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TOM HAWTHORN

Gordon Campbell lost an early life of privilege Add to ...

It was just before Christmas 14 years ago and Gordon Campbell was showing off the family home to a reporter.

A few months earlier, he had lost an election he expected to win.

"Lots of days you feel like you let down lots of people," he told me.

Many thought he would not stay as Opposition leader. Instead, he vowed to avenge a defeat he recounted with the anguish of someone who had been hustled in a game of street craps.

He felt he had allowed himself to be defined by his critics. In our conversation, he had the disconcerting habit of speaking of himself in the third person, as in "they had a deliberate policy of attacking and driving Gordon Campbell's unfavourables or defining Gordon Campbell in an unfavourable way."

He had been mocked for wearing plaid shirts on the campaign trail. He insisted he had a closet full of plaid shirts, adding that if he wore a costume it was the suit and tie he donned for seven years as mayor of Vancouver.

The brief house tour was intended to show him off as a successful man, though not a wealthy one.

When offered a compliment on a fine home - on a leafy street in the tony Vancouver neighbourhood of Point Grey - he was quick to respond with a tale about a taxi driver who was surprised he did not live in a mansion.

No, it was not a mansion. It was not any grander a home than those found in his social circle. But it was still finer than that enjoyed by the vast majority of British Columbians.

Mr. Campbell was born to privilege he seems incapable of acknowledging.

His grandfather owned a clothing manufacturer's shop, producing police and firefighter uniforms for the city. When he was a boy in the 1950s, the family would drive past and little Gordon would see what appeared to be his own name on the sign.

(One of the employees was the immigrant father of Harry Rankin, Harry being the man Gordon Campbell defeated for city mayor in 1986.)

Mr. Campbell hailed from an upstanding west side family. His father, a cardiologist, became assistant dean of medicine at the University of British Columbia. Charles Gordon Campbell, known as Chargo, worked hard and drank harder, struggling with depression and alcoholism before dying of suicide from an overdose of prescription pills when Gordon was 13.

The family's circumstance changed in dramatic fashion. To his widowed mother's great credit, Peg Campbell moved her bereaved family into a small apartment and found work.

Just last week, in a television address to the province, Mr. Campbell recounted the situation.

"I was raised by a school secretary, a single mom, on a school secretary's salary and four kids," he said. "I can remember what she felt like as she went from paycheque to paycheque to try and make sure that we had all the things we needed so we could live the kind of life that she wanted for each of us."

He attended University Hill Secondary School before heading off to the Ivy League (Dartmouth College), after which he and his bride, the former Nancy Chipperfield, volunteered to teach for two years in Nigeria.

He returned to Vancouver and a steady rise thanks to political and business connections. He was ambitious and worked hard. The frustrating 1996 defeat was followed by three majority victories, an accomplishment in a province where politics is played as a blood sport.

On election night in May, 2009, a reporter asked what message could be taken from his win.

"No longer can we have a province that continually tries to divide one sector of the province against the other, one class against the other - if there is such a thing in British Columbia today - one income against the other."

Alas, there is such a thing.

The minimum wage at the end of his first year as Premier was $8 an hour. Nine years later, the wage remains unchanged. It is the lowest in the land.

When he took office, the province's child poverty statistics were shameful. Nine years later, they remain so.

"It's not always popular to do what in your heart you know is right," he said in Wednesday's resignation statement. On his list was "making our taxation system one of the most competitive in North America."

Following his heart left the Premier with a nine-per-cent approval rating. It left many others waiting for the promised benefits of a competitive taxation system to trickle down.

Special to The Globe and Mail

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