#EveryElectionProject: British Columbia
Capsules on British Columbia's elections from The Weekly Writ
Every installment of The Weekly Writ includes a short history of one of Canada’s elections. Here are the ones I have written about B.C.’s elections and leadership races.
This and other #EveryElectionProject hubs will be updated as more historical capsules are written.
1907 British Columbia election
Richard McBride wins again
February 2, 1907
Partisan politics (or, at least, officially partisan politics) was still a novelty in British Columbia when voters went to the polls on February 2, 1907. It was only the second campaign run along party lines after Richard McBride, who became premier in June 1903, announced his government would be a Conservative government, and promptly won an electoral mandate as a B.C. Conservative later that year.
By the end of 1906, McBride was ready to call another election, which he announced on Christmas Eve.
The campaign would be centred around the issue of “Better Terms” for British Columbians in Confederation, along with securing continued economic development for B.C. and increased immigration — white immigration, preferably from Great Britain. At the time, Chinese, Japanese and South Asian Canadians in B.C. could not vote, and both the Conservatives and Liberals were keen to keep it that way.
J. A. Macdonald, the Liberal leader, tried to make hay of the whiff of scandal that surrounded some members of the McBride government, but was unable to make headway.
McBride, touring the province during a notably chilly winter, kept the focus on getting Better Terms, claiming that if the Liberals were elected it would send the message to the provinces in the east that British Columbians weren’t serious about their demands.
The Liberals, of course, said they were for Better Terms, too, but that McBride had mishandled relations with the federal (Liberal) government.
It was an ugly campaign, with charges of dirty tricks coming from both sides, plenty of anti-French and anti-Catholic rhetoric along with fearmongering that either McBride would bring in more Asian labourers or Macdonald would enfranchise Japanese Canadians.
On election day (in which the Conservatives were offering voters the wonder of automobile rides to the polls in Vancouver), McBride won the solid victory he had failed to achieve in 1903.
His party won 49% of the vote and 26 seats, a gain of four seats since the last election. The Liberals dropped to 37% of the vote and 13 seats, while the Socialists and Labour combined for around 13% of the vote and three seats. In all, McBride’s government went from a slim majority of 22 seats in a 42-seat legislature, to a reliable majority of 26.
McBride would win a bigger landslide in 1909 (which would prompt some rumblings that the successful B.C. premier could make a great replacement for the twice-beaten Robert Borden as federal Conservative leader) and his greatest victory in 1912, before stepping down as premier in 1915.
1916 British Columbia election
The defeat of Bowserism
September 14, 1916
The early years of the 20th century were prosperous ones for British Columbia. After coming to power at the head of the Conservatives in 1903, Richard McBride presided over a period of growth and economic development in the province, all the while standing up for ‘Better Terms’ for B.C. from the Liberal government in Ottawa. For his efforts, McBride secured huge election wins in 1909 and 1912.
But by 1915, the McBride government was staggering. Violent labour strikes on Vancouver Island in 1914 had to be put down by the militia and McBride’s Conservatives, scandal-ridden and corrupt, were now leading a province that had been driven deep into debt.
Epitomizing the premier’s grandstanding as well as his profligate recklessness was McBride’s decision to purchase two submarines for British Columbia at the outset of the Great War in order to protect the West Coast from German marauders.
(Yes, for a short time before the federal government reluctantly stepped in, British Columbia had a navy.)
Faced with internal dissent and growing unpopularity, McBride resigned in December 1915 and finally made way for William John Bowser.
Bowser had been McBride’s right-hand man (and eventual rival) in office, acting as premier during McBride’s frequent trips to Ottawa. Bowser was a ruthless politician with a well-oiled political machine in Vancouver that relied on patronage, bribery and “the occasional threat” to deliver big majorities for the Conservative Party. What he didn’t have was McBride’s charisma.
He was dealt an early blow shortly after coming to power when some of his new cabinet appointees were defeated in byelections by the Liberals, a party that had been left seatless in the 1912 provincial election. One of those defeats came at the hands of Liberal leader Harlan Carey Brewster, who ran in the seat vacated by McBride, now the province’s agent-general in London.
Brewster, who had been named leader of the Liberals at a convention in Revelstoke in 1913, supported prohibition and female suffrage, both of which would be put to a referendum in the 1916 election. He pledged aid for the agricultural sector and free land for settlers in B.C.
When the election was finally set for September 14, 1916, Brewster went on the attack against the McBride-Bowser government over its land policies, mismanagement of the over-budget (and questionable) Pacific & Great Eastern Railway and Bowser’s own conflicts of interest.
Brewster had a ready audience in British Columbians who were tired of the Conservative government. According to the Liberal-leaning Globe correspondent in Vancouver,
“Unquestionably much good legislation was passed, but the good things were offset by special “fake” measures, and even vicious precedents which were designed for purposes of political expediency. For instance, good legislation like the prohibition act, the shipbuilding scheme, woman suffrage and the workmen’s compensation act has been more than discounted by the Government’s extravagance in dealing with the Pacific & Great Eastern Railway, and in providing a salary for the office of Agent-General in London larger than that paid to the Lord High Commissioner of Canada.”
Simply put, the election was a change election. The Conservatives had been in power for too long and were seen as incompetent, tyrannical and corrupt. By comparison, Brewster and the Liberals appeared to be eager reformers ready to take over and defeat a premier who might have been able to twist an arm or two but was unable to charm the electorate.
In the words of one Conservative candidate, “unlike Sir Richard McBride, Mr. Bowser was … not versed in all those arts of vote getting of which Sir Richard was a past master.”
The result was a huge victory for the Liberals. From being shutout in 1912, the Liberals won 36 seats and captured 50 per cent of the vote, an increase of nearly 25 percentage points since the previous election. It was, according to the Victoria Times newspaper, a victory over “Bowserism, the party machine and the patronage system.”
The Conservatives were reduced to just nine seats and 40.5% of the vote, down 19 points from 1912. Bowser’s Vancouver machine had finally faltered — the Conservatives won only one of six seats up for grabs in the city and were relegated to ridings largely in the B.C. Interior.
An Independent and Independent Socialist were also elected on Vancouver Island, while the Socialist Party — which took 11% of the vote in 1912 — lost much of its support to the Liberals.
Despite the resounding defeat, Bowser delayed his resignation for another two months in order to wait for all of the soldiers’ votes to come in from overseas, votes that just happened to be overseen by the B.C.’s agent-general in London, Richard McBride.
Those votes didn’t overturn the results (though they did save Bowser in his own seat), but they did overturn the results of the Prohibition referendum. It had been supported by voters in British Columbia, but the soldiers fighting in the trenches voted against it by a margin of four-to-one.
There were, however, accusations of irregularities — including officers buying soldiers’ votes with booze. Brewster, a prohibitionist, struck a commission to investigate the allegations. The commission suggested tossing out those votes, and prohibition went ahead.
Also going ahead was women’s suffrage, which had been supported by about 70% of the (male) voting electorate in the referendum.
For the Conservatives, 1916 proved to be nearly the end of the party. It would only return to power for one term in 1928 before being defeated in the midst of the Great Depression. After playing a minor role in some post-WWII coalitions with the Liberals, the B.C. Conservatives would never get another sniff of power again.
1969 B.C. NDP leadership
Berger beats Barrett
April 12, 1969
By early 1969, the Social Credit Party had ruled British Columbia for nearly two decades under the leadership of W.A.C. Bennett, a populist who had successfully brought together the ‘free enterprise’ forces in the province. His last victory, in 1966, marked the fourth consecutive defeat for Robert Strachan, the Scottish-born leader of the B.C. CCF and, later, NDP.
Strachan, more of a centrist than the red-baiting Bennett made him out to be, was leading a divided caucus of New Democrats. He had already seen off a leadership challenge from the left by the young Thomas Berger in 1967. Though it didn’t take him down, the challenge fatally weakened Strachan’s leadership and split the caucus, and he decided to resign as leader in early 1969.
The New Democrats had to get a replacement for Strachan in a hurry. Bennett had already suggested that there would be a campaign in 1969, perhaps as soon as June.
Unsurprisingly, one of the candidates in the running to replace Strachan was Tom Berger. Now 36, this lawyer who specialized in civil rights cases and who had argued in front of the Supreme Court, represented a riding in Vancouver. He was an immediate front runner and the candidate of labour, an increasingly influential presence in the B.C. NDP — and one that was in a near-constant state of warfare with Bennett’s Social Credit government.
The main challenger was a social worker just two years older than Berger, Coquitlam MLA Dave Barrett.
Also in the running were Robert Williams, another 30-something MLA from Vancouver, and John Conway, who at just 25 and a graduate student represented the radical left wing of the party.
The contest, though, was supposed to be primarily between Berger and Barrett. There was some buzz on the Friday before the convention when Strachan, who had worked to keep the unions from becoming too powerful within the NDP, decided to endorse Williams. Suddenly, it appeared there might actually be a third contender who could win it.
Nearly 800 delegates were eligible to vote at the convention, including over a hundred from affiliated trade unions. The results of the first ballot were finally announced late on Saturday night, April 12, 1969.
Berger emerged as the clear leader in the contest, taking just over 46% of the ballots cast. Barrett was far behind at 32%, while Robert Williams took 16.5% of the vote. Conway managed just 6% and was eliminated.
Williams, though, didn’t stick around. He withdrew before the second ballot and threw his support behind Barrett. Strachan went along with him, making it clear the contest was between Berger’s more left-wing vision of the party and Barrett’s more centrist approach.
Williams nearly delivered for Barrett when the results were revealed shortly after midnight. Barrett’s support jumped by 126 votes, representing nearly all of Williams’s delegates. Berger increased by just 47 votes, probably most of them from Conway, but it was just enough. Berger won with 52% of the delegates’ support, beating Barrett by 411 votes to 375.
It was a close result, and Berger tried to paper over the divide.
“It was a good fight, Dave,” he said to his defeated opponent after his victory, “but I’m glad it’s over and we are back on the same side.”
Berger promised New Democrats that the party “is going to govern this province in the 1970s”. He proved prescient. But it wasn’t Berger who would lead the NDP to power for the first time in British Columbia. Bennett had one more victory in him, defeating Berger and the NDP in 1969. That marked the end of Berger’s leadership. But three years later, in 1972 under Dave Barrett, the NDP would finally bring W.A.C. Bennett’s long run in office to an end.
1973 B.C. Social Credit leadership
Bill Bennett succeeds his father as B.C. Social Credit leader
November 24, 1973
After two decades in office, making him the longest-serving premier in British Columbia’s history, W.A.C. Bennett was defeated in the 1972 provincial election and, for the first time since it became a real political force, the B.C. Social Credit Party was in need of a new leader.
There was a problem, though. Bennett had maintained such a tight, personal control over the government — he served as both premier and finance minister — that he never quite found the time to groom a successor. There was no heir apparent to replace him. In fact, it wasn’t even a given that a replacement for Bennett was of vital importance, as it was an open question whether or not the ‘free enterprise’ forces in B.C. could coalesce around a new party, rather than the somewhat anachronistic Social Credit brand.
But Bennett laid the groundwork for his son to follow in his footsteps, talking about the need for a “young” leader from a new generation to replace him. Before the leadership race could get going, W.A.C. Bennett resigned his South Okanagan seat and his son Bill announced he would run to fill the vacancy. After he won the byelection, this effectively limited the field of potential replacements for W.A.C. Bennett to those with a seat in the legislature, closing the door to outside candidates who might have appreciated the opportunity to run in the former leader’s safe seat.
The good news for Bill Bennett was that his Socred colleagues in the legislature weren’t leadership material — the serious contenders to replace W.A.C. Bennett had been defeated in the 1972 election that brought Dave Barrett’s NDP to power for the first time in B.C. history.
Some 1,500 delegates attended the leadership convention that was held on November 24, 1973 in Vancouver. Many were Bennett supporters, ferried or bussed in from Vancouver Island and the B.C. Interior to ensure a good result for the son of the former premier.
And they got one. On the first ballot, Bill Bennett received 883 votes, beating his nearest rival by a margin of more than 600. His father called in some favours and helped deliver the victory, but Bill Bennett would adamantly try to distance himself from his father’s shadow and, after just three years of NDP government, the Socreds would storm back to power in 1975.
Bill Bennet would win two more elections and serve as premier for nearly 11 years, before he stepped aside and was replaced by Bill Vander Zalm. With the exception of the short Barrett interregnum, the Bennett dynasty governed British Columbia for all but three years from 1952 to 1986.
1979 British Columbia election
B.C.’s politics polarizes even more
May 10, 1979
At the end of a whirlwind three years in office, Dave Barrett’s quick-moving, reforming and often unfocused B.C. NDP government went down to defeat at the hands of Social Credit, which had galvanized the right-of-centre vote behind a familiar name: Bill Bennett, son of former premier W.A.C. Bennett.
The Socreds had succeeded in eating into the Progressive Conservatives’ vote and stealing away the right-wingers that were still backing the B.C. Liberals.
Nearly four years later, Bennett aimed to keep his electoral coalition together.
A day after announcing what his government called a “sunshine budget” “crammed with benefits for every taxpayer”, Bennett pre-empted the television and radio networks to make his announcement. He promised the networks it would take five minutes, but it took him 20 minutes to declare that British Columbians would be going to the polls on May 10, 1979.
That set the date just 12 days before the federal election — a coincidence that worked very well for Bennett’s Social Credit Party. The federal campaign would divide the attention and resources the New Democrats and PCs could dedicate to the provincial battle. Bennett’s party had no such complication.
The central plank of Bennett’s campaign would be the giveaway of five shares of the B.C. Resources Investment Corporation, each worth around $60, to every British Columbian. The BCRIC was a holding company that invested in B.C.’s resource industry, and the government encouraged British Columbians to invest some of their own money, too. It would eventually go bust and people would lose a lot of their investments, but in 1979 it didn’t turn out to be the campaign issue Bennett had hoped it would be — especially after Dave Barrett said that the giveaway was irreversible.
Despite his drubbing at the polls in 1975, Barrett was still leader of the B.C. NDP. He hoped to make a comeback.
The New Democrats had learned their lesson, though. While Barrett ran against the Socred record of austerity measures, he also ran against type: he was calmer, more moderate. He admitted his government had made mistakes and had tried to move too far too quickly.
The NDP had went “from the wilderness into power,” Barrett said. “It’s had a taste of power. It doesn’t like the wilderness any more. The party is more realistic. I’m more realistic.”
The move to the centre was part of a broader drift in B.C. politics. The PCs and Liberals had been decimated over the last few elections, and with the Liberals running only a handful of candidates the NDP targeted their remaining voters, especially those that could swing results in the suburbs around Victoria and Vancouver.
Bennett, whose style The Globe and Mail’s John Clarke called “heavy, sometimes inarticulate and generally humorless”, attacked the record of the single-term NDP government, claiming it had ruined the province’s finances and that any future government would be just as radical, despite Barrett’s new approach.
“Don’t be fooled,” Bennett warned. “They haven’t changed their spots; they have just put on a cloak to cover them up.”
“Before the election,” he added, “they act like Groucho Marx; it’s only after the election they act like Karl Marx.”
A key factor deciding Social Credit’s re-election would be the state of the Progressive Conservatives. Party leader Victor Stephens couldn’t gain any traction, instead garnering the most attention when he complained about the lack of support he was getting from Joe Clark’s federal Tories. There were claims the PCs had a secret deal with the Socreds, ensuring the federal party would provide no assistance to the provincial party in exchange for some funding for federal Tory candidates from Social Credit coffers.
One anecdote related to the PC campaign that was reported in the Globe and Mail was how “two Tory candidates decided to ‘come out’ as homosexuals at a Vancouver public meeting after an NDP candidate cracked that he’d ‘rather be gay than Tory’.” In a sign of how things have changed since the 1970s, the reporter used this anecdote as a reflection of how the Tories, rather than the NDP, lacked candidates who were “clear winners”.
As election day approached, the race looked tight. The NDP had run a smooth campaign and set the narrative on most days, but the increased chances of an NDP victory also ensured that reluctant Socred voters would cast a ballot, doing some of Bennett’s work for him. Social Credit also outspent the NDP by more than two-to-one, spending $2.4 million, worth roughly $9.5 million today.
Bill Bennett and the Socreds needed every advantage they could get (and, later on, their campaign would be tarred by charges of ‘dirty tricks’ involving phoney letters to the editor and unaccounted-for slush funds). The party lost four seats but secured a small majority government with 31. The party’s share of the vote dropped slightly to 48.2%, but it was enough.
The New Democrats took 26 seats, with gains in northern B.C., Victoria, Surrey, Coquitlam and Burnaby. With 46% of the vote, the NDP had jumped nearly seven points from 1975 as more than 94% of British Columbians backed one of the two big parties.
The PCs took just 5.1% of the vote and lost their only seat, while the Liberals dropped 0.5 points, with nearly all of their lost support going to the New Democrats.
It was the first time in British Columbia since the turn of the century and the beginning of partisan politics that no Independents or third-party MLAs won a seat. B.C.’s politics had polarized in a way that wouldn’t change until the final collapse of the country’s last Social Credit government in 1991.
2005 British Columbia election
Back to normal in B.C. politics
May 17, 2005
The two-party system that had developed in British Columbia in the 1970s and 1980s between Social Credit and the New Democrats collapsed in 1991, when the Liberals replaced the Socreds as the main alternative to the right of the NDP. Groping about for a new system in 1996, the NDP and Liberals had to fight off two new upstarts in the Reform Party and the Progressive Democratic Alliance.
Then, in 2001, B.C. nearly ended up with a one-party system.
In that cataclysmic election for the governing New Democrats, the party then under Ujjal Dosanjh was reduced to just two seats. The B.C. Liberals under Gordon Campbell came to power for the first time in more than half a century, winning 77 of 79 seats on offer.
What seemed like the makings of a new political dynasty faltered out of the gates. The Liberals cut personal income tax immediately after coming to power, but the reduction in government revenues led to swingeing service cuts and hated user fees. Campbell’s own image took a beating when he was arrested for drunk driving in Hawaii a few years into his mandate.
Things were going badly for the Liberals, who were at times even trailing the NDP in the polls. But the economy was improving and British Columbians were feeling more upbeat. By the time the 2005 election approached — the first in Canada to be held according to fixed-date legislation — the Liberals had re-established a seven-to-nine point lead over the New Democrats, now under the leadership of former school board chair Carole James.
The Liberals would run on their record of economic growth (“B.C. is Back” was the slogan) and their notion of a coming ‘Golden Decade’ for the province, their platform effectively being the budget that had been presented earlier in the year. Hoping to mollify those who saw Campbell as a heartless neo-conservative, the Liberals intended to run more toward the centre, promising to spend on healthcare and education.
The New Democrats, adopting the slogan of “Everyone Matters”, went on the offensive against the Liberals’ record of cuts. But the NDP, too, was moderating itself. James promised to balance the budget and implement no new taxes.
As an incumbent government with a lead in the polls, the Liberals ran a low-key campaign with few daily events, in contrast to the frenetic pace of the James campaign. They tried to tie the NDP to labour organizations, stoking fears that an NDP victory would be swiftly followed by a teachers’ strike, as James had pledge to give teachers that right back.
The front runners campaign wasn’t going as well as the Liberals would have liked, however. In a debate in which Campbell, James and Green leader Adriane Carr participated, James was seen to have been a strong performer.
By the end of the campaign, the NDP had closed the gap somewhat. At the outset, talk had been that the NDP could win 20 or 25 seats, maybe not enough to secure James’ leadership of the party. With days to go, talk had moved to the NDP winning 30 or more seats — maybe even government.
Also on the ballot was a referendum on electoral reform, asking British Columbians whether they wanted to switch from first-past-the-post to a single-transferable vote. While a majority (58%) ended up voting for it, that had fallen just short of the 60% threshold that had been set for implementing the change.
The result showed the re-emergence of B.C.’s two-party system, with the Liberals and NDP finishing within just a few points of each other. After such a landslide in 2001, the Liberals were inevitably going to lose a lot of seats — and they did. The party captured 46, down 31 from the 2001 election, and saw their share of the vote drop by 11.8 points to 45.8%.
But Campbell had been re-elected, the first B.C. premier to win two consecutive elections in 22 years. A lot of his colleagues around the cabinet table, however, went down to defeat.
The NDP went from just two seats to 33, gaining 19.9 percentage points to finish with 41.5%. The New Democrats made significant gains on Vancouver Island and in and around the city of Vancouver, and also made some pick-ups in the Interior. But places like Richmond, Burnaby, the Fraser Valley, the Okanagan and the North stuck with Campbell’s Liberals.
The Greens saw their vote drop three points as they finished with 9.2%. The party finished second in only a single riding, but showed some strength along the Georgia Strait where Carr was running (and was defeated).
Still, the two-party system had been re-established — and it would be tough to get unstuck. Each party’s vote and seat numbers would hardly change in 2009 and 2013. Only in 2017, when a few more seats flipped and the Greens held the balance of power, would things change again in B.C. politics.
NOTE ON SOURCES: When available, election results are sourced from Elections B.C. and J.P. Kirby’s election-atlas.ca. Historical newspapers are also an important source, and I’ve attempted to cite the newspapers quoted from.
In addition, information in these capsules are sourced from the following works:
British Columbia’s Premiers in Profile: The Good, The Bad and The Transient by William Rayner
Boundless Optimism: Richard McBride’s British Columbia by Patricia E. Roy
Duff Pattullo of British Columbia by Robin Fisher
W.A.C. Bennett and the Rise of British Columbia by David J. Mitchell
The Art of the Impossible: Dave Barrett and the NDP in Power, 1972-1975 by Geoff Miggs and Rod Mickleburgh