A Biography of H. R. MacMillan

416 pages,
ISBN: 1550171291

A Passionate Political Life

196 pages,
ISBN: 1550544268

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Lives of B. C.'s Yin and Yang
by Clive Cocking

British Columbia has always been highly polarized politically. The parties of capitalism and socialism have been the yin and yang of the province's history. So it should not be surprising that two of the most important builders of B.C. today were staunch philosophical opponents, the timber tycoon H. R. MacMillan and the socialist politician Dave Barrett. In different ways, each wrought enduring, beneficial changes.

Together, these two books tell much of this story. But not all of it. Biographies written by devoted fans and autobiographies of retired political leaders are customarily economical with awkward details, contradictory information, and pointed criticism. Ken Drushka, a veteran writer on B.C.'s forest industry, and the former NDP premier, together with his co-author, the journalist William Miller, have continued in this tradition. There is much to stimulate historical interests in HR and Barrett, but readers may well be frustrated by what has been left out.

Harvey Reginald MacMillan, who died in 1976 at the age of ninety, is a mythic figure in British Columbia. The builder of MacMillan Bloedel Ltd., one of the largest forest products companies in the world, he has always loomed in the public mind as a one-dimensional character, a hero to free enterprisers, a capitalist ogre to lefties. Ken Drushka's biography adds further dimensions to his hard-edge corporate image: HR's love of the outdoors, his openness to working with unions, his friendship with his eccentric writer-cousin, Mazo del la Roche, his generous philanthropy, and his decades-long intimate relationship with his secretary, Dorothy Dee. And yet it's not quite a warts-and-all portrait.

The most significant dimension is MacMillan's pioneering role in developing modern forestry in Canada. He grew up in poverty in rural Ontario, became interested in the new discipline of forestry at the Ontario Agricultural College, and went on to qualify as a professional forester at Yale. After a few years with the federal department of the interior, he went west to become B.C.'s chief forester in 1912. He promptly began to bring order out of chaos in a rampaging boom-ordering, for example, the first survey of B.C.'s forests-and to initiate scientific forest management. He also set the future tone of the forest service by promoting expansion of the forest industry, within the limits of new growth. But HR's most farsighted decision was to launch a major effort to develop global markets for B.C.'s forest products.

Disillusioned by a new government, MacMillan joined the private sector and, with a British partner, in 1919 created B.C.'s first timber export company. Its success was phenomenal: the first year profit was $250,000 on a $20,000 investment. Much of the book naturally deals with HR's struggles, and success, in building a thriving export business, gradually acquiring mills and cutting rights, and by 1951 merging with Bloedel Ltd. to become a fully integrated forest products company. But it also contains fascinating sidelights about his Second World War experience as one of C. D. Howe's dollar-a-year men, directing timber production and ship-building.

While chronicling his development as a successful businessman, Druskha is at pains to emphasize that HR nonetheless retained his belief in the need for sustainable forestry. It is a constant theme. The author quotes frequently from MacMillan's speeches and writings, but offers no independent commentary to show that he practised what he preached. It's not a convincing picture to those of us who are aware of the long-running public criticism of B.C. forest management practices.

Nor is Drushka's description of MacMillan's behind-the-scenes role in politics very satisfying. In the thirties, HR was the "ringmaster" for a supposedly non-partisan committee of business leaders who effectively rewrote the B.C. budget, pressuring the government into massive cutbacks. And in the early fifties, he helped organize and raise funds for a big business campaign to stop the socialists, the then strong CCF. These episodes have been sketched elsewhere and it's disappointing that Drushka did not find the means to provide a fuller account of these important events in the life of HR and British Columbia.

H. R. MacMillan's greatness lies in his pioneering contributions towards building B.C.'s modern forest industry, especially its global export success, which remains today the main engine of the province's economy. Drushka's portrait is good on this aspect-perhaps a bit too good to be true. Missing are the independent viewpoints and criticisms (and for gossip-lovers, juicy details on the Dorothy Dee affair) that would have made this a more complete, significant book. HR is a very friendly biography.

Dave Barrett's significance lies in his impact on the political culture of British Columbia. Like HR, he had humble origins, growing up in Vancouver's working-class East End during the thirties and forties. It was from his quirky, Jewish parents that he got his sense of humour and earliest political education. His father, "a very gentle Fabian socialist", was a fruit peddler who occasionally gave produce away free if he figured he'd made enough sales; his mother was "a Communist who thought Joe Stalin was a pretty good guy"; both were proud and stubborn, and they eventually divorced. After clowning his way through high school, Barrett went on to Seattle University and St. Louis University (both of them Jesuit schools), ultimately completing a master's degree in social work degree and gaining experience working with inner city delinquents. By 1956, when he returned to the Vancouver area to work for a corrections institute, Barrett had become a crusader for reform in the treatment of young offenders. An outspoken critic of B.C.'s policies, he promptly sought the CCF nomination, for which the government fired him in 1959. A year later, Barrett was in the legislature attacking-and learning from-the wily premier, W.A.C. Bennett.

It's here, as we really get into his passionate political life, that Barrett begins to fail his readers, particularly those with little knowledge of B.C. He neglects to sketch the context-that is, of the left's long struggles in B.C. and of the scandal-ridden Wacky Bennett era-and is so skimpy with details on his party's political battles that his achievement in leading the NDP to victory in 1972 is not conveyed with the great impact it had at the time. For the same reason, the massive changes that Barrett's government introduced-such as the Agricultural Land Reserve, and initiatives to gain a higher return from publicly-owned forest, mineral, and petroleum resources-do not appear as significant as they in fact have been. Nor is much enlightenment offered on some vital issues that have intrigued British Columbians, notably Barrett's clash with organized labour over back-to-work legislation and why he felt impelled to go to the polls when he did in the fatal 1975 election.

The rest of his autobiography reads like an anti-climax, but should not. With Barrett back in opposition battling Wacky's son, Bill Bennett, as he dismantled many of the NDP's initiatives, there was no shortage of dramatic, squalid incidents-such as the "dirty tricks" affair-in that harsh era. But the quick skim continues over that time and through his final political phase as a federal MP. He leaves the reader with more questions than answers about such key episodes as his role in fighting free trade and his run for the federal NDP leadership.

While H. R. MacMillan helped lay the base for B.C.'s continuing economic strength, Dave Barrett has left a lasting imprint on the political culture of the province. His feisty three years in government not only showed some of the positive possibilities of an activist government, but also convinced a great many British Columbians to demand a higher level of stewardship of the natural resources they own. It's not due to modesty that this legacy is not made evident in his autobiography, but more likely from lack of reflection. Barrett had an excellent opportunity to give readers a deeper insight into the politics of his time, the strengths and weaknesses of his leadership, the reasons for his party's decline, and even perhaps some ideas on how it might be revived. But he's content with a superficial account. In this way, Dave Barrett's autobiography-like his career-did not live up to its potential.

Clive Cocking is a freelance writer who among other things writes on Western Canada for the Economist.


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