It was described as the time in British Columbia when a “tyranny of the minorities” shook the foundations of traditional government in Canada’s golden west.
It was 1983. In charge was Premier Bill Bennett, the son of W.A.C. Bennett, who had held the premiership for 20 years before his defeat in the election of 1972 by the NDP’s Dave Barrett.
These were not happy times for Premier Bennett as the world began to shiver in the first months of the great recession of the 1980s. He had defeated Barrett in 1975, but only by a narrow five seat (31-26) margin. That victory, great though it had been for Bennett, the younger, was losing its roseate hue in the spring of ‘83 as world markets trembled, and provincial governments across Canada became targets for blame.
On April 7th, the premier had called a general election to be held May 5th and the only happy campers at the time were New Democrats who were delighted to fan flames fueled by ever-tightening government spending. To Premier Bennett’s credit, he didn’t waver from the central plank in his re-election platform: “Restraint.”
But, the people seemed to be resisting. A new movement took shape, borrowing its name from the famed Polish Solidarity movement that drove Moscow-dominated Communism from Poland and eventually picked dockyard worker Lech Walesa to lead the nation.
At its peak, BC’s Solidarity movement could organize protests numbering a dozen or so people in a village hall to a claimed record of 60,000 plus in Vancouver. There were mass protests all over the province. One with 45,000 protesters marching in a never-ending circle around the Hotel Vancouver where the ruling Social Credit Party was meeting in convention; another in Victoria with 6,000 rallying at Victoria’s old Memorial Arena plus a crowd of 20,000 to 40,000 – depending on who was counting – at the Legislature.
Talk on the hustings before voting day had convinced Dave Barrett there was a block of support to be garnered from voters who were convinced Bennett was being unduly harsh in his restraint measures and his promise for more of the same if he were re-elected.
With a couple of weeks to go before voting day, Barrett announced that, if elected, he would cancel Bennett’s restraint program and re-open the purse strings to restore rich spending. Much later, he would admit that his promise to end restraint was not his wisest political decision. For sure it was premature although Solidarity didn’t hit full stride until after Bennett’s new government took office and Finance Minister Hugh Curtis revealed the new, very lean, budget – and on the same day 26 major pieces of restraint legislation were introduced and given first reading.
I have been reminded of those tumultuous days recently, although recent protests at the Legislature and other government offices and outlets have been tame when compared with Solidarity and its coalition of trade unions. The objectives of both are similar: They object to the way government is handling various problems and want changes made to accommodate their agenda.
In September 1983, The Vancouver Sun – a voice commanding attention in those days – described the Solidarity movement as “Premier Bennett’s ‘tyranny of the minorities … a coalition of unions … an alliance of community groups … headed by an administrative committee … (also) a 30-man steering committee and 49 coalition associations across BC. The difficulty of keeping Solidarity’s parts together is exacerbated by its schizophrenic political personality …”
I have no idea how or who organized the more recent motley crew of protesters blocking doorways and preventing government workers from servicing taxpayers, and I doubt if they could tell me if I asked. But I think they qualify for inclusion in The Sun’s 1983 definition of “tyrants among minorities”.
All they demonstrate to me when I watch their vacant shouting on TV is that they are not yet ready to govern. And it could be some time before they are.
(Readers seeking fascinating details of the historical midnight meeting at the Bennett ranch will find 235 pages of them in the book: “Bill Bennett – A Mandarin’s View by Bob Plecas ” who, to save a question, is not related to Legislature Speaker Plecas.