Iain Hunter: A tribute to B.C.’s fine NDP warrior

To the Hon. Dave Barrett. Please forward. Hello, Dave. It has been a long time.

The end of another summer seems an appropriate occasion to review what’s stored in a memory box that’s almost full. It’s usual to revive memories in obituaries, but mourning gives comfort to mourners, not the mourned.

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I’ve heard that you haven’t been your jolly self recently, and I want to say to you what I have to while I can.

You know, of course, that you did great and lasting things for your province during your public life, so I don’t have to list them. It was a year ago last Friday that, belatedly, you were awarded the Order of British Columbia.

You must know, too, that you did great and lasting things for so many who saw the human being behind the politician and were gladdened. I want you to know that I’m one of these.

When I joined the press gallery in Victoria, you were in often-tumultuous opposition to the Socreds and everything they stood for, or against.

I can’t remember how often I heard you, voice rising in indignation, try to wring sympathy from the shiny black suits across the aisle for the little old lady, living in one room, alone and on a diet of tea and toast, or any down-and-outer with nowhere to go but further down, further out.

That human concern, coupled with an irrepressible sense of fun, wasn’t enough to win you the New Democratic Party leadership, which Bob Strachan resigned in 1969, on your first try.

Strachan came into my room at the Hotel Vancouver on the eve of the leadership vote, pale and distraught. His heart told him to declare for you, he said, his voice shaking, but you were too much a “one-issue” candidate to win elections, so he was backing Bob Williams.

Tom Berger won the leadership, but his lecturing “now, look” style didn’t win the party the snap election that W.A.C. Bennett called for August. Berger resigned and you took over where you shouldn’t have left off.

That August election night — in 1972 — I was in a stuffy motel room in Ottawa, listening with a borrowed radio to the tally of fallen Socreds that marked your becoming premier.

You’d been sensing victory when I left, but sensed, too, that you’d probably not win another term, so should right as many wrongs as possible right off the bat. So you did, with 367 bills and not a little cheek, knowing that governments find undoing harder than doing.

In a non-partisan way, I was proud of you as a British Columbian when you came to Ottawa and summoned the province’s MPs — some actually came — to a hotel room to remind them where they came from.

I approved when you walked out of a federal-provincial conference and wouldn’t tell the snooty Globe and Mail reporters why until I, the Vancouver Sun’s man, got there. In a way you were as defensive of your province’s interests as Bennett was when railing over B.C.’s goblet being drained for Quebec.

Then there was the 1983 federal NDP “renewal” convention in Regina where your leader, Ed Broadbent, was proclaiming the electability of the party. I thought you distinguished yourself, now a leader in opposition in B.C., by telling delegates not to sacrifice principles to win seats in Ottawa.

The value of their party is as a “movement,” you told them. Broadbent glowered.

But in 1989 — oh, happy warrior — you offered to sacrifice yourself, now an MP, for the national leadership of your party.

And your party for some of the right reasons chose the wrong candidate in Audrey McLaughlin. For a then-impossible Quebec adventure, the party turned its back on you and an increasingly alienated West.

No matter. You hate Ottawa winters anyway.

But the one, big “issue” you’ve always pursued knows no seasons. Occasionally it takes a socialist horde with heart to disperse the artful dodgers — in office here again today.

Your compassion has always risen above your politics.

There can be no better qualification for public office, no greater value for a human soul.

Take care, Dave. God bless.

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