Bob Strachan a Leader Well Remembered

I think the poet Robert Browning was a little premature when he penned those immortal words: “Grow old along with me, the best is yet to be.” That one line gave generations of grey hairs the illusion the “golden age” was about to begin. However, he was only 77 when he died so he was still on the outer perimeter of life, walking on strong legs and able to tie his shoelaces as fast as an eyelash wink.

It’s after 80 for most of us that the body’s underpinning gets wobbly without the aid of a walker or a strong stick, and totally irrelevant thoughts bubble unprompted and unexplained to mind. This morning I woke up thinking clearly about an old friend first met in the Palace Hotel, Nanaimo, in 1953 and I had no idea what had triggered Bob Strachan from dark night shadows to bright morning memories.

And if you’re asking “Bob who?” I shall be delighted to tell you because Robert Martin “Bob” Strachan was the longest-serving leader (April 6,1956-April 12,1969) of the British Columbia Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) which later became the New Democratic Party (NDP).

Bob immigrated to Canada from Scotland and worked as a $10 a week farm labourer in Nova Scotia in the late 1920s before moving west to BC – first to Anyox, then Powell River and eventually the Nanaimo area. Always an active unionist, Bob had become head of the BC Brotherhood of Carpenters and Joiners of America.

He was elected MLA for the old riding of Cowichan-Newcastle in 1952 and won eight elections in a row – four for the CCF and four for the NDP before retiring from politics in 1975, the year he was appointed BC’s agent-general to the UK. He had been the leader of the party since April 6, 1956, and had won a significant membership challenge to his leadership in 1967 but stepped down a year later to clear the way for up and coming brilliant lawyer Tom Berger  – the man he had defeated in the membership vote – to now inherit the leader’s mantle and lead the party in the next election..

The NDP membership went into the general election of 1969 with a huge expectation that Berger, having replaced the strong trade unionist carpenter, would convince the electorate to take a chance on the moderate intellectual lawyer.

The membership was wrong. The NDP not only lost the election; it lost Berger its new leader in Vancouver-Burrard. Three years later, Dave Barrett finally led the NDP to the promised land of government for one short term in office before being defeated in 1975 by Bill Bennett’s Social Credit coalition.

It would be 1991 before the NDP was given a second chance with Mike Harcourt at the helm. By then, memories of the Scottish carpenter, who had died in 1981 of lung cancer, were fading.

As noted earlier I first met Bob in 1953 when I was sports editor, sports reporter, court reporter, general reporter and reporter of anything else that didn’t have a title. I was introduced to him by Frank Crane who was deeply involved in hockey and the BC Liberal Party. I can no longer remember who had the office on the second floor of the Palace; just that it was where I first met Bob on a hot summer’s day and got my first taste of political reporting. They really were different days; not necessarily “good old days,” just different. Bob and Frank discussed politics calmly and challenged without rancour each other’s views.

I was just fresh out from England myself so, apart from the normal conversational insults traded between Scots and Sassenachs, we had lots in common. When I eventually moved on from Nanaimo it would be the start of close to a decade of travel through Port Alberni, Penticton, Edmonton and finally Victoria where Bob was Minister of Transport and Communications and responsible for the Insurance Corporation of BC (ICBC). He was basically packing up and getting ready for his two-year stint as agent-general in London.

I never did get to ask him whose office it was at the Palace on Skinner Street – his or Frank Crane’s – or to thank him for those early insights on how people can be unfalteringly opposed to another’s point of view but always with respect.

David Mitchell’s book W.A.C. Bennett and the Rise of British Columbia gives a thumbnail description of the times I’m remembering: “Relatively speaking, these were genteel days when the power of politics in British Columbia could be exercised in an atmosphere free from the poisonous clouds of excessive partisanship and polarization. During legislative sessions, for instance, Bennett and Strachan, or as they addressed one another, ‘Mr. Premier’ and ‘Mr. Leader of the Opposition’ would have a weekly cup of tea together.”

Maybe reading that again is what brought “Strach” back from wherever he’s been hiding in my grey matter, just to remind me to remind you to remind your local politicians – if they need reminding – that debate can be biting but doesn’t have to be bitter.

And if you are wondering what a trade union man and leader of a socialist political party was doing with an office or at least a meeting place in a Palace Hotel, wonder no more. Nanaimo’s “Palace” was built in 1889 during the economic surge following completion of the Esquimalt and Nanaimo Railway and expansion of No.1 coal mine.

It was one of several similar establishments offering a pub and place to eat and socialize on the ground floor with sleeping accommodation on a second floor. Described as “handsome and ornate” in the 1800’s it still functions today as “The Palace Hotel” on a bend in the narrow lane called Skinner Street.

Its homepage describes it as a “club”, its exterior ablaze with neon lights advertising coming events and an ideal place to party. There is no sign of the upstairs window – always open on summer afternoons – at which I was privileged to sit and listen and learn.

“Comments” on the Palace website would indicate that its original offer of quiet “seclusion” no longer applies.

One comment

  1. Imagine a premier and the Opposition leader taking tea together! That’s missing in politics today throughout the world.

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