Hard times in Canada’s Lotus Land

Malcolm Gray April 18 1983

Hard times in Canada’s Lotus Land

Malcolm Gray April 18 1983

Hard times in Canada’s Lotus Land


Malcolm Gray

It was a fitting scene for an election call. When British Columbia Premier William Bennett strode confidently before the microphones last week to ask the electorate for a “strong and enduring mandate,” he chose to do it in Robson Square, the glass-and-steel complex in the heart of Vancouver which is the city’s architectural homage to West Coast progress and well-heeled sophistication. Bennett kicked off the campaign with a speech that rang with the accomplishments of his Social Credit government’s seven years in office. But across the strait on Vancouver Island a more sombre scene was unfolding. There, a rain-soaked procession of unemployed workers from northern logging communities marched silently on the Victoria legislature. Numbering only about 70, they symbolized the hidden, but desperate, economic crisis that has plagued “Beautiful British Columbia” in the past three years of Bennett’s stewardship. Despite the premier’s frequently quoted claim that “British Columbia will lead Canada out of the recession,” the cold fact is that the bloom has faded in Lotus Land.

Clearly, Bennett is keenly aware of that harsh reality. His political fate will be decided on May 5 when British Columbians go to the polls. After months of indecision about whether or not to call an election, Bennett finally decided

to act when he had no alternative but to do so. His coalition party is in serious disarray, and his government has saddled the province with a $1-billion deficit—the first ever for a party obsessed with balanced budgets. It will be that deficit and Bennett’s mismanagement of the economy that NDP Opposition Leader David Barrett will attack in the four-week campaign. But Barrett has

The May 5 election will be a decisive one for the future of what was once thought to be the most blessed province

his own political troubles. After he lost power in 1975, the NDP front benches remained virtually unchanged. More threatening to Barrett—even though he has softened his socialism since then— was a national Gallup poll released last week, which reported that 50 per cent of Canadians favored a Conservative government nationally.

For both leaders, the upcoming election will be decisive in determining the future of what was once thought to be Canada’s most blessed province. For although British Columbia still conjures up alluring visions of California North in many parts of Canada, life there is

not the après-ski fantasy that it once was. The hot tubs overlooking English Bay have cooled. House prices have dropped drastically from the 1970s, when a galvanized lean-to with a partial mountain view sold for more than $100,000. More to the point, the hewers of wood and drawers of water, who have been the backbone of the province’s resource-based economy, are out of work. Said John Erickson, one of 2,000 laborers laid off when MacMillan Bloedel’s Port Alberni lumber mill shut down in 1981: “The dream is over.” Nowhere is the dismal decline of British Columbia more telling than in the statistics dealing with migration figures. Once the land of promise at the western end of the Trans-Canada Highway—the favored destination of everyone from shoeless drifters to highrolling entrepreneurs (page 20)—now more people are leaving the province than entering it. In 1980 British Columbia recorded a net gain of 48,000 new residents. Last year, in comparison, 59,810 went down the road—out of the province—almost 1,000 more than those who came to stay. And of those hoping to find a livelihood amid the lotuses, many are disappointed. Currently, the B.C. jobless rate is at 14.7 per cent, the highest of any province west of Ontario. But even those figures do not reveal the whole truth. In rural areas, where lumber and pulp mills have gradually ground down and mines have closed, the

unemployment rates have shot up to 30 per cent. Says Patricia Marchak, an NDP candidate and a sociologist at the University of British Columbia who has written a book on the demise of B.C. forestry towns: “My conviction is that those communities are going under.”

Another symbol of a dream turning sour is the village of Whistler, the trendy ski resort that strove to be the Aspen of the North. From Vancouver a winding two-lane highway to Whistler is bombarded by road signs warning of the danger of everything from rock slides to washed-out bridges. But the signs at the end of the trip spell caution to developers rather than drivers.

For skiers this season, the centre of Whistler Village was dominated by the shell of an unfinished community centre. For shopkeepers and restaurateurs who set up business in Whistler’s mock Alpine Village, the clientele has not appeared. Like ruins, the concrete foundations of a hotel and condominium project have been frozen by high interest rates and the recession. When the municipally owned land company that was developing the village centre closed down as a result of a $27-million debt, the embarrassed Socreds were forced to step in. Last January the government extended an additional $9 million in credit to protect the public investment that the administration had already extended. That is not the kind of action

the free-enterprising Socreds propound. Said Janice Tindle, a member of the Whistler ski patrol and a nine-year resident of the village: “A lot of the money that has been spent here has been wasted. They brought in high-priced planners, and although their plans are still here, there’s no money left to carry them out.”

Embarrassing political gaffes like Whistler could haunt the Socreds

throughout the election campaign, but the main issue will be jobs. “The [jobs] issue is relatively straightforward, but then you have to filter the messages to figure out who’s going to do something,” said economist Richard McAlary, of the B.C. Central Credit Union. “The side issue is trust and integrity: who do you believe is going to deliver the promises?” For their part, David Barrett and the NDP promise to finance a $500-million job creation program through government borrowing. But Bennett’s Socreds are staking their future on the only functioning megaproject in the country, a massive $3-billion coalfield development in the northeast corner of the province. In December the first carloads of seven million tonnes of coal a year will begin moving to Japanese steel mills over new publicly financed rail lines and through a new port at Prince Rupert. The two companies involved, Denison Mines Ltd. of Toronto and Teek Corp., have 15-year contracts, and the project promises to create as many as 6,000 new jobs. Still, it could backfire on Bennett. With a worldwide steel glut and cheaper coal now available from Australia, the Japanese are unlikely to buy any more additional supplies from the new fields. As well, any drop in the average price of $90 a tonne would make northeast coal uneconomical—at public expense. The NDP has hammered away at the new Peace River coal development since the agreements were signed in 1981.

The prospect of the Japanese abandoning the northeast coal project causes a chilling concern. But the province is also enduring a full-blown scare in another vital part of its rocks-andlogs economy: forestry. British Columbia exports more than $1 billion worth of lumber to the United States annually, and only strenuous lobbying recently stopped a U.S. plan to impose a tariff on B.C. wood imports which would have crippled the forestry industry. Port Alberni on Vancouver Island was one of the most prosperous cities in the country during the 1970s. Now, the pulp and lumber mills in the city of 20,000 are dormant, and only a few hundred of the area’s 5,000-member work force still have jobs.

Says the credit union’s McAlary: “The economy has to change. British Columbia still has the least diversified economy in Canada, outside the Atlantic provinces. Now that the world is getting smaller, British Columbia is a place where people like to live and work, so it has to diversify more.”

The Socred strategy for dealing with changing times and transitional economies is to try to entice high-tech industries to the West Coast. One new project, a $49-million microprocessor plant, is tantalizingly close to reality near Vic-

toria. Ottawa and Victoria have offered two Filipino businessmen $19 million in loans and grants—if they can raise the rest of the money for the project themselves. Even with the deal still on the drawing board, an announcement of 500 jobs should the plant ever open drew 6,000 unemployed workers to the Canada employment centre in Victoria.

Announcing 500 high-tech jobs before the factory even opens will not draw fire from the New Democrats, because they have larger Socred game to hunt in the campaign. Bennett, who gave the definite appearance of a man backing unwillingly into an election, will be the

prime target during the coming campaign. The NDP will stress the fact that the premier failed to recall the legislature after Christmas to approve continued government spending. When the fiscal year ended March 31 and the government was left without a budget for the first time in 40 years, Bennett took the unprecedented step of ordering special warrants to keep the government solvent and to pay its bills. “Bennett was forced into the election,” said Stan Persky, a left-wing social critic and author of Bennett II: The Decline and Stumbling, a critical analysis of the premier’s tenure. “He was unable to call the legislature back because he would have had to present a new budget and he knew people would be upset by the figures. Even in loony Lotus Land you can only go so far with that kind of government.”

Although Bennett’s recent budgetary problems will be ammunition for the NDP throughout the election, the premier and his party will also be on trial for other sins of the past. Since the last election, in 1979, when the Socreds won 31 of 57 seats, the Bennett government has been plagued by a series of miniscandals. The problems began during the 1979 election when the Socreds were accused of waging a “dirty tricks” campaign against the NDP in which, among other things, party workers forged letters using the names of prominent NDP supporters. During that same election Bennett was also responsible for the program that gave each resident of the province five free shares of B.C. Re-

sources Investment Corp. stock in the hope that they would continue to invest in the province. Although the gesture was purely an election goodie to buy votes, Bennett sold the scheme as an example of “people’s capitalism” at work. Like the economy itself, the stock has plunged since the 1979 election, when it traded for $6 a share: last week it was selling for $2.70 a share.

Last year the government was tainted again after Consumer and Corporate Affairs Minister Peter Hyndman was forced to resign when his expense accounts became embarrassingly public. They included copious chits for extravagant meals and expensive French wines.

But perhaps the greatest threat to Bennett comes from within his own ranks. The decision by Education Minister William Vander Zalm not to seek re-

election was a pointed signal of trouble to come. Vander Zalm, the party’s right-wing strongman and a populist hero in the Socreds’ alienated fringe, will be waiting in the wings for a crack at the leadership should Bennett’s highrolling campaign machine grind to a halt on May 5. Vander Zalm’s defection and that of Attorney General Allan Williams leave two safe Socred seats up for grabs in what some analysts predict could be an NDP landslide.

Barrett’s attack on Bennett got off to a flying start when he accused the Socred government of planning to tamper with the province’s medicare system by instituting controversial hospital user fees and possibly even means

tests to decide who should pay for hospital beds. Barrett, who was leaked a government document outlining what Bennett aides later claimed was only an “option,” held a press conference to publicize the affront to what British Columbians feel is an inalienable social program. Unlike the 1975 election, when angry lobby groups from the forestry, mining and auto insurance industries vigorously campaigned to defeat the NDP, this time Bennett will have unions, teachers and public servants working against him. Canadians from coast to coast can only hope that somehow the catharsis of an election campaign will restore the promise that for so long made British Columbia the symbol of hope that sustained a nation even in its darkest moments.

Diane Luckow

jack Danylchuk