Friday, May 10, 2013

The Mystique of W.A.C. Bennett

The Mystique of W.A.C. Bennett

By John Hall
The Daily Magi
July 1, 2042

William Andrew Cecil Bennett, PC, OC (September 6, 1900 – February 23, 1979) was the 25th Premier of the Canadian province of British Columbia. With just over 20 years in office, Bennett was and remains the longest-serving premier in British Columbia history. He was usually referred to as W.A.C. Bennett, although some referred to him either affectionately or mockingly as "Wacky" Bennett. To his close friends, he was known as "Cece".

Bennett was born in Hastings, Albert County, New Brunswick, Canada, one of five children born to Andrew Havelock Bennett and Mary Emma Burns. His father was a third cousin of Richard Bedford Bennett, eleventh Prime Minister of Canada. He left formal school in grade nine, during the First World War, to take a job in a hardware store, but would pursue correspondence courses as an adult to improve his knowledge and job potential. He joined the Air Force but the war ended before he saw active duty. At the age of 18, he and his family moved to Edmonton, Alberta and then to Westlock, Alberta, where Bennett's father operated a hardware store.

In 1927 Bennett married Annie Elizabeth May Richards, known as "May". In 1930 they moved to Victoria and then Kelowna with their two children, Anita and R.J. A third child, William ("Bill") was born in 1932. In Kelowna he joined the local Gyro Club, Masonic Lodge, the Kelowna Club, and was active in the United Church of Canada.

Bennett opened his own hardware store in 1927, in partnership with another man, and married soon afterwards. Bennett sold his interest just before the 1929 Stock Market crash, fled the tough Alberta economic conditions, and soon moved to Kelowna, British Columbia where he opened his own hardware store, Bennett's Hardware. A successful merchant, he served as President of the Kelowna Board of Trade from 1937 to 1939. In 1932 Bennett, Giuseppe Guezzi, and Pasquale "Cap" Capozzi established a wine-making company to produce wine from the vast surplus of Okanagan apples going to waste during the Depression. Three years later Bennett and Capozzi, both teetotalers, concluded that there was no market for their apple wines and switched to making wines from California grapes. In 1936 they established Calona Wines, the name a phonetic spelling of Kelowna. Bennett departed the company in 1940 to enter politics.

Bennett tried for the British Columbia Conservative Party's South Okanagan nomination for the 1937 provincial election, but was unsuccessful. For the 1941 election, he won the nomination and entered provincial politics as the Conservative member of the British Columbia Legislative Assembly for South Okanagan. Following the election, the Conservative and Liberal parties voted to henceforth govern in coalition, an arrangement formally titled the British Columbia Coalition Organization.

As a coalitionist, Bennett was re-elected in 1945, but vacated the seat in 1948 in order to run, unsuccessfully, as Progressive Conservative candidate in the Yale federal by-election of that year. Regaining the Coalition nomination for the South Okanagan seat, Bennett was returned to the British Columbia Legislative Assembly in the 1949 provincial election. After failing in his bid to become leader of the provincial Progressive Conservative Party in 1951, he left the party to sit as an independent member. In December of that year, he took out a membership in the Social Credit League.

Commencing with the 1952 provincial election, the province used an alternative vote system that had been designed to enable the Conservative and Liberal parties to keep the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation out of power. Unexpectedly, this enabled Social Credit to win the largest number of seats, arguably because of second-preference ballots from CCF voters. With only 19 seats out of a total of 48, Social Credit fell short of holding a majority. The Socreds succeeded in convincing an Independent Labour Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) to support them and so were able to form a minority government. The party had no leader, however, and only three members had experience as an MLA. In a vote of the newly elected caucus, Bennett was voted into the position of party leader and premier-designate on July 15, 1952. Of the 19 votes cast, Bennett received 10, another received 2, and two more (including Philip Gaglardi) one vote each.

On August 1, he was sworn in as Premier of British Columbia, an office he went on to hold for 20 years, until 1972. Bennett engineered the defeat of his initial minority government with a school funding proposal, and forced an election in 1953. Social Credit was re-elected with a clear majority. Preferential voting was not used in BC again as Bennett, who had profited from the system, abandoned it following his 1953 victory.

The Social Credit Party won seven consecutive elections during W.A.C. Bennett's involvement and leadership: 1952, 1953, 1956, 1960, 1963, 1966, and 1969. The only election Bennett lost as a member of Social Credit was in 1972, the last election in which he was a candidate.

Following his party's defeat in the 1972 election by Dave Barrett's revitalized New Democratic Party (the successor to the CCF), he served as Leader of the Opposition until resigning his seat as member for South Okanagan in June 1973. His son, W.R. "Bill" Bennett, won the South Okanagan by-election in September. W.A.C. Bennett retired as leader of the Social Credit Party on November 15, and his son Bill Bennett was elected leader of the BC Social Credit Party on November 24, 1973. NDP Premier Dave Barrett dropped the writ and sought re-election in the fall of 1975, the Socreds were returned to power with 35 seats in the 55-seat Legislature, and W.A.C.'s son Bill became the new Premier of British Columbia, inheriting his father's mantle of power as well as many of his father's cabinet members. In 1976, W.A.C. Bennett was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. He died in 1979, and was interred in the Kelowna Municipal Cemetery, in Kelowna, British Columbia.

In 1998, the Government of Canada honoured W.A.C. Bennett with his portrait on a postage stamp of Canada. The W.A.C. Bennett Dam near Hudson's Hope, built under the Two River Policy, is named after him. The library at the Burnaby campus of Simon Fraser University also bears his name. He was featured on the cover of Time Magazine on September 30, 1966.

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