Clark stands his ground

CHRIS WOOD October 20 1997

Clark stands his ground

CHRIS WOOD October 20 1997

Clark stands his ground



For an announcement that could have been contained in a two-page fax, the event was imbued with as much symbolism as public relations stagecraft could devise. There was the dramatic, cedar-vaulted setting of the First Nations Hall of Learning on the University of British Columbia campus. There was ceremony in the flowing syllables of the Coast Salish language, as a Musqueam elder invoked the Great Spirit and Mother Earth. There were bright young faces, bused in from a Grade 9 class in Squamish, and stirring, largescreen video visuals of large animals in vast scenery, set to a symphonic sound track. And at the centre of it all, a beaming politician. ‘Today,” B.C. Premier Glen Clark told the audience invited to hear him announce the creation of a nature preserve larger than Nova Scotia, “you are witness to a milestone in our history. This is a global treasure.”

On this occasion at least, there was some truth to the B.C. leader’s stump hyperbole. Environmentalists greeted the decision to limit development, in a region compared to Africa’s Serengeti, in glowing terms. “This is globally outstanding, a gift to the earth,”

said Monte Hummel, president of the World Wildlife Fund (Canada). More unusually, oil executives also endorsed protection of the untouched Muskwa-Kechika wilderness in the province’s northeast (they will get relaxed development rules outside the protected zone). But for Clark, even choreographed displays of agreement are becoming increasingly rare. More often lately, the 39-year-old premier’s agenda has been dominated by confrontation.

Private sector critics accuse the New Democrat of “declaring war on business”—while the provincial economy stagnates. In the capitals of the neighboring U.S. states of Alaska and Washington, Clark is persona non grata, while relations between Victoria and Ottawa hit a new low last month when Clark branded the national government as “treasonous” for failing to support his tussle with the two states over salmon. Among premiers seeking constitutional peace with Quebec, Clark has stood out for his reluctance to join the debate. Meanwhile, his domestic rivals on the right are putting aside differences that helped split the vote in the May, 1996,

election and keep the NDP in power. By most measures, Clark has little to smile about. That the scrappy former union organizer continues to exude a nearly supernatural degree of confidence says something about British Columbians’ fondness for a good fight, as well as about his character.

Despite the good-news aura of the conservation announcement, until late last month senior advisers harbored doubts that Clark would sign on to the proposal. In the last week of September, officials from the B.C. environment ministry packed the premier, along with a video camera and two lobbyists— one representing the oil industry, the other environmental causes—aboard two A-Star 350 helicopters for a tour of the region. Under rare cloudless autumn skies, Clark flew for nearly seven hours over high brown plateaus, alpine slopes and lush river valleys unscarred by development— an area wildlife experts say is the largest intact ecosystem of large predators and their prey outside of Africa. An estimated 27,000 moose, 18,500 elk and caribou, 9,000 Stone’s sheep (the world’s entire population of the

B.C. voters like their premier’s scrappy style

big-horned mammals), and 5,000 mountain goats sustain 1,000 wolves and 500 grizzly bears, amid some of the most spectacular wilderness on earth. Set down briefly atop a towering grey butte overlooking twin lakes, the city boy from working-class east Vancouver gazed out in unfeigned awe over the turquoise water 300 m below and marvelled breathlessly: “There’s a very high possibility that no human being has stood here ,.. ever!”

The package Clark ultimately approved provides special protection for a huge swath of the northern Rocky Mountains. More than one million hectares are set aside for complete protection from development—mainly the steady march of drilling rigs along the vast oil and gas reserves of the eastern Rockies. Resource companies will be allowed to operate in another 3 million hectares, but under close environmental controls. At the same time, officials said, red tape would be eased in the rest of northeastern British Columbia to allow for stepped-up development.

Welcomed as it was by environmentalists and industry alike, the MuskwaKechika compromise was a rare success for Clark’s gloves-off style of politics. On other fronts, his government faces mounting problems and growing isolation. With economic growth trailing all provinces except Newfoundland and Nova Scotia last year, and house prices dropping in many Vancouver neighborhoods, it is apparent that the B.C. economy has stalled. The two factors most often blamed: an ebb in wealthy Asian immigration—and NDP policies that have burdened forestry, the province’s biggest industry, with the world’s highest operating costs. The former may be beyond Victoria’s control, but forest policy consultant Les Reed blames the woes of the forestry sector mainly on the NDP’s new Forest Practices Code, designed to reduce logging’s environmental impact. “The government has its abyss just a step away,” Reed predicted last week, “in terms of ballooning deficits, swelling unemployment rolls and the wreckage of its entire forest policy.” The fight Clark picked in the summer with British Columbia’s American neighbors over salmon, meanwhile, has bogged down in the trench warfare of the courts. A decision by the B.C. government to sue Alaska for failing to live up to the terms of the Pa-

cific Salmon Treaty put Clark’s picture on front pages as far south as California—but shows little sign of compelling concessions from the Americans. Meanwhile, the B.C. premier was omitted from talks between Ottawa and Alaska that produced an agreement to restore ferry service between the U.S. state and Prince Rupert, cut off by the Americans after 200 Canadian fishing boats in the B.C. port blockaded the American ferry Malaspina for three days in July (Alaska is suing the boat owners for compensation for that disruption).

Clark’s relations with his fellow first ministers in discussions over the future of the

country are not much better. In offhand moments, he is contemptuous of the Atlantic provinces—‘They’re client states of the federal government.” And he dismisses Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanow’s drive to forge a constitutional offer to Quebec from the rest of the provinces by as early as January as “a discredited, elite process of premiers getting together and cutting a deal.” Insists Clark: “That process has no chance of success.”

Clark is still smarting from the memory of having championed the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords only to see public opinion in his province reject both deals. This time, he refuses to step out ahead of his constituents. “I want genuinely to hear British Columbians tell me what they think I should do,” Clark asserts. “This is why I get so annoyed by people, including Mr. Romanov, who keep trying to say, ‘Constitutional change, for Quebec, by December.’ Each one of those things prejudges consul-

tation.” Clark says he will name a panel in the next few weeks to hear B.C. voters’ views on national unity—but will not force it to march to Romanow’s timetable. And while he expects British Columbians to endorse change on some issues—a stronger federal role in social programs, for instance, in exchange for more local control over the fishery—Clark sees no future for the constitutional recognition of Quebec’s differences that Romanow is seeking. “I believe British Columbians will be strongly supportive of Quebec’s role in Canada, including its uniqueness,” he says, “provided we don’t get into constitutionalizing it.”

As Clark’s enemies’ list grows, his opponents are mending fences. Just 24 hours before last week’s announcement protecting the Muskwa-Kechika, the region’s representative in the legislature, Peace River North MLA Richard Neufeld, abandoned the B.C. Reform party to join the official Opposition Liberal caucus. “A year and a half ago, we split the vote,” Neufeld said, explaining his decision. “And we’ve been regretting it ever since.” His move left the NDP’s majority unchanged—the party has 39 seats to the Liberals’ 34, after Neufeld’s defection, while Reform and the Progressive Democratic Alliance have one each. Further consolidation of the self-styled “free-enterprise alternative” to the New Democrats may lie ahead. Gordon Wilson, the former Liberal leader who is the Alliance’s sole sitting member, has said he will decide by the end of the month whether to retire from politics—a decision that may trigger a byelection in his Powell River riding.

But if Clark, the son of a Scottish immigrant, is daunted by the number of skirmishes he is provoking on diverse political fronts, he does not show it. ‘There are always bumps in the job,” he says.” But actually, things are going really well.” Proud of his populism, Clark moves easily among ordinary voters. During his recent visit to the Muskwa-Kechika area, leaning back on the porch of an outfitter’s lodge, he looked at home in rumpled blue jeans and the same cowboy boots he wears to ride his secondhand 600-cc Honda Shadow motorcycle. “I don’t believe in government that tries to muddle through and not offend anybody,” Clark concedes. “Government is to take action, to do something and make

changes. That has put me at odds with establishment opinion.”

And in many B.C. kitchens, his combative readiness to take on David-against-Goliath odds strikes a resonant chord. Many of the callers to D’Arcy Rinald’s daily talk show on Vancouver Island’s CKEG radio station are unemployed forestry workers. Others stand to lose their jobs at the Nanoose naval base if Clark is able to make good on his threat to close the facility as part of his campaign against American overfishing of salmon (the Americans use the base for testing torpedoes, and Ottawa has taken Victoria to court to oppose the move). Even so, a straw poll among Rinald’s listeners in September suggested most preferred Clark’s New Democrats to their rivals. More scientific, provincewide polling by Vancouver’s MarkTrend Research, meanwhile, has shown Clark consistently ahead of the rest of his party in popularity, while voters opposed to the NDP continued to divide their support between Reform and the Liberals. “The bombast is working—

Clark standing up to the Americans,” notes Rinald. “It has an appeal.”

In British Columbia, it also has tradition on its side. In a province whose geography often seems overwhelming, politicians with oversized egos have prospered. From the self-christened Amor de Cosmos, British Columbia’s second premier, through the long tenure of Social Credit patriarch W. A. C. Bennett and including former NDP premier Dave Barrett, the most successful B.C. leaders have seldom shrunk from a battle. But critics say Clark should learn to focus his fighting instinct. “He’s a scrapper,” observes former Liberal MLA Barry Clark (no relation), now host of a talk show in Kelowna. “But Bennett was more selective in what he chose to scrap about. He didn’t scrap for the sake of scrapping, which Glen does.”

If Clark’s bare-knuckled attitude is part of B.C. political tradition, last week’s park announcement was in step with another long tradition: trophy public works projects. In de Cosmos’s day it was railways— encouraged by lavish land grants to their backers. Later, Bennett built hydro dams and highways. Now, it is parks. Clark’s Muskwa-Kechika is larger than the Tatshenshini reserve that his predecessor Mike Harcourt created. It might have been bigger still. Before Clark’s cabinet approved the protected area, advisers jokingly considered telling their competitive premier the land reserve was big—but still smaller than one in Alaska. Clark, they reasoned, would not be able to resist tacking on a little more wilderness if it put British Columbia—and himself—in the spotlight. □