $200a-month income to the elderly and the handicapped — by far the highest such base in Canada.

He surprised fearful industry with his low key, conservative budget, bringing in only two minor tax boosts on the business sector. Instead, he took advantage of the astonishing wealth of BC to raise his spending sights by $250 million in one year, and talked of the day when the entire provincial population — not just the old and infirm — would have a guaranteed annual income. If anyone doubted the socialist base beneath that social democrat rhetoric, there was his sweeping Land Commission Act which froze all BC farmland in an attempt to stop the march of the greedy land developers.

There was a fine, tender moment during the Throne Speech as Lieut.-Governor John Nicholson read that passage aloud and blind old Sam Barrett, seated on the legislature floor behind his son, leaned over his white cane while supported by Shirley Barrett. It was one of those rare frozen scenes in public life, the imagery explaining some of the forces and circumstances behind Dave Barrett, his policies and the shape of his government.

It is indeed remarkable that in one jump a Bleeding Heart has succeeded the Boomers who saw BC as a treasure chest of resources to be shipped off to

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BARRETT continued Japan. Barrett is the lightning rod, the result of a rich province’s guilt complex over past years’ neglect of the unfortunate and those at the lower end of the economic scale. “This job is just an extension of social work,” he says. “I’ll tell you this. Social workers have more business in politics than lawyers do.”

His beliefs in the use of social welfare funds make Barrett sound closer to classic Mackenzie King liberalism than to the modern-day Trudeaucrats with their make-work social experiments.

It was Barrett who, soon after taking power, called a Victoria meeting of provincial welfare ministers and put his backing behind the powerful Claude Castonguay, the Quebec social affairs chief who has challenged Ottawa for control of all social welfare funds.

The petty provincialism of Social Credit is gone, but one suspects that Barrett’s U.S.-honed practicality will lead to him putting pressure on Ottawa just the same. Whereas Bennett’s isolationism was a product of a small-town mentality, Barrett’s feelings are the product of his awareness of growing provincial strength — particularly in the current confused Ottawa situation. He likes the use of power and he can sense where it rests.

In the background is that reservoir of family. In the closely knit East End style, he protects his own and keeps interviewers from intruding on his family life. Shirley Barrett is a small, brownhaired girl who tries to keep her lust-forlife husband humble by muttering mild obscenities when he sits on the livingroom couch and blows kisses at his own image on the TV screen.

There is Dan, 18, and Joe, 15, one of BC’s most promising bike racers — they compromised with their mother at their father’s swearing-in at Government House by shucking their jeans but leaving off their ties — and 12-year-old Jane.

There is Daddy Dave, with his taste for Tiffany lamps in his redecorated office and his Ex-Britannia Rugby Club (still the only club he has ever joined) and his remarkably wide-ranging reading (he would like to write a book someday on Admiral Wilhelm Canaris, the head of Nazi military intelligence who was executed for his part in the bomb plot against Hitler). One of his models is Willy Brandt.

“I’m not a very unusual person,” Barrett says. “It’s just that I’ve had a multitude of experiences in a short period of time — from the East End to the Jesuits.”

Somewhere in that journey has been the making of a very modem social democrat, a man who can say, “I’m loose, I have no ideological hang-ups,” but who can also say, “If there’s one thing I’ve learned . . . it’s how to kill” U