The Pacific Persuasion
On the western frontier, a Latin Canada
The fastest route into British Columbia is through the images of those who have never really been there.
They are beautiful, these images. Spectacular. They are a fusion of the mountain and the golf course. It is all very lush, this western exotic, a Latin Canada: colors are rich.
The people are rich. Elysium at the end of the country.
The one thing all this lacks is truth. The images are just details; the mountains and the golf courses exist; and are important, but only in a context the tourists never photograph.
For the tourists miss the main point: that British Columbia is a frontier. Physically, the frontier is only part-tamed:
Vancouver and Victoria are afterthoughts at the southwest comer of the province. But, more important, British Columbia is a symbolic frontier for the rest of the country — a place to escape to, to lose and find yourself in.
When you’re breaking new ground, whether it’s the land around you or your own life, you ignore tradition. Tradition is appropriate for settled areas like southern Ontario or the Annapolis Valley: tradition is fine for guiding the lives of settled men. But there is no everyday tradition in BC, only a studied one, hauled out for special occasions such as the 1971 BC Centennial. They’ve rebuilt Barkerville, an old gold-rush town, but that doesn’t contain much tradition either, except the bargain-basement kind called nostalgia. On the frontier, only the old have time to talk about the good old days, and the old likely spent most of their good old days in other places.
For most of us, these are the good old days, and we spend our time making more of them.
Here, we make most of our own rules. And in our arrogance, with the spirit of manifest destiny that develops on any frontier, we know that everything in our frontier has been
placed there just for us. The way we treat it is the right way, the only way.
We are not moved by precedent, but by divine inspiration and the power to back it up. Former premier W. A. C. Bennett once said that he was “plugged into God.” And he was. We all are. This is God’s country. Our frontier by right of conquest. As with all North American frontiers, arrangements had to be made with the local natives: to do it, we first used missionaries and miners, then the RCMP, the railways, and aircraft landing strips.
Phil Gaglardi, the former Social Credit Minister of Rehabilitation and Social Improvement, said: “Those trees weren’t put on that mountain by God to be praised, they were put there to be chopped down.” Alexander Mackenzie knew that when he came west to find the Pacific. To get to the ocean, you could check to see which side of the tree had moss growing on it, or you could ask an Indian.
In the rotunda of the Legislative Building in Victoria, there are four murals executed in the early Thirties. They show the nature of the life of the province. The one called “Labor” shows a group of stocky brown-skinned natives, in colorful dress, going about their work under the watchful eyes of some early pioneers.
When Premier Dave Barrett was a young social worker in the mid-Fifties, he remembers being at a party in St. Louis, Missouri, and lecturing white Americans about the plight of the Negro. Barrett was displaying the joyous morality of the foreigner, until he was approached by a man from the South, who asked: “And, sir, tell me about your BC Indian?”
Native people are more visible here than they are anywhere else in Canada. In the east, the whites have managed to shunt the bulk of the native population off into the bush. But
in BC the Indians have managed to hold onto reserves near the white population centres: in the Vancouver area, for example, there are almost 1,200 natives living on three reserves, a lot of which is prime development land.
Frontiers are only barely understood by those who occupy them; they are absolutely misunderstood by those who have never been there. Andrea Leibowitz, now an English literature instructor at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, was at home in Madison, Wisconsin, in 1965 when her husband returned to tell her that he had just been interviewed for a job in British Columbia.
“I don’t want to move to Latin America,” she said.
The mistake has a kind of poetic logic: BC is the Latin America of Canada. A rain forest, with mythical beasts such as the Sasquatch in the mountains, and Ogopogo the water dragon in Lake Okanagan. Things grow tall and tropical; occasional cougars roam the suburbs.
“When I found out where BC was, I went to the University of Wisconsin library to find out something about the province,” Andrea remembers. “Well, that library had more than a million books, but only one on BC, a pictorial coffee-table effort on Vancouver-by-the-sea, the magic land where there is no winter. Naturally, I decided that we would live in an old Victorian house. I nearly passed out when I saw Burnaby.”
Burnaby is a suburb of Vancouver, and it is not in British Columbia at all; it is a canker from eastern Canada, eastern in architecture and sensibility, stucco and pastels, obedient to Central Mortgage and Housing Corporation aesthetics. Not because it is ugly, for British Columbians are capable of creating their own ugliness, but because it is foreign, a blueprint from Ottawa; and it is creeping up the Fraser River, over prime farmland, eastemizing the frontier.
But Burnaby demands a moral counterweight: Stanley Park, a tamed stretch of frontier in the centre of Vancouver. The developers have tried to build highrise apartments on Stanley Park, too, but so far they have been beaten back.
There are frontiers within the frontiers. Paul St. Pierre, the former federal Member of Parliament for Coast Chilcotin (a huge riding that includes some of the Cariboo ranching area) says that “Vancouver’s main attributes, besides money, are the beaches it pollutes and the setting it didn’t create. As far as I’m concerned, if you picked Vancouver up and plopped it in the middle of the Prairies, it would be just another city.”
St. Pierre admires the Cariboo people. They’re tough. “The ranchers and prospectors there have devoted their lives to proving they can stay alive if everyone else disappears . . . hell, they’d survive happily on moosemeat and huckleberries.”
The differences between the lower mainland and the interior are sharp: smooth talk versus measured speech, fancy restaurants versus dusty cafés, classy bars versus the hotel pub, mild winters versus temperatures of 40 below and 10-foot drifts, pavement versus gravel, noise versus quiet, commitment versus contentment.
These are the sort of distinctions that are made between any city in the world and the country that surrounds it. But in British Columbia the differences are clearer: the battle is onesided and well defined. There’s only one metropolis and that’s Vancouver, squeezed onto the mouth of the Fraser River near the American border.
For the rest of Canada, British Columbia is the frontier. For the people who live in the lower mainland of British Columbia, the interior is the frontier. The citizens of Vancouver are generally aware that they draw their energy, their spiritual nature from the wilderness. On vacation, the urban man will escape to the provincial parks. The man from the interior will go to Vancouver, to tour the department stores and shopping plazas. Both go home satisfied.
Frontiers are useful: they make audacious people rich. It is possible to come to British Columbia, work in Vancouver, and with diligence become rich without ever being reminded that you are not in Toronto, Montreal, London or Tokyo. But there is also that wilderness, and in the wilderness it is impossible to
become rich and at the same time to remember where you are.
Prince George is 500 miles from Vancouver, in the interior: a small city, but growing fast and proud of itself. It’s 15 minutes from the centre of the city to virgin bush, and drunks fall about the downtown streets every Saturday noon because the pubs open at nine-thirty in the morning, and payday was the day before.
Ben Ginter was bom in Manitoba, but he is part of Prince George. He is worth $30 million. He makes beer and soft drinks, runs a construction company, and has lately expanded into other investments, including a pulp mill in Kitimat.
Ginter is a working-class hero in British Columbia: at one time he tried (unsuccessfully) to sell his beer at lower prices than most eastern Canadian brands. He travels out of the province a lot now (“150 times to New York City last year”) but won’t give up Prince George as a home base.
“I like Prince better than anywhere else, and that’s a hell of a thing for a Manitoba boy to say. It’s only five minutes to work, the place is bustling but still sorta homey, and I feel real comfortable with most of the people. It’s my kind of town.”
If an eastern millionaire had said something like that about Toronto, it would sound flatly fake.
Ginter is not an eastern businessman, or a Vancouver one. He doesn’t have executive flunkies tripping over each other; when he makes a decision, he sees it through himself. And: “I made my pile without chucking dough into the Social Credit slush fund. I don’t belong to any clubs because I don’t have the time. I’m not much inclined toward that type of pleasure. I have an Exercycle beside my bed and if I have time in the morning I get up and go nowhere.”
Ginter also likes an occasional turn at the cards. “I remember last fall a couple of hunting buddies decided to show me how to play this new game called Stook. After I’d won about $1,100, they figured they’d showed me enough.”
Any gambler would feel at home in BC. Risk-taking is part of the frontier ethic. Ontario is blue chip; BC is penny stocks.
Primary industry is exactly that: primary. When you’ve cut down a tree, you know what you’ve cut. A fisherman, faller or miner knows at the end of a day just what he’s done.
The style of business in British Columbia is the same: primary commerce. Immediate gratification, immediate control. In 1967, Bennett set up a Bank of British Columbia because he believed the eastern banks weren’t delivering the capital he thought BC needed to grow. Paul St. Pierre: “Canadian banking has always been dominated by central Canada, and it’s consistently been lacking in imagination, daring and every damn quality a national banking system should have. ‘Never take a chance lest you lose a penny’ is the philosophy of the big banks. If you want to grow fast, you’ve got to take a few risks. The eastern banks don’t dare enough.”
The NDP opposition supported Bennett’s bank. Premier Barrett: “Sure, we wanted a publicly owned bank, but the federal government killed any hope of that. We supported Bennett because the NDP has always supported a BC bank. Besides, banking has always been a tightly capitalistic club in this country — a tight eastern club. The decision was obvious.” The family comes before ideology. BC first.
There are profound differences between the two major BC political parties, Social Credit and the NDP, but the differences are unique to BC: the political alternatives are not the same as the ones available in Ontario, or the Maritimes, or in Ottawa. Since the Liberals, an eastern party, were effectively rejected in the early Fifties, the determining style of the party in power has been populist more than it has been capitalist, populist more than socialist. Populist politics is frontier politics. It has died where it was born, in the American West and midwest 100 years ago; but populism is very much alive today in British Columbia.
The politics of the small town: British Columbians don’t elect a party, they elect a mayor or a premier and his pals, a group they trust. Bennett’s election victories smacked of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union taking over the town,
but in fact they were the crowning of BC’s Pa Cartwright. W. A. C. Bennett is a Christian man, publicly devout; honest, nobody in Kelowna ever complained about bad deals at his hardware store. Public-spirited: not fond of power but aware of his calling.
A few Social Credit cabinet ministers thought of themselves as successors deprived, but Barrett was the true heir. Adam Cartwright. He fitted his time.
Bennett must have known it. On the night of his defeat, he stressed the size of the inheritance he was passing on: “I will give every cooperation I can to the new premier and I will say again how pleased I am that the finances of this province are in such good shape. Nobody should worry in this province tonight or tomorrow on the stock markets. They should not worry because the province is in wonderful financial shape. BC is in a cash position better than any place on this continent and so Mr. Barrett is going to have a great opportunity of doing things because he is going to have all this cash left by Premier Bennett.”
Bennett was his own finance minister, and he kept a huge safe in his office suite to prove it. Last February, in his first budget, Barrett revealed that there was a net provincial debt of $2.7 billion — just under $1,255 for every person in the province. He replaced Bennett’s safe with part of his collection of
signed Tiffany glass, but retained the finance portfolio.
A large part of the debt results from the misadventures of BC Hydro, and particularly from the Columbia River Treaty of 1961. Barrett is trying to get that treaty renegotiated because it’s “a bad deal for British Columbians.” But, as he says, “The satisfaction or irony of it is that BC is wealthy enough to even absorb that kind of blow on its finances.”
BC is rich. Its gross provincial product last year was estimated at almost $12 billion, up approximately 11 Vi% from the year before. The wealth comes from the resource extraction industries: forestry (MacMillan Bloedel, Crown Zellerbach), mining (Comineo, Gibraltar, Lornex, Kaiser Resources), commercial fishing (BC Packers, Canadian Fishing Co.), and agriculture. A second source is foreign trade — the export of raw materials from BC and the Prairies, and the import of finished goods from the U.S., Japan and Europe.
The British Columbian government is rich, too, but from appetite, not production. In 1970, the BC government made about $61 million on the sale of beer, wine and liquor, and only half that on the royalties from the sale of coal, petroleum and natural gas.
This is frontier economics at its clearest: tax weakness, not strength. A few British Columbians, and many foreigners, have become rich selling or buying British Columbia, and the
traditional attitude of the government has been that this is virtuous. If capitalism is good, freewheeling capitalism is better; Bennett and his ministers believed that the land was there to be used by the strong, and that the mission of the government was to remove petty obstacles.
Ideas are obstacles; the effete idea of conserving the environment, for example. Political scientist Martin Robin: “Rape of natural resources has hitherto been the dominant part of the developmental psyche of British Columbia — namely, a tree is not a beautiful thing, a tree is not a poem, a tree is not green leaves, a tree is not beautiful and shelter and Grimm’s fairy tales. A tree is board feet, and not board feet to build a home but board feet to make money.
“There’s a utilitarian ethic that has led to the wanton destruction of the forests here. Oh, you’ve always had a conservationist lobby, but in terms of public policy and the people who have made decisions, the Junior Chamber of Commerce has basically run this province along with the Canadian Manufacturers’ Association — BC chapter. And I think they’ve seen BC as a lush opportunity to make a buck.”
The land is a gift to the strong, whoever the strong may be. Kaiser Resources, a strong American corporation, has a coal mine operation in the Elk River Valley of southeastern BC, on land that was first ceded to the Canadian Pacific Railway in
1890. The land was then sold to an American company that became Crows Nest Industries: and in 1968 Crows Nest Industries sold access to the coal on one sixth (110,000 acres) of this land to Kaiser for $56 million.
But the idea of the frontier demands action; something is happening on that land, good or bad, action is being taken, things are being done. A frontiersman clears the land, by reflex. The directive is not to do well, but to do.
The coal goes to Japan. The pollution — the Kaiser operation uses strip-mining techniques — stays with us. But at least we have the action.
The Nitinat Triangle is a virgin rain forest in southwest Vancouver Island. It is at present under tree-farm licenses. The forest products companies are willing to swap land with the provincial government: the Nitinat for something else. But there is little else. Most of the best stands of timber have been parceled out.
The aesthetics of ecology are not so much beside the point, but after the point; the frontier must be made complete, and the lovers of beauty might as well resign themselves to it.
Action is prime: don’t ask, shoot from the hip. Results.
Dr. Gordon Shrum, the former BC Hydro chairman, emifrom Falls in 1925, and has been here ever
since. One day in May, 1963, he was
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BC PERSUASION from page 31 having lunch in the Hydro building cafeteria when his secretary arrived to tell him he was wanted on the telephone.
“I told her that the call could wait, but she said it was Premier Bennett. He was to the point. He told me he had decided to build a second university in the Lower Mainland and that I could be chancellor and also run the construction. His only request was that it be built by September, 1965.”
Twenty-seven months. Fine.
“People out here wanted me to do studies first, but I decided just to move ahead. It would either be too big or too small. If it was too big, it would eventually fill up, and if it was too small we could always make it bigger.”
Simon Fraser University was. Precast concrete on the top of Burnaby Mountain.
But Shrum has always had that style. While he was head of BC Hydro, some environmentalists objected to Hydro’s use of certain chemicals, Tordon and 245T, as defoliants on Hydro land. Shrum called two press conferences. At the first, he drank a glass of Tordon. At the second, he drank a glass of 245T. “It was just like drinking crankcase oil. I was a bit skeptical at the time so I made one of the chemists drink it with me.” The environmentalists had been complaining that the defoliants might harm the health of pregnant women, not male business executives. But that was delicacy: action produced results. Shrum made things happen.
Former Vancouver mayor Tom Campbell was a thing that happened. He translated frontier energy into a style, into himself, and reflected it back to the frontier like a talking mirror.
Campbell ran for mayor three times, and won three times. “My opponents
have to run on issues. My first campaign slogan was CAMPBELL FOR COLOR. That’s not really any kind of political commitment. My second campaign’s slogan was VOTE FOR TOM TERRIFIC, and the third
was I STILL THINK TOM’S TERRIFIC. And my margin of victory increased in each campaign.
“People just read headlines. The secret of political success is getting the press — with or against is immaterial as far as I’m concerned.”
Campbell had no political machine and says he accepted no political donations. In the east, even millionaire politicians accept a little money from their friends: but Campbell wasn’t selling policies, government, wisdom or truth. Only himself. The talking mirror.
In BC, people don’t like their politicians to be politicians; it’s too much trouble. If a politician makes a commitment, you have to make sure he fulfills it. Better to elect a mirror, a Terrific.
Or an okay guy. Dave Barrett; and Campbell’s successor, Art Phillips, a millionaire securities consultant. Young, smooth, with no ideology beyond competence and a belief that “cities are for people.” Like many people elected because they’re okay guys, Phillips has proved himself capable of action; he’s fired a city commissioner and the planning head, and his council was effective in forcing the resignations of the rajahs who run the Pacific National Exhibition.
Phillips: “I think Campbell was in tune with the times when he was elected — swinging on beams, wearing a hard hat, and talking about how we have the tallest or the biggest. Tom was always a loner and a maverick, but he agreed with maximum development; he was fertile ground for developers. We aren’t going to close down all development,
but we’ll be more discriminating.
“There was a pioneer spirit out here, but when it went too far, people changed.”
Those who have never been to the frontier can’t understand it; those who move to the frontier react individually. Some curl up. Some explode into energy, and become more of the frontier than the people who were bora on it.
The Ontario hippies build log shacks near the source of the Columbia. The Nova Scotia fishermen work on the salmon seiners out of Port Renfrew on Vancouver Island. Doing what they do best, in a more extreme way than they could before; the frontier has put them in touch with themselves.
Judy LaMarsh, the former federal cabinet minister, used to make her living as a lawyer in St. Catharines, Ontario. The frontier has simplified her. Now she makes her living as a mouth on the radio, with a hot-line program on station CKWX.
She makes something like $60,000 a year at this. “Sure, I stayed for the money, but I really wanted the opportunity to put the female voice into broadcasting, to provide a forum for women’s views. It’s a good place for that — there seems to be a lot of women involved in politics here and, as some psychologist said, this is the last frontier. It’s still pretty primitive in a lot of ways and women are generally working shoulder to shoulder with their men.”
She’s not yet committed, absolutely; her home in Niagara Falls is only rented, not sold. “Everyone seems to move at half-speed here. It’s Lotus Land and I can feel myself slowing down to a dead stop. Now that would be okay if I could afford a big boat since I’m crazy about the sea. And I don’t ski. It’s hard to adjust to the conspiracy of silence here. I mean, nobody talks about the rain and when the sun shines in Vancouver everybody drops what they’re
doing. It’s irresponsible. And there seem to be far more protesters here, more people insistent about their rights. When the French fleet first arrived not long ago, the peaceniks all rushed down to protest against nuclear blasts. I’m oldfashioned — I welcomed them by playing the Marseillaise.,,
Anything Judy LaMarsh says is important; but more important than anything she says is the fact that she’s saying it. On the radio. Culture in British Columbia is primarily electronic, and the main part of that culture is conversation: the talk show. One station runs mostly talk shows, 17 hours a day.
Perhaps it’s the scenery; beauty is a distraction. People need a telephone and a radio to be sure they’re talking — to make certain they’re really part of the scenery, too.
BC gave the art form of the talk show to the rest of the world. Other artists work in BC, doing things artists do elsewhere, and, like other frontier artists, seeing things beyond the frontier, finding metaphors for the life of the wilderness.
Writer Brad Robinson sees himself as a member of a Pacific community: “In terms of cultural and geographic experience, we’re closer to the people in Corvallis, Oregon, than Toronto, Ontario. And if you examine a lot of BC’s indigenous poetry, one of the primary influences is Oriental imagery — it’s been prevalent for the last 15 years.
“In David Cull’s work there is East Indian imagery. Jack Wise’s mandalas are clearly Oriental in origin. There has been a union of Oriental and Occidental cultures.”
East is the other way: not Toronto, but Tokyo.
Perhaps it’s that, in the middle of all the energy, the artist wants order: he likes the discipline of the haiku, 17 clear syllables arranged like flowers, because he’s surrounded by extravagance.
Potter Glenn Lewis disciplines even what he eats: he prefers a Japanese and Chinese diet. “Out here you get all the McDonald hamburger stands. Kamloops is the epitome of the plastic new towns. But there are still people alive out here who can remember big trees in Kitsilano. Vancouver’s a frontier city.”
But high forms of Art in British Columbia are found only along the ocean: the culture of the interior is not Culture; the people talk about curling, dances, and Friday night at the Legion Hall. The fuzzy picture of the Saturday night TV movie can’t compete with a wedding.
Extremes and complications along the frontier. BC has a higher percentage of unionized workers than any other province in Canada and the country’s most repressive labor legislation.
Fred Mullin, president of the Pulp
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BC PERSUASION continued
and Paper Workers of Canada, an independent union: “The Socreds were able to get away with 20 years of anti-labor legislation. The BC Federation of Labor should be proud of themselves — they didn’t do a damn thing — the bureaucrats!”
Many workers in Canada have decided that the route to better wages and working conditions lies in the creation of independent Canadian unions. That movement is extremely strong in BC. Last October, the Canadian Aluminum Smelter and Allied Workers Union scored a major victory by replacing the giant United Steelworkers at the Alcan plant in Kitimat. (But, in March, the Canadian Workers’ Union was unable to oust the Steelworkers at Cominco’s Trail plant.)
BCFED didn’t like the Kitimat switch. Mullin: “If you’re militant, you’re left, and if you become anti international unions you’re Communist.”
Left or right, independent or international, BC unions are militant. In 1972, more than two million man-days were lost in BC through strikes and lockouts. But militancy is not necessarily radicalism. BC unions once urged antiOriental legislation to limit immigration and employment of Chinese and Japanese. And radicals are often purged from the mainstream BC unions.
Homer Stevens, a Communist and president of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union: “There’s been a tendency in the labor movement here, as well as everywhere else, to look at things on a pork chop basis, to go for the pay packet and ignore the political implications, the real nature of a worker’s relationship to his job.”
Economist Martin Robin: “There’s been a spirit of adventure to attract people here, but BC is a province where most people lead humdrum lives drawing humdrum wages. Most work is fairly disciplined and many workers still live in company towns with noticeably regulated existences.”
But in BC work is not to be analyzed, work is to be done. On the frontier, activity counts. There’s no pleasure or pain in the process, only in what the process is for: results.
Paul St. Pierre: “There’s a kind of fatalism about work, a feast and famine lifestyle common to loggers and trappers as well as Indians: you work like hell day and night until you get a stake, and then you stop.”
Well, if the frontier is softening, if Burnaby is creeping up the Fraser River, what then?
Dave Barrett is a frontiersman, but not the same kind of frontiersman W. A. C. Bennett was. Bennett was chosen by the frontier to tame it, to cut it down to size; Barrett was chosen to civilize it. There will be more social legislation, less noise, a softer life for some, a more exciting life for others. Barrett will save some of the trees, because the trees are running out.
The tourists will retain their images of the golf courses and the mountains, and those images will be as irrelevant as they were before. They will miss the truth about the province, just as they did before. The frontier will continue to discover itself, as it has been doing for more than a century. People will still come to British Columbia looking for something, for themselves, for a life in Elysium. And find what is here. ■