His late entry into the leadership race brought a jolt of energy and controversy to an otherwise unremarkable contest. But the
characteristics that distinguish David Barrett from his lesser-known opponents are also potentially his greatest obstacles to winning the leadership of the New Democratic Party on Dec. 2. As British Columbia’s NDP leader from 1969 to 1983—including three years as premier—Barrett earned a reputation as a bright but brash politician.
And his shoot-fromthe-hip style—he once shouted at former Vancouver Sun columnist Marjorie Nichols that she was “f—ing stupid”
—earned him as many enemies as it did admirers. Barrett, 59, has not attempted to restrain his theatrical approach to politics since being elected as an MP from EsquimaltJuan de Fuca, on Vancouver Island, in last year’s election. “What you see is what you get,” he said in an interview during a campaign stop in Toronto last week. “Why should I change now?”
It is precisely Barrett’s ability to command media attention that some of his supporters in the party hope will keep the NDP from slipping onto the periphery of national politics. On the day he announced his entry into the leadership race, Barrett created a stir when he said that “Canada is made up of other parts besides Quebec” and labelled Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa a “hypocrite” for failing to defend the rights of French-speaking minorities in English Canada. But Barrett’s critics within the party describe him as a political jester who lacks the progressive ideals on which the party built its reputation. And many of them argue that Barrett’s leadership style carries political risks. Said Kamloops MP Nelson Riis, who backs rival Audrey McLaughlin: “Barrett’s leadership would be like a trip down white water in a kayak—it might break up at any time.”
At the same time, Barrett’s candidacy has crystallized the NDP’s internal debate over whether it should strive to be the political conscience of Canada—or aim to win power. A pragmatist rather than an ideologue, Barrett insists that, to avoid irrelevance, the NDP must shore up its strong western base—with the aim of ultimately holding the balance of power after the next federal election. “We are a political party, which came from a movement,” he said. “And politics is about exercising power.”
The son of a Vancouver fruit dealer and active socialist who grew up in Winnipeg’s lively Jewish community, Barrett attended high school in Vancouver before completing his education at Jesuit universities in the United States. There, he once quipped, he learned “the tricks for laying out a wholly logical argument based on an entirely phoney premise.” Equipped with a degree in social work, Barrett returned to Vancouver to work with prison inmates. But Social Credit Premier W. A. C. Bennett had him fired from that job in 1960 because of his political ties to the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation—the forerunner of the NDP. Barrett responded by running for, and winning, a seat in the B.C. legislature under the party’s socialist banner.
In 1969, after the renamed NDP suffered a crushing defeat in a provincial election, Barrett succeeded Thomas Berger as leader—and in 1972, he led the party to its first generalelection victory in the province. As leader, his personal style often did not reflect the discipline that he imposed on his own caucus: before calling his first cabinet meeting to order, Barrett briefly danced a victory jig on the cabinet table. Still, as premier, he tempered the radical extremes of the party’s ideology and tried to promote small business. But his unscripted approach to administering the province often appeared to verge on the chaotic, a perception that contributed to the party’s—and his personal—defeat in the 1975 election. Returned
to the legislature as opposition leader in a byelection a year later, Barrett never subdued his maverick impulses. In October, 1983, legislative officers unceremoniously dragged him from the legislature when he refused to leave after being expelled by the acting speaker.
By then, though, Barrett had already announced his intention to resign as provincial NDP leader, saying that the party needed a change. Rejecting overtures to run federally in the 1984 general election, he instead opted for the financial security of a broadcasting and teaching career, hosting a popular talk show on CJOR Radio in Vancouver and, later, lecturing on political science at Harvard and McGill universities. Still, Barrett made frequent speaking tours across the country, collecting political IOUs along the way. And in mid-1987, with NDP strategists optimistically—and wrongly—forecasting a historic electoral breakthrough for the party in the next federal election, he committed himself to seeking a federal seat.
Although Barrett and his wife, Shirley, lived in Montreal for four months during his stint at McGill, Barrett did not learn to speak French. That inability—coupled with his passionate denunciation of the Meech Lake constitutional accord on the day he declared his leadership intentions—provoked outrage in Quebec, where his attacks were perceived to be particularly insensitive. At a seminar on social democracy in Canada held at the French-language University of Montreal earlier this year with Parti Québécois Leader Jacques Parizeau, Barrett, speaking in English, stunned many people in the audience by saying that Parizeau’s economic policies—specifically his support for free trade—would “lead Quebec to be absorbed by the United States.” And, he told Parizeau, “You will be lucky to have the first franchise to sell Cajun food in Montreal.” Such blunt statements have earned Barrett the enmity of many Quebecers. But they have also unsettled many New Democrats—particularly in Ontario—who have committed themselves to building the party in Quebec. Said Robert West, delegate from St. Catharines, Ont.: “Sometimes I cannot believe the stupid things he says. We need someone who can appeal to the whole country.”
But as this week’s convention approached, Barrett gave no indication of remorse. In Toronto last week to meet Ontario Federation of Labor delegates for breakfast, Barrett concentrated on urging delegates to support his western-based strategy for acquiring power. Said Saskatoon MP Christopher Axworthy, who is backing Barrett: “Some of us are spooked by the prospect of Jean Chrétien winning the Liberal leadership and getting all the media attention. But the media will not be able to ignore Dave Barrett.” On Dec. 2, delegates to the New Democrats’ Winnipeg leadership convention will decide whether the ability to grab attention is enough to command the loyalty of a fractious party.
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.