Wednesday, July 20, 2011

B.C.'s last Conservative MLA muses on life in the wilderness

Victor Stephens (left) celebrates his 1978 byelection victory in Oak Bay with Dr. Scott Wallace, whom he succeeded as MLA. Stephens is the last Conservative to have been elected to the B.C. Legislature.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
July 20, 2011


The last man to have been elected to the B.C. Legislature as a Conservative is the answer to a trivia question.

Victor Stephens, a lawyer, won a byelection in the province’s wealthiest riding in 1978, only to be defeated the following year. He soon after quit as party leader.

His party has wandered in the wilderness for decades, as one obscure leader after another failed to revive the party of Sir Richard McBride and Simon Fraser Tolmie.

Victor Stephens
The Conservatives are back in the news under the leadership of John Cummins, a former member of Parliament who is stumping the province to re-establish his party as a right-of-centre alternative to the governing B.C. Liberals. In June, he pressed the flesh at a meet-and-greet event at a steakhouse in Williams Lake. Earlier this month, he toured Vancouver Island with stops at golf clubs in Chemainus and Port Alberni. Last week, his party launched a website and a radio advertising campaign against a gas tax.

It feels like this much fuss has not been made about the Conservatives since the war years and the glory days of Royal Leatherington Maitland.

Mr. Stephens quietly cheers on the effort to resuscitate a party with a name of greater historical resonance than electoral success.

“We’ve tried a number of times but haven’t succeeded yet,” he said. “Sooner or later, I guess we’ll win.”

The former leader turned 80 earlier this year. He long ago dropped from the political scene and is now so far removed from the hustle-bustle of city life that he can only be reached by satellite phone.

“I’m retired from practicing law,” he said, his voice breaking up in the stratosphere. “Bought 400 acres of forest land up near Boston Bar in the Nahatlatch River Valley. My brother and I have developed it. We’ve put in an RV resort and a three-hole golf course, built our own homes.”

The picturesque valley is home to such predators as wolves, cougars, coyotes, and bears (grizzly and black), so perhaps a spell in politics was good preparation for his retirement in the wilderness.

Mr. Stephens was born in Calgary to a blacksmith who had been wounded in action in France during the Great War. Victor attended the University of British Columbia, where he competed as a miler and cross-country runner. (One of his teammates was Jev Tothill, a future leader of the B.C. Liberals.) He went into law keen to help individuals being confronted by banks, insurance companies, or large corporations.

After a friend died suddenly of a heart attack, Mr. Stephens convinced his wife and three children, aged 10 to 14, to sell all their possessions and to drop out from civilization for a “Robinson Crusoe year in the New Hebrides” (now Vanuatu). The lawyer worked as a native advocate representing islanders facing criminal charges in court.

Back in British Columbia, he was encouraged to succeed Dr. Scott Wallace as party leader and to contest his Oak Bay seat in a byelection. Mr. Stephens won the constituency with 38.5 per cent of the vote. The victory party was held at the local Boy Scout hall.

A year later, he led the Conservatives in a B.C. election in which only Socreds and New Democrats won seats. During the campaign, which was held during a national election, he squabbled with Joe Clark, the federal Progressive Conservative leader. In the end, the B.C. Conservatives’ share of the vote increased modesty, to five per cent, but he lost the party’s lone seat, finishing in a disappointing third place. The B.C. Conservatives have not won a seat since.

“I gave everything I had. But the timing was bad, that’s all,” he said.

“There was a great fear of splitting the vote between the right-wing parties and allowing the NDP to get in. That was pretty much insurmountable.

“That might not be the case now.”

After returning to law, he watched his party slowly unravel. His successor as leader quit to cast his lot with the Western separatists. It has been a rough 33 years for die-hard B.C. Conservatives.

Even Mr. Stephens has let his membership lapse. He no longer has the stomach for politics.

“The law is an honourable profession,” he said. “Politics is not.”

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