David barrett – the jewish premier who shaped b.c. gaslighting

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“In just one short term, his government delivered our first modern ambulance service, the Agricultural Land Reserve and public auto insurance. We are all better off, thanks to his tireless work and immeasurable contributions to public life.”

“No one who heard a Dave Barrett give a political speech full bore, all stops pulled, ever forgot it,” read a tribute written by Vaughn Palmer in the Vancouver Sun. “He was a master of the populist style, able to segue from unforgiving denunciations of his opponents to withering ridicule in an instant, never unsure of himself, never less than formidable.”

By today’s standards, Barrett “was not one of those robotic politicians who are scripted by their speechwriters,” remarked Henry Srebrnik, a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island. “He’d be politically incorrect today.”

The CJN duly reported the election of Canada’s first Jewish provincial premier at the time. “Though not active in Jewish communal life, he did serve professionally for a period as executive director of the Vancouver Jewish Community Centre,” noted a front-page story on Sept. 8, 1972.

Barrett continued a tradition set by another B.C. legislator, Henry Nathan of Victoria, The CJN pointed out. Nathan was elected to the House of Commons in 1871, when British Columbia joined Confederation, and became Canada’s first Jewish MP.

Barrett was born in Vancouver on Oct. 2, 1930, the youngest of three children of Rose Hyatt, who came from just outside of Odessa in Czarist Russia, and Winnipeg-born Samuel Barrett, who had sustained serious injuries in the First World War, from a gas attack in the Battle of Passchendaele, among other incidents.

Barrett was raised in a cauldron of secular, left-wing politics. He described his father as a “very gentle Fabian socialist,” and his mother as a “rabid feminist” and a communist “who thought Joe Stalin was a pretty good guy.” She raised money for Norman Bethune’s ambulance service in China and took Barrett along with her to rallies in support of the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War when he was a boy. His parents got divorced in 1954. Opposition Leader Dave Barrett speaks at a re-dedication ceremony at Temple Emanu-El in Victoria in 1982. (Jewish Museum and Archives of British Columbia)

Sam Barrett was a fruit and vegetable pedlar; his horse-drawn wagon was a fixture on the streets of the family’s East Vancouver neighbourhood. As a young boy, David Barrett would help his father and once recalled that they would give away unsold food at the end of the day.

Barrett was the only Jewish student at Seattle University, a Jesuit institution where he studied the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Back in Vancouver, he worked with foster children at the Children’s Aid Society, but realized he needed more training, so he earned a master’s degree in social work from St. Louis University.

After a year working as a probation officer in the juvenile court system in the U.S., he returned home to work at the new Haney Correctional Institute, which was located just east of Vancouver. But he was fired for openly politicking at a time when civil servants were forbidden from seeking public office.

He was elected to the B.C. legislature in 1960 for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the precursor to the NDP. Being an MLA in those days was not a full-time job, so at the same time, Barrett worked as a social worker with the Jewish Family Service Agency and served as the executive director of the Vancouver Jewish Community Centre, according to his son, Dan Barrett.

He was re-elected under the NDP banner in 1963, 1966 and 1969, the year he was chosen as party leader. In the book, Like Everyone Else But Different, McGill University historian Morton Weinfeld noted that Barrett was elected without any significant Jewish voting bloc in his riding.

His term as premier was reform-minded and prolific; his government passed more than 400 bills – on average, a new law every three days. The NDP under Barrett created the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia and the Agricultural Land Reserve, both of which were retained by the Social Credit and Liberal governments that followed.

He also instituted a PharmaCare program, a mineral royalties tax and a powerful labour relations board that strengthened bargaining rights. Barrett’s NDP raised pensions for the elderly, increased support for the disabled and hiked welfare rates. It lowered the drinking age to 19 and even banned pay toilets and spanking in schools.

But confronted once by a reporter who suggested that some of Barrett’s comments at a news conference sounded a little conservative, the premier retorted: “The only thing blue about me is my 1974 Volvo.” He challenged conservatives who disliked government regulation to rip up their health-care cards and mockingly offered to remove all traffic lights, too.

In his younger days, Barrett was active in B’nai Brith and, later, worked as a social worker with the Jewish Family Service Agency. Apart from a few passing references in Barrett’s memoirs and mentions of him being Jewish in various obituaries, there was nothing publicly linking him to his Jewish roots or the larger B.C. Jewish community, Levine claimed.

Yet, Barrett acknowledged that he “was always very conscious of being Jewish. I was very aware that I was the first Jewish premier,” he told Vancouver’s Jewish Western Bulletin in 1988. “I’m proud of being a Jew,” he told The CJN the following year.

Asked if he ever faced anti-Semitism during his political life, he recalled that “there have been instances, but nothing traumatic. That is part of public life … you subject yourself to all kinds of attacks. And there are people who will attack your religion.”

Defeated in his riding in 1975 by just 18 votes, Barrett stayed on as the Opposition leader and returned to the legislature in a byelection the following year. He resigned from provincial politics following his party’s electoral defeat in 1983.

He was a popular radio host in Vancouver until he decided to try his hand at federal politics and became the MP for the riding of Esquimault-Juan de Fuca in 1988. Now in a position to comment on foreign affairs, he said he was “disappointed” by the Mideast peace process because the Palestinians “haven’t got their act together” and that Arabs working for peace were being “held for ransom” by Hamas.

Israel had “proven” by then that it could win any war, he told an audience at a Montreal synagogue in 1988. But he worried that the country’s image had shifted “from that magnificent Entebbe raid (in 1976), to being somewhat of an aggressor – a new and different role for Jews.” The legislative assembly of British Columbia in Victoria. (KirinX/Wikimedia Commons/ CC-BY-2.5)

He could not condone the Soviet Union’s treatment of Jews, he stated, and he refused invitations to that country because of its poor record on human rights. He also decried Canada’s “inexcusable” slowness in pursuing alleged Nazi war criminals here.