Bob Williams memoir, Using Power Well, offers plenty of plot twists in a remarkable life

The former NDP MLA and cabinet minister remains one of the most influential figures in B.C.'s political history

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      As Vancouverites gather in the streets today to mark the return of the Pride parade to the West End, it’s worth reflecting on how a great B.C. politician’s career in the legislature came to an end because of his sexual orientation.

      Between 1966 to 1976 and from 1984 to 1991, Bob Williams was a powerhouse politician in opposition and in government, brimming with new ideas that left a lasting and positive imprint on the province.

      Throughout those years as the NDP MLA for Vancouver East and for more than three years as a cabinet minster, he had a secret: he was sexually attracted to men.

      In his final term, just as it appeared as though the NDP would return to power after 16 years in opposition, a Social Credit appointee approached him outside a coffee kiosk at the east entrance to the legislature.

      According to his new memoir, Using Power Well: Bob Williams and the Making of British Columbia (Nightwood Editions), the man asked him a question with a “double meaning”.

      “I responded ‘Okay,’ picked up my coffee and started to head off,” Williams writes. “He repeated the question then laughed. It was then I recognized the key code word, in effect, ‘I know you’re gay.’

      “By then my back was to him and he was out of there,” the former politician continues. “I knew they knew I had a gay side, and did not know how they might use it.”

      Williams had seen what had happened to others, so he chose to resign before the next election.

      Reunited with natural father at 42

      Using Power Well focuses a minuscule amount of attention on Williams’s sexual orientation and instead tracks the remarkable arc of his life from being a poor East Side kid to one of the most influential B.C. political figures of the 20th century.

      He didn’t meet his birth father, Arthur Pritchard, until 1975 when he was 42 years old and at the peak of his political power.

      Williams writes that before he was born, Pritchard had been put in the Edmonds jail for “having carnal knowledge” of a woman who was not his wife—i.e., Williams’s mother—when they were both underage.

      She became an unwed mother and later married his adoptive father, David Williams.

      Pritchard was advised to leave town after he was bailed out of jail—and decided to go to California. He tried to remain in contact with Williams’s mother, but the letters, including a proposal and a wedding ring, were intercepted by his grandmother.

      It’s fascinating stuff and reveals how lives were routinely ripped asunder in those days by community conventions around morality.

      But the guts of Using Power Well centres around Williams’s key role in in the transformation of British Columbia from a backward oligarchy ruled by a charismatic populist, W.A.C. Bennett, into a modern province.

      Later in the book, Williams explains why bold public policies so rarely emerge nowadays due to the growth of a risk-averse provincial bureaucracy.

      As a result, he’s become a strong advocate of decentralizing B.C. government operations, granting far more power to the regions.

      Innovations transformed B.C.

      Williams makes a convincing case that the first NDP government under Dave Barrett was able to introduce so many innovations because Bennett had left such a small and weak civil service.

      In a legislative blitzkrieg with Williams at the centre of the action, the Barrett government created the Agricultural Land Reserve, ICBC, the B.C. Ambulance Service, a modern labour-relations tribunal, and a world-class land-registry system.

      Williams, who has an entrepreneurial bent, played a pivotal role in the Barrett government buying pulp mills and sawmills, as well as a passenger ferry service connecting Victoria with Seattle. It also created the SeaBus between North Vancouver and the downtown core.

      In addition, Williams helped lay the foundation for Whistler becoming a world-class ski resort by listening to the ideas of Al Raine, husband of Olympic gold-medal-winning skier Nancy Green Raine.

      And Williams ensured that globally admired architect Arthur Erickson would design Robson Square, including the B.C. Supreme Court building, without filling the space with towers.

      During these years from 1972 to 1975, there was a doubling of parks and wilderness areas, including the creation of Cypress Provincial Park on the North Shore, as well as the creation of the first Indigenous-owned resource corporation in Burns Lake. Plus, social housing was built on “an unequalled scale”, according to Williams.

      Williams reveals in Using Power Well that lawyer Bill Lane, a former UBC planning professor, “went through fourteen drafts right there in my office” before legislation was introduced creating the ALR.

      Another key bureaucrat, planner Alistair Crerar, worked with Williams in creating what he calls “an integrated resource management and land use planning agency”, which implemented the ALR.

      This Environment and Land Use Committee was comprised of 70 people “of a calibre and drive heretofore unseen in the Victoria bureaucracy”, he writes.

      Even after leaving electoral politics, Williams continued having a profound impact as a senior bureaucrat in the NDP government led by Mike Harcourt and later as the chair of ICBC. There, he played a pivotal role along with architect Bing Thom and businessman Gordon Smith in creating the SFU Surrey campus near Surrey Central Station.

      If I have any quibble with the book, Williams glosses over what might be his only real public-policy failure. As head of the Crown corporations secretariat in the Harcourt government, he played a key role in the B.C. NDP government pursuing a fast-ferries program relying on aluminum-hulled catamarans. This became a financial mess that dogged the party for years.

      That said, Using Power Well provides a long list of achievements by the secretariat, including carrying out initial work that led to the creation of the West Coast Express commuter-rail service and establishment of the Columbia Basin Trust.

      In the book, the former politician maintains that the minister he reported to, Glen Clark, overcompensated Herb Doman’s forest company for licences in Haida Gwaii taken to create a national park.

      According to Williams, Clark agreed that the government would cover the cost of capital and Crown land not paid for—unlike Williams and former Socred minister Ray Williston did when they only covered capital costs in taking back forest licences.

      “Sorry, Glen, you shouldn’t have done it,” Williams writes. “And now you’re the boss of a vast business empire for Jimmy [Pattison]. Only in BC.”

      Williams also reveals that his position as the deputy overseeing Crown corporations ended over a rift with the new minister, Moe Sihota.  This concerned the appointment of Barrett’s former deputy minister, Marc Eliesen, as the president and CEO of B.C. Hydro.

      Wise words for the future

      Williams remains a sage at 89, offering sound advice in his memoir about how to recapture control over the land base from corporations by introducing a regional-management system.

      He shares his thoughts on how to make economic use of B.C.’s many mountain peaks by learning from what’s happened in the Dolomites in northern Italy. And he zeroes in on the failure of governments to focus sufficient attention on how to capture far more of the benefits of rising land values for the public good.

      Williams has left a monumental legacy for B.C., even without going into detail about his critical role in turning Vancity into the most creative and socially and environmentally responsible financial institution in Canada. That’s the subject of an entire chapter in Using Power Well.

      And to think it was all done by a kid whose birth father had to flee the country because of a sexual relationship with his girlfriend makes it all the more astonishing.

      Williams doesn’t always say what people want to hear. And his damning indictment of ossified bureaucracies is just one of several examples in the book.

      But his is an essential voice in our province—and it’s so sad to think he was sidelined from the legislature and likely holding a major cabinet post because of outdated and discriminatory views on a person’s sexual orientation.

      On the day of Pride celebrations in Vancouver, let’s remember that and ensure that it never happens again.

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