I never knew Dave Barrett well. Better than most by the nature of my work as a political columnist I suppose, but never in the trusted friends group where ideals and beliefs are shared.
Over the years our conversations were many, but often not on politics. Our relationship was friendly with the exception of one or two pyrotechnic spectaculars. As I mentioned, we were not friends in the deepest sense of the word, but we were friends enough for me to feel saddened at the news of his death and guilty that I had made no attempt to contact him in the past two years.
It is an old failing of mine, leaving it too late to make a phone call or write a note to let someone know they were well remembered. In the case of Dave Barrett, for whom I always had great respect, I genuinely missed our brief if sometimes brittle exchanges and said a hundred times “I’ll write tomorrow” but never did.
Many of our conversations began as questions asked a politician by a newspaper columnist, but quickly drifted sideways to more important things. That’s the way it was one April morning in 1973 when I visited his newly acquired Premier’s Office to ask him about his latest appointment of a stalwart member of the NDP to a well paid staff job.
He gave me the Barrett stare across his desk: “Who were you expecting me to appoint – a Social Credit guy or a Liberal?” With the question answered we moved on to family matters. He asked how my sons were doing and I reported that one of them – Andrew, 17, – was languishing in Jubilee Hospital recovering from a serious knee injury acquired during an out-of-bounds rugby tackle a few days earlier.
A rugby player himself, Dave wanted all the details and asked me to convey best wishes. When a few hours later I dropped by Royal Jubilee to do just that, Andrew greeted me with a face-wide grin and “Guess what? I’ve just received a get well note from Premier Barrett!” With a proud flourish he produced a hand-written note expressing regret for the injury and wishing Andrew a full and speedy recovery. It also included a few cheeky references only another rugby player would appreciate. The note which immediately banished all teenage depression, had been delivered by hand within minutes of my leaving the Premier’s Office.
I mention this because it was typical Dave Barrett. He recognized a need and instinctively knew he could do something about it, and he did. He acted on his good intentions.
At times over the next three years, he sometimes acted too precipitately on larger issues and it cost him and his party dearly at the polls. In a little less than three years, the Barrett administration approved 357 bills and in the wave of sympathy following his death on February 2, a stranger to our shores could be forgiven for thinking Dave deserved recognition for them all. He would have been the first to point out that although he led the NDP to victory in August 1972, he had some highly talented foot soldiers in the ranks.
There are several versions of what happened when he called his first cabinet meeting – including one which has him sliding down the long, polished, conference table to its head. It is not the story Dave told me when, years ago, I asked him how that first meeting went.
“Í got everybody sitting down and said ‘okay, what the hell do we do now?’…and Ernie Hall (MLA for Surrey and newly sworn Provincial Secretary) boomed out ‘we prepare an agenda.’ And we did.”
There was an impressive array of political talent around the table despite being devoid of “governing” experience … Eileen Dailly, Bob Strachan, Leo Nimsick, Dave Stupich, Dennis Cocke, Colin Gabelmann, Bill King, Harold Steves, Rosemary Brown, Norm Levi, Gary Lauk, Alex Macdonald, Bob Williams, Phyllis Young to name a few of the better known.
Of that group, seven were (my choices) super star cabinet ministers – Dailly, education; Cocke, health; Stupich, agriculture; King, labour; Levi, social services; MacDonald, attorney general; and Bob Williams, lands and forests. They were the first string, the core of the Barrett team who moved with the highest ideals, but sometimes too far and too fast. King, Cocke and Williams would have stood tall in any cabinet.
They achieved much and Dave Barrett led them with courage and high ideal – if not always wisely. We still owe him, as we owe his widow Shirley for the years she and their children encouraged and supported his service to “the people.” They walked with him through the darkness of Alzheimer’s to his final rest in what Christina Rossetti describes as “the silence more musical than any song.”
Our thanks are not enough.