Month: September 2020

It’s Not Political It’s ?????!

As long as we remember why British Columbia has – or had until last Monday – a legislated four-year general election date, we should also remember who made the sound decision to set the fixed election date in October.

The change from May to October was all about good governance. NDP Attorney General David Eby said: “Moving the fixed election date to the fall will leave time for a February budget to be debated and passed and year-end public accounts to be passed in July, which provides greater transparency and accountability.”

That was less than three years ago when a hobbled government, flying a patched NDP flag of dubious authority, was happy to negotiate in harmonious years of governmental stability.

With the pledged support of three Green Party MLAs, the Lieutenant Governor of the day had felt New Democrats were in a stronger position to govern than the Liberal Party which, although winning one seat more than the New Democrats, lacked Green support and could face defeat on any vote.

So, the Confidence and Supply Agreement 2017 promised sweetness, light, and harmony in the Legislature. Solemnly signed by NDP and Green leaders, things went fairly well for a while. 

There were uneasy times. For a while, the grand old Legislature rattled, as ever, with old fashioned rhetoric and anger, but it was mostly focused on the scandalous charges against a few public servants and was finally swept from public interest by the headline-grabbing threat of COVID-19.

By and large, things were moving along nicely for the minority government. Among its mini-triumphs was the sensible one about fixed election dates. For years the NDP, especially during the W.A.C. Bennett years, had complained about premiers who called elections when most expedient for the party and devil take the electorate. In W.A.C.’s day, the government’s mandate was for five years. Later it dropped to four, often shouted about, and occasionally tossed into public forums for debate with little done by way of change. W.A.C.’s favourite election time call was shortly after the introduction of beneficial legislation.They were unashamedly called at plotically opportune times.

Suggestions for change were always around and debated but no major changes were made until Premier Horgan’s government introduced legislation that would change existing dates from May to October and lock elections into a firm date for all future provincial general elections. They would be held “on the third Saturday in October in the fourth calendar year following the general voting day for the most recently held general election.”

Its unanimous approval was welcomed as proof that intelligent politicians could unite when a new statute so obviously served the common good.

It was gold stars all round until last Monday when Premier Horgan announced a snap election in October – a year earlier than the law states. The announcement was greeted with derision by political columnists in the Vancouver Sun (Vaughn Palmer) and Times Colonist (Les Leyne). Horgan blustered that his election call was not “political,” just strictly non-partisan and made necessary by a legislature slipping back into partisan ways. He said he needed a stronger majority to be able to fight the current battle to tame COVID-19.

Palmer described that reasoning as a “thigh slapper,” the colloquialism usually reserved for vaudeville. Leyne bluntly labelled Horgan’s announcement a “double-double cross.” 

Some thoughts come to mind, although I quickly confess I’m far removed from the trenches where the battle is being fought. That said:

1. Why did the Premier choose a quiet suburban street for his TV election announcement? To show he’s just an ordinary citizen – or to avoid a protest on the steps of the Legislature where his non-political election call would have been greeted with the raucous laughter it deserved?

2. The Greens have a new leader, Sonia Furstenau. She was just elected leader this month. Married, with children, she is completing her rookie term as MLA. Is Premier Horgan gambling she will crumble on the hustings with Green Party faithful flocking back to the NDP they abandoned when the Greens offered a more reasonable path to reach their conservation aims? Premier Horgan was quick to place blame for recent signs of unrest on the current Green-NDP agreement. When election rumours began swirling, it was Furstenau who suggested an election now would not be the best of choices. The premier responded like the Horgan of old – petulant that someone dared to say he was making a bad decision.

3. Could he be a little scared that he has made a bad call which will cost the NDP votes? Furstenau does have a confident posture in public and presents her views calmly and intelligently. She wouldn’t be the first underdog to score a major election upset.

And, should fate twist the election in that direction, Premier Horgan won’t be the first big name politician to pray, when destiny fails him: “O, call back yesterday, bid time return.”

A Needed “Safety Procedure”

I think we can excuse BC Premier John Horgan his brief flash of temper a few days ago when he lamented “an unwelcome intrusion by the federal government” into the provincial fight to control the COVID-19 pandemic.

He does have a lot of other issues on his first minister’s plate more challenging to resolve than a decision by Transport Canada to restore a standard public safety procedure that bans automobile drivers from remaining with their vehicles once parked and secured onboard a BC Ferries vessel for a journey time longer than 30 minutes.

Back in May, it was felt that by “self-isolating” car drivers for the always busy 90-plus minute runs between Vancouver Island and Greater Vancouver, ferry travellers could make an impact in the battle to “flatten the curve.”

Transport Canada, the regulatory body for such matters, agreed to give it a try. Back in May, it lifted the rule ordering car drivers and any passengers to vacate their vehicle and retire to an upper deck for the voyage. With “self-isolating” in place, automobile drivers have been able to snug down once parked, and nap, snack on homemade sandwiches, read a good book, or, if duty called, catch up on a little office work.

Complaints were minimal until early August when someone remembered why drivers had been banned from the lower car decks in the first place. The regulation was imposed years ago as “a safety measure.” What better time of the year than August to recall it was on the second day of that summer month in1970 that we were reminded that our ferries were not immune from the perils of the sea.

On August 2, 1970, the unthinkable happened in Active Pass – the narrow scenic passage between the Gulf Islands linking the mainland port of Tsawwassen and Swartz Bay on Vancouver Island. The weather was fine, the tide near slack. At around 11 a.m., the newest vessel in the BC Ferries fleet, the Queen of Victoria, en route to Swartz Bay with a relatively light load of 500 passengers and 150 vehicles, signalled its position by whistle and radio and requested a response from nearby traffic.

There was no radio response as the ferry navigated the twisting channel and was confronted by a Russian freighter, the Sergey Yesinin, bound for Vancouver with a full cargo of steel. Regulations of the day demanded freighters obtain clear rights of passage through the pass and at cautious speed. A subsequent inquiry established the Russian ship did not have permission to transit Active Pass and was travelling at high speed when it rammed the ferry midship.

The ship’s owners accepted full responsibility for the crash that saw the Sergey Yesinin knife into the port side of the ferry crushing to death three passengers. One, a 17-year-old girl from Allendale, New Jersey, standing near the main deck rail, presumably watching the almost touchable Gulf Island scenery float by. Below her on the car deck, George Hammond and his wife Ann, having opted to stay with their car for the journey, were attending to their restless seven-month-old son, Peter. Mr. Hammond had just lifted the baby from their Volkswagen and passed the child to his mother when the freighter struck. The baby was killed instantly. Mrs. Hammond was taken to hospital by Coast Guard hovercraft but died from her injuries.

At time of writing, Transport Canada appears to have made no response to Premier Horgan’s outrage that on September 30, the old “safety requirement” will be reinstated on three Greater Vancouver to Vancouver Island routes as well as between Comox and Powell River, and Tsawwassen and the southern Gulf Islands. Drivers will again be ordered to leave their vehicles and travel on the upper decks, better able to escape a similar or worse disaster that we pray will never occur.

I’m hoping Transport Canada adheres to its “safety requirement.” It is a regulation in place to lessen the chance of bad things happening. It’s not unlike the “buckle up and live” legislation we used to hate when seat belts laws were introduced and were initially considered such a nuisance.

Next time you are muttering about leaving your vehicle to languish upstairs on your ferry ride, take a moment to remember Active Pass 50 years ago and a moment of unanticipated terror that took the lives of travelers below decks – and could have been so much worse.

A Summer of Discontent and Birth of an International Star

The summer of 1979 was not the happiest for the members of the BC Legislative Assembly, and it was made more acrimonious by the debate to establish the municipality of Whistler. They had argued their way through most of July and were now, reluctantly and acrimoniously, on the verge of violating the time-honoured adjournment of the House for the sacred holiday month of August.

Traditionally, politicians would be in their home ridings playing host to family visitors or vacationers in the thousands, flocking west to seek a mountain to climb, a lake to fish or a Pacific Ocean beach to dream on. But not this year; not this summer, as they gathered each weekday – sometimes morning, afternoon and evening – to hammer out new laws they hoped would please the people. And each evening, the MLAs with young families would be reminded that summer was fleeting fast; the opportunities to build a sandcastle or two with son or daughter soon to be lost.

Historically in the Legislative chamber, government and opposition MLAs sit two sword lengths apart to make sure attacks are verbal only. Debate rules are supposed to confine discourse to courteous language, but that is a convention rarely enforced by the Speakers. As such, Hansard – the source of my research and verbatim record of everything spoken in the House in session and relatively new in the BC Legislature in the 1970s – had become a receptacle for far too rarely erudite English but many a spiteful phrase.

And so it is in 2020 – with a frightening pandemic tugging our souls; with fires, floods, high winds and an always pending “Big One” threatening; with daily newspapers and their reduced news diet of gruel so thin even Oliver Twist wouldn’t ask for more; and with our ration of political pottage, sporadic and lacking in “coherent content” – I turn to an old 1975 BC Legislature Hansard for a look at MLAs facing another day without the distraction of a pending family outing.

Here I find Dave Barrett sticking needles into Alan Williams, then MLA for West Vancouver-Howe Sound and Minister of Labour in Bill Bennett’s Social Credit government. (Under House rules, Dave can’t name another member, only the riding he represents). So, he says: “My very long fellow member … once a Liberal and now a Socred – politically re-born, having seen the light of A plus B and now Minister of Labour, sanctimonious to the nth degree – this secret closet Socred who nurtured his whole political career … (while) waiting to burst forth as a butterfly in the Social Credit cabinet …”

Earlier in his dissertation, Dave had referred to the member from Yale-Lillooet as a “commie pinko.” No one knew what on earth was meant by the slur, but Minister of Forests Tom Waterland, a quiet-spoken chap, was chuffed enough, and unwise enough to ask the Speaker to request an apology and withdrawal because he found it “very offensive to be referred to as any kind of socialist.”

And Dave, never one to miss a proffered target, found it hard to hold back a grin as he responded without hesitation: “On behalf of all socialists, I withdraw the remark.”

Here are a few thoughts on the debate I cherry-picked as a change of pace from COVID-19 and life’s other continuing disasters. The debate centred on the Resort Municipality of Whistler, a community that was an amazing BC story. Having been present on site as the first roads were being shaped and having been there for many events before it became a municipality moving towards international status, I’m an unabashed admirer of the jewelled community.

It’s a story I hope to tell more fully before being called for my big sleep. The debate recorded in Hansard that I have referred to was bad-tempered and ill-mannered. The “special resort municipality” legislation was debated and condemned by the NDP in every way, shape, and form. But it was not originally a Social Credit government idea. That honour belongs to the NDP’s Minister of Municipal Affairs Jim Lorimer, who placed the idea on the table during Dave Barrett’s brief tenure as premier. The NDP government lost power before it could be developed further. When the Socreds took over with Bill Bennett at the helm, the creation of a “special resort municipality” was dusted off. It was embellished, polished and brought back, centre stage, on the legislative agenda.

Hansard records that one of the first things Alan Williams did when the debate reached its most strident pitch was to congratulate Lorimer “for his earlier foresight” in introducing the “special resort municipality”  thinking the Opposition NDP  now attacked as a betrayal of democratic rights.

The legislation survived; so has democracy and Whistler continues to prosper.

Union Made and Keeps us Strong

There was a time when Labour Day, which occurred in spring every year, featured long public parades of craftsmen and tradesmen proudly celebrating their skills and services. But that was back in the 1800s, usually early in May, with the festive day ending with a community picnic, political speeches praising the workers, games and competitions, and the picnic dominated by home cooking.

By the end of the 1800s, the May festivals began to develop as a trade union celebration, usually organized to follow annual labour movement conventions held in New York in early September. By 1872, the American Federation of Labor and the Knights of Labor (with the US spelling of “Labor” carefully noted) were actively organizing the first Monday in September as the day preferred to put organized labour on proud display.

Canadian branches of both organizations followed suit. Toronto was on board in 1882; Hamilton and Oshawa joined a year later in ‘83. Montreal followed in 1886; St. Catharines, ’87; Halifax ‘88; Ottawa and Vancouver 1890; and London, Ontario in 1892.

Together in organized strength, 50 labour organizations began in 1894 to lobby their national governments for recognition of an annual “labour day.” The Royal Commission on the Relations of Labour and Capital in Canada (1886-89) had already recommended Ottawa establish a “labour day.” In May 1894, Prime Minister John Thompson introduced legislation calling for a review of the established May holiday, but the House declined the opportunity and, without debate, passed an amended holiday law establishing the first Monday in September as Labour Day.

It received Royal Assent on July 21, 1894. A short time later, the United States recognized the same dates for Labour Day – or, as they would insist, Labor Day.

The decision to designate a national holiday to specifically honour organized labour may seem a penny-ante issue requiring simple decisions when compared with today’s existing international affairs and the problems that shimmer and threaten. But, think for a moment back to the times when the “labouring classes,” working for a lot less than a living wage, were growing restless.

Big business was aware of the restlessness, but not willing to do much about it. In fact, it was not willing to do anything that might cause a reduction in their profits. A day off work – without pay, of course – wouldn’t be too bad if it kept the galley slaves happy. And, if a parade, a few games and a picnic were thrown in and it was called Labour Day … well, no problem. Crumbs from the rich man’s table could always be provided.

Big business made the concessions – and fought every step of the way, going forward with challenges that organized labour met and conquered. The battle in the 1800s for a day called “Labour Day” was but a skirmish in the perennial struggle between labour and management; however, along the way, the workers learned the true meaning of one of their oft- used slogans – “the union makes us strong.”

And, management learned how strong the labour movement was when those managers took a moment to see what happens when the men and women working in the engine rooms of commerce are mistreated.

It was in St. Petersburg in 1905 that four members of a small legally-formed trade union sought to present a petition to the Czar protesting the firing of the four workers. They were joined by several hundred protesters who, by all eye witness accounts, marched peacefully until riflemen opened fire and sabre wielding Cossacks swept through the marchers leaving 200 dead and many wounded.

It was 1905 – some 12 years before March 8, 1917, when the Czar turned his military on a crowd pleading for food. They slaughtered 1,300 before defecting en masse and joining the rebels in revolution to complete the overthrow of the Czar and his government and create what became the Soviet Union.

In our corner of North America, labour and management reflected on the revolution and chose a different course, albeit not always a peaceful one. Historically, government officials, management and union leaders stand guilty of bad decisions, which led to bloodshed, death and injustice.

But, by and large, we haven’t done too badly and can be justly proud of celebrating another Labour Day, still together, even if we celebrate a bit nervously this year with violence and death common place and threatening worse.