1498 A politician for all seasons

Using Power Well: Bob Williams and the Making of British Columbia
by Bob Williams with Benjamin Isitt and Thomas Bevan

Gibsons: Nightwood Editions, 2022
$22.95  /   9780889714243

Reviewed by Ron Verzuh

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A Man for All Political Seasons: meet the creator of ICBC, the land reserve and an improved Downtown Eastside

If B.C. ever had a man for all political seasons, it was probably Bob Williams, the ambitious second-in-command during the dynamic and at times raucous New Democratic Party government of Premier Dave Barrett in the early 1970s. Don’t agree? It would be hard to argue otherwise after perusing this very readable account of a life spent in public service, and yet there are contrary views.

Bob Williams, 89, uses his memoir to reflect on a long list of accomplishments. He maps out his early career as a scrappy Vancouver east side city councillor, describing his successful efforts to improve the working-class community of his roots. His tireless pressure on the right-wing city council, one that tended to favour developers, led to the greening of the community.

He then takes us through the three years of the first NDP government under his friend Dave Barrett, probably still the most popular premier in B.C. history. These were productive times, unhindered by too much interference. As Williams notes, “the bureaucracy was very thin. [Social Credit Party premier] W.A.C. [Bennett] didn’t believe in it.” Apparently, neither did Williams. Instead, he hired “outsiders and consultants … who were used to getting things done unlike the public service then and now.”

The British Columbia New Democratic Party legislative caucus, 1967. Bottom row, L-R: Randolph Harding, Bob Strachan, Eileen Dailly, Bill Hartley, Leo Nimsick. Top row, L-R: Frank Calder, Fred Vulliamy, Dave Stupich, Tom Berger, Ray Parkinson, Dave Barrett, Bob Williams, Ernest Hall, Alex MacDonald, Rae Eddie. Courtesy University of British Columbia Library, Rare Books and Special Collections, Dave Barrett Collection, BC 1964/24
Bob Williams, aged 15 and a student at Britannia Secondary School, East Vancouver, c. 1948. Bob Williams Collection

Memoirs, particularly political ones, usually promise to expose some dirty laundry and Williams’ account is no exception. Much of it concerns the Socreds, especially the Bennetts, W.A.C. in the 1950s and 1960s followed by his son Bill Bennett in the 1970s. These were the facilitators of the modern robber baron era of B.C. Williams reveals the corruption and corporate giveaways that occurred, what Williams calls “a catalogue of abuse and privilege attached to the aging Socred government.”

But some of his own party colleagues also feel the sting of his long memory. Former B.C. premiers Mike Harcourt and Glen Clarke are among them. Williams slaps Clarke’s hand for bowing to “the province’s corporate power elite.” For this, suggests Williams, Clarke was bought off, becoming “boss of a vast business empire for Jimmy,” millionaire Jim Pattison.

It was Harcourt who signed the deal for the Fast Cat ferries that turned into a fiasco during Clarke’s government. If Williams was involved, he doesn’t say. In fact, he does not dwell on failure. This is a book of successes and lost opportunities rather than failures and, although Williams shows humility at times he sees himself as a man of and for the people, he was also a power-driven entrepreneur.

Bob Williams, aged 19, during a summer job with the BC Forest Service in Manning Park, 1952. Bob Williams Collection

Mr. Justice Thomas Berger, who was party leader in 1969, defeating Barrett at a leadership convention, is scolded as “intellectual cool” and “a little too arrogant.” But others receive high praise. Former Kootenay MLA and cabinet minister Corky Evans is lauded for his fight to save B.C. forests from environmental devastation.

Interestingly, Williams has also been called arrogant and brash. Some of the younger volunteer workers remember leaving the NDP because they saw Williams as a man in a hurry who didn’t care about their views. And the memoir does suggest that Williams was not stopping to seek their advice. It was full speed ahead and damn the torpedoes, an approach that did not resonate well with those who were shunted aside.

Memoirs can also reveal some secrets of success. In Williams’ case it was partly his belief in the “economic rent” philosophy of 19th-century American economist Henry George who argued for the public collection of rent on public land and resources. George thought such a “single tax” would solve most of society’s problems.

Advertisement of candidates endorsed by the Vancouver and District Labour Council in the 1964 Vancouver municipal election. The Labor Statesman (Vancouver), November 1964

Williams had George’s Poverty and Progress on hand as he forged new ground with the Insurance Corporation of B.C., VanCity Credit Union, the Agricultural Land Reserve and numerous building projects across the province. His entrepreneurial reach stretched to Bologna, Italy, and St. Petersburg, Russia, where he sought investment opportunities.

As a city councillor, MLA, minister, and super-bureaucrat, Williams had a hand in almost every project initiated by the Barrett government, including the Columbia River Trust, a deal that would share money from the dams with the public. It was this attitude that epitomized Barrett’s famous edict to corporate exploiters: share the wealth or we’ll leave it in the ground. It was Georgism, in action.

Bob Williams in Victoria Harbour on the inaugural sailing to mark the renewal of service of the Princess Marguerite, a former CPR vessel  acquired by the NDP government in 1975 to maintain ferry service between Victoria and Seattle. Bob Williams Collection
Bob tends the garden at his cottage on Hornby Island, ca. 1990. Bob Williams Collection

“If I wasn’t a man in the tradition of the European social democrats.” Williams says, “I was one hell of a Red Tory.” It’s a description that explains Williams’s ability to work both sides of the aisle and not always to the satisfaction of all the players, including some union leaders. Williams was a team player, but he liked to be the leader of the team and he was a strict taskmaster who could quickly assess people’s abilities and weaknesses.

Mike Harcourt was “a pretty conventional liberal,” he writes, and “there had always been a slight coolness” between them. I suspect “slight” might have been an underestimate. The memoir is so full of Williams’s accomplishments that it’s hard to imagine they didn’t happen without some monumental backroom battles with premiers, not to mention hidebound bureaucrats.

NDP stalwarts like Dave Stupich, Bob Strachan, Yvonne and Dennis Cocke (pronounced coke: “the Cocke machine”) and others – he calls the first Barrett cabinet the “dirty dozen” – are candidly discussed for their strengths and weaknesses. If there were failed projects where Williams was involved, they do not get broad coverage here.

Pragmatic, risk-taking, innovative, that’s how one long-time NDP watcher described Williams to me. But he also added, “Bob had a little bad guy in him.” Ambitious is another one-word description that seems apt. So does iconoclast. Perhaps he comes by that quality honestly. After all, he is the grandson of Bill Pritchard, the iconoclastic socialist who joined the Winnipeg General Strike.

In writing his memoir, Williams is ably assisted by Benjamin Isitt, a noted Victoria historian, and Thomas Bevan, a former Williams colleague at the University of British Columbia. Working with a set of hand-written notes from hours of interviews, they shaped the text as they “endeavoured to retain Bob’s voice and focus.”

In their introduction, Isitt and Thomas call Williams “an enigma and a contradiction from the standpoint of ideology and working-class politics, defying conventional interpretations from liberalism to Marxism and beyond.” Williams was all of that and more and B.C. benefitted from his adventurous social democratic entrepreneurism, becoming a better place for his efforts.

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Ron Verzuh

Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian and documentary filmmaker whose  short film Joe Hill’s Secret Canadian Hideout discusses the possible appearance of Hill in RosslandHis latest book, Smelter Wars: A Rebellious Red Trade Union Fights for its Life in Wartime Western Canada (University of Toronto Press, 2022), is reviewed by Bryan D. Palmer, and an earlier book, Codename Project 9: How a Small British Columbia City Helped Create the Atomic Bomb (2018), is reviewed by Mike Sasges. Editor’s note: Ron Verzuh’s work has appeared in The British Columbia Review since it was founded in 2016. He has contributed an essay on trade unionist Harvey Murphy and has recently reviewed books by Larry Gambone, Terry GainerMarilyn KrieteMichael NeitzelPeter J. Smith, and Chad Reimer. Ron lives in Victoria.

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The British Columbia Review

Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

Formerly The Ormsby Review, The British Columbia Review is an on-line journal service for BC writers and readers. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Provincial Government Patron (since September 2018): Creative BC. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies.

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One comment on “1498 A politician for all seasons

  1. in the 1970s I invited Bob Williams, as Minister of Forests, Lands and Water Resouces, to give a talk in Esquimalt. It was fascinating to see how he bought out a private logging company for a very small amount. His report on “Restoring Forestry in B.C.: The story of the industry’s decline and the case for regional management” is an important document that should be mentioned as a highlight of his career.

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