1970s: Christmas in August

Christmas came early in 1979 when Premier Bill Bennett gave away 12 million shares of B.C. Resources Investment Corp. to British Columbians.

Premier Bill Bennett | BCBusiness
Former premier Bill Bennett.
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Christmas came early in 1979 when Premier Bill Bennett gave away 12 million shares of B.C. Resources Investment Corp. to British Columbians.

Today we chuckle smugly at the political shenanigans south of the border, where Tea Party fundamentalists squaring off against Obamacare proponents can paralyze an entire nation. How easily we forget. To say that B.C. politics in the 1970s were mercurial is an understatement. The wild gyrations between NDP socialism and Social Credit conservatism came to a head with BCRIC, an experiment in citizen capitalism unequalled in Canadian history.

1979 is remembered by old-timers as the year when Christmas came in August. That’s when every resident of the province was eligible to receive five free shares of B.C. Resources Investment Corp., each valued at $6 (about $20 each in today’s dollars).

The giveaway was the brainchild of Premier Bill Bennett, who saw a nifty way to kill two birds with one stone: unwind a collection of Crown-owned resources that had been amassed by the previous NDP government and encourage residents to take ownership in their province.

“This government, with the most revolutionary proposal that’s been brought to public life in the last 30 years, has brought in an initiative through the B.C. Resources Investment Corporation to involve all our people in individual ownership where they will have a right, say, of collecting dividends and of buying more shares. I think this experience with ownership will encourage them to buy more. Not only are they getting free shares . . . they’re also being encouraged for the first time, on a ground-floor basis, to invest in their own company rather than send money to buy it from the government.” – Premier Bill Bennett, B.C. Legislature, March 30, 1979

BCRIC (or “brick,” as it was fondly referred to by British Columbians) was the result of a number of bailouts of resource companies under the political leadership of Dave Barrett, who reigned as premier from 1972 to 1975. Chief among its holdings was a pulp mill in Ocean Falls that had been mothballed by owner Crown Zellerbach, as well as pulp mills in Prince George and Castlegar, various sawmills and a stake in the gas pipeline company, Westcoast Transmission.

The justification was to save jobs, which the bailout did for a time. But by the time Social Credit party leader Bill Bennett was sworn in as premier in 1975, the companies were bleeding red ink. The Ocean Falls mill alone was looking at $5 million in unpaid provincial loans and needed an upgrade projected at $250 million.

With great fanfare, Bennett announced his plan to privatize the Crown corporation, converting ownership to shares, the first 12 million of which would be given away free to anyone with a valid B.C. driver’s licence. Residents could buy up to an additional 5,000 shares at face value of $6.

The share issue exceeded the most optimistic projections; not only did 87 per cent of B.C. residents take up the offer of free shares, but dreaming of further riches, they snapped up an additional $487 million worth. At first things went swimmingly for the budding capitalists; shares inched up in the ensuing months, reaching $9 apiece by early 1980. But that would be the high point, marking the start of a long slow decline. Those who didn’t unload at the time watched their shares slide to under $4 by the fall of 1982, and then below the $3 mark in 1984. The BCRIC shares would finally be wiped out entirely in a 1995 share consolidation under the company that had since been renamed Westar Group Ltd.

Today the shares can be found in sock drawers and lining budgie cages throughout the province.