By Charlie Hodge
I admit to feeling a tad numbed this week with the passing of two real characters in B.C. history: Dave Barrett and John Moelaert. I’m honoured to have known both men and considered them friends.
Most Hodge Podge readers undoubtedly recognize Barrett’s name far more than Moelaert, which from a public spotlight is understandable. However as a concerned advocate for human rights, health, environment and accountability Moelaert stands as equally tall. That’s not a slag on Davey as much as applause and gratitude for John and his lifetime of caring.
Barrett was one of the feistiest, enjoyable public figures I ever had the pleasure of interviewing or chatting with on a fairly regular basis as a journalist. Witty, sharp-tongued and well aware of what made a great news clip, Barrett never shied from a question or walked out of an interview. At least not with me.
His flamboyant, bombastic and often sarcastic style irked many yet endeared him to even more. If Davey had something to say one could rest assured he would pull no punches.
I remember with glee one day when he looked at me during a heated Q & A session and said, “I’ll make you a deal kid – you stop bullshitting with me and I won’t start bullshitting you.”
The left winger from Vancouver was elected B.C.s first NDP Premier in 1972 and though only in power three years had a huge impact on our province. It was Barrett who ushered in the Agricultural Land Reserve and the Insurance Corporation of B.C. which remain to this day despite much debate and detractors. His three years in office were chalked full of key decisions and actions passing an average of two laws or regulations a week his entire term including: Lowering the drinking age to 19, introducing Pharmacare, starting French Immersion in schools, creating the air ambulance service, establishing labour relations boards, and banning spanking in public schools.
As popular as he was, Barrett lost three elections in a row to the Bill Bennett led Social Credit Party starting in 1975. He then served as leader of the B.C. Opposition from 1976 until his party’s demise in 1983 after which he resigned as NDP leader.
Not done with public service, Barrett entered the Federal fray serving as Esquimalt-Juan de Fuca MP from 1988 until 1993 strongly fighting for pro-choice on abortion and constantly advocating for child care services and lobbying for effective support programs for street kids. In his later career he ran as a candidate for the Federal NDP leadership.
Barrett was awarded the Order of Canada in 2005 and a member of the Order of B.C. in 2012. Due to health issues he withdrew from the public spotlight enjoying time with his lifelong sweetheart and wife Shirley. He died after a long struggle with Alzheimer’s at age 87.
Perhaps less public but likewise effective and determined, Moelaert was an environmental advocate before it was a cool or hip thing to be. He dared to stand up in front of powerful corporations and big money and demanded they be open, accountable and responsible.
In the case of Moelaert I was fortunate enough to work with him briefly at the Capital News in the mid-70’s (when he played temporary editor) and together we broke one of the biggest news stories in the country that particular year: Uranium exploration in the hills near Rock Creek.
John sent me out for three days to scour the hills around the area in search of suspected drilling for uranium, which I indeed discovered and revealed. It opened a can of worms which led to major news stories regarding the Blizzard site owned by Norcen Energies over the next three or four years by myself and fellow reporter (later editor) Rainer Ziegenhagen.
It was John’s knowledge and insight into the world of uranium mining and its health concerns which instigated the awareness of that particular site and uranium mining concerns on a national level.
Born in Holland in 1930, Moelaert came to Canada in 1951 and was a published writer by 1958. Among many writing credentials he was the former editor-publisher of the Canadian Conservationist and Insight. During the late 70’s, after our stint together here, John served as a participant in B.C.’s Royal Commission of Inquiry into Uranium Mining and wrote the 1980 report Uranium Mining Is Not in the Public Interest. He was the president of the Kelowna Chapter of the Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility.
His various writing and photographic assignments sent him to 30 countries and in 1998 the Government of Peru invited him to produce a photographic essay to promote tourism.
His love of wildlife and the environment inspired him to begin of the B.C. Wildlife Park at Kamloops. He was also the creator of the Greenpeace logo.
John died last week in Courtney from pneumonia. He was also 87.
Davey Barrett and John Moelaert – two great Canadians whose lives made our world a better, safer place.