Barrett transformed B.C.’s political scene
Province’s first NDP premier took steps that continue to reverberate decades later
To Social Credit Premier W.A.C. Bennett, this social worker turned politician symbolized the “socialist hordes,” a bête noir he energetically invoked for elections. Socialists would overthrow the bastions of free enterprise.
But in the fall of 1972, the bête noir proved a paper tiger and Dave Barrett proved a mesmerizing orator, his folksy style peppered with wisecracks about opponents and self-deprecating humour.
He offered a compelling counterpoint to the thin pronouncements of a visibly aging premier who had been in office for 20 years.
Barrett, running in Coquitlam, turned the legislature upside down.
On dissolution, the New Democratic Party was outnumbered 38 to 12. When the ballots were counted, 38 NDP candidates had been elected and Social Credit had dropped to 10. Two Progressive Conservatives and five Liberals rounded it out.
Not exactly Ten Days That Shook the World, as the Communist revolution in Russia had been described in 1917, but a stunning upset that shattered right-of-centre assumptions about the inevitability of power that had prevailed for the previous century.
Barrett then unleashed what writer Crawford Killian calls “legislation by thunderbolt.” It has been said that while in power, the NDP under Barrett passed a new law every three days, many of which still shape B.C.’s constitutional and political landscape almost half a century later.
The Agricultural Land Reserve, progressive labour laws, consumer legislation, a human rights code, neighbourhood pubs, community health centres and the B.C. Cancer Control Agency, SeaBus, an end to corporal punishment in schools, extending bargaining rights to provincial employees, Pharmacare, the Islands Trust, B.C. Day, Cypress Bowl, B.C. Children’s Hospital — all among the enduring innovations.
But Barrett couldn’t sustain his government’s momentum. He called a snap election in 1975 and was defeated, having enraged organized labour by legislating striking unions back to work.
Barrett was born in Vancouver on Oct. 2, 1930, to Samuel Barrett, a Jewish vegetable vendor, and Rose Hyatt, just as the world slid into the depths of the Great Depression. His parents were leftist political activists.
He attended Britannia High School, played rugby, was a bright but indifferent scholar and, at 18, enrolled at Seattle University, married, received a graduate degree in social work at St. Louis University, and then worked at Haney Correctional Institute until 1960 when he knocked-off a Social Credit cabinet minister in Dewdney.
After a spell as a federal MP, he retired from politics in 1993.
Barrett was named to the Order of Canada in 2005 and the Order of B.C. in 2012.