THIS WEEK IN HISTORY: 1959
Socred Premier W.A.C. Bennett created a ‘bond fire’ to burn up province’s debt.
B.C.’s first Social Credit government was sworn in on Aug. 1, 1952. Socred Premier W.A.C. Bennett liked to celebrate the anniversary by holding a big garden party at his home in Kelowna. On Aug. 1, 1959, he upped the ante by staging one of the most flamboyant stunts in B.C. history: The burning of the bonds. Bennett claimed that through his astute financial management, the Socreds had eliminated the $70-million provincial debt. Cynics in the media pointed out that the province still appeared to have $98 million in debt, plus another $500 million in debt from government agencies. But Bennett insisted the debt was paid, and to prove it, he was going to shoot a flaming arrow into a pile of paid-off bonds on a raft in Okanagan Lake. “The flaming arrow sets fire to a pile of wood, paper, rubber tires and other inflammables and — POOF — British Columbia’s net debt goes up in smoke,” wrote The Sun’s Paul St. Pierre. “Just like that.” The “bond-fire” was scheduled for 9:27 p.m., which was the exact time the Socreds had been sworn in back in 1952. But it was preceded by all sorts of festivities. St. Pierre said it was “the biggest thing since the cremation of Sam Magee,” a reference to a poem by Robert Service. And he adopted the clipped style of Service to describe the proceedings. “Fireworks, speeches, bands, speeches, balloons, water show, parades, speeches, dinner, birthday cake, speeches, free passes on all the bridges,” related St. Pierre. “Happy Birthday Dear Social Credit, Happy Birthday to You.” The Socred cabinet did, in fact, play Happy Birthday Dear Social Credit at a civic reception in Kelowna, on toy instruments. Education minister Les Peterson and provincial secretary Wes Black played a toy drum, health minister Eric Martin played mouth organ, highways minister “Flying” Phil Gagliardi played accordion, attorney-general Robert Bonner played trumpet, and Socred League president Noel Murphy played xylophone. Premier Bennett was out front, playing a violin. This probably wasn’t a reference to a Province cartoon that had portrayed Bennett as the Roman emperor Nero, playing fiddle while the masses danced around the burning bonds. The Sun’s Len Norris had drawn his own cartoon featuring Bennett as a tornado twirling out of the burning bond boat. He was labelled “The Twister.” The annual garden party went off as usual in the afternoon at the Bennett home on Ethyl Street. “Only tea to drink,” wrote St. Pierre. “Premier’s lips never touch glass containing alcohol.” Meanwhile, Kelowna city workers were loading 64 bundles of voided bonds onto the raft, which was made of logs lashed together with cable. At 5:30 p.m. the cabinet came by to be photographed loading the bonds themselves. “Labour minister Lyle Wicks in wet bathing suit,” noted St. Pierre. The cabinet then jumped into cars for a parade, which was followed by an aquatic show at Kelowna’s City Park. “One of the four events was a race in which four boys repre- sented the leaders — CCF leader Bob Strachan, Conservative Deane Finlayson, Liberal Ray Perrault and Premier Bennett,” Ben Metcalfe reported in The Province. “The boy premier won, because he was towed through the water by a hidden rope.” At darkness fell, Bennett boarded a launch with his cabinet and sped out to the raft, which was about 100 metres off shore. He picked up the bow, affixed an arrow, somebody lit it and he let it fly into the night. Alas, he missed, even though he was less than five metres away. “Flaming arrow hits logs, flies into air, falls into water,” said St. Pierre. “Makes sound like ‘fip’.” But the government had prepared for a malfunction by discreetly stationing a Mountie at the back of the raft. “Mountie on raft lights fuse,” wrote St. Pierre. “Retires swiftly. Just like it says on Chinese firecrackers.” The bonds went up in flames, and the crowd cheered. “As a new form of state theatre, it was something less than a success,” said Metcalfe in The Province. “But the cancelled $70,000,000 bond certificates were certainly burned.”