Updated

Bill Bennett remembered as premier who ushered B.C. into the modern era

As the son of a legendary premier, Bill Bennett had his work cut out for him as far as building a reputation of his own. But historians say the former premier more than succeeded as the man who brought Expo 86 and the Coquihalla Highway to B.C.

Historian says Bennett was very different to populist father, but left striking legacy of his own

Former British Columbia premier Bill Bennett, shown in this May 22, 1986 file photo, known as an architect of financial restraint in the province, has died in his hometown of Kelowna at the age of 83. (The Canadian Press)

As the son of one of British Columbian's best-known premiers, William Richards Bennett had his work cut out for him as far as establishing his own mark on the province.

But historian David Mitchell says the son was more than up to the task — even if the shadow of his father, W.A.C. Bennett, was never far away.

"Bill Bennett's rise to power, his desire to succeed an extraordinarily successful father and create the first significant family dynasty in Canadian politics is an extraordinary story," said Mitchell.

"He was one of the most important premiers in the province's history."

'Driven, stern sense of public service'

Mitchell says it's impossible to view the younger Bennett's accomplishments without considering the legacy of his father, who remains the province's longest serving premier.

W.A.C. Bennett served as premier from 1952 to 1972.

During that time, he presided over a boom in resource-based economic growth, building highways, dams, post-secondary institutions and Crown corporations like B.C. Ferries and BC Hydro.

Also known as 'Wacky' Bennett, W.A.C. Bennett was a populist. But Mitchell says his son was very different.

"Bill Bennett was the antithesis to that," said Mitchell. "He was never a natural politician. He had a driven, stern sense of public service."

B.C. Premier Christy Clark called Bill Bennett one of the province's greatest and most influential leaders.

In 1973, Bill Bennett won the Okanagan South seat vacated by his father. At the time, New Democratic premier Dave Barrett was at the province's helm.

Bennett coalesced conservative opposition to the NDP's policies, kicking Barrett out of office in 1975.

He would remain as premier until 1986, when he resigned, undefeated, as B.C. prepared to host the World Exposition, Expo 86.

Mitchell says Bennett tried to professionalize and modernize the public service. But he also ushered in an era of fiscal restraint which saw large-scale cuts to the public payroll.

Trade-unions and community groups responded to the cuts with massive public protests and the formation of the Solidarity movement. Mitchell calls that confrontation one of the "most dramatic showdowns in Canadian political history."

"He was a tough guy who ruled over the province and over the provincial government in Victoria with a very stern demeanour," he said..

"He left on his own steam. He was undefeated and unbowed. But unloved as well."

'He towers over all his successors'

One of Bennett's former cabinet ministers, Patrick McGeer, agrees with Mitchell's assessment of Bennett's importance, if not his appeal.

"He towers over all his successors," McGeer said. "He was careful with the public's money. Everything he did was exemplary. He made no major mistakes in being premier for over 10 years. And he left at the top of his game."

Another of Bennett's former cabinet ministers, legendary radio host Rafe Mair, says Bennett's dour exterior masked a great sense of humour.

"He was a very funny guy, but he didn't give that impression," Mair said. "He commanded tremendous loyalty and he deserved it."

Bennett's accomplishments included the construction of the SkyTrain system that remains at the heart of the Lower Mainland's transit network. He also built the Coquihalla highway.

Premier Christy Clark calls him one of the province's greatest and most influential leaders.

"Throughout his career, he made an impression on people as a humble man, who believed in public service as a calling." she said in a statement.

Princess Diana visited the U.K. pavilion at Expo '86 in Vancouver.

"What made him stand out was his focus, commitment to fiscal discipline, and vision for B.C.'s future."

Bennett stepped down as premier shortly after the opening of Expo 86, where he welcomed Prince Charles and Princess Diana to Vancouver. 

That event and that era still stands out for many British Columbians as the point at which — well before the 2010 Winter Olympics — B.C. took the international stage.

The era of the Bennetts

Bennett was succeeded as premier by Bill Vander Zalm, the first of two Social Credit leaders to preside over the party before it went down, mired in scandal, to humiliating defeat at the hands of the NDP in 1991. 

In retrospect, Mitchell says B.C.'s Social Credit era was largely that of Bennett father and son.

And unlike Justin Trudeau and his father Pierre, they ruled their party back to back, a feat that may never be seen again in Canadian politics.

B.C.'s Social Credit Party ultimately ceded the political right to the Liberals, who have been in power since 2001. But Clark has in many ways modelled herself on the achievements of both W.A.C. and Bill Bennett: as a populist and tough talker; a builder of dams and a champion of fiscal restraint.

Bennett's post-political career was by no means uncontroversial.

In 1996, the B.C. Securities Commission found the former premier and his brother guilty of insider trading in relation to a U.S. lumber company's unsuccessful attempt to take over a forestry company, Doman Industries.

The commission said the Bennetts sold shares of the company in 1988 using information provided by Doman Industries president Herb Doman. In 1999, the BCSC ordered the Bennett brothers and Doman to pay the commission $1 million to cover the costs of the 11-year case.

Bennett was honoured with the Order of British Columbia in 2007, at which time another former premier, Gordon Campbell, hailed him as the man who ushered B.C. into the modern era.

He spent the last years of his life battling Alzheimer's. But even in sickness, he inspired his friends, like philanthropist Charles Fipke, who donated $9.1 million to the University of B.C. in Bennett's name for research of the disease.

Clark says details will be forthcoming on how British Columbians can provide their own tributes to Bill Bennett.