With Wednesday’s cabinet announcement looming, what will it mean for British Columbia?
BC’s place at the Cabinet table was at the head of the table in the 1870s when Sir John A. MacDonald was elected from Victoria in 1878, despite never having seen the place. He would eventually visit Victoria once he fulfilled the ultimate the election promise – the construction of the CPR.
Who have been BC’s heavyweights at the cabinet table? An historical review reveals British Columbia’s conflicted past in dealing with race relations and uneven influence compared to its provincial peers.
The early years ~ BC notables in Cabinet
In the late 1800’s, Edgar Dewdney was elected from Yale BC and served as an MP under Sir John A. MacDonald, becoming a partisan loyalist, personal friend, and ultimately an executor of his will. Lured to BC by the Gold Rush, Dewdney’s name is remembered through major roads (Dewdney Trunk) and localities, principally for his role in surveying the province. John A. dispatched him to oversee the territories as a direct report where he dealt with the Riel Rebellion and the demise of buffalo herds and resulting starvation. Not averse to mixing public duties with private land speculation, he eventually made it to federal cabinet in 1888 but not from BC; later, he was appointed BC Lieutenant-Governor. A BC cabinet minister? Not exactly, but an influential British Columbian at and near the cabinet table, yes.
Conservative Martin Burrell, representing Yale-Cariboo, served in Prime Minister Robert Borden’s Conservative and Unionist cabinets as Agriculture minister, Mines Minister, and Minister of Customs & Inland Revenue. An interesting note about Burrell (a former mayor of Grand Forks), was that he was appointed Parliamentary Librarian in 1920 and served in this post until his death in 1938.
Future BC premier Simon Fraser Tolmie would serve in both of Arthur Meighen’s cabinets as Minister of Agriculture. In both stints, Meighen’s governments were momentary, outfoxed by William Lyon MacKenzie King. Along with Ujjal Dosanjh, Tolmie has been one of two BC premiers to serve in a federal cabinet. Other premiers, such as Amor de Cosmos, Fighting Joe Martin, and Dave Barrett, also served in Parliament.
Conservative heavyweight HH Stevens served in Meighen’s brief cabinet (1926) then for four years under Prime Minister RB Bennett.
He was a powerful Trade minister who crusaded against price-fixing. He resigned in epic fashion and created the Reconstruction Party which split the vote and destroyed the Bennett government in 1935.
He returned to the Conservatives thereafter but his political career fizzled out.
While he was unquestionably a force of politics in BC during the 1920s and 1930s, he is also remembered for his role in stifling the Komagatu Maru and for reflecting public opinion during his time concerning Asian immigration: “We cannot hope to preserve the national type if we allow Asiatics to enter Canada in any numbers.”
Fear over Asian immigration was a multi-partisan issue, with labour leaders and Liberal politicians eager participants as well. Liberal Ian MacKenzie was sworn into Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s cabinet prior to the 1930 election. He won his seat but the government lost power. In 1935 he re-emerged as Minister of National Defence. He also became the first Government House Leader in the House of Commons. As BC’s top cabinet minister, he championed the internment of Japanese-Canadians during WWII, stating in the 1942 election: “Let our slogan be for British Columbia: ‘No Japs from the Rockies to the seas.”
HH Stevens probably remains the most notable figure in Canadian politics coming from BC between Confederation to the end of WWII. Perhaps it was the librarian Burrell who left the most lasting mark.
Moving toward modern times
The service of James Sinclair bears mention – the grandfather of incoming Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. He was a Member of Parliament from Vancouver-North and Coast-Capilano from 1940 to 1958, when he was defeated in the Diefenbaker sweep. He served as Minister of Fisheries from 1952-57. The Sinclair Centre in Vancouver bears his name.
The Diefenbaker era ushered in BC’s first dose of serious cabinet clout. From 1957-63, three senior ministers hailed from the west coast.
E.Davie Fulton as Minister of Justice for much of that time; Howard Green, ultimately serving as Secretary of State for External Affairs; and George Pearkes, Victoria Cross recipient, served as Minister of National Defence prior to his appointment as BC’s Lieutenant-Governor in 1960. Fulton left federal politics to lead the BC Conservative Party, but was thwarted by the governing Socreds.
The election of the Pearson government in 1963 continued BC’s cabinet presence with capable ministers, albeit at a less prestigious level than the Diefenbaker years.
Arthur Laing served in Pearson’s cabinet as Minister of Northern Affairs and Natural Resources then later as Minister of Indian and Northern Affairs. A former leader of the BC Liberal Party, Laing was the “BC Minister”; the bridge from YVR to the City is named in his honour. Laing’s wingman in cabinet was John Nicholson who served in various posts under Pearson.
BC’s decline in clout
While BC held at least three seats in cabinet during the first PET ministry (1968-79), BC seemed to lose ground with other provinces who had powerful ministers. While BC was not without credible ministers, the Marc Lalondes, Jean Marchands, Jean Chretiens, John Turners, and Allan MacEachens defined the Trudeau era at the cabinet level.
In 1968, Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau brought young Vancouver MP Ron Basford into cabinet as Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs. He is remembered as the minister who championed Granville Island among other BC legacies. Laing continued in Public Works until 1972. Jack Davis served in Fisheries and Environment portfolios between 1968-1974 (before his election as a Social Credit MLA). Len Marchand and Iona Campagnolo both served as Ministers of State in the mid 1970s, with Marchand finishing as Minister of Environment in 1979. Marchand was the first First Nation cabinet minister and first FN Member of Parliament in Canadian history. Senator Ray Perrault served as Government House Leader from 1974 to 1979.
The short-lived Joe Clark government featured prominent BC politicians like Minister of Environment John Fraser, Defence Minister Allan MacKinnon, and Minister of State Ron Huntington (father of Delta South MLA Vicky Huntington). Their tenures were short-lived when the Clark government was defeated in the House. Fraser ran for leader in 1976, dropping off on the second ballot but delivering his support for Clark.
When PET was returned in 1980, he had the makings of a strong front bench from BC. Popular ex-mayor Art Phillips had been elected to the Liberals in 1979, serving in Opposition. Former BC Liberal leader Gordon Gibson contested North Vancouver-Burnaby while renowned resource economist Peter Pearse sought election in Vancouver Quadra. Three strong ministers except that none were elected, nor were any Liberals in BC. Wipe out. Senators Jack Austin and Ray Perrault became BC’s unelected representatives in Cabinet. Perrault was later dropped, contributing to BC’s alienation from the Liberal Party.
When Prime Minister John Turner decided to seek office from Vancouver-Quadra in 1984, he sought to bridge the divide between the Liberal Party and the west coast. While he gained his seat (in the face of an electoral onslaught), he alone was elected from BC.
Turner’s BC story is a compelling one. He spent his early early years in Rossland and, while his formative years were spent in Ottawa, he returned to UBC for university (his stepfather was Lieutenant-Governor) where he was very much Big Man on Campus along with being Canadian 100 metre sprint champion. His BC years are chronicled in Elusive Destiny, an apt title for a political giant who’s timing was off. (Incredibly, his Olympic dreams were dashed when his car was hit by a train on the Arbutus Corridor! Who woulda thunk it). Turner served as MP for Vancouver Quadra for 9 years, retaining his seat after relinquishing his leadership to Jean Chretien. He had a strong BC connection but Turner was very much a pan-Canadian, representing three provinces during his illustrious parliamentary career.
The Mulroney-Chretien eras
From 1984 to 2004, BC had a steady presence at the cabinet table, not strikingly influential, but produced our first prime minister.
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney came to power in 1984 riding a wave of western alienation. But he also won big in Ontario, Quebec, and the Maritimes too. It was a huge mandate. “Red Tories” John Fraser and Pat Carney, an upset winner in 1980, led the BC contingent. Fraser took Fisheries and Carney to Energy – two significant portfolios. Fraser would resign halfway through the first term during
“Tunagate” but his stature among MPs led him to a much-dignified election and reign as Speaker.
Carney would move to International Trade during the dramatic US-Canada Free Trade negotiations. Tom Siddon would replace Fraser, and others like Gerry St. Germain, Frank Oberle, and Mary Collins would ultimately join Mulroney’s cabinet.
St. Germain was a Mulroney favourite. The bilingual, Metis chicken farmer was my MP and opponent when I rode my ten-speed down to Mae Cabott’s Liberal campaign office on the Lougheed Highway in 1984.
Gerry taught me a lesson in humility by spanking our campaign (Tip: be careful burmashaving on a busy highway when everyone hates your political party). Incredibly to me, having been appointed to cabinet, Gerry lost his seat in 1988 at the very moment he was poised to move up in the cabinet ranks. BCers often choose protest over pragmatism.
In 1988, Carney did not run again creating a vacancy in Vancouver-Centre. Back then, Progressive Conservatives were electable in that riding, unimaginable, it seems, now. Kim Campbell resigned her seat in the provincial legislature part way through her first term and secured the PC nomination, won the seat, and catapulted herself into Cabinet. As Justice minister (then National Defence), she held a high national profile, and emerged as the consensus favourite to succeed Mulroney following the demise of the Charlottetown Accord. Campbell fended off Jean Charest for the leadership win.
She had a strong BC network behind her, like Chief of Staff Ray Castelli and other apparatchiks that have been a big part of BC politics, but Mulroney did not leave her much time and the subsequent election played out for her like it did for John Turner, except worse. The party was decimated and, like 1984, Vancouver bore witness on election night to a humiliating concession speech by a sitting prime minister.
Jean Chretien’s election in 1993 and subsequent cabinets through 2003 had consistent BC representation, yet not too flashy. David Anderson, elected in 1968, then BC MLA and Liberal leader, returned from the political wilderness in 1993 to serve as National Revenue Minister before moving on to Fisheries then his signature role in Environment. Herb Dhaliwal was another prominent minister during the Chretien era, following Anderson in National Revenue and Fisheries before going to Natural Resources. Ministers of State include Stephen Owen, Raymond Chan, and Hedy Fry. Chretien could never elect more than 6-7 from BC so he didn’t have a lot to choose from.
BC’s return to Diefenbaker-like prominence: 2004-2008
Both the Paul Martin cabinet and first Stephen Harper cabinet saw a decided uptick in BC clout at the federal cabinet table. Following the 2004 election, Martin appointed a record five BC ministers including star recruits David Emerson (Industry) and former BC Premier Ujjal Dosanjh (Health). The lineup was rounded out by Stephen Owen, Raymond Chan, and Senate Leader Jack Austin. The BC delegation was aided by a regional campaign, led by Mark Marissen, that punched above its weight in the 2004 election with its “Made in BC Agenda”. The Liberals won more seats in BC despite dropping from a majority to a minority. (They would win more again in 2006 in a losing national effort)
Harper’s first cabinet contained a major surprise – David Emerson. To the astonishment of Liberals and Conservatives alike, the Liberal star switched jerseys, eschewing politics for policy, and assumed the International Trade portfolio and eventually Foreign Affairs before he left office in 2008. Emerson was joined from BC by former Canadian Alliance leader Stockwell Day (Public Safety, International Trade, Treasury Board), Chuck Strahl (Agriculture, Indian and Northern Affairs, Transport), and Gary Lunn (Natural Resources). Jay Hill’s appointment in 2007 as Whip (elevated to cabinet) then Government House Leader would make it five ministers for the BC delegation, matching Martin. BC had considerable clout.
Fading out of the Harper years
Emerson, Day, Strahl and Hill would all choose to leave politics by 2011, and Lunn involuntarily. They would give way to James Moore, who started in Heritage and went to Industry, Ed Fast – who may have the Trans Pacific Partnership as his legacy, John Duncan, Kerri-Lynne Findlay, and Alice Wong. As the Harper mandate struggled in its final years, so too did its profile in British Columbia – not an uncommon life cycle for aging governments. Only Ed Fast and Alice Wong remain in Parliament from the Harper cabinets.
Eclipsed by other regions
For many Liberal governments in the Pearson-Trudeau-Chretien eras, it was often a case of being “west of the best” or so it seemed. BC had many capable ministers during this time but very few national personalities that one hearkens back to when remembering an era. Ron Basford may have the strongest claim for cabinet legacies. The Martin government went in a stronger direction for BC but it’s lifespan was short. Harper’s team started off strong but seemed to fade down the stretch. Good people, good ministers, but lacking a sense of oomph.
Conservative cabinets have seen BC eclipsed by Conservative-crazy Alberta, which has established the storyline for much of the past 40 years. Alberta had leader (1976-83) and Prime Minister Joe Clark (later Secretary of State for External Affairs and lead constitutional negotiator) and Deputy PM Don Mazankowski. The demise of the PCs was born in Alberta too with Preston Manning’s Reform Party. The evolution and return of the conservative movement was an Alberta story – Stockwell Day (who ran for leader of the Alliance from Alberta before moving to BC) and Stephen Harper led in succession. Harper’s cabinet also featured prominent Albertan personalities such as Jim Prentice, Rona Ambrose, and Jason Kenney, who may well be the next in a procession of Alberta Conservative leaders.
British Columbians have risen to prominence in the NDP, although not usually to the top. Tommy Douglas led the party from a base in BC for a time. Rosemary Brown, Dave Barrett, Svend Robinson, and Nathan Cullen have all been serious national leadership contenders, though unsuccessful.
There’s one major disadvantage: Distance. How many people want to fly 3000 miles back and forth each week? Time spent traveling is enough to dissaude anyone, especially those with younger children.
A point of regional unfairness is that BC ridings have more population than most provinces due to Canada’s constitutional side deals. The vast expanse of Skeena has far more constituents than ridings in Saskatchewan, Manitoba or any in the Maritimes. How does that make sense? It makes a tough job even tougher.
Political culture. Federal politics is more abstract to British Columbians. While we saw 70% turnout in the recent election, BCers do not live and die by federal politics. If they did, Keith Baldrey might report on federal politics more than twice a year. But they don’t. BC media outlets have only two reporters in Ottawa (Vancouver Sun and the Tyee). Provincial politics is the main sport and drives the media’s and the public’s interest.
Protest over politics. We have often gone the other way when Canadians elect their governments. BC abandoned PET in 1980, cut down the PC team in 1988, and kept Chretien on a short leash.
Then there’s the network. It’s tough to aspire to national leadership when the critical mass is elsewhere. Kim Campbell remains the only BC-raised prime minister. Alberta has figured out how to gain national office, but no one here. HH Stevens may have had the first good chance in the dying days of the RB Bennett government but he passed on it. E.Davie Fulton was a thorn in Diefenbaker’s paw, but finished third to Dief in the 1956 PC leadership, and third again trying to succeed him in 1967. John Fraser tried in 1976. Hedy Fry and Joyce Murray both made quixotic bids to lead their parties but were never in contention.
Of course, fewer BC politicians speak french than in eastern provinces. This has been a drawback in climbing the greasy pole. James Moore does, but he is another BC politician who has ruled out a national bid.
Prime ministers have been piled up like cordwood from Quebec, Ontario, and Alberta. Even Saskatchewan has had its run; BC has but one brief stint from one of its own prior to her electoral slaughter. Where have been the Finance Ministers from BC? Many excellent ministers from BC have served at the cabinet table, but my overall assessment is that we, as a province, haven’t been exceptional in the federal arena. In part, because many have chosen not to run.
Unlike any Liberal prime minister since his father in 1968, Justin Trudeau has more than a handful of MPs to choose from in BC. However, BC will have to be patient. ‘Heavyweight’ cabinet ministers usually don’t start out that way. 13 of 17 Liberal MPs from BC arrive in Ottawa with no federal experience. It will take time for BC’s new ministers to learn the ropes and gain effectiveness in the race for competing resources.
Trudeau is probably the first elected prime minister in Canadian history to claim extensive BC roots and a strong family connection, though Quebec rightly has first claim.
I wish the new BC appointees patience and perseverance. BC’s clout in cabinet over the years has been checkered. Let’s hope they elevate BC’s priorities to their rightful place.
UPDATED (November 2015):
BC netted two major cabinet portfolios with the appointment of the Hon. Jody Wilson-Raybould (Justice and Attorney-General) and Hon. Harjit Singh Sajjan (Defence). Hon. Carla Qualtrough (Sport and Persons with Disabilities) rounds out the BC cabinet delegation.
Both Wilson-Raybould and Sajjan represent Vancouver seats while Qualtrough is one of five Liberal MPs elected south of the Fraser.
When is the last time BC’s delegation has been entirely made up of rookie MPs? I’m not sure there is a precedent in the past 100 years.
UPDATED (JULY 2018):
Hon. Jody Wilson-Raybould and Hon. Harjit Singh Sajjan continue to serve in their major portfolios. Hon. Carla Qualtrough received a promotion to Public Works and was affirmed in that role in July 2018. Hon. Jonathan Wilkinson joined Cabinet on July 18 as Minister of Fisheries & Oceans, following in the footsteps of other BC ministers like David Anderson, Herb Dhaliwal, Tom Siddon, John Fraser, Jack Davis, Rt. Hon. Justin Trudeau’s grandfather, Jimmy Sinclair. Historical list of Fisheries & Oceans ministers here.
** This post was taken from a number of sources and not always easy to piece together BC’s federal voice. If there are any sins of omission or commission, please comment. Thank you.
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