The Premier who was a reporter’s ‘fantasy’

No one sprouted weird headlines like the Zalm. Last in our series.
By Tom Barrett
May 14, 2013

Editor’s note: Alas, this is the last of “Some Honourable Members” — the addictive series by Tom Barrett and Tom Hawthorn reliving the most colourfully dubious moments in B.C. political history. Collect all 21 vignettes of shame here!

The Zalm
The Zalm

Bill Vander Zalm thought it would be nice if there were a quiet place in the legislature where folks could get together and pray. It didn’t stay quiet for long.

People complained that the so-called prayer room appeared to be reserved for Christian fundamentalists. Soon members of other faith groups began to show up.

During one lunch hour, a group of environmental protesters, including Muslims, pagans and a Sufi, dropped by and, in the words of Vancouver Sun reporter Keith Baldrey, sparked a “holy war.”

“Tolerance is ignorance!” declared a guitar-carrying fundamentalist.

“Peace is not always tranquility, sometimes it can be more exciting,” a woman replied.

“I heard something about Buddha here, and I didn’t like it,” said the guitar slinger.

“Buddha and Jesus were friends!” shouted a woman.

“Who says?” shouted another.

Wrote Baldrey: “A man watching the meeting from a hallway said between bites on his baloney sandwich, ‘It’s sure not like Sunday school.’”

For Baldrey and the other reporters covering the scene, it was just another day at the office. When Vander Zalm became premier in 1986, the surreal became the commonplace.

The Zalm lived in a castle in the middle of a biblical theme park called Fantasy Garden World. Whatever drifted through his head, it seemed, could pop out as a statement of government policy. And, like some giant weirdness magnet, he attracted strange people of all political types.

It was as if the 1986 election had punched a wormhole through the cosmos that dragged British Columbia into the eccentric orbit of Fantasy World.

Consider Vander Zalm’s trip to the Netherlands to shoot the movie “Sinterklaas Fantasy,” a semi-autobiographical production that, as Vancouver Sun reporter Gary Mason put it, saw the premier “riding a magical frozen rainbow across the world and landing in an Amsterdam canal.” (Well, he did say it was semi-autobiographical.)

Consider the anti-immigration activist and numerologist who claimed to be an economic advisor to the premier. Vander Zalm denied the story and said the paper that broke it should be banned.

Or consider the time Vander Zalm invited the Press Gallery to his office to watch him watch a video called Sex, Drugs and AIDS. The tape, part of a lesson on AIDS being considered by the Vancouver School Board, was a hot topic in the spring of 1987.

The 18-minute video explained how the virus spreads and showed interviews with HIV-positive men and women. Three young women talked about condoms.

Said Vander Zalm: “The part that troubled me most is the subtle message throughout the whole of it, starting from the very beginning, where it says ‘I want to have sex, but I don’t want to die.’” He called it “the longest condom ad I’ve ever seen,” adding: “It’s good for the condom makers.”

As the reporters quizzed him on what he planned to do about the video, Vander Zalm kept repeating the phrase like a mantra: “I want to have sex, but I don’t want to die.”

Whatever the topic, Vander Zalm always had time for the media. A morning news scrum involving the Zalm and the Gallery could last until the TV photographers’ tape ran out and provide enough news to keep reporters writing for the rest of the day.

Following one of these marathons, cabinet ministers would sometimes phone reporters to ask if the boss had invented any new policies involving their portfolios.

The love affair couldn’t last, though. Vander Zalm’s social conservatism upset many voters. His fondness for capitalists who didn’t belong to the Howe Street club peeved the party’s financial backers.

The Zalm era ended with a scathing report by conflict of interest commissioner Ted Hughes, who found the premier had used his office to help sell Fantasy Gardens to Taiwanese billionaire Tan Yu.

Vander Zalm was forced to resign; he was later acquitted of criminal breach of trust. True to the tenor of the Zalm years, the whistleblower who helped bring the premier down was Faye Leung, a realtor with a wardrobe containing several hundred flamboyant hats and a habit of delivering high-speed, high-pitched, high-volume monologues.

As she told Vander Zalm in a taped conversation she later released to the media: “Tan Yu got a good deal, you got a good deal, everybody got a good deal but I got the bum rap.”

Find Tyee election reporting team member and contributing editor Tom Barrett’s previous Tyee articles here. Find him on Twitter or email him.

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