The Kelowna conservative who built Vancouver

Bill Bennett shows off Expo to Grace McCarthy

Former premier Bill Bennett will have many legacies to be remembered by, but none more lasting than bringing Expo to B.C. almost 30 years ago—and changing the face of our biggest city forever

In politics, William Richard Bennett never lost a fight—neither the lowliest nomination tussle nor the biggest, most belligerent battle with what seemed, in the early 1980s, to be the whole B.C. labour movement (backed up by pretty much every civil society organization in the province). At the polls, Premier Bill Bennett’s winning streak consisted of three of the five biggest pluralities in B.C. history. And between elections, he modernized the civil service, defeated the deficit, hyper-charged the economy and built an infrastructure legacy that transformed the face (and the international reputation) of British Columbia and, especially, its biggest city. Then, at the height of his power, Bennett resigned—in the process bleeding off so much of the anger and resentment that collects at the feet of any long-serving government that he cleared the path for a fourth consecutive win for his Social Credit party.

It’s the kind of record that would have made any other leader a beloved elder statesman, in constant demand as a speaker—perhaps as a co-author on books about policy and political strategy. But Bennett, who, at age 82, is now lost to the cruel ravages of Alzheimer’s disease, ended his public life in ignominy, one of the principals in a tawdry insider-trading case that dragged through the courts for eight humiliating years. In the process, people seemed to forget what historian David Mitchell calls “that remarkable decade that was so formative for B.C.”

Perhaps nothing was so formative—or left as lasting a legacy—as Expo 86. In the late 1970s, Vancouver was a provincial lumber town wrapped loosely around a smelly slough. The north shore of False Creek was an industrial slum, with beehive burners belching smoke into the downtown and an abandoned B.C. Electric coal gasification plant oozing toxins into False Creek. Today, that creek is one of the prettiest urban inlets on the planet, and the former Expo site is ground zero for a style of city living that the world now admires as “Vancouverism.” Expo was the tipping point in Vancouver’s emergence as one of the world’s most livable cities, and Bennett was instrumental in making it all happen—even if his first instinct was to reject the world’s fair out of hand.

It was Grace McCarthy, then the provincial tourism minister, who brought the idea to Bennett in late 1979, arguing that it would be a wonderful way to celebrate B.C.’s centennial. “Bill said to me, ‘Grace, we have so much on our plate and no money in the treasury. I don’t think we could possibly take on anything as massive as a world’s fair,’” recalls the now 87-year-old. “And I said, ‘It’s not until 1986—that’s seven years from now. If we can’t get the province on track in seven years, then we don’t deserve to be in government.’” Never one to back down from a challenge, or to stick too long to a losing position, Bennett got on board.

Expo’s subsequent success—like much of Bennett’s career—seemed somehow both impossible and inevitable. He was forever beginning as the wrong guy in the wrong time, joining a battle that appeared lost from the start. He worked with no obvious joy, accumulated blame rather than accolades, and he left with no apparent credit.

Why were we so inclined to underestimate him? And how have we forgotten him so completely?

Bill Bennett with his father, W.A.C. Bennett, in 1976

Politics had always been the family business. Bill Bennett was only five years old when his father, William Andrew Cecil Bennett, was first elected to the provincial legislature in 1937. By 1952, “Wacky” Bennett had ascended to the premier’s job at the head of the Social Credit party, which had emerged as a successor vehicle to an unsteady right-of-centre coalition between Liberals and Conservatives. The redoubtable populist then held onto that position for two decades, dominating a government that was known as both robustly “free enterprise” and dispassionately opportunistic. It was W.A.C. Bennett, for example, who nationalized both the B.C. electricity industry and the coastal ferry system. He was further famous for building dams and highways—for stretching infrastructure deep into the heart of the province to open up and support the B.C. economy. Indeed, if Wacky Bennett had suggested B.C. as the site for a world fair, every commentator from here to Montreal would have said, “Typical.”

But while Bill Bennett was attentive, he was still seen as his father’s least likely successor. His affable elder brother, Russell (or “R.J.” to the family), seemed much more the political type—garrulous, charming—but wasn’t the least interested. So, with W.A.C. Bennett retiring to the family home in Kelowna to lick his wounds after the 1972 rout by Dave Barrett’s New Democrats, it was a surprise when Bill announced his intent, not just to run as an MLA but to challenge for the party leadership. The remarkable part is that while Bennett seemed to take to the role naturally—winning the leadership commandingly in 1973 and playing a critical part in installing Grace McCarthy as party president—he never seemed to like the work.

Brad Bennett—the eldest of Bill’s four sons—describes his father’s attitude to politics as driven by duty rather than passion. Currently president of the real estate investment firm McIntosh Properties and a former chair of the UBC board of governors, Brad Bennett has, like his father and grandfather before him, been subject to the odd political recruitment campaign. He’s not interested, either—in part because of his father’s example. While W.A.C. Bennett seemed to revel in the power and attention, Brad says that politics for Bill Bennett was “a sacrifice second only to going to war for your country.” And people seemed to sense Bill Bennett’s reticence—his self-imposed distance. As the elder Bennett’s biographer David Mitchell says, W.A.C. Bennett was “a big personality” and someone who—like Dave Barrett after him—campaigned with personal fervour and governed fairly informally. “Bill Bennett didn’t have a personality to build on,” Mitchell says. “He never really connected with people in a warm way.”

Bud Smith, principal secretary to Bennett in the 1980s and later a leadership contender and cabinet minister himself, says the boss’s chilly public persona was a running joke within Bennett’s inner circle—but one they learned to take seriously, especially because the expansive Dave Barrett was so personally popular. “We used to do a poll. We’d ask two questions: If you were going to a Canucks game and going to have a few beers, which leader would you like to go with? And if you suddenly got $100,000, who would you trust to look after it?” Even among Socreds, says Smith, Barrett would win the first poll with 70 per cent of the vote. And even among New Democrats, Bill Bennett would win the second—with 70 per cent of the vote.

And that may explain the next three elections. People really liked Dave Barrett—but they consistently put their trust in Bill Bennett. When Barrett called a surprise election in 1975, Bennett swept to power with 49.25 per cent of the popular vote (the NDP won 39 per cent). In the 1979 rematch, Bennett’s Socreds slipped marginally to 48.23 per cent (NDP 46 per cent). And in 1983, in the third contest of three between Bennett and Barrett, Bennett captured 49.8 per cent of the vote (NDP 45 per cent)—a victory topped only by the all-but-unbelievable 57.6 per cent that Gordon Campbell captured after the NDP collapse in 2001.

Remarkably, Bennett earned all those victories by bearing bad news and—in Canada’s most heavily organized province—battling labour. Although 1983 was the election most remembered as the campaign for government restraint, Bennett had, from the outset, complained about the spending habits of the NDP under Barrett. He also gave voice to the anger that many on the right felt about Barrett’s nationalizing of the auto insurance industry (with the creation of the Insurance Corporation of B.C.) and what some characterized as Barrett’s attack on property rights with the creation of the Agricultural Land Reserve.

And yet, when he got elected, he kept both of these Barrett legacy pieces in place. Brad Bennett explains this by saying that his father recognized that both of these programs had become popular and in politics, “you have to pick your spots.”

David Mitchell goes a step further, saying that these decisions illustrate something most people don’t understand. “B.C. is not really that ideological; it’s not really split left/right,” he says. “It’s generally populist/centrist with a bias to free enterprise, which I would define as an economy in which small business is able to succeed without too big a burden of the state. Bill Bennett understood that the state has a legitimate role to provide the infrastructure that business needs to succeed. Both Bennetts were very pragmatic in their thinking and less ideological.”

And here Bennett is with Charles and Diana, the Prince and Princess of Wales, also at Expo

Bread and circuses. The people who hated the notion of Expo and who fought against Vancouver’s hosting of the 2010 Olympics frequently dismissed these public celebrations as distractions from the real and sometimes dire issues of the day. But Bud Smith, Grace McCarthy, Jimmy Pattison and many others interviewed for this piece all describe Bennett’s view as something quite different. Expo, and the big infrastructure projects that went with it, were a post-recession focal point. After years of restraint—in fact during the most fractious years of government cutbacks—Bennett launched the province into a $300-million world’s fair, commissioned Western Canada’s first rapid transit line and began construction of an oft-promised, oft-delayed new highway to the Interior. In a way that W.A.C. Bennett would have admired, he was leveraging tax dollars to build the kind of infrastructure that he hoped would catalyze recovery. And put Vancouver on the world map.

The linchpin—for Expo, as for Vancouver’s future—was the land. The proposed site lay within a 207-acre parcel on the north shore of False Creek that was owned by Canadian Pacific and managed by CP’s real estate arm, Marathon Realty, a company for which the future mayor and premier Gordon Campbell once worked as a young developer. “Marathon had been trying for 14 years to do something with that land,” recalls Campbell, but no one could agree on a vision for the future of the site.

Bennett broke the logjam. Whether he understood in the early ’80s the full potential of the property, Bennett saw the opportunity of consolidating the parcel in public hands, in the process securing a site for Expo and for BC Place (which Bennett hoped would jumpstart downtown redevelopment). Marathon was soon convinced to swap the land for “Block 80,” the property where the Wall Centre hotel now stands, and for a block of timber rights on Vancouver Island.

That opened up the centrepiece and dovetailed with some of Bennett’s other plans for the fair. There was the first leg of what is now a regional SkyTrain system, the Expo Line, from New Westminster through Burnaby to the waterfront location of what would become the Canada Pavilion. And, dear to the heart of the Okanagan-born premier, there was the long-awaited Coquihalla Highway through Merritt to Kamloops. Bud Smith says the original rationale for the Coquihalla was twofold. It was a way of sharing some of the wealth that people in the rest of the province were seeing sprinkled in the big city. “And it would make it easier for people who came to Expo to also visit the Interior,” says Smith. “As it happened, though, it made it easier for people from the interior to get to Expo.” But the impact on the province was significant and lasting, he says, adding that Bennett was, very consciously, using these major projects to help build the province out of the recession.

The other quirky story from that period was the pressure that the dutiful Bennett put on an equally dutiful entrepreneur and “interim” Expo boss, Jim Pattison. Bennett had pressed Pattison into service in 1981, selling him on a “day-a-week” commitment, just to get the fair off the ground. By 1983 that had morphed into full-time work, and having fulfilled his initial two-year commitment, Pattison resigned.

The 86-year-old multi-billionaire remembers what happened next. “The premier called and asked if we could have dinner. So we went out on my boat, just the two of us, sitting on the back deck with the sun on the horizon, and he said, ‘Jimmy, I’d like you to stay on.’ And I said, ‘No! I’ve got a company to run. I can’t do it.’ And he said, ‘Jimmy, the province has been good to you, hasn’t it?’ And I said yes, and he said, ‘If people like you won’t help me, who do I turn to?’ So I said, ‘OK, you’re right.’ And I promised him two more years.”

In the end, Pattison stayed for the duration—and delivered a stunning success. Opening on May 2, 1986, with a visit from Prince Charles and Diana, Princess of Wales, the fair turned into a party that lasted all summer. Pattison and company had budgeted for a total attendance of 14 million, but the fair drew 22 million visitors—all wandering through a town that was alive with buskers and bicycle rickshaws and other revellers from around the world. Whatever had happened to the early ’80s recession, by 1986 it was nowhere in sight.

The rest of the story is now faded but happy history. Although the property sale to Hong Kong billionaire Li Ka-shing was controversial, the transformation of False Creek and the subsequent redevelopment of Marathon Realty’s Coal Harbour lands have remade Vancouver. And the reputation the city secured in 1986 was almost certainly a factor in later winning the Olympic bid for 2010. The attention, the investment and the development energy that Bennett initiated forever changed the face of a city where the man himself never lived.

Gordon Campbell—who, as mayor of Vancouver, oversaw the redevelopment of the Expo property and, as premier from 2001 to 2011, was instrumental in supporting and building the infrastructure for the 2010 Olympics—had a similar reputation to his predecessor: even on his best days, he was respected more than loved. Looking back, Campbell calls Bennett “the best mayor Vancouver never had,” praising him not just for his performance but also his humility. “The people who are most inclined to take the credit are often the people who deserve it the least,” he says. “The Vancouver that people know today wouldn’t be if not for Bill Bennett’s vision, his tenacity and his commitment.”

Vancouver’s skyline today

Walk past the Roundhouse Community Centre in Yaletown today and you get only a brief, romanticized sense of what Vancouver was only a short time ago. Instead of lumber mills and barrel factories, False Creek is now famous for glittering condo towers, expansive public spaces and a sweeping seawall that connects almost 30 kilometres of accessible urban waterfront—a feature unmatched anywhere in the world. Others deserve credit for the nature of this development, but the man who prepared the canvas, who linked in some of the infrastructural pieces to make Vancouver and B.C. function more efficiently, retired to Kelowna—presumably with no thought to seizing a prominent penthouse from which to oversee his handiwork and pronounce on his record.

Some will attribute this as an unhappy but inevitable result of the circumstance in which he, his brother Russell and their friend Herb Doman wound up paying $1 million to the BC Securities Commission to resolve an insider trading case, the details of which will always stain Bennett’s record. But Bill Bennett the public servant was never really that guy. As former Vancouver Sun columnist Marjorie Nichols wrote in her book Mark My Words, “Bill Bennett did not profit personally one iota from his time in office.” Unlike the politicians who might wrinkle their nose at cheese of the wrong temperature, Bennett had no pretensions, says Nichols: “After he came to power in 1975, he kept [former premier Dave] Barrett’s car, a 1973 gold-coloured Chevrolet, and he kept using it right to the end when he stepped out in 1986.”

This being British Columbia—the land of the partisan snarl—there are also those on the left who believe that Bennett earned the enmity that he carried into retirement. “Bill Bennett used the economic downturn as an excuse to institute a very right wing agenda,” says Bill Tieleman, the NDP and labour-affiliated consultant and columnist. “He did things that 40 to 50 per cent of the public adamantly opposed. And he turned B.C. into a really confrontational place. That’s why he was hated.”

In broad circles, in the days leading up to Expo, he was hated. But in hindsight, Bennett almost seems to have planned it that way. As Bob Plecas tells it in his biography, Bill Bennett: A Mandarin’s View, Bennett—who had previously been happy to let cabinet ministers take the lead on many files—stepped to the fore during the most difficult restraint years, saying that he wanted to relieve others of the burden of defending an incredibly unpopular program. According to Bud Smith, Bennett stumped his way through the 1983 election saying, “We’ll do it together. We’ll come out of it together. And together we will reap the benefit.” And yet when Expo came—when it was time to “reap the benefit”—the man who had taken the risk, and the flak, slipped quietly out the side door.

“The fact that he didn’t build a legacy, as many politicians do, perfectly reflects one of his fundamental tenets of governance,” says Smith. “He always said, ‘If you want to make money or live in fame, don’t get involved in politics.’ He saw politics as public service—in which a job well done is its own reward. He lived that.”