Former B.C. premier Bill Bennett died Thursday night in Kelowna, B.C., at age 83, his brother Russell has told CBC News.

Bennett had been suffering from Alzheimer's disease for several years.

Bennett succeeded his father, former premier W.A.C. Bennett as leader of the B.C. Social Credit Party in 1973 and was elected premier in 1975, defeating then New Democratic leader Dave Barrett.

His victory — and two re-elections — returned the conservative Social Credit Party to an era of political domination in the province that would last until the NDP was returned to power in 1991.

In a statement Friday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau paid his respects to the former B.C. premier.

"On behalf of all Canadians, Sophie and I offer our deepest condolences to the family and friends and colleagues of former British Columbia premier Bill Bennett," said Trudeau.

Trudeau described Bennett as a savvy politician and businessman who helped build the province and its reputation.

"He was a very capable and hard-working British Columbian who contributed enormously to his province and to our country. He will be remembered and honoured."

'He built his own legacy'

Reacting to news of Bennett's death on Friday, B.C. Premier Christy Clark said if there was one word associated with Bennett, it would be "builder."

"As the son of one of British Columbia's most iconic leaders, Bill Bennett not only emerged from his father's shadow — he built his own legacy," said B.C. Premier Christy Clark in a statement.

Clark said Bennett had a "natural, commanding presence" — the kind of person you couldn't help but notice when he entered the room.

"Throughout his career, he made an impression on people as a humble man, who believed in public service as a calling," she said. "He will be remembered as one of our greatest and most influential leaders."

Bennett's family spoke publicly about his battle with Alzheimer's in 2014, when longtime friend Charles Fipke pledged $9.1 million for research into the disease in the former premier's name.

'Ushered in modern era'

Bill bennett order of B.C.

Bennett received the Order of British Columbia in 2007, recognizing his work as a leader and builder in the province. (B.C. Government)

Bennett was honoured as a visionary and a builder in 2007 when he received the Order of British Columbia.

He was noted as the leader who brought Expo 86, the SkyTrain, the Vancouver Trade and Convention Centre and the Coquihalla Highway to B.C.

At the time, former premier Gordon Campbell praised Bennett as the man who "ushered us into the modern era."

When elected, Bennett had vowed to "get B.C.'s economy moving again," but he also zeroed in on the pocketbooks of virtually every British Columbian with measures such as a 40 per cent increase in provincial sales tax, a 140 per cent increase in premiums under the government's Autoplan insurance program and a 100 per cent increase in B.C. ferry fares.

In the early 1980s, Bennett gained a reputation as being hard-nosed after cutting thousands of jobs from B.C.'s public service despite massive protests from labour.

'He commanded tremendous loyalty'

Bennett's former cabinet colleagues remember him as a tough political fighter — but also funnier than the public may have known.

"A lot of people don't know this about him, because he had that dour look about him … but he was a very, very witty man," said Rafe Mair, who held the health and education portfolios in Bennett's cabinet, before becoming a well-known radio personality.

"We all would have crawled a mile on our hands and knees over broken glass for the guy. He commanded tremendous loyalty."

Former premier Bill Vander Zalm, who also served in Bennett's cabinet and succeeded him as premier,  remembers Bennett as an understanding and sympathetic leader.

"He was a very, very hard worker. Totally committed to the province and its well-being and its progress. And he did a super good job."

Former member of the B.C. Legislature David Mitchell, who wrote a book about B.C.'s Social Credit administrations after those of Bennett's father, has a different view of Bennett the younger.

"He was known as a tough guy. He was never loved. There was never strong affection for him, but in terms of public policy and the impact he had on the province he was one of the more significant premiers in B.C.'s history."

Retired undefeated

Bennett retired undefeated from politics in 1986, a year that saw British Columbia host the World Exposition, a key turning point for the province's international reputation.

But Bennett's post-political career was by no means uncontroversial. In 1996, the B.C. Securities Commission found Bennett and his brother Russell, known as R.J., guilty of insider trading in relation to a U.S. lumber company's unsuccessful attempt to take over Doman Industries.

The commission found that the Bennetts sold shares of the company in 1988 using information provided by Doman Industries president Herb Doman. In 1999, the securities commission ordered the Bennett brothers and Doman to pay the commission $1 million to cover the costs of the case. 

Bennett is survived by his wife of 60 years, Audrey, his brother Russell, four sons, eight grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

His family said in an obituary that Bennett cherished his time with them and had a quick wit and great sense of humour.

"Bill was competitive in all aspects of his life, whether in business, politics or the game he loved most — tennis," it said.

Corrections

  • A previous version of this story incorrectly said Bill Bennett had died on Friday. In fact, he died Thursday night.
    Dec 04, 2015 4:56 PM PT
With files from Jason Proctor, Belle Puri and The Canadian Press