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B.C.'s colourful campaigns

British Columbia has a proud tradition of bare-knuckle, drag-'em-out election campaigns. No other province can match B.C.'s flamboyant leaders, its salacious scandals and the trench warfare between free-enterprisers and socialists. Many of the hard-fought victories ended in resignation. CBC Archives takes a look back at campaign highlights going back as early as 1952.

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Election races in British Columbia are often unpredictable, raucous affairs featuring larger-than-life leaders. In this television clip, The Journal's Barbara Frum asks three experts to unravel the riddle of B.C. politics. Author Stan Persky admits B.C. provincial affairs "probably seem downright crazy to folks on the other side of the mountain." To him, the tradition is rooted in ancient class warfare between powerful owners of natural resources and workers in radical trade unions.

David Mitchell, a historian and former Liberal MLA, argues that what has made B.C. politics so unusual are the "dynamic, flamboyant," characters who have led their parties into battle. Former NDP premier Dave Barrett argues that B.C. has had "coalitions of power" instead of political parties. The coalitions have always battled for control of wealth-generating natural resources using "the best politicians money can buy." 
• British Columbia was ushered into Confederation with help from one of the more bizarre characters in Canadian political history. Nova Scotia-born William Alexander Smith was B.C.'s second premier, from 1872 to 1874. He served in the provincial legislature, and also as a federal MP, under the name Amor de Cosmos, or "lover of the universe." A newspaper owner known to cry in public, de Cosmos's eccentric behaviour led to him being declared insane in 1895.

• Another early premier, "Fighting Joe" Martin, got his nickname after getting into public fisticuffs with another lawyer.

• One of Martin's successors, Richard McBride, famously built a tiny B.C. navy in 1914 by buying two submarines without federal approval. The Canadian government subsequently bought the boats.

• Other colourful premiers include W.A.C. Bennett, Bill Vander Zalm and Glen Clark.

• Dave Barrett, featured in this clip, was the first socialist premier of British Columbia. A fiery stump speaker who often called himself "little chubby Dave," his NDP government lasted from 1972 to 1975.

• Barrett later became a radio talk show host. From 1988 to 1993, he was NDP MP for Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca. Many would include him on the list of colourful B.C. premiers.

• Between 1991 and 1999, three B.C. premiers - Social Credit's Bill Vander Zalm and the NDP's Mike Harcourt and Glen Clark - resigned amid scandal.

• "It's very tough. Politics in B.C. is a different business from anywhere else," Glen Clark said a year after his resignation. More than one party leader has called B.C. politics a "blood sport" where rival parties and reporters have no mercy.

• After Clark's resignation, Dan Miller, who became premier until the NDP chose its new leader, called the mid-term departures of three premiers in a row "crazy." He told the New York Times: "The biggest advantage that I have in this job is that I don't really want it."

• In 1999 Keith Martin, a B.C. Reform Party MP, blamed his province's political instability on the traditional polarization of left and right, or free-enterprisers and socialists. "It's such a ridiculous comedy, a tragic one given the potential we have here and how it's frittered away," he told the Toronto Star. "A sensible, professional moderate, fair, political leadership that deals with the best solutions to problems doesn't ever appear."
Medium: Television
Program: The Journal
Broadcast Date: April 2, 1991
Guest(s): Dave Barrett, David Mitchell, Stan Persky
Host: Barbara Frum
Duration: 6:09

Last updated: November 7, 2014

Page consulted on November 7, 2014

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