Hugh Curtis was a classy politician who forged change in tough times

Hugh Curtis, former Saanich mayor and B.C. finance minister during the tumultuous restraint period in the 1980s, has died at age 81.

Curtis had cancer and was admitted to hospital 10 days ago; he passed away on Tuesday, said son Dave Curtis. “One of the things he was most proud of was that he was an elected official for 25 years and he never once was defeated.”

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In a 1969 interview, Curtis said he found elected life fascinating because of, “the ability to introduce change, to take the given situation and to work with others in improving it or in introducing a new approach to a problem.”

Bob Plecas, a former long-time B.C. deputy minister and author, said, “Hugh broke the ground on this in Canada — on being tough during tough fiscal times.”

Curtis was elected to the legislature in 1972 as a Progressive Conservative, switching to Social Credit in 1974.

He held a number of portfolios in the government of then-premier Bill Bennett, most notably spending seven years as B.C.’s second-longest serving finance minister, after W.A.C. Bennett.

Curtis was finance minister during B.C.’s 1983 restraint program, which fuelled the Operation Solidarity movement’s massive protests against government austerity measures, including public sector wage restraints and job losses.

The wage restraint program fell under Curtis’s ministry and Plecas was the policy adviser. “He certainly knew that he had to make the right decisions and he did. He was a good minister,” Plecas said.

Plecas defines a good minister as one who understands that their job is politics and doesn’t try to be a deputy minister, is decisive, will back you up, and is honest and open-minded.

Brian Smith, a former Social Credit cabinet minister, said he and Curtis used to meet regularly. “For quite some time, we were the two resident cabinet ministers from Victoria. We used to collaborate to try and protect things that were important to Victoria.” These included maintaining the Mill Bay ferry service and fighting the suggestion of a bridge to the mainland.

“He was a very, very classy guy in politics. He was rather formal,” Smith said.

Norman Ruff, University of Victoria professor emeritus, said Curtis, “played a key role at that point in B.C. politics when it looked like Social Credit was faltering.” When Curtis crossed the floor, along with some Liberal party members, that helped the Social Credit party rebuild as a coalition, he said.

Curtis had enormous influence in cabinet, Ruff said. He “was a partisan Conservative, but he never crossed the line and developed the sharp edge that mars a lot of what goes on in the legislature.”

Penelope Chandler, ministerial assistant to Finance Minister Mike de Jong, came to the B.C. legislature after working on a campaign for Curtis. “I would say that Hugh was one of nature’s gentlemen.”

Hugh Curtis was predeceased by his wife Sheila, and is survived by sons Gary and Dave, daughter Susan and four grandchildren.

Details of a service have not yet been announced.

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