For the past century, the rest of Canada has viewed the procession of unusual premiers from British Columbia with everything from astonishment to outrage, from ridicule to embarrassment. Three recent books—two of which concentrate on the latest character to hold the office, William Vander Zalm—reinforce those views. Union politics in the province have also produced some larger-than-life figures, and one of them, Jack Munro, also gets book treatment this season. All four titles offer provocative looks at Lotus Land and its lively and often bizarre political scene.
In Fantasyland: Inside the Reign of Bill Vander Zalm (McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 323 pages, $26.95),
Gary Mason and Keith Baldrey, legislative reporters for The Vancouver Sun, follow the unpredictable, often naïve and always quotable Vander Zalm’s turbulent, scandal-plagued premiership from his ascension to the Social Credit throne in 1986. Fantasyland provides an incisive look at the charismatic leader from the premier’s own testimony and the eyes of aides within his inner circle. Mason and Baldrey interviewed more than 100 people in the course of their research and spent more than 10 hours each with Vander Zalm and his former principal secretary,
David Poole. Details of how the inner circle plotted strategy to discredit the premier’s “enemies,” especially former economic development minister— and now backbencher—
Grace McCarthy, make fascinating reading.
Two chapters in particular highlight the province’s off-the-wall politics. They describe the premier’s ignorance of, or disregard for, potential conflicts of interest in the sale of the former Expo 86 lands in downtown Vancouver. They argue that Vander Zalm’s lack of discretion in repeatedly championing a private bid for the property by his friend Peter Toigo, despite an agreed-upon international bidding procedure, led to an RCMP investigation of both men. In the end, the police did not lay charges, but the political damage to the
province’s and the premier’s reputation continues to have repercussions. It resulted, the authors write, in the “first public civil war” within the Social Credit party in its 35-year history, including the ignominious sacking of Poole in August, 1988. The conflict’s latest manifestation was the October resignation of four Socred MLAs from the party caucus in the wake of the premier’s fifth-straight byelection defeat.
The authors explore all of the events that made Vander Zalm the clown prince of premiers across the country, from his rabid tirade in the legislature early in 1988 saying that
abortion at a later stage “can often only be done if the baby’s body is cut up,” to a speech to a right-wing Christian organization in which he compared his stuggle against negative opinion polls to the plight of Jesus Christ. “His personality, his ‘style,’ and his ad hoc, freewheeling method of governing have created an almost constant state of crisis for his government,” they write. “An insistence on imprinting his religious zealousness and moral view on fellow British Columbians has triggered a lasting resentment.”
Stan Persky, a left-leaning political analyst who has produced two books about former B.C. Socred Premier William (Bill) Bennett, also trains his guns on Vander Zalm in Fantasy Government: Bill Vander Zalm and the Future of Social Credit (New Star Books, 270 pages, $24.95 cloth, $14.95 paper). His detailed account of the events, policies, politics and scandals of
the Vander Zalm era, with a title borrowed from the premier’s Fantasy Garden World theme park, is an invaluable reference book, forged mainly from daily media accounts of the premier’s antics and pronouncements, coupled with the author’s unabashedly prejudiced interpretations of them.
Persky seeks to correct the perception of the premier as a maverick. He maintains that the radical, right-wing, redneck qualities of “The Zalm” are the norm within Social Credit, rather than the exception. Referring to the sweeping privatization program
introduced in October, 1987, he writes that it was “simply an extension of, rather than a break with, the policy of [Bennett] to ‘contract out’ government services.” Adds Persky: “Certainly, elements of the man—his style, and perhaps the fervor of his moral views— were unique to his person, but Social Credit could not be absolved of Vander Zalm’s actions by claiming that he is an aberration from party tradition.”
Some of Vander Zalm’s outrageous pronouncements, and the portrayal of the premier in the national press as a clownish embarrassment, hide a much deeper threat, warns Persky. “His actions [have] serious consequences for our public life. His performance raises questions [of] how a secular post in a democratic tradition is affected when it’s held by a religious fundamentalist.”
With a general election likely in British Columbia in 1990,
Vander Zalm and the Socreds this year launched a decidedly non-Social Credit policy program, says Persky, becoming passionate advocates of the environment, women’s issues, native rights, higher education and low-cost housing for renters and seniors. “[This] was either one of the more spectacular conversions since that of St. Paul on the road to Damascus,” he writes, “or else a display of extraordinarily bold fibbing or, more likely, a cold-blooded reading of the polls by the premier’s advisers.” Persky warns that, on election day, “some of these politicians trying to cash in on the environment [are] in for a big surprise.”
Vander Zalm is far from being alone in history’s record of eccentric B.C. political leaders. In From Amor to Zalm (Orca Book Publishers, 176 pages, $22.95 cloth, $13.95 paper), veteran Victoria Times-Colonist writer Peter Murray, now a historian, describes some of the “wingy” oddballs who have sat in the premier’s chair. Murray’s chronicle of the careers and thinking of a dozen of the province’s 27 premiers since 1871 makes for lightweight but entertaining reading. He establishes that British Columbia has had more than its share of eccentric premiers: the erratic Willie Smith (1872 to 1874), who changed his name to Amor DeCosmos to reflect his “love of the universe”; the three-month wonder of 1900, Joseph (Fighting Joe) Martin; the genial showman Sir Richard McBride (1903 to 1915); up to the more recent reigns of W. A. C. and William Bennett and Vander Zalm himself. They have been opportunistic, bombastic, naïve, mercenary, colorful, awkward, charming, self-righ-
teous, bullying, self-serving, misunderstood, manipulative or vindictive, perhaps—but never dull.
Well before the elder Bennett, W. A. C., embraced Social Credit as the newest freeenterprise alternative to what he termed the “socialist hordes” of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation and its successor, the New Democratic Party, British Columbia’s ambitious premiers fashioned shaky coalitions of the right to suit their purpose. Murray’s superficial sketches of their eccentricities and their lack of political understanding and policies beg for a more detailed and serious look.
Another British Columbia character who is as colorful, controversial and outrageous as any of the politicians with whom he has locked horns is Jack Munro, the Vancouver-based Canadian president of the International Woodworkers of America (IWA) for the past 16 years. In Union Jack (Douglas & McIntyre, 221 pages, $24.95), Munro teams up with former Maclean’s Vancouver bureau chief Jane O’Hara to offer revealing disclosures of the man behind the headlines, the political battles, the strikes and the settlements of the IWA over the past two decades. Using first-person narrative preceded by an interpretive summary for each of the 17 chapters, the two have produced a lean, powerful portrayal of a union leader who combined common sense with straight talk—Munro would never use 10 words where one expletive would do—to rise to prominence.
Munro’s personal problems with heavy drinking—he became an abstainer in 1984— a stormy and unhappy first marriage and the death of his 13-year-old son, Scott, in a traffic accident are dealt with briefly but unflinchingly. The heart of the book, however, charts Munro’s rise from a childhood in Depressionravaged Alberta to his turbulent tenure at the top of one of Canada’s largest unions. The burly (six-foot, four-inch, 265-lb.) union boss had only a Grade 10 education, but he has an instinctive sense of what is right for his union and his adopted province—even though his views often brought him into conflict with other unions.
Munro’s biggest dispute with other labor groups arose over his much-criticized private meeting with Premier William Bennett on Nov. 13, 1983, in the premier’s Kelowna home, to seal a pact to stave off a threatened provincewide labor walkout under the Operation Solidarity banner. Although he defends his action, the bullheaded unionist now admits that he erred in his approach. “I should have never agreed to meet in Bennett’s home,” he writes. “It was far too palsy-walsy looking. It made me look like a traitor.”
Polarized and passionate, B.C. politics has for decades been fertile ground for men like Vander Zalm, Munro, the Bennetts and Amor DeCosmos. They may command fierce loyalty in some and equally fierce hostility in others, but political junkies of all stripes will probably agree on one thing: they make for great reading.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.