In the early days of the campaign, Barrett received less media coverage than the new boys, David Anderson and Derril Warren. The thirty-three-year old Warren, especially, attracted a media following, with his youthful sincerity and a belief in some quarters that he was the logical choice to inherit W.A.C. Bennett’s legacy as leader of BC’s substantial free enterprise forces. That didn’t bother Barrett much. It was universal political wisdom that the more the non-NDP vote was split, the better it was for the New Democrats. Barrett concentrated on not being a target. By car and a small rented plane, accompanied only by the tireless Harvey Beech, a railway switcher from Coquitlam who was one of his closest friends, Barrett travelled to the far reaches of the province, lapping up the beautiful summer weather. No group was too small to hear his message.
In the north-central community of Houston, he told a gathering of forty people that it was time for “the little people” to say no to corporate takeovers. “You have a choice,” he said. He journeyed even farther north to the mining town of Stewart, where he avoided a speech altogether. Instead, he merely mainstreeted, ate a steak in the community hall and refused a request to be “Hyderized,” the well-known ritual just across the border in Hyder, Alaska, involving shots of seventy-five-proof alcohol. “I’m not drinking any snake bite, not in a temperance province like BC,” Barrett laughed, and downed a soda pop.
It was up north that he unveiled one of his most effective jokes, an icebreaker that never failed to warm up the crowd. Barrett heard that one of the papers had written about consulting an astrologist to determine various characteristics of the four party leaders. When it came to “sexual proclivities,” he told the tittering crowd, the astrologer identified him as a passionate lover. Barrett phoned home that night. Feeling pretty good about himself, he asked his wife, Shirley, if she’d seen anything interesting in the paper that day. “No, Dave,” Shirley replied. “Just the same old lies.” It was a brilliant joke that showed Barrett as someone unafraid to poke fun at himself, far from the scary figure Bennett was trying to paint of the man aspiring to be premier. The joke also reminded his audience that the media were against the NDP. They were as much a part of the corporate elite as Howe Street; what the press carried should not always be believed. But in mid-August, the headline over a lengthy Sun review of the first few weeks of the Barrett campaign read, “Barrett attacks with a smile.” He could not have asked for better.
Meanwhile, other major forces were marshalling against Canada’s last remaining Social Credit government. For the first time, the independent Teamsters Union and its pro-establishment leader Senator Ed Lawson pledged all-out opposition to Social Credit. Lawson was a bitter foe of the BC Federation of Labour and a regular hobnobber with Vancouver’s social elite. But his union had been stung by a ruling of the government’s Mediation Commission that denied eight hundred Teamster cement truck drivers $400,000 in retroactive pay. “The time has come for a change,” declared Lawson. He directed large sums of union donations to the NDP’s twelve incumbents and Liberal Barrie Clark. Classroom teachers also joined the fight. A political action arm of the “non-partisan” BC Teachers’ Federation spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on behalf of candidates pledged to improve the province’s cash-starved education system. Not a penny went to Social Credit.
Barrett began drawing bigger crowds, though his picture was still a rarity in the Vancouver Sun. When he complained, managing editor Bill Galt said the paper had tried to get a newsy picture of Barrett during his swing through the Okanagan “but all we could get was him with a handful of apricots.” As election day neared, Social Credit’s tried and true scare tactics ramped up one more time. Humorous in their own simplistic way, full-page ads showed a freshly paved highway heading, rightwards, to the horizon. A rutted, dusty road branched off to the left into a dense forest. The ads warned in big, capital letters: “DON’T TURN ‘LEFT.’” Bennett lashed out at Barrett as both a “crybaby” and the most dangerous, radical leader the NDP had ever had. He linked him to the Communist Party, and finally, thundered the familiar threat that everyone was waiting for. At a large election rally in North Vancouver, Bennett proclaimed, “The socialist hordes are at the gates in British Columbia.”
This time, they were.
Excerpted from The Art of the Impossible: Dave Barrett and the NDP in Power 1972-1975, by Geoff Meggs and Rod Mickleburgh, courtesy of Harbour Publishing. The launch will take place at the Djavad Mowafaghian World Art Centre, Room 2555 at the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts, on Thursday, Nov. 15, from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.