British Columbia lost a larger-than-life figure last Friday. Dave Barrett was the son of Russian-Jewish immigrants, he grew up in the Commercial Drive neighbourhood of East Vancouver and became British Columbia’s first – and so far only – Jewish premier.
Though he led the province for just a little more than three years, his legacy was substantial. His New Democratic Party government – another first in B.C. history – created the Agricultural Land Reserve, the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia, strengthened labour laws and substantially reformed the welfare system. His government created Pharmacare, increased the minimum wage, created the air ambulance service, introduced French immersion in the B.C. school system, initiated consumer and human rights protection legislation and – not to be forgotten – banned pay toilets.
Author Tom Hawthorn, writing a few days ago in The Tyee, said that Barrett at the podium was “by turns a rabble-rousing firebrand, an Old Testament scold and a Borscht Belt comedian.”
He infuriated many on the right and some on the left, including trade unions whose refusal to back him in 1975 helped lead to his early defeat. He also made some enduring enemies in the Jewish community. In his last interview with the Independent, Barrett acknowledged that some never forgave him for recalling the legislature on Yom Kippur.
But his self-deprecating humour made him hard not to appreciate. He liked to tell the story about how a newspaper, during one of his election campaigns, hired an astrologer to assess his and his opponents’ characters. The seer declared that Barrett must be a passionate lover. In his nightly call home, as he retold the story, he asked his wife Shirley if she had seen anything interesting in the news that day.
“No, Dave,” she said, “just the same old lies.”
Barrett was a social worker by training and vocation, but he was elected to the B.C. legislature at the age of 30 and remained active in politics for the next 33 years. Though his victories were numerous, he was no stranger to political losses. He lost his first bid to become party leader in 1969, and lost his own riding when his government was defeated in 1975. He returned to Victoria through a by-election and led the party to two more defeats before retiring as party leader. But he was not done with elective office. In 1988, he was elected to Parliament and he ran for the leadership of the federal NDP, losing narrowly to Audrey McLaughlin. He lost his seat in the 1993 election and retired from politics.
He knew that his time in power could be short and he wanted to make the biggest impact he could. Barrett was a bold leader whose drive turned out to be part of his legacy and part of his undoing. He was a model of idealism, influenced in part by his family’s heritage. It was quite a life for a working-class Jewish kid from Commercial Drive.