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B.C.'s NDP faithful looking to rise again

David Parkins for The Globe and Mail/david parkins The Globe and Mail

The B.C. Commonwealth Co-operative Federation breathed its last 50 years ago, naming the B.C. New Democratic Party as its sole heir and successor. Social Credit Premier W.A.C. Bennett taunted his new opposition that it would take five decades for the "socialist hordes" to form a government.

He was wrong, of course. The NDP breached the gates and captured the key to the Premier's Office three times since his cocky prediction.

But the B.C. NDP hasn't won an election since 1996. Party members meet this weekend in Vancouver to take stock of their chances to form the next government. The rhetoric hasn't changed much, but as New Democrats look across the way to their modern rivals, the B.C. Liberals, they see opportunity within their reach.

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The CCF folded its tent on Oct. 26, 1961, with a party that "had all the earmarks of an Irish wake," the Daily Colonist newspaper recorded. "A few cusswords were exchanged … and there was a good fight over the will."

Sixteen CCF MLAs, led by Robert Strachan, formed B.C.'s first New Democrat caucus. In his first speech under the new flag, Mr. Strachan promised a public takeover of telephone, power and natural gas pipelines. "Let there be no mistake, under this policy an NDP government will place these companies under public ownership," he said.

A self-educated trade unionist, Mr. Strachan was serious and strident on the campaign trail. In the 1966 election campaign, the Cariboo Observer carried a lively account of a campaign stop in Quesnel, where Mr. Strachan attacked the Bennett government as "slothful, unimaginative, and full of political falsehoods."

He told a campaign rally that "big business in the East" was pulling the strings in Victoria. "I'll tell you why they want a Social Credit government. You can be sure they have their gimlet eye on the natural wealth of this province: You can be sure they want a bigger share of the pie which is yours."

He was no fan of the premier's communications apparatus, either: "Every statement the premier makes is on the advice of people experienced in mass communication in the 20th century," he warned. "We have seen these people before, and I can tell you, they are all dangerous."

Lorne Nicolson served in cabinet with Mr. Strachan when the NDP made its first electoral breakthrough in 1972. He approves of the NDP's current leader, Adrian Dix, who shares many traits with the party's first leader: smart, serious and hard-working. "They have taken different paths but they end up in the same place," he said in an interview this week.

Mr. Strachan's campaign to nationalize the province's hydroelectric power ended in a victory of sorts – W.A.C. Bennett established BC Hydro. Such was the power of opposition.

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Mr. Dix operates in a different landscape in 2011, though he still speaks the same language. B.C. needs to use its natural resources for the greater good and his central fight is against inequality. He doesn't promise new edifices, but he wants to protect public assets such as BC Hydro. "There is still a major role in province-building for our Crown corporations, but sadly our present government has moved away from that," he said in an interview.

Sitting across the House from B.C. Liberal Premier Christy Clark, Mr. Dix imagines it's not unlike Mr. Strachan's time in opposition.

"We had a government then that was trying to hang on to power but had run out of ideas. We are at a similar moment here," he said. He doesn't disparage the skills of the current Premier's communications shop, but adds: "Ultimately you have to have something to communicate. They are just running around from photo op to photo op."

Mr. Dix and his NDP see a chance to beat down the gate again the next time British Columbians go to the polls. But here's where Mr. Dix sees the most acute change from Mr. Strachan's time: The state of the economy and the size of the government's deficit severely curtails the kind of campaign promises he can make.

"I don't think we are any less progressive, but we are just forced by our times to be more disciplined."

That said, he's bullish on the NDP's future: "I think our best days are still ahead of us."

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How the CCF was won

The merger of the CCF and organized labour wasn't entirely happy, but the minutes of the final meetings of the Lake Cowichan CCF club, provided by the Kaatza Station Museum & Archives, offer a peek at how the battle was won: one club at a time.

The last meeting of the club was held in the home of Mr. and Mrs. George Wilson on Sept. 7, 1961, with 15 members present. One order of business was what to do with a little gift from a suitor: the B.C. Committee for the New Democratic Party, which was poised to take over the CCF.

The committee had sent club members tickets for a "trip to the U.N. for two" contest.

With CCF clubs all over B.C., Lake Cowichan just might have been picked out for special attention: This was in the riding of Robert Strachan, the leader of the CCF in B.C. After some debate, the tickets were accepted. Delightful refreshments followed, the minutes dutifully note.

By the time the club next met, in November, members agreed to merge with the Lake Cowichan NDP club, bringing with them their balance of funds: $7.06.

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