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.

The MLA who expensed milk in tight times

And luxury resort stays, and non-existent dinners… latest in ‘Some Honourable Members.’
By Tom Barrett

Editor’s note: This is the nineteenth in our “Some Honourable Members” series, depicting the more dubious moments in B.C.’s political history, brought to you by veteran muckrakers Tom Barrett and Tom Hawthorn, one a day until election day.

UnknownIn a time of restraint, Peter Hyndman was a high flyer. Minister of consumer affairs in Bill Bennett’s Social Credit government, Hyndman was an urbane charmer who pundits thought might be the next premier.

As Hyndman’s career was taking off in the early 1980s, B.C. was being walloped by the worst downturn since the Great Depression. Bennett’s response was a highly publicized “compensation stabilization program” intended to hold down government workers’ wages.

But as the government proclaimed its intention to hold the line on spending, Hyndman was having problems with his own government spending. Clerk Alayne Falle had been questioning his expense accounts for months. She spoke to a senior ministry official, who laughed at her concerns. So she began to photocopy Hyndman’s claims.

Several months later, Falle had a cardboard box full of expense claims worth some $10,000. She gave it to her MLA, a New Democrat. The NDP gave it to the Vancouver Sun.

After wading through the documents, the Sun put together a list of questions for Hyndman. Hyndman said he’d be happy to answer them. At the appointed hour, two Sun reporters — Jes Odam and I — showed up in Hyndman’s office. While we cooled our heels in his waiting room, Hyndman slipped out a side door and hustled down to the legislature’s press theatre, where he announced that the Sun was subjecting him to an “arrogant inquisition” that he would have no part of.

“I want the Vancouver Sun to know that I will not be intimidated, that I will not be threatened,” he declared.

Hyndman turned the matter over the auditor-general, Erma Morrison, a move the government felt would be less damaging than calling a public inquiry or referring the matter to the legislature’s public accounts committee.

For the next several days, the Sun printed a series of questions for Hyndman, along with details from Falle’s photocopies. Hyndman had expensed everything, from cartons of milk from the CNIB convenience store on the legislature grounds to a $1,500 stay at a luxury resort in Arizona he said was part of a quest to learn about that state’s legislature.

There was a $61 claim for a dinner with Vancouver Sun publisher Clark Davey that never happened. Hyndman’s story was that he saw Davey walk through a restaurant just as he was paying his bill. He wrote Davey’s name on the back of the credit card receipt as a reminder to give Davey a call some time. Somehow, he said, the receipt was submitted by accident. (He paid the government back for that meal, along with another $265 in mistaken claims.)

For a recession-squeezed public, the item that stood out was a dinner at Vancouver’s Il Giardino restaurant with Hyndman’s wife and two other couples. The bill came to $374, including four bottles of Pouilly-Fuissé wine at $37.50 each — $97 a bottle in today’s dollars.

The auditor-general’s report was tougher than Hyndman had expected. Morrison found he had been “completely oblivious” to public sector expense procedures, and that he had been careless, inept and unbusinesslike.

Hyndman declared he would stay on in cabinet; three-and-a-half weeks later he resigned, saying it was for the good of the government and the Socred party. A week after his resignation, a lengthy RCMP investigation concluded there was no evidence to charge Hyndman with fraud. But by then, his political career was finished.

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

When ‘fisticuffs ensued’ in BC’s legislature

Fighting Joe Martin and his MLA ilk. Latest in our ‘Some Honourable Members’ series.
By Tom Barrett

Editor’s note: This is the seventeenth in our “Some Honourable Members” series, depicting the more dubious moments in B.C.’s political history, brought to you by veteran muckrakers Tom Barrett and Tom Hawthorn, one a day until election day.

220px-The_Big_PunchEven at the best of times, there are more than a few similarities between B.C. politics and a WWE Hell in a Cell cage match. But on some occasions, honourable members have tried to turn the people’s business into a real bare-knuckle sport.

Consider the Brawl in the Hall, when six foot, 210-pound Liberal tourism critic Rick Thorpe threatened to punch out five foot nine, 160-pound then-premier Glen Clark. The two were having a heated discussion outside the legislative chamber when Clark put his hand on Thorpe’s lapel.

“Get your hands off me or you’ll be down, bud,” growled Thorpe.

Clark wisely beat a quick retreat.

As a two-fisted lawmaker, though, Thorpe doesn’t measure up to “Fighting Joe Martin,” who served briefly as premier in 1900.

In 1902, Martin claimed to be leader of the opposition, even though opposition members preferred to be led by Richard (the People’s Dick) McBride. On Feb. 20, when members of the house rose to pray, Fighting Joe slipped into McBride’s chair.

“When McBride sat down, he found himself in the lap of his enemy,” Martin Robin wrote in his history The Rush for Spoils. “Fisticuffs ensued. Smith Curtis grabbed Martin and was seized in turn by Hugh Gilmour. James Hawthornthwaite, the Socialist MLA, incensed at the display of Predatory Capitalism, throttled Gilmour. E.C. Smith of the Kootenay, now witness to a class war, pummelled Hawthornthwaite.

“All the while, the tenacious Martin clung lovingly to McBride’s neck. A legislative stalemate had obviously been reached.”

In any legislative Lethal Lockdown Match, though, the victor might well have been the tempestuous Waldo Skillings, government whip in the days of W.A.C. Bennett. One night, during one of the around-the-clock sittings that Bennett favoured to push through his agenda, Skillings took on an opposition member who was haranguing the premier in the legislative dining room.

As Bennett biographer David Mitchell wrote in a 1983 piece for the Canadian Parliamentary Review, Skillings “slugged the offending member and shoved him down a flight of stairs. Surprisingly unharmed, the Opposition member climbed back up the stairs, kicked Skillings with great force in the shins, then rapidly retreated from the dining room.

“Waldo Skillings, limping, pursued; but, perhaps fortunately, could not catch up with him.”

Waldo Skillings. He was hardcore.

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

The booted minister who became a great chief

Frank Calder’s legacy far eclipsed a night in jail. Latest of ‘Some Honourable Members.’
By Tom Barrett

Editor’s note: This is the fifteenth in our “Some Honourable Members” series, depicting the more dubious moments in B.C.’s political history, brought to you by veteran muckrakers Tom Barrett and Tom Hawthorn, one a day until election day.

Frank Calder. Source:
Frank Calder. Source:

Around 5 a.m. one April morning in 1973, Victoria police came across a car stopped in an intersection a few blocks from the legislature.

The female driver and her male companion were both drunk. The cops took them to the station and locked them up for the rest of the night. The woman paid a fine; the man was not charged.

A fairly routine event except that the man was Frank Calder, the first aboriginal cabinet minister in Canadian history. He was about to become the first aboriginal kicked out of a cabinet in Canadian history.

Rumours of Calder’s night in jail circulated slowly around Victoria. When then-premier Dave Barrett heard the stories, he phoned Calder at home in northern B.C. In their history of the Barrett years, The Art of the Impossible, Geoff Meggs and Rod Mickleburgh recount one of the more unusual conversations between a premier and a minister of the Crown:

Barrett: “Frank, were you arrested in a car with a woman in the middle of an intersection and were both of you inebriated?”

Calder: “No. That did not happen.”

Barrett then phoned the Victoria police chief. Yes, he said, that did happen. When Calder got back to the capital, Barrett fired him. When he announced the dismissal to the media, Barrett refused to give a reason beyond “I’ve lost confidence in him as a cabinet minister.”

Calder revealed the rest of the story, insisting “this is not Watergate.” Said Calder: “This is not a criminal act. It didn’t involve public funds. As a matter of fact, I paid for my girlfriend’s fine, so what the hell are they worried about?”

Barrett has always maintained that he booted Calder because he denied the incident and not because of the incident itself. Others have wondered whether a non-First Nations minister would have been treated the same way.

There was also the question of Calder’s close ties to Barrett’s bitter New Democrat rival Tom Berger, a lawyer who handled what became known as the Calder case. As president of the Nisga’a Tribal Council, Calder spent years pushing his people’s land claims through the courts in opposition to both Social Credit and NDP provincial governments. A few months before Calder’s dismissal, he and Berger scored a landmark victory before the Supreme Court of Canada that would lead to the first modern First Nations treaty in B.C.

Did any of that influence Barrett’s decision?

In the long run, the incident did nothing to harm Calder’s reputation. He abandoned the NDP in 1975 to run successfully for Social Credit, losing his seat by a single vote — 750 to 749 — in 1979.

In 1988, Calder was named an officer of the Order of Canada. In 2004, he received the Order of B.C. In 2005, the Globe and Mail named him one of the greatest British Columbians of all time. When he died a year later, aged 91, the Victoria Times-Colonist wrote that, “thanks to Frank Calder, ‘Chief of Chiefs’ of the Nisga’a people, British Columbia is a different — and better — place.”

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

Keep in mind, BC elections tend to be close…

By Tom Barrett

B.C. elections tend to be close. Over the last 40 years, only two have been decided by more than 10 percentage points. Only one has been decided by more than 10.1 points.

That’s worth bearing in mind as the election polls tighten. The latest poll, from Ipsos, suggests the New Democratic Party leads the BC Liberals by 10 points. The day before that, an Angus Reid poll suggested the NDP leads by seven points.

It’s a long way to election day, but a 10-point victory would be the third-largest margin of the last 40 years. A seven-point victory would be the fourth-largest in that period.

During the 1960s, W.A.C. Bennett’s Social Credit party beat the NDP three times by a margin of 12 to 13 points. But since the W.A.C. era ended in 1972 with an eight-point victory by the NDP, things have been much tighter.

Here are the results of the nine elections of the last four decades. The table shows the winner’s margin of victory in percentage points as well as the percentage of seats in the legislature the winner took.

Election Winner Margin Seat percentage
1975 Social Credit 10.09 64
1979 Social Credit 2.24 54
1983 Social Credit 4.82 61
1986 Social Credit 6.72 68
1991 NDP 7.46 68
1996 NDP – 2.37 52
2001 Liberal 36.06 97
2005 Liberal 4.28 58
2009 Liberal 3.67 58

The median margin of victory for this period is 4.82 percentage points.

The biggest victory by far was 36 points in the New Democrat wipeout of 2001, when voters went to the polls with pitchforks and torches looking to throw the bums out even unto the seventh generation. The narrowest victory was in 1996, when the NDP won with fewer votes than the Liberals. That wasn’t the first time in B.C. history that the party with the most votes lost. In 1952, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation beat Social Credit by four points on the final count, but took one less seat.

As that suggests, in our first-past-the-post system you don’t need to run up a big lead to win control of the legislature. The NDP took more seats in 1996 because their vote was spread more evenly over the province’s ridings, while the Liberal vote tended to cluster in places like West Vancouver and the Fraser Valley.

As the table above also shows, the size of a party’s victory doesn’t translate directly into seats in the legislature. It all depends on where a party’s votes are located and the strength of third parties.

The two charts below give a graphic illustration of just how close B.C. elections tend to be. If things get tight on May 14, it won’t be anything out of the ordinary.

(Click on chart to enlarge.)

Source: Elections BC
Source: Elections BC
Source: Elections BC
Source: Elections BC

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

The egged premier who scrambled, and won

Bill Bennett’s worst birthday. Latest in our snapshots of BC political history.
By Tom Barrett

Editor’s note: This is the thirteenth in our “Some Honourable Members” series, depicting the more dubious moments in B.C.’s political history, brought to you by veteran muckrakers Tom Barrett and Tom Hawthorn, one a day until election day.

Unknown“I should let the assholes have the province,’ the premier said, checking his forehead for blood. “I don’t need this. I just don’t need this.’

Bill Bennett had just smashed his head on the overhead luggage compartment of his campaign airplane. It was the end of a long and lousy day in what looked to be a long and lousy election campaign.

The early days of the 1983 campaign were a shambles for Bennett and his Social Credit party. And on April 14, the day Bennett turned 51, things hit bottom.

Protesters in Terrace threw eggs at Bennett and his wife, Audrey. During a speech in Smithers, a First Nations heckler disrupted the premier’s speech until Bennett pulled a $20 bill from his wallet and waved it at the man, telling him to take the money and go back to the bar he’d come from.

Bob Plecas, the senior Bennett official who describes the day in Bill Bennett: A Mandarin’s View, calls it the worst birthday in Bennett’s life. It’s hard to argue with that assessment.

Bennett had looked unwell from the start of the ’83 campaign. In the middle of a speech his face would glow with the mottled shades of a ripe plum and his sentences would become slurred and barely coherent.

Meanwhile, New Democratic Party leader Dave Barrett was having a whale of a time, joyfully parrying Socred attacks while pounding Bennett for B.C.’s flailing economy.

A few days after the Smithers incident, Bennett’s handlers pulled him off the road, saying he was sick and needed a rest. When the premier returned to the hustings it was on a reduced and tightly controlled schedule that avoided contact with the media as much as possible.

The message underlying the Socred campaign was a response to the recession and to voters’ dislike for Bennett. Tough times require a tough guy, the Socred message implied, and Bill Bennett was one tough guy.

According to the standard narrative, Barrett was cruising to victory when he announced in the final days of the campaign that an NDP government would dump Bennett’s restraint program, which put a ceiling on civil service wage increases. Barrett himself credits that moment — and a live response by Bennett on the BCTV News Hour — with his loss.

In fact, as Plecas points out, Social Credit’s internal polls indicated that Bennett had turned things around and was leading before Barrett’s gaffe. In any event, the tough guy pulled off a remarkable feat, winning re-election with 50 per cent of the vote and an increased seat majority in the face of the worst downturn since the Great Depression.

After the election, Bennett would give British Columbians some real restraint, bringing in a sweeping set of Reagan-and-Thatcher inspired reforms that provoked chaos and threats of a general strike. The 1983 campaign would be Bennett’s last; in 1986 the tough guy was replaced by the beaming Bill Vander Zalm.

Out of office, Bennett wasn’t out of the news. In Jan. 1989, he was charged in an alleged insider trading scheme, along with his brother, Russell, and forest tycoon Herb Doman. The three were acquitted in court, but a B.C. Securities Commission panel found all three guilty of securities violations in 1996, suspending them from the market for 10 years.

The news wasn’t all bad for Bennett, though. In 2005, the Liberal government named a new bridge across Okanagan Lake after him. In 2007, he became a member of the Order of British Columbia. And, Plecas relates, one day a First Nations man from Smithers showed up in Bennett’s Kelowna office to apologize and return the $20.

Bennett, Plecas writes, “was so surprised and touched that he forgot to ask for the interest.”

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

The ‘Honest Bob’ who was jailed for bribery

By Tom Barrett

Editor’s note: This is the eleventh in our “Some Honourable Members” series, depicting the more dubious moments in B.C.’s political history, brought to you by veteran muckrakers Tom Barrett and Tom Hawthorn, one a day until election day.

Every jurisdiction has its crooked politicians, but British Columbia was the first in the Commonwealth to send a cabinet minister to jail for crimes committed while in office.

Robert (Honest Bob) Sommers, a former school principal from Castlegar, was W.A.C. Bennett’s minister of lands, forests and mines in the 1950s. W.A.C. biographer David Mitchell writes that before being handed the job, Sommers told Bennett that he had once been a bit of a drinker and gambler and had gone through a “difficult period.”

Those bad days were in the past, Sommers assured the teetotalling premier.

Within a few years of assuming the portfolio, however, Sommers began to have money troubles. Rumours began to circulate that the minister was open to bribes. A private investigator told Bennett there was nothing to the stories, but people continued to talk.

In Feb. 1955, Liberal MLA Gordon (Bull of the Woods) Gibson rose in the legislature. Gibson, a booming orator who had made millions in the logging business, told the house that something in the B.C. forest tenure system reeked.

“I firmly believe that money talks and that money has talked in this,” Gibson declared, demanding an investigation. At these words, Mitchell writes, “there was pandemonium, with members from all sides yelling at one another until the Speaker called for adjournment.”

When the charges hit the next day’s press, Gibson declared that “the Socreds were caught where the hair is short” by the outcry. When the house sat next, Gibson was thrown from the chamber for refusing to withdraw his allegations. He marched up to the public gallery. When an MLA sought to have him removed, Gibson roared: “I’m either a member on the floor of this house or a private citizen up here in the gallery.”

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The first MLA physically thrown from the legislature

Who was it? And why doesn’t this happen more often? ‘Some Honourable Members’ gets rowdy.
By Tom Barrett

Editor’s note: This is the ninth in our “Some Honourable Members” series, depicting the more dubious moments in B.C.’s political history, brought to you by veteran muckrakers Tom Barrett and Tom Hawthorn, one a day until election day.

Dave Barrett
Dave Barrett

One of B.C.’s more peculiar democratic traditions goes by the name of legislation by exhaustion.

From time to time, as opposition MLAs have became too disputatious, governments held all-night sittings, forcing their opponents to talk around the clock. As the sittings ground on, even the most forceful filibuster would eventually run out of gas, allowing the government’s agenda to limp into law.

Those all-night sittings produced some memorable confrontations between sleep-deprived members, who were often braced by the odd snort from a bottle of bottom-drawer scotch.

Although no booze was involved, one of the lowest moments came in October 1983, during debate on then-premier Bill Bennett’s restraint package. The package, a series of bills that slashed the civil service, suppressed union rights, cut social services, repealed human rights legislation and centralized power in Victoria, set off a backlash led by the B.C. labour movement.

When the New Democratic Party Opposition roused itself to fight the bills, Bennett opted for legislation by exhaustion. At around 4 a.m. on Oct. 6, with backbench MLA John Parks in the Speaker’s chair, the NDP moved for the house to adjourn. Parks refused the motion and soon found himself in a convoluted procedural exchange with Opposition leader Dave Barrett:

Parks: Would you be kind enough to take your place?
Barrett: No, because I’m asking you: is that a ruling?
Parks: Did you rise on a point of order?
Barrett: Yes, I’m on a point of order. Is that a ruling?
Parks: Have you made the point of order?
Barrett: Yes, I’m asking if you’re ruling that you have the right to rule without a ruling.
Parks: Having made the point of order, I’d advise that you take your seat.
Barrett: No, I want a ruling.

And so on.

Eventually, Parks ordered Barrett to leave the chamber. Barrett refused. Parks called on the sergeant-at-arms’s staff, a group of older gentlemen whose main tasks involved filling water glasses and carrying messages.

On Parks’s orders, three of the sergeant’s men grabbed Barrett’s chair and tried to lift it. The chair toppled and Barrett fell to floor. The three then dragged Barrett, his arms crossed, out of the house and dumped him on the floor of the hallway outside.

It was a historic moment, the first time an MLA had been thrown bodily from the B.C. legislature.

But no footage exists of the incident. Cameras were banned from the legislative chamber in those days. Outside the chamber, at least one TV cameraman was in position to film Barrett being given the bum’s rush. But as Barrett was being dumped on the red carpet of the corridor, Speaker Walter Davidson stood by, threatening to yank the credentials of anyone filming the scene.

Nor is there an official written record of the great heave-ho. Hansard records Parks’s instruction to the sergeant’s men, followed by one parenthetical word: “[Interruption.]”

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

The labour minister whose Visa card was X-rated

Socred Bob McClelland paid the price. Our series of dubious BC political moments continues.
By Tom Barrett

Editor’s note: This is the seventh in our “Some Honourable Members” series, depicting the more dubious moments in B.C.’s political history, brought to you by veteran muckrakers Tom Barrett and Tom Hawthorn, one a day until election day.

By Nikodem Nijaki via Wikimedia Commons
By Nikodem Nijaki via Wikimedia Commons

Late on the night of Feb. 26, 1985, B.C. labour minister Bob McClelland phoned a Victoria business known as Top Hat Productions. He’d had a fair bit to drink.

McClelland asked the woman who answered the phone if a girl could be sent to his room at the Chateau Victoria hotel. He asked how much he would have to pay for her company — about $100 an hour, as it turned out — and whether Top Hat took Visa.

We know these tawdry details because the Victoria police were watching Top Hat, one of about half a dozen escort agencies listed at the time in the Victoria Yellow Pages.

On Nov. 27, 1987, McClelland was called by the defence to testify in the trial of Top Hat’s operator, Arlie Blakely, who faced 19 counts of prostitution-related offences.

A Canadian Press account of McClelland’s court appearance describes him as “glum-faced,” entering the court by himself and refusing to look at the “nearly full” public gallery. He testified that a Visa receipt from Top Hat for $130 was indeed his.

A demand from Blakely’s lawyer, Robert Moore-Stewart, for “the story behind” the receipt was ruled out of order. McClelland told Moore-Stewart he did not tell the Top Hat receptionist what he intended to do with the girl.

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The BC mega-project that dwarfed all others

Wacky Bennett’s monorailmania. Latest in our look-back series ‘Some Honourable Members’.
By Tom Barrett

This is the fifth in our “Some Honourable Members” series, depicting the more dubious moments in B.C.’s political history, brought to you by Tom Barrett and Tom Hawthorn, one a day until election day.

Axel Wenner-Gren. Source: Wikipedia Commons
Axel Wenner-Gren. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Even in an era defined by grand schemes and rip-roaring resource exploitation, the dreams of Swedish vacuum cleaner tycoon Axel Wenner-Gren stood out.

The international financier, who produced among other things the Electrolux vacuum cleaner, sold W.A.C. Bennett’s government on a massive plan to develop a 10-million hectare swath of B.C., through the Rocky Mountain Trench from the Yukon border to Prince George. It would feature mines, pulp mills and hydro dams, tied together with a 290 kilometre per hour monorail that would cost a billion dollars. (That’s more than $8 billion in today’s money.)

The plan caught the attention of Life magazine, which wrote  in 1957 that “the land that Wenner-Gren would develop, now locally known as Wenner-Grenland, is an area of awesome beauty, of brilliantly coloured lakes, set in primeval forests of poplar and pine. The backed-up waters of the Peace River which runs from west to east would form the largest man-made reservoir in the world, 260 miles long and taking up to seven years to fill.”

The wilderness area — “almost the size of Ohio” — would be populated with “a string of 10 to 15 towns”; work on the dam would start in two years, the magazine reported.

Bennett and Wenner-Gren signed a deal that reserved the lands for the Swede’s company. Critics called it a giveaway; they were even more upset when they discovered that Einar Gunderson, a crony of Bennett’s and a former finance minister, was a director of the Wenner-Gren B.C. Development Co.

‘You will rue the day’

Opposition member Ran Harding called it “the biggest blunder ever committed by any government in B.C.’s history.” Harding warned Bennett: “You will rue the day you ever heard the name Wenner-Gren. The project will be the ruination of the Social Credit government.”

Wenner-Gren eventually lost enthusiasm for the potential of Wenner-Grenland and the monorail was never built. But Bennett’s government would dam the Peace as part of its “two rivers policy” that also saw development of the Columbia River’s power potential.

The Peace River power project is one of the biggest mega-projects in the history of B.C. It’s a measure of the times that the final outcome of Wenner-Gren’s vision pales in comparison to the original fantasy.

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