Bill Bennett’s time as premier of B.C. ended almost 30 years ago, in the summer of 1986. The era in which he governed is a distant memory to some. For others, it was long before their time.
Bennett died last week at the age of 83. He had been mostly out of the public eye since leaving the premier’s office. However, his 10-and-a-half years as premier led to B.C. entering the modern era that we are part of today. They turned B.C. into much more than a resource-based economy and the province’s political apparatus also changed dramatically.
These changes had a significant effect on Surrey, Delta and White Rock. Decisions made by his government still have a direct effect.
The biggest single change came as a result of two related decisions – the decision to host a world’s fair called Expo ’86 on former rail yard land in downtown Vancouver, and the decision to build a rapid transit line called SkyTrain.
Expo was controversial. A number of politicians and community leaders said it would be a waste of funds and expressed doubt that many people would bother to come. However, the decision to build a rapid transit line in conjunction with it changed many people’s minds.
Expo was a tremendous success from the time it was opened by Prince Charles and Princess Diana. It attracted visitors from all over the world and almost immediately led to significant boosts in investment, housing starts and property values. It truly put B.C. on the world map.
Around the same time as the SkyTrain decision was made, the province also decided to build the Alex Fraser Bridge. It significantly changed traffic, growth and development patterns, particularly in North Delta and North Surrey.
The original SkyTrain Expo line and the bridge opened in 1986, the year Bennett stepped aside. His successor, former Surrey MLA Bill Vander Zalm, and local MLAs Rita Johnston and Bill Reid, ensured SkyTrain was extended to Surrey, as had been originally promised. It arrived at Scott Road station in 1990 and came to Whalley in 1994.
For the first time, Surrey had a decent transit system. Prior to the opening of SkyTrain, the few local residents who used the transit system mainly used a number of express buses into Vancouver from Guildford, Whalley, North Delta and South Surrey-White Rock.
The Bennett government did a great deal more. The shift to get rid of locally elected hospital boards (and centralize the health system) had its start when the province replaced the elected Surrey Memorial Hospital board with a provincial administrator, after a standoff on abortion services.
Delta Hospital first opened in his time as premier, in 1977. This offered convenient acute health care to South Delta residents, who previously had to travel to Richmond or Whalley.
The Bennett government also reaffirmed the Agricultural Land Reserve, which had been brought in by the previous NDP government of Dave Barrett. There had been a furor over the ALR in the Barrett years, but the decision to keep it in place ensured the best farm land in Surrey and Delta remained in cultivation.
Social Credit was a true coalition under one party banner in Bennett’s era, and this area elected mostly Socred MLAs. Vander Zalm, who had been mayor of Surrey, was a notable recruit when the party rebuilt to challenge the incumbent NDP government in the 1975 election. He held a number of important cabinet portfolios until 1983.
In the hard-fought 1983 election, Surrey proved a crucial battleground and the party used many sophisticated techniques to identify and get its vote out. Johnston and Reid were elected in the two-member Surrey riding, and Bennett won his third term in office.
His legacy to this province and this region is considerable.
Frank Bucholtz writes weekly for The Leader.