British Columbia's Quiet Revolution

CHRIS WOOD February 12 1996

British Columbia's Quiet Revolution

CHRIS WOOD February 12 1996

British Columbia's Quiet Revolution



British Columbia may be 3,000 miles from Ottawa, but Ottawa is three million miles from British Columbia.

T. D. (Dufi) Pattullo, B.C. premier, 1933-1941

Last week, Canada’s national government tried to narrow that distance somewhat. Or perhaps it merely hoped to make it appear as if it were doing so. Many

British Columbians were left uncertain which it was. Among them was Myriam Laberge. The Vancouver-area meeting facilitator has spent much of her time

lately prompting her fellow citizens to discuss their country’s uncertain future, with a view to making it a bit less uncertain. So it was understandable that when the federal Liberal caucus met for two days in Vancouver’s elegant Hyatt Regency Hotel last week, it would invite Laberge and half a dozen of her colleagues to talk about their efforts. But, in fact, only one of the roughly 200 MPs and senators in the party caucus actually came to listen: Treasury Board President Marcel Massé, who until last month was Ottawa’s minister for national

unity. “The impression was that he was listening, and that he understood what we said,” Laberge said afterward. Still, she added doubtfully, “I’ll have to wait and see.”

That is what many people in British Columbia are doing. The choice of Vancouver as the site of the one full-scale Liberal caucus meeting outside Ottawa each year was only the latest sign that the national government is paying more attention to British Columbia

than it often has in the past. A week earlier, Prime Minister Jean Chrétien had named a third B.C. MP (Hedy Fry) to his cabinet. And in December, the government reversed itself and extended a separate constitutional veto to British Columbia—placing it on equal footing with the Atlantic region, Quebec, Ontario and the Prairie provinces—in legislation that

was finally passed late last week.

Those affirmations of British Columbia’s growing importance on the national stage come at a critical time in the province’s history. Long the last stop on the road for westward drifters and more recently the first landfall for a monied flow of migrants from overcrowded and oppressive regimes in Asia, B.C. society has acquired

a texture unlike anywhere else in the country. As though its psyche reflected its geography—disconnected ribbons of lowland separated by mountains and girded by the sea—British Columbia’s is a culture of patchworks.

Remote islands misted with Haida ghosts compete for mental space with the roughnecks and rodeo riders of the Peace River country; Asian traders fire salvos of machine-gun Cantonese

and Mandarin into cell phones over white linen tablecloths and steaming dim sum only blocks from the knitted, booted and bodypierced—not to mention marijuana-scented—street life of Vancouver’s East Hastings or Granville. Now, enriched and emboldened by 10 years of steady growth and burgeoning connections to the effervescent economies of the Far East, British Columbia is riding a wave of what historian David Mitchell describes as “swaggering self-confidence.” Adds Mitchell, an independent member of the provincial legislature: “I’ve referred to this as British Columbia’s Quiet Revolution.”

The ‘fifth region’ is speaking up and riding a wave of self-confidence

The reference to Quebec’s pivotal decade of self-discovery in the 1960s is a conscious one. Many observers see a close parallel between British Columbians’ emerging sense of themselves as a distinct society in their own right, and Quebec’s evolution towards independence. And indeed, the boisterous optimism infecting the West Coast finds one reflection in the breezy assurance, widely held in the province, that if Quebec’s departure ever does lead Canada to split up, British Columbia’s 3.8 million people could go it alone—and prosper.

But another, more positive, sentiment is often overlooked—particularly by easterners. Buoyed by their own evident success, British Columbians “are searching for ways they can contribute to a renewed Canada,” says Mitchell, adding: “That is something new.” So new, in fact, that most of the province’s political leaders seem to be lagging behind the initiatives of ordinary citizens like Laberge. For some thoughtful observers, in fact, the greater worry now is not that their province will secede or that the rest of Canada will ignore British Columbia’s readiness to help reform the nation—but that its own leaders may prove unequal to the historic opportunity they face. “British Columbia,” notes Gordon Gibson, a one-time leader of the B.C. Liberal party and author of Plan B: The Future of the Rest of Canada, “has the motive and the muscle to play a larger role in finding a solution to the country’s problems. The question is whether it will have the leadership. At the moment, it is absent.” Compounding British Columbia’s leadership problem is the fact that NDP Premier Mike Harcourt announced in November his intention to resign; his party will not choose a replacement until later this month. And it will be several

more months before the new leader, or someone else, secures a mandate in a provincial election (page 16).

On the surface, certainly, it is Ottawa that has appeared lately to be taking the initiative to reach out to British Columbia. While in Vancouver last week, federal Liberals cast Chrétien’s cabinet shuffle as a promotion for the province’s senior minister, Victoria MP David Anderson, from the low-profile Revenue ministry to the more senior Transport portfolio. With the elevation of Fry, the MP for Vancouver Centre, to the post of secretary of state for multiculturalism, they added, half of the sixmember B.C. federal caucus is now in cabinet—a larger share than any other province enjoys.

But the argument rang hollow to many B.C. Ottawa-watchers. In naming Anderson to Transport, Chrétien passed him over in favor of placing a

Newfoundlander, Fred Mifflin, in the Fisheries portfolio, which must soon undertake a critical shakeout of the embattled B.C. salmon industry. And while Anderson, Fry and Raymond Chan, secretary of state for Asia and the Pacific, may indeed account for half the B.C. caucus, the province’s representation still does not match even that of Montreal, five of whose six cabinet members hold senior portfolios, including Finance and Intergovernmental Affairs. The critical unity committee of cabinet, meanwhile, includes not a single representative from the third-largest province. Privately, some federal Liberals suggested last week in Vancouver

that the party’s weak B.C. bench left Chrétien little choice in his appointments. But in light of the Prime Minister’s readiness to name Quebecers Stéphane Dion and Pierre Pettigrew to cabinet even before they have won election to the Commons, Mitchell was not alone in asking: “Why couldn’t the government have done something similar for British Columbia?”

Similarly, Ottawa’s flip-flop decision to acknowledge British Columbia as a distinct fifth region, with its own veto over future constitutional change, met a mixed reaction in the province it was meant to placate. Anderson, who lobbied Chrétien repeatedly to make the change, insisted that it responded to outrage among B.C. voters at the government’s original plan—to lump the province together with Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan as “the West.” “The veto,” Anderson argued, “is a sign of British Columbia achieving its rightful place as a region.” But in the wake of the change, all three major B.C. parties voiced opposition to the very premise of the federal initiative. The B.C. minister responsible for constitutional affairs, Andrew Petter, even travelled

to Ottawa—the only representative from any province to do so—to denounce the veto initiative before a Senate committee as “shortsighted and ill-conceived,” and to demand that it be withdrawn. Instead, it passed the Senate on Feb. 2.

Little wonder, then, that many British Columbians remained far from reassured that their province’s concerns have really been heard by the rest of Canada—from their perspective, anywhere east of the Rocky Mountains. ‘We may have got their attention,” commented Minister of Employment and Investment Glen Clark, one of four men and one

woman running to succeed Harcourt as NDP leader and premier. “I’m not sure if they understand.” Still more dubious was Julie Winram, senior research director for the Vancouver-based polling company MarkTrend Research Inc.: “I’m a little cynical. It seems British Columbia is stomping its feet and it’s been soothed. But I’m not sure that anything is going to change all that much.”

According to at least one of Winram’s professional colleagues outside the province, in fact, little has indeed changed. Among Canadians

at large, said veteran pollster Allan Gregg, chairman of Toronto’s Strategic Counsel Inc.: “You still get people referring to British Columbia as La-la-Land. If anything, there’s more attention paid to Alberta, because that government is higher profile in the national media.”

But if that is so, the impression held in the rest of Canada is seri-

ously out of date. True, says Winram, “we’re not all suits here. We’re more California-like, less structured. We have fewer big corporations. Everybody’s more into doing their own thing.” And if respondents to a Maclean’s survey published in 1994 are to be believed, British Columbians are more likely than other Canadians to rate their province as the best in the country, to have read a book lately and to approve of smoking marijuana—but also to forbid someone else from smoking (either pot or tobacco, presumably) in their home. Still, Anderson is certainly not alone when he angrily denounces “a lazy tradition in Eastern Canada of regarding the West as a bunch of ex-hippies and their descendants, tripping around trying to do 13 hours’ work a week. We’re not.”

1996, British mbia may lead ation in growth

‘A separate entity’

Jack Shadbolt, 87, is one of British Columbia’s best-known painters. Born in England, Shadbolt moved with his parents to British Columbia when he was three, and now lives in Burnaby:

Agreat the mountains, deal has to the do bays, with the the physical inlets, the grandeur islands. of It is the physically landscape— xY very exciting. Of course, there is much more to it than that. There is the fact that British Columbia is the farthest-out point from the centre of the old British Empire. That gave it a kind of drama for me when I was growing up. Equally dramatic has been the influx from the Orient, which is still going on. The third thing is the presence of the Indians. My first works as an artist were my drawings of things connected with Indian lore. I hope that my painting captures something of the enigma and mystery of the West Coast, so far from Europe. When you think of Canadian values, one tends to turn towards Europe. Here we’re still at the edge of things. Though naturally we think of Canada very fondly and forcibly, there is still that feeling of B.C. as a separate entity. The thing now that is fascinating to watch is Vancouver growing rapidly into a world city with its connections to Seattle and Portland as an economic bloc facing the

Orient. The Pacific consciousness

is very much in the wind. I can’t help feeling a sense of belonging to something that is very important and big.

‘Geography made us’

Roy Henry Vickers, 49, is an artist who lives in Brentwood Bay, 20 km north of Victoria on Vancouver Island. He traces his heritage to several coastal Indian nations, including the Haida and Kwakuitl peoples, and his new book, Spirit Transformed, is due out in May. It describes the creation of his Salmon totem pole that adorns the new Saanich Commonwealth Place near Victoria:

What the is rivers—the unique about Stikine, British the Columbia Nass, where are I was born, the Skeena, the Bella Coola, the Fraser. B.C. has natural boundaries on the east and west, the Pacific Ocean and the Rocky Mountains. This geography made us artists, artists that cast a shadow on the artists we study in school, people like Gauguin and Chagall. All that art was easy to work at because the abun-

dance of food allowed people to concentrate on art and culture. Our supermarket was the land and the ocean. On the Prairies, the people had to move with the game and the weather. Here, we did not have to move. The food swam by our doors.

The geography allowed us to build a powerful culture and a complex social structure. It is why our villages can be so old. In fact the Kitkatla people today live in a village over 5,000 years old, as far as I know the oldest inhabited village on the North American continent. We have villages that predate the pyramids of Egypt. Another unique thing about British Columbia is that we were the last [native] people in Canada to be taken advantage of by Europeans, and the memory is still very fresh. The knowledge of our elders is still within our grasp. You want to know another unique thing about British Columbia? I can go to the west coast of Vancouver Island, take my clothes off and lie in the sunshine on Jan. 1. And I’ve done it Not this year, but I’ve done it.

In fact, the same Maclean’s poll found that British Columbians also led the nation in holding down two jobs at the same time. It is their exuberant economy, not their alternative lifestyles, that many say should command more of the country’s respect. It is a strong case. While Ontario and the rest of Canada shivered through an extended recession in the early 1990s, British Columbia’s economy sailed forward with scarcely a hiccup, recording more than a decade without a contraction. Force-fed on immigration from less favored regions and the Orient, British Columbia’s economy in most recent years has expanded by three to four per cent, pushing into such growth sectors as film entertainment, high technology and computer-based media.

Most forecasters predict that the province will lead the country in growth in 1996. Not all the consequences of unflagging growth have been positive: sky-high housing prices, jammed freeways and vanishing green space in the B.C. Lower Mainland all evoke an unhappy downside to the comparison implied by the province’s sardonic nickname of “British California.” Nonetheless, asserts Daniel Savas, a senior researcher with the Vancouver-based Angus Reid Group Inc.: ‘We are an economic powerhouse, and nobody can deny it.” That, Savas says, has led to “a new sense of confidence, of importance, a sense that we count here.”

It is not just a question of attitude. The health of British Columbia’s economy is intimately linked to the changing nature of its society. The unconventional thinkers stereotyped in Anderson’s complaint are the same maverick entrepreneurs who have driven the growing B.C. film and computer software industries. A steady stream of immigration from Asia—20,000 to 40,000 people a year since the early 1990s—has given parts of Vancouver the flavor of a tidied-up Hong Kong or a less cramped Tokyo. It has also fostered a booming trade with the Far East that now accounts for a third of the province’s exports. For Asians transplanted to North America, observes Lucy Roschat, national chairman of the Hong

Kong-Canada Business Association, Vancouver’s freewheeling business style is both familiar and more agreeable than Toronto’s stuffier corporate climate. “Vancouver is more like a frontier,” she notes. “You have more manoeuvrability.”

With the proportion of its population having roots in Asia soon to surpass 30 per cent (up from about 11 per cent just 15 years ago), Vancouver’s ties with the Pacific Rim are destined to grow ever tighter. They will be reinforced further in 1997, when the leaders of 18 Pacific Rim economies, including the U.S. president and the leaders of China and Japan, meet in Vancouver at the annual summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation Group. To Roschat and others, British Columbia’s multiplying connections with Asia represent an asset that the rest of Canada has largely overlooked. British Columbians, especially those of Asian descent, are well placed to initiate business deals in the Far East. But the province’s industrial range and financial clout are still too small to satisfy the large-scale demands of many Asian trade and investment partners. In response, Vancouver business leaders increasingly seek national consortiums in which to play matchmaker between Asian customers and central Canadian suppliers of goods and services. Asserts Jack Austin, a trade lawyer and Liberal senator from Vancouver: “What we have in British Columbia to offer the rest of Canada is expertise in the Asian markets where we want to do business. It is a pivotal role.”

‘A diverse culture’

Jenny Kwan, 30, is a member of Vancouver city council, representing the NDP-allied Coalition of Progressive Electors. Bom in Hong Kong, she moved to Vancouver in 1975 at the age of nine:

All provinces are distinct in their own way, and I certainly believe that recognizing that uniqueness is very important A number of things make British Columbia unique. Geography is a very obvious component The water and the mountains make B.C. one of the most beautiful provinces in Canada. Our geographic location ties us to our economic advantage. Many people see British Columbia as a gateway to the Pacific Rim. The other aspect that makes B.C. so very unique is the people themselves. We have a very diverse culture, one that makes us one of the most fascinating provinces in Canada.

The people of British Columbia are far more progressive than people in many other provinces. What makes us very special is our attitude to environmental and ecological issues, as well as issues of racism. B.C. has a long history of fighting for social justice. The trade union movement is very strong; creating fair wages and equity for women has always been important. We are not like the Albertans for instance, with the Ralph Klein approach to government. British Columbia will not accept such things. I believe B.C. is the caring province of our country.

But there is another dimension to British Columbia’s fastdeveloping kinship with Asia that should resonate powerfully with the concerns of Quebecers for their cultural survival. “In our own way, particularly with our changing demographics, we are becoming as much a distinct society as Quebec is,” argues Gibson. With that and other common interests in seeing Ottawa cede jurisdiction to the province, he adds: “British Columbia is a natural ally of Quebec in terms of the structure of the country.”

At the same time, British Columbia stands—not always entirely willingly—to become a laboratory for the kind of piece-bypiece devolution of federal powers that the Chrétien govern-

powers ment increasingly seems to contemplate. In explaining how that devolution is likely to proceed, Anderson, for one, underscores Ottawa’s preference for assigning responsibilities to the “appropriate” level of government— not necessarily a provincial one. “The appropriate level of government could be municipal,” the minister noted. Or even, perhaps, quasi-municipal: since 1992, when Ottawa transferred control of Vancouver International Airport to an autonomous agency operated by a locally appointed board, the airport has raised $350 million in private-sector borrowing to add a third runway

and expand its terminal. It has also taken advantage of the federal open skies policy to market itself successfully as a North American gateway for passengers from the Orient. As one model for further devolution, enthuses its president, David Emerson, the airport authority “is adaptable to a number of other service operations: harbors, parks, fisheries.”

In its unsettled native land claims, British Columbia has a further motive to embrace creative reinvention of the machinery of governments—both federal and provincial. Some 47 B.C. First Nations have launched land claims. Negotiators involved in the protracted three-way bargaining among native bands, the province and the federal government say that cash and land will form only

part of the eventual settlements. Also on the table are new forms of native jurisdiction over such existing government prerogatives as resource management, child welfare and education. Those will challenge the inventiveness of negotiators— but they may also hold the seeds of new approaches to government with the potential for wider application.

Proud of its own accomplishments, bullish about its prospects and acutely aware of its own differences, British Columbia is in no mood to be included—by Lucien Bouchard or anyone else—in any vague and indistinct lumpen Canadianism. “There is a critical mass of population and wealth concentrating on the West Coast,” says historian and MLA Mitchell. “Canada needs to hear British Columbia’s voice: it can add a bit of texture to the debate.” Agrees Angus Reid’s Savas: “There is a whole new dynamic out here that has not yet filtered back to the East.”

The fault for that, however, does not lie entirely on one side of the Rockies. Among those who agree that British Columbia has been badly served by spokesmen for its provincial interest is Savas. “At the same time as we’ve been demanding to become bigger players,” he says, “very few of our political leaders have any well-developed strategic policy. That is a big failing.” NDP leadership candidate Clark tacitly concedes the point. For the most part, he says, British Columbians “have been concerned by what we see as unfair treatment [by Ottawa]. The next step is to say, ‘How can we constructively contribute to Confederation?’ I don’t think we’re there yet.” Reluctance to engage in the protracted national unity debate is not unique to B.C. politicians. It is often easier, living on the western edge of the continent, to look out across the broad expanse of the

Vancouver's ties to the Pacific Rim are growing tighter

‘Always the frontier’

Arthur Erickson, 71, was bom and lives in Vancouver. He is perhaps British Columbia’s best-known architect, renowned for such work as Roy Thomson Hall in Toronto and the Canadian Embassy in Washington:

We have always been the frontier, and we still betray aspects of it. A lot of the heritage that came in with the settlers from the East had worn off by the time they got out here. We have a greater capacity to experiment. We also have a better climate, and I believe climate has an awful lot to do with the character of the people living here. I’m always amazed at people running

around in shorts in midwinter. When the snow goes, they’ll be in bare feet. It’s this delusion that we are part of California, and we’re not that by any stretch of the imagination.

I think one thing we have to get over in British Columbia is this branch-office syndrome. If s time we took hold of our own lives. This is the place where the decisions are going to be made in the future. We have enormous potential because it’s such a desirable place to live. Ottawa is beginning to realize that this is where things are happening. But we do have to show more initiative. We have to get out of our cocoon and start looking elsewhere in the world.

Pacific than to force the mind back across the ramparts of the mountains to the congested affairs of chilly Ottawa, rusting Montreal and stuffy Toronto. Of her fellow British Columbians, MarkTrend’s Winram observes: “I don’t know that they want to play the central Canadian game of governing. I don’t know if they want to deal with all the balancing and compromising and responsibility.”

But it is a responsibility that British Columbians will find hard to elude. They, no less than other Canadians in the hours after the polls closed in Quebec’s October referendum, were transfixed by the eerie sense that their country was about to be lost to them. Like it or not, many also now accept that if workable accommodations are not reached soon with Quebec, even greater adjustments may be forced on them later—and not much later at that—by Quebec’s departure from the federation. And for all their differences, Mitchell observes, “most British Columbians are from somewhere else in Canada.” In the shocked aftermath of the referendum, he adds, “the fragility of our citizenship really struck home.”

British Columbians may have been sharply reminded that beneath their frequently self-absorbed isolation lies a deep attachment to the rest of the country. But that does not mean they are disposed to abandon their conviction that, as Gregg puts it, “not only are we different, but we’re right in our difference.” Other Canadians, they are saying, can choose to listen to British Columbia— and learn something. Or they can choose not to—and

risk repeating on the West Coast the historic error of failing to listen seriously to the grievances of Quebec. Amid all the talk of a Quiet Revolution taking place on the Pacific shore, and of a B.C. society distinct from the rest of Canada, it is significant that 12 per cent of British Columbians polled last fall by Angus Reid said that if Quebec leaves Canada, so should their province. That number, as Marcel Massé might remember, is not far off the proportion of Quebecers who supported independence in the 1960s.



‘Psychologically, it is a long way away’

Tina VanderHeyden, 44, is a prominent Vancouver theatrical producer who brought Cats to Vancouver. Born in Holland, VanderHeyden has also lived in Toronto and London, Ont.:

As far back as the 1970s, there was this tremendous animosity over the fact that British Columbians had to pay a premium for goods and services because they lived in the West With what has occurred economically over the past 20 years, this province has now become very self-subsistent It has taken its own course and now draws security from the fact that it sits where it does on the Pacific Rim.

There is no question that, emotionally, British Columbians feel distinct and apart from the average Quebecer and Ontarian. The focus seems to be a little more geared towards a balance of family, leisure and business. Part of that has to do with the geography and the access to leisure activities—you can be boating or skiing in half an hour. There is also a completely different pattern in the way that Vancouverites respond to culture: they are fairly independent, and lastminute buyers of culture. Vancouver is 10 years behind Toronto in commercial theatre, and I don’t know if it will ever catch up because there are so many more options here. Then there is this sense that you’re sitting at the end of the earth, next to the ocean. It’s an overpowering element, no question. Every day, I leave my home on the North Shore and drive over lions Gate Bridge, and I look around and I feel, ‘We’re way out here, like an independent country.” Those mountains really cut you off; psychologically, it is a long way away.