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Former B.C. Premier Bill Bennett at the Vancouver Board of Trade luncheon on the 20th anniversary of Expo 86, May 2, 2006. The former premier is suffering from the later stages of Alzheimer’s disease, his son announced Tuesday at the University of British Columbia.

Nick Didlick/The Globe and Mail

Former premier Bill Bennett, who dominated B.C. politics at the head of the Social Credit Party for more than a decade after the 1975 election, is suffering from the later stages of Alzheimer's disease, according to his family.

The 87-year-old's son, Brad Bennett, made the announcement Tuesday at the University of British Columbia as diamond miner Charles Fipke pledged $9.1-million toward combatting the disease affecting as many as 500,000 Canadians.

Standing in a laboratory outfitted with new equipment and staff, Mr. Fipke expressed regret that he hadn't pledged the money sooner to help his friend. "I'm sure [we'll] find a cure. We're going to go all the way on this," he said.

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According to Mr. Bennett's son, the former premier is now living in a long-term care facility in Kelowna and was diagnosed around 2007. Some of the first signs may have appeared a decade ago, but pinpointing an exact start of symptoms is difficult with Alzheimer's disease.

In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Premier Christy Clark said that, along with his father and predecessor, W.A.C. Bennett, Bill Bennett was the "province's greatest premier." She added that making that pronouncement during Mr. Bennett's lifetime speaks to the "incredible accomplishments" of his time in office.

While Mr. Bennett's worsening condition was known among the family's friends and many of the people the former premier worked with, the disease was kept private to protect Mr. Bennett.

"It's the later stages of Alzheimer's now. The reasons we previously stayed private have now diminished with the illness," Brad Bennett said. "My father was a vital person of high intellect and great drive. Those qualities aren't there anymore."

Watching Mr. Bennett's decline was difficult as he slowly lost the ability to do things such as write, his son said. Patients with Alzheimer's have "zero quality of life" in the latest stages of the disease, he added.

"With Alzheimer's patients you say goodbye twice," he said.

"The first time is when you say goodbye to the person you've known and loved your entire life, that's the hardest time. When the disease progresses, the person you knew and loved is no longer there."

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Mr. Bennett remains a "towering presence" in the province, Ms. Clark said. "I have so much sympathy for premier Bennett's family and for him. Its heart-wrenching to watch someone you know, love and lionize go through a change where their body continues but their mind is gone," said Ms. Clark, whose mother died of a brain tumour.

From 1975 to 1986, Mr. Bennett redrew the skyline in Vancouver and rebuilt much of downtown, helping create modern B.C. with a series of megaprojects. Under his watch the iconic Canada Place convention centre was built, as was B.C. Place and the first line of Vancouver's SkyTrain system. A series of highways and power dams were erected in the province's interior.

Still, Mr. Bennett was controversial, presiding over labour strife and rapidly expanding provincial debt. After his decade in power, his political opponents described his record as dismal. At the time, he told The Globe that they would provide more accurate assessments after his death. "Your enemies can like you then. You're no longer a threat," he said in 1985.

Mr. Bennett, Ms. Clark said, "was the premier of my young adulthood. I just started voting in his last years as premier. Having met him, the most resonant thing of Bill Bennett was the incredible presence he brought to any space he occupied."

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