Bob Williams is a former Vancouver City Councillor, former B.C. Cabinet Minister and is currently a board member with Vancity Credit Union, Canada’s largest credit union. Am Johal interviewed him in Vancouver.
Up until the mid 60s, tenants couldn’t run for public office in Vancouver. How did this change come about?
I was only on City Council for two years, I was a torpedo, and it was great fun. There had never been anyone on Council from the eastside since 1945. I beat out Harry Rankin so the Communists never forgave themselves. All 1,400 of them voted for me and I beat out Harry. This was back in 1964.
I had been Director of Planning in Delta at the time the tunnel was built and had worked in Burnaby and on the Lower Mainland Regional Planning Board. So I had a basic planning background behind me. I was about 32 when I was elected. I beat out a former Vancouver Sun executive who was running for the NPA. He had been president of the Alma Mater Society at UBC.
It was unheard of for a young socialist like me from the eastside to get elected.
One of the issues that was a huge human rights issue was that tenants couldn’t run for office.
I gradually built up a coalition on council. One of the great assets that I had was the support of Aenas Bell-Irving — one of the city councillors I eventually brought over to my side who was a Red Tory. Part of a grand old family in Vancouver.
They were a wealthy family on Alexander Street. It was a fashionable place to live in those days, by the harbour, in the Downtown Eastside. Aeneas was charmed by me in terms of the range of things I was interested in. He was elderly and had moved from his house to an apartment as a lot of elderly people did back then. Apartment dwellers were tenants. There were no condos then. There was no legislation for condominiums. I brought up the unfairness of not allowing tenants to run for City Council, after all, he and his elderly friends had moved out of home ownership in to apartments and knew that it was wrong if they weren’t allowed to run for city council. With his help, I was able to build up a coalition on council. I really loved it. I did that again and again on other issues.
You could vote then as a tenant, but you couldn’t run for public office. So once I knew I had a majority in place, I put a resolution forward.
The brightest right winger on council was a fellow by the name of Earle Adams who led their pack – he was very capable but very right wing. He was an NPA Councillor. At Council, I gave a speech about feudalism — this idea of tenancy as an old feudal idea and that it had no place in Canada. I espoused the UN Charter of Human Rights in the city council chambers, stuff the City Council had never heard of. It went to a vote and got a majority. They thought that Aeneas would have voted against it because he was part of the property-owning aristocracy in the city. Aeneas gave a solid vote in favour. After the vote, Earle Adams leaned over and you could hear him saying loudly, ‘For Christ’s sake, the old farts gone senile. ‘
As a result of that, the change of the ‘shitty charter’, I mean the city charter, went through and then the legislature — they approved it and that was that. Tenants could then run for public office. It was an important principle of course.
Did it change the make-up of council? Maybe, maybe not, but, god knows, it was the right thing to do. It was long overdue. I guess that would have been around 1965, I guess.
During the Barrett Administration you were involved with the ALR and the development of Whistler. How did all that come about?
It was really wide ranging. In the three years, we really changed the rules of how government worked in B.C. There was no Hansard until when we came in. There was no record of the proceedings or the debate. Question Period became more real. Fundamental parliamentary changes were brought in.
In Vancouver, I was a City Councillor when I got elected to the legislature. At the time, WAC Bennett wanted to make something large like the Bank of America in San Francisco on Robson Square, about 52 stories at Robson Square. We were all opposed to it on City Council. I spent my spent time in Finland studying forestry in the summers had met a great architect Alvar Aalto who was so revered in Finland that he was building buildings that they didn’t even know what to do with. Finlandia Hall, great universities, libraries and so on. I told myself, damnit, we need to celebrate our greatest talents too. We wanted to do something interesting in Vancouver.
I felt like Clark Kent going in to a phone booth. Arthur Ericson wasn’t really known then and I thought he was a treasure to the city. When the vote came in, I phoned Arthur up in between the two governments, in the interregnum of the two governments when the changeover was still happening. I said Arthur we are going to hire you to re-do Blocks 42 and 52. I wasn’t even a Minister at the time and had no authority to authorize anything. The previous government had spent $10 million on an establishment architect and we wanted to start over. I said, ‘We’re hiring you to start over again.’ I wasn’t even a Minister at the time. Bing Thom had waltzed off to Singapore. He phoned up Bing and told him to come home. He told him that it was a big job and he wanted Bing to be his number one man on it. That was it, we started Robson Square. The next government took the credit for it and cut the ribbon of course after it was finished.
Same thing with Whistler, Al Raine and Nancy Green saw me in my early days as Minister of Natural Resources. They had written me a letter. They said Blackcomb had great skiing potential. I used to read all my letters back then when I was a Minister. I had a ranger visit there. So we stopped any potential logging. Prior to that, we had talked to the Parks branch. There was great pressure to host the Olympics at that time in the 70’s. I wasn’t really sold on it because it was too premature. Colorado had decided against hosting it. I said did you go down there, talk to anyone directly, all I see is clipped out newspaper articles. I said what’s wrong? He banged his head. Under WAC Bennett government bureaucrats weren’t allowed to phone outside the province. With a great team, we pulled in snow engineering, analyzed the snow and the weather. We came up with the plan to have Whistler and Blackcomb and eventually the town centre. It worked out exceedingly well. Eventually, Grace McCarthy cut the ribbon.
ALR had been on the dusty shelves of the Ministry of Agriculture under the Deputy Minister St. Peterson. He had told the Agriculture Minister, Dave Stupich, that they were in favour of it, but the truth of the matter is that a number of colleagues went out without cabinet authority in the Barrett regime. Stupich was one of them. He announced the ALR without cabinet authority. It was very messy for us internally. It became clear that the ministry hadn’t done the due diligence or the capacity to run with the project. The file got privately got turned over to me.
I had hired Bill Lane, a solicitor from Richmond. He was our best lawyer for stuff like that. He spent weeks with me in the legislature, after 14 drafts we ended up giving Stupich the legislation. They hadn’t budgeted for compensating the farmers. The Ministry had argued that they should budget for it. I argued that that was madness. I got control of the file. If you want to look after farmers, there are other ways like crop insurance and old age pensions to do that. Whatever you like, we’re not going to pay them for the public’s right to create the ALR.
The ALR became a strongly established principle. It was brought in soon after. Many brave people came out on the hustings to support it. It was really like the KKK in those days in the Fraser Valley in terms of that legislation in those days but we got through it. It’s clearly one of the things that lasted the longest. In truth, most of what we did in the Barrett administration during those three short years, has lasted two generations.