SPECIAL REPORT

THE LASTING LEGACY OF AMOR DeCOSMOS

RIC DOLPHIN July 18 1988
SPECIAL REPORT

THE LASTING LEGACY OF AMOR DeCOSMOS

RIC DOLPHIN July 18 1988

THE LASTING LEGACY OF AMOR DeCOSMOS

SPECIAL REPORTE

He was born William Alexander Smith in Nova Scotia, worked as an itinerant photographer and changed his name to Amor DeCosmos, which is Latin for “Lover of the Universe.” On Dec. 23, 1872, he became premier of British Columbia, which had joined Confederation the previous year. Shortly after his rise to power, DeCosmos encountered a British government official who was impressed by the Lover of the Universe’s “intolerably overweening self-conceit.” The premier’s highhandedness eventually provoked a crowd of 800 to march on the legislature chanting, “We’ll hang DeCosmos on a sour apple tree.” He escaped by hiding in the Speaker’s chambers but apparently got the message; he retired from provincial politics on Feb. 9,1874.

In the 114 years since DeCosmos left office, controversy and confrontation have never been far from the centre of politics in British Columbia. The rapid growth of the trade union movement in the first 30 years of the century created a militant, voluble left wing in a society that had been dominated for half a century by spirited, freewheeling and often wealthy entrepreneurs. Now, the province’s 2.9 million residents are cemented into seemingly irreconcilable ideological camps of left and right, blue collar and white. On both the right and the left, outspoken, mercurial personalities have dominated provincial politics for decades—and Netherlands-born Premier William Vander Zalm is no exception. Said David Barrett, 57, who led the province’s only socialist government be-

tween 1972 and 1975 and plans to run for the New Democrats in the next federal election: “Strong coalitions like the Socreds prevent normal debate. In the absence of normal debate, the public turns to personality. So we’re doomed to have these wacky ups and downs.”

Wacky: The ups and downs of British Columbia politics may indeed be wacky, but few have ever viewed them as boring. “The frontier did attract interesting people,” said Margaret Ormsby of Vancouver, retired University of British Columbia history professor and author of the 1958 book British Columbia: A History. What the settlers did when they got there was another matter. In 1902, the Kootenaian in Kaslo, B.C., wrote that the legislature was “cursed with a horde of hoboes without the remotest sense of responsibility.” Said Keith Ralston, a UBC history professor: “If sobriety had been forced on any B.C. cabinet in the first 100 years, they would never have had a quorum. In contrast to most legislatures in 8 North America, we have had a I limited number of lawyers in politics. B.C. has historically been a place where one came to make it—to do whatever was

necessary to make it—and that has been reflected in our politicians.”

History provides numerous examples. John (Honest John) Oliver, premier from 1918 to 1927, was a semiliterate immigrant Derbyshire dirt farmer who once bragged, “I have dug ditches by the side of Chinamen, when every morsel of food I carried to my mouth bore the imprint of my fingers in the dirt.” Premier Thomas Dufferin Pattullo, who held office from 1933 to 1941, endeared himself to voters with his dandified style of dress. “I notice from snapshots taken that my clothes give me the appearance of what I am not, namely old,” he complained in a letter to his tailor. “The kind of clothes that should be built are those which will make one appear as young as one’s contemporaries think they are.”

Wealthy: But it was W.A.C. (Wacky) Bennett who perhaps best personified the unconventional in British Columbia politics. Born in New Brunswick in 1907, Bennett was—like many B.C. premiers—an outsider, a high-school dropout and an adventurer. He worked at menial jobs in various towns before settling in Kelowna in the B.C. Interior, where he founded a hardware-store chain that made him wealthy. Social Credit, pioneered during the 1930s in Al-

berta by evangelist premier William Aberhart, appealed to Bennett as a way to preserve capitalism. He traded his expensive Packard for a Chevrolet, painted it Social Credit green and campaigned in the 1952 election, reinforced by an acrimonious breakup of the LiberalConservative coalition. Social Credit rode to a surprise victory, coming in

with 19 seats to 18 for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), predecessor of the New Democratic Party. Bennett marched his 10 cabinet ministers two by two up the driveway of the legislature to assume power for 20 years.

Doctrine: Bennett and his successors have never implemented the original Social Credit doctrine— that individual purchasing power could be increased on the strength of government-backed credit. Instead, the B.C.

Socreds simply became the nonsocialist party, guided by Bennett’s party philosophy: “All that is physically possible and desirable must be made financially possible. That’s the beginning and end of Social Credit.”

Riding the prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s, Bennett’s government built a highway system, an immense hydroelectric grid, more ferries than there

were ships in the Canadian Navy, a flourishing trade with the United States and Japan—and a reputation for flamboyance and indiscretion. Bennett liked colorful public displays. He once loaded a barge full of retired government bonds in Okanagan Lake and shot a flaming arrow at it. The arrow missed and an RCMP frogman had to

ignite the barge with his lighter. Bennett spurned Ottawa, saying that the federal government viewed British Columbia as “a goblet to be drained.” He preached incessantly against socialism, promoted schemes to create five autonomous economic regions in Canada and declared: “I’d rather be premier of B.C. than prime minister of Canada.” Each morning before shaving, he would bellow lines from an Edgar Guest poem: “He started to sing as he tackled the g thing that couldn’t be 5 done, and he did it.” Bribes: But his ad§ ministration did not es| cape scandal. Lands and j Forests Minister Robert “ Sommers was charged in 1958 with accepting bribes in return for granting timber-management licences. It took Attorney General Robert Bonner 707 days to get Sommers to court because, critics said, Bonner did

not want the case to become an election issue. When Bennett finally called the election, he won with an increased majority. After the election, Sommers was sentenced to five years in prison.

Another Bennett cabinet member, Highways Minister Phil (Flying Phil) Gaglardi, a Pentecostal preacher, kept several cars around the province in which he sped along the new roads with the air conditioning cranked up to cool the beer of highway workers he happened upon. He resigned in 1968 after confessing to having used a government aircraft for a personal flight to Dallas. The NDP and the press assailed the government—but Bennett won re-election the following year.

Barrett’s New Democrats interrupted the Socred reign in 1972 when, according to many analysts, the Liberals split the antisocialist vote. But in 1975, with much of the public displeased with such NDP reforms as public auto insurance, human-rights legislation and strict land-use regulation—and an increased deficit—the Socreds, by then led by W.A.C.’s son William, regained power. They have kept it ever since.

Bawdy: While not as flamboyant as his father, Bill Bennett continued the Socred tradition of tough, antilabor government and ongoing scandal. The government was once described as “a cabinet of five car dealers and eight millionaires.” His health minister, James Nielsen, a former broadcaster, received a punch in the face in 1986 from the estranged husband of a government secretary with whom Nielsen later admitted to having an affair. Economic Development Minister Bob McClelland was called as a material witness when police found his credit card receipt on the premises of an escort service charged with being a bawdy house. Lamented The Toronto Star from afar: “Few governments can survive a lasting impression that it is run by the Keystone Kops. Maybe this time not even in British Columbia.”

But Bill Bennett lasted 11 years, retiring in 1986. Vander Zalm, his former human resources minister who had challenged welfare recipients to “pick up your shovels” and then resigned in 1983 after calling his cabinet colleagues “gutless,” re-emerged from private life to win the leadership in July, 1986, and a provincial election two months later. Vander Zalm once declared that, in politics, “style is substance.” In the wake of cabinet resignations and backbench disaffection, substance could well be the premier’s greatest need. Amor DeCosmos would feel right at home amid the controversy of Vander Zalm’s British Columbia.

-RIC DOLPHIN