David Barrett, Canada’s first Jewish premier and, according to one obituary, “without doubt the most exciting orator produced in (British Columbia) in the past century, by turns a rabble-rousing firebrand, an Old Testament scold and a Borscht Belt comedian,” died of Alzheimer’s disease on Feb. 2 in Victoria. He was 87.
A social worker by training and a gifted politician by inclination, Barrett served as B.C.’s New Democratic premier from September 1972 until December 1975, sandwiched between the father-and-son Social Crediters, W.A.C. Bennett and Bill Bennett.
“He cared deeply about the province and devoted much of life trying to make it a better and fairer place to live,” wrote his family in a statement.
Barrett’s “visionary leadership and unflinching commitment to the well-being of ordinary people around the province led to lasting change,” B.C.’s current premier, New Democrat John Horgan, said in a statement.
“In just one short term, his government delivered our first modern ambulance service, the Agricultural Land Reserve and public auto insurance. We are all better off, thanks to his tireless work and immeasurable contributions to public life.”
Recalled as a scrappy street fighter who revelled in the rough-and-tumble world of politics, Barrett was known for delivering quick, disarming quips.
“No one who heard a Dave Barrett give a political speech full bore, all stops pulled, ever forgot it,” read a tribute written by Vaughn Palmer in the Vancouver Sun. “He was a master of the populist style, able to segue from unforgiving denunciations of his opponents to withering ridicule in an instant, never unsure of himself, never less than formidable.”
He could be “funny as hell too,” Palmer added, as when opponents called him a Marxist and he fired back: “Groucho, Harpo or Chico?”
The adjectives came fast following his death: wisecracking, flamboyant, shoot-from-the-hip, plainspoken. He once boasted that he could “deal with anything anyone throws my way.” And few doubted it.
By today’s standards, Barrett “was not one of those robotic politicians who are scripted by their speechwriters,” remarked Henry Srebrnik, a professor of political science at the University of Prince Edward Island. “He’d be politically incorrect today.”
No one who heard a Dave Barrett give a political speech full bore, all stops pulled, ever forgot it.
– Vaughn Palmer
The CJN duly reported the election of Canada’s first Jewish provincial premier at the time. “Though not active in Jewish communal life, he did serve professionally for a period as executive director of the Vancouver Jewish Community Centre,” noted a front-page story on Sept. 8, 1972.
Barrett continued a tradition set by another B.C. legislator, Henry Nathan of Victoria, The CJN pointed out. Nathan was elected to the House of Commons in 1871, when British Columbia joined Confederation, and became Canada’s first Jewish MP.
Barrett’s election even caught the eye of the foreign press. Referencing the seemingly unbeatable W.A.C. Bennett, the front-page headline in the London, England-based Jewish Chronicle was: “Giant-killer Canada’s first Jewish Premier.”
Barrett was born in Vancouver on Oct. 2, 1930, the youngest of three children of Rose Hyatt, who came from just outside of Odessa in Czarist Russia, and Winnipeg-born Samuel Barrett, who had sustained serious injuries in the First World War, from a gas attack in the Battle of Passchendaele, among other incidents.
Barrett was raised in a cauldron of secular, left-wing politics. He described his father as a “very gentle Fabian socialist,” and his mother as a “rabid feminist” and a communist “who thought Joe Stalin was a pretty good guy.” She raised money for Norman Bethune’s ambulance service in China and took Barrett along with her to rallies in support of the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War when he was a boy. His parents got divorced in 1954.
Sam Barrett was a fruit and vegetable pedlar; his horse-drawn wagon was a fixture on the streets of the family’s East Vancouver neighbourhood. As a young boy, David Barrett would help his father and once recalled that they would give away unsold food at the end of the day.
Barrett was the only Jewish student at Seattle University, a Jesuit institution where he studied the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. Back in Vancouver, he worked with foster children at the Children’s Aid Society, but realized he needed more training, so he earned a master’s degree in social work from St. Louis University.
After a year working as a probation officer in the juvenile court system in the U.S., he returned home to work at the new Haney Correctional Institute, which was located just east of Vancouver. But he was fired for openly politicking at a time when civil servants were forbidden from seeking public office.
He was elected to the B.C. legislature in 1960 for the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the precursor to the NDP. Being an MLA in those days was not a full-time job, so at the same time, Barrett worked as a social worker with the Jewish Family Service Agency and served as the executive director of the Vancouver Jewish Community Centre, according to his son, Dan Barrett.
He was re-elected under the NDP banner in 1963, 1966 and 1969, the year he was chosen as party leader. In the book, Like Everyone Else But Different, McGill University historian Morton Weinfeld noted that Barrett was elected without any significant Jewish voting bloc in his riding.
His term as premier was reform-minded and prolific; his government passed more than 400 bills – on average, a new law every three days. The NDP under Barrett created the Insurance Corporation of British Columbia and the Agricultural Land Reserve, both of which were retained by the Social Credit and Liberal governments that followed.
He also instituted a PharmaCare program, a mineral royalties tax and a powerful labour relations board that strengthened bargaining rights. Barrett’s NDP raised pensions for the elderly, increased support for the disabled and hiked welfare rates. It lowered the drinking age to 19 and even banned pay toilets and spanking in schools.
“Barrett’s government dragged the province from the 19th to the 21st century,” noted a sympathetic obituary in the online news magazine, The Tyee.
The only thing blue about me is my 1974 Volvo.
– David Barrett
But confronted once by a reporter who suggested that some of Barrett’s comments at a news conference sounded a little conservative, the premier retorted: “The only thing blue about me is my 1974 Volvo.” He challenged conservatives who disliked government regulation to rip up their health-care cards and mockingly offered to remove all traffic lights, too.
Were at least some of Barrett’s policies and ideas informed by his Jewish sensibilities?
“That’s a difficult question because although he was the first Jewish provincial premier in Canadian history, he and most of his supporters ignored that fact,” Winnipeg-based historian Allan Levine told The CJN.
In his younger days, Barrett was active in B’nai Brith and, later, worked as a social worker with the Jewish Family Service Agency. Apart from a few passing references in Barrett’s memoirs and mentions of him being Jewish in various obituaries, there was nothing publicly linking him to his Jewish roots or the larger B.C. Jewish community, Levine claimed.
“His electoral victory in 1972 for the NDP was much more about the fact that so-called ‘socialists’ had gained power in the province,” Levine said.
Yet, Barrett acknowledged that he “was always very conscious of being Jewish. I was very aware that I was the first Jewish premier,” he told Vancouver’s Jewish Western Bulletin in 1988. “I’m proud of being a Jew,” he told The CJN the following year.
We are all better off, thanks to his tireless work and immeasurable contributions to public life.
– B.C. Premier John Horgan
Asked if he ever faced anti-Semitism during his political life, he recalled that “there have been instances, but nothing traumatic. That is part of public life … you subject yourself to all kinds of attacks. And there are people who will attack your religion.”
A lot of people forget, he added, that the early roots of the Social Credit party were tinged with a populist anti-Semitism “and some of that still lingered when I first became an MLA.”
Defeated in his riding in 1975 by just 18 votes, Barrett stayed on as the Opposition leader and returned to the legislature in a byelection the following year. He resigned from provincial politics following his party’s electoral defeat in 1983.
He was a popular radio host in Vancouver until he decided to try his hand at federal politics and became the MP for the riding of Esquimault-Juan de Fuca in 1988. Now in a position to comment on foreign affairs, he said he was “disappointed” by the Mideast peace process because the Palestinians “haven’t got their act together” and that Arabs working for peace were being “held for ransom” by Hamas.
Israel had “proven” by then that it could win any war, he told an audience at a Montreal synagogue in 1988. But he worried that the country’s image had shifted “from that magnificent Entebbe raid (in 1976), to being somewhat of an aggressor – a new and different role for Jews.”
In politics, perception was reality, he believed, and Israel was suffering from poor public relations.
He could not condone the Soviet Union’s treatment of Jews, he stated, and he refused invitations to that country because of its poor record on human rights. He also decried Canada’s “inexcusable” slowness in pursuing alleged Nazi war criminals here.
Audaciously for someone who had served in Parliament for just a year, Barrett ran for the NDP leadership in 1989, losing in a tight race on the fourth ballot to Audrey McLaughlin.
Barrett served until 1993, when he lost to the Reform Party’s Keith Martin.
Prior to Barrett’s presence on the political scene, the Jewish community in Victoria “was nearing extinction,” Rabbi Harry Brechner of the city’s storied Temple Emanuel-El synagogue told The CJN.
Although he was the first Jewish provincial premier in Canadian history, he and most of his supporters ignored that fact.
– Allan Levine
When Barrett became premier, “it signalled a kind of rebirth of dynamic Jewish life and, eventually, enough people and care to fully renovate our historic synagogue,” Rabbi Brechner said.
He had family in Israel and visited them on several occasions, said Dan Barrett. “He was always connected to the Jewish community. It was a big part of his life, even though he was not religious.”
In retirement, Barrett chaired two public inquiries into condominium construction and the New Home Warranty Program in B.C., and was a visiting scholar at McGill University in Montreal.
He was Canada’s only Jewish premier until 2014, when Tom Marshall served as interim premier of Newfoundland and Labrador from January to September of that year.
Barrett is survived by his wife of 65 years, Shirley (née Hackman); his brother, Isadore; children Joseph, Jane and Dan; and four grandchildren.