Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Howard McDiarmid, doctor and politician who helped create a national park (1927-2010)

Dr. Howard McDiarmid won election to the B.C. Legislature as a Socred. He used his position to campaign for what became Pacific Rim National Park. He was photographed by Deddeda Stemler in Victoria in October, 2009.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
September 7, 2010

VICTORIA

Dr. Howard McDiarmid, who has died, aged 83, was a country doctor whose election to the British Columbia legislature aided a campaign to create a national park, turning the sleepy fishing village of Tofino into a global destination.

McDiarmid later built a world-class resort on Vancouver Island near Pacific Rim National Park, which includes Long Beach, a spectacular stretch of white sand.

The doctor served two terms in the provincial legislature as a Social Credit member under the leadership of Premier W.A.C. Bennett. It was a career decision to which his wife objected. “I married you for better or worse,” she told him, “but not for politics.”

In a province where politics is often practiced as blood sport, McDiarmid made friends on both sides of the aisle. He knew some regarded Socreds as “anti-union, right-wing zealots,” so he offered himself to the voters as a middle-of-the-road maverick. He succeeded in a riding of resource workers, many of them staunch trade unionists.

Though his party included many holy rollers and the premier himself was a well-known teetotal, an impassioned Legislature speech by the doctor on behalf of fellow imbibers earned him the sobriquet “the drinking man’s friend.”

The nickname immunized him later when he was charged by the RCMP for drinking a beer in public at a beach party. The charge, dismissed by a judge, failed to detour a re-election campaign.

McDiarmid had a round face, a ready smile, and prominent ears, which, combined with a rascally sense of humour, added to his boyish charm. He was an amiable raconteur not above telling stories at his own expense.

When diagnosed with leukemia four years ago, the doctor set to work on a memoir though he had never before written anything longer than a patient’s prescription. He hired an award-winning editor and enlisted Socred grande dame Grace McCarthy to write a foreword. He self-published “Pacific Rim Park: A Country Doctor’s Role in Preserving Long Beach and Establishing the New Wickaninnish Inn.” Copies sold for $18.95 at local groceries and at the resort.

The 103-page book is a funny, rollicking account of a raucous era in provincial politics. The author insisted the effort was worthwhile, though he printed just 300 copies.

“It was important to get the story out,” he told me last October, “before I croaked.”

A son of a bank manager, Howard Rihmond McDiarmid had a peripatetic childhood, as each of his father’s promotions made necessary a move to another prairie city. He was born in Edmonton on June 3, 2917, and grew up in Calgary, Saskatoon and Prince Albert, Sask., where as a boy he met an ambitious lawyer by the name of John Diefenbaker.

McDiarmid studied medicine at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, earning money for tuition in summer by working as a bellboy at the Banff Springs Hotel. He also made an early foray into the political ring in his senior year, when he ran for president of the students union, only to soon after withdraw.

He had been dating a nursing student who went to work in Bermuda while he began an internship at Vancouver General Hospital. He traveled to the British colony to woo the young woman, as he recounted in his memoir. “One afternoon we were sitting on a hill overlooking Hamilton Harbour, the blue ocean contrasting with pastel houses, sailboats bobbing in the wind, which prompted me to say, ‘Let me take you away from all this.’ ” Two days later, she accepted his proposal.

On a grey, drizzly January day, the doctor arrived by flying boat to begin duties at the hospital in Tofino on the west coast of Vancouver Island. “I wondered who should be more fearful,” he wrote years later, “me or the townspeople, my future patients.”

His workweek was divided between the fishing village (population 400) and Ucluelet (pop. 800), separated by 42 kilometres of a washboard road. He also handled the medical care for several aboriginal communities. The area was so isolated in the 1950s that it was the custom to chalk one’s purchase on a blackboard at the lone gas station for future payment.

The doctor estimated he delivered about 100 babies every year. His own growing family included three sons. The fourth pregnancy of the former Lynn Honeyman was problematic, as she suffered from fatigue, nausea and vomiting. McDiarmid prescribed samples of a wonder drug left by a salesman. The symptoms disappeared, but the decision proved tragic. The drug was Thalidomide. A baby girl, named Karen, was born with facial deformities and severe mental handicaps. She was institutionalized, dying young.

“Lynn was the only woman I gave these samples to,” he wrote. “The guilt if I had given them to others would have been more than I could bear.”

A desire to preserve as a national park the glorious mixture of rain forest and scenic coastline on the west coast of Vancouver Island led to his contesting a seat in the provincial general election in 1966. His quest seemed unlikely to end in victory, as the New Democratic incumbent had won five consecutive elections over 14 years.

The local Socred campaign raised $18,000, a tremendous sum then spent in an eager and freewheeling fashion. “We put on free salmon barbecues and greeted workmen at the end of midnight shifts, and no beer parlour was safe from us.” He even imported a Trinidadian musician he had befriended during a Caribbean holiday.

Because regulations barred campaign signs within 500 feet of a polling station, an aircraft was hired to fly at that height while trailing a banner reading, “Stay on top. Vote McDiarmid.” The doctor won the seat with 6,039 votes, while the NDP’s John Squire took just 4,321.

In a speech in the Legislature in Victoria, McDiarmid surprised many by noting the spectacular Long Beach in his constituency needed to be preserved as a federal park, as some 7,000 campers were “defecating, micturating and copulating” amid its splendors. It is thought many of his fellow MLAs were stumped by at least two of those words.

The new MLA served on the government benches for almost three years before he finally got a face-to-face meeting with Premier Bennett. An election was pending and he wished to press for park status and for improvements to a notoriously treacherous highway in his riding.

“Besides the switchback sections and the sheer drop, there were potholes as big as washtubs, and protruding rocks lying in wait to puncture an oil pan,” he wrote. “Most locals who had to use the road carried two spare tires, extra oil, food and, in winter, sleeping bags.”

The premier asked how much improvements would cost. Having done his homework, McDiarmid cited a figure of $2.3 million. Bennett reached by telephone the deputy highways minister, who confirmed the estimate.

While still on the line, and without making any other consultations, the premier announced, “It’s just had Treasury Board approval.” Such were the efficacies of one-man rule.

The premier also made a vow: “You will get your park.”

The promise of an improved highway helped McDiarmid win re-election in 1969, though by only 529 votes.

In 1971, to mark the centennial of British Columbia’s entry into Confederation, a dedication ceremony was held at the Long Beach section of Pacific Rim National Park. (McDiarmid had originally hoped the park would be named for the explorer Captain James Cook.) Princess Anne was in attendance, as was Jean Chretien, the federal Indian affairs minister. McDiarmid marked the occasion by wearing a traditional Nuu-chah-nulth conical hat of cedar bark.

That same year, his motion opposing the shipping of Alaska oil by supertanker along the British Columbia coastline received unanimous approval.

Meanwhile, the doctor moved to the Victoria area, where, in the 1972 provincial election, he challenged Dr. Scott Wallace, a Scottish-born Socred who had crossed the floor to sit as a Progressive Conservative. Wallace crushed his rival, taking more than twice as many votes as the arriviste, who found consolation in feeling he was rejected for having “too many rough edges for wealthy, sophisticated Oak Bay.” Social Credit lost the government to the NDP and McDiarmid could only shrug as an NDP MLA cut the ribbon when the highway improvements were completed.

McDiarmid spent a decade working as a doctor in California. He returned to Vancouver Island, where he enlisted investors to build a resort in Tofino. The Wickaninnish Inn on Chesterman Beach took as its name that of a storied hotel that had been converted into a marine interpretive centre after the creation of the national park. The new resort opened in 1996.

It had been his hope to write a second volume of memoirs about the building of the inn.

Howard Richmond McDiarmid was born on June 3, 1927, at Edmonton. He died of cancer on Aug. 25 at Royal Jubilee Hospital in Victoria. He leaves Lynn, his wife of 55 years; sons Charles, Bruce, and James; and, five grandchildren. He was predeceased by a daughter, Karen.

No comments: