Wednesday, May 4, 2011

The Boss versus the carpetbaggers

By Tom Hawthorn
Boulevard Magazine
May, 2011

Anscomb Place is a tiny cul-de-sac running off Beach Drive in Oak Bay. It is home to tidy gardens fronting five attractive bungalows. Hardly anyone knows the street, or the man after whom it is named.

Herbert Anscomb was born in England, came to Canada at age 11, and, at age 33, was elected reeve of Oak Bay despite a dirty campaign. In those days so soon after the end of Prohibition, rivals tarred Anscomb as a brewery man. He worked for the Victoria-Phoenix Brewing Co. Ltd. As a bookkeeper. He kept the accounts, but a drop of the amber liquor was said to have never touched his lips.

A few years later, a delegation appeared at his front door demanding he run for mayor of Victoria. He did so, and won again. In 1933, during the depths of the Depression, he won election to the Legislature as an independent candidate for Victoria. Anscomb subsequently contested elections as a Conservative, serving in the cabinets of Coalition government, including a stint as finance minister, during which he introduced B.C.’s first sales tax.

Introducing a new sales tax is not good for the prolongation of political careers.

More recently, the fallout from the harmonized sales tax led to a sudden reconfiguration of the political landscape. Premier Gordon Campbell resigned; a caucus revolt convinced the Opposition leader to do the same; both major parties engaged in simultaneous leadership campaigns. You’re watching the third act of a lengthy production when all of a sudden the curtain drops only to rise to reveal new leads. Now starring as premier: Christy Clark. Her rival: (pending as of this writing as five understudies lobby for the position).

Every premier works in Victoria and every premier establishes a home here, however temporary, but they seem never to be a part of the city.

The premier is British Columbia’s most prominent public servant — better known than any local member of Parliament, more powerful than any mayor. Yet, even the longest serving premiers have only a tenuous connection to the capital city. The premiers are carpetbaggers, come-from-aways whose political base is elsewhere and for whom Victoria serves as a 9-to-5, M-Th workplace.

Vancouver Island politicians do not fare well on the provincial stage. Carole James, who grew up in Victoria, resurrected the NDP over two election campaigns only to succumb to her own party’s knives. Of the 11 leadership candidates vying for the leadership of the Liberals or NDP, only one, John Horgan, hailed from the island.

To find the most recent premier from the island, you leaf through the pages of history past Campbell, Ujjal Dosanjh, Dan Miller, Glen Clark, Mike Harcourt, Rita Johnston, Bill Vander Zalm, Bill Bennett, Dave Barrett, and W.A.C. Bennett before stopping at Byron (Boss) Johnson, who left office 59 years ago.

When we moved here in 1997, Johnson’s former home was for sale on a quiet Fernwood street, a short walk from Vic High, from which he had graduated. Johnson had success with a construction supply company started here with his brother. After losing an election, He moved to New Westminster where, in 1939, he built a large home in the Tudor Revival style in the Queen’s Park neighbourhood. He sold it shortly after becoming premier, returning to Victoria and the neighbourhoods of his boyhood.

(By the way, he was known as Boss not for a dictatorial bent but as a play on his Icelandic birth name. Björn is rendered as a diminutive as Bjossi, pronounced bee-yuss-ee. In English, this became Boss.)

The disconnect between the Old Rockpile and the city is startling. For a capital city, it is remarkable how few modern politicians have been commemorated here. Where are the streets or public facilities named for Bennett pere or fils (a combined 31 years as premier)?

We have named streets for colonial figures and Spanish explorers, for warships and survey vessels. One of our major thoroughfares is Johnson Street, but that honours a colonial figure and not Boss Johnson.

After six decades, the capital deserves another Boss. Let’s put another Victorian in the premier’s office. To encourage contenders, let’s promise to rename a street after the lucky politician. I have just the road in mind. Vancouver has a Victoria Drive and Victoria has a Vancouver Street. Too confusing. Let’s rename ours. I think (Your Name Here) Street has a nice ring.

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