Skip to main content

Former B.C. premier Dave Barrett is pictured in this handout photo from 2000.

A week after David Barrett was sworn in as British Columbia's first NDP premier, he challenged his cabinet with a question: Was this new NDP government in power for a good time or a long time?

It was 1972. For the first time, the NDP was running B.C. By taking charge, it had ended 20 years of centre-right Social-Credit government in the province. Mr. Barrett asked his cabinet members whether they were going to make fundamental changes to B.C. or try to hang on for a second term "rationalizing that we'd get the job done the next time around."

The outcome of that debate behind closed doors came to characterize the memorably one-term administration of Mr. Barrett, who died on Friday at the age of 87.

The new NDP government took the bold path. "We agreed unanimously to strike while the iron was hot. Our government represented the first real break from the traditional power base of the province. We were free and unfettered to roam in new directions," Mr. Barrett later wrote in his 1995 memoir.

And so they did, enacting a change agenda that included the Agricultural Land Reserve to protect B.C. farm land, the Insurance Corporation of B.C. (ICBC) to provide government-run auto insurance, increasing the minimum wage, changes to labour law and much more.

"He did so many things that still survive today," said Rod Mickleburgh, co-author with former Vancouver councillor Geoff Meggs of the 2012 book The Art of the Impossible: Dave Barrett and the NDP in Power, 1972-1975.

The authors take four pages to tally 97 accomplishments of the Barrett government, including Hansard (published transcripts of legislative debate), a daily question period in the legislature, full-time human-rights officers, and the B.C. Cancer Control Agency.

"It was not all Barrett," said Mr. Mickleburgh, a former Globe and Mail reporter. "He had cabinet ministers he gave a long leash to, but he presided over the government, and he was the government for all intents and purposes."

The way Mr. Barrett framed his question to cabinet suggested possible limits ahead to the NDP opportunity to make change. Indeed, there were. The party that won 38 of 55 seats in 1972 was ousted in 1975 after Mr. Barrett called a snap election.

In his memoir, Mr. Barrett writes about the decision to go to the polls early.

"We had instituted numerous changes, but they were largely misunderstood and therefore perceived as threatening," he wrote.

Among other things, Mr. Barrett was worried about giving the Socreds "with their access to unlimited funds and a supportive media" time to build greater opposition to the NDP government.

"I had watched elections in Australia and New Zealand, where mobilization of the right wing had been so effective," he wrote. He was also worried about what would become of such NDP-enacted measures as the land reserve, Pharmacare and ICBC if the Socreds took power.

"I finally made the decision to go ahead. When I told cabinet, there was reluctance on the part of some members, followed by a fatalistic acceptance. After some discussion, everyone rallied behind the call. Caucus was stunned, but they too rallied, and away we went."

Right out of power. The party plunged to 18 seats in the B.C. legislature – although its share of the popular vote inched up a point from 39 per cent to 40 per cent. Mr. Barrett lost his Coquitlam seat by 19 votes. It would be 16 years before the NDP governed B.C. again.

The institutions Mr. Barrett worried about before the election call survived his successor as premier, Bill Bennett, and Socred and B.C. Liberal governments that followed. Today, they are fixtures of the province, pretty much politically untouchable.

Mr. Barrett, reflecting on his run as premier, later regretted what he called his "intemperate" conduct in the post. "Youthful exuberance probably had a lot to do with that; I was pushing forty two when we were elected government," he wrote. "I talked too much and was too accessible to the media. I was too available with an opinion on everything and that was a mistake both strategically and tactically.

"As I look back, I think that by being such a wide-open, call-the-shots-as-I-see-them politician, I unwittingly created a climate of fear about myself and about the ambitions and intentions of our government."

Mr. Barrett was a lively figure, witty and sharply funny at times. "He was smart enough to see what went over in an audience," Mr. Mickleburgh said. "He would feed off the crowd. If the crowd was lapping it up, he would just get more fired up and reach these great heights. If you heard a Dave Barrett speech at his best, it was really something."

Mr. Barrett was born in East Vancouver on Oct. 2, 1930, the son of fruit and vegetable pedlar Samuel and his wife, Rose. Mr. Barrett was one of three children. He described his father as a "very gentle, Fabian socialist" and his mother as a "Communist who thought Joe Stalin was a pretty good guy." As a child, Mr. Barrett worked with his father.

He studied at Seattle University and St. Louis University, where he did graduate studies in social work, then returned to B.C. and eventually worked at the Haney Correctional Institute. By then, he had married Shirley Hackman, with whom he would have three children.

Mr. Barrett had a role in the social program at the prison and as a personnel and staff training officer. He came to consider running for the provincial wing of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation party – the precursor of the NDP – after taking one of the party's members on a tour of Haney.

In 1959, he was fired for being actively engaged in politics, but also won the CCF nomination in Dewdney, and the seat in the 1960 provincial election, defeating Social Credit incumbent Lyle Wicks, the labour minister, by 1,924 votes. A year later, the CCF changed its name to the New Democratic Party.

After NDP leader Thomas Berger faltered in the 1969 election, Mr. Barrett – then an MLA for Coquitlam – became leader.

And then came 1972 and an NDP campaign under the slogan, "Enough is Enough." The NDP won 38 seats and the Socreds 10.

Mr. Barrett was not done with politics after the NDP's 1975 election defeat. He won a by-election and returned to the legislature in 1976, continuing as opposition leader and led the NDP in the election in May, 1983, which it lost.

In one memorable incident highlighting Mr. Barrett's feistiness, he was dragged from the B.C. legislature and banned by the speaker for the rest of the session because he refused to withdraw a challenge of the speakers' ruling to end debate on a bill. The ouster, in which sergeant-at-arms officers dragged Mr. Barrett out and dumped him in the hallway, was described as a first in the 112-year history of the chamber. Mr. Barrett described it as "an absurd, obscene abuse of the freedoms of parliamentary democracy."

All of this basically came at the sunset of Mr. Barrett's time in provincial politics. However, Mr. Barrett was not finished with public life.

"Barrett was politics. He thrived on politics, and when he wasn't in politics, he missed it," Mr. Mickleburgh said. "He enjoyed being heard. He enjoyed speaking out on issues. He loved the theatre of it. He thrived on it. It was a shot of adrenalin to him, being in politics."

He went into federal politics, winning the riding of Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca in 1988. He ran for the leadership of the federal NDP in 1989, losing to Audrey McLaughlin. In 1993, he lost his seat and retired from politics.

Still, he had high-profile roles. He chaired a pair of inquiries into the leaky condo crisis in B.C. And he wrote political commentary for The Globe.

"He cared deeply about his province and devoted much of his life to trying to make it a better and fairer place to live," his son, Dan Barrett, said in a statement announcing his father's death. "His love of the province was surpassed only by his devotion to his family. He will be sorely missed."

Socreds, Conservatives, big business and other political foes could not silence Mr. Barrett, but in recent years, he faced an antagonist he could not beat. He was in care in Victoria due to Alzheimer's.

Mr. Barrett is survived by his wife, Shirley, and their three children.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe