Glen Clark (Profile)

On this occasion at least, there was some truth to the B.C. leaders stump hyperbole. Environmentalists greeted the decision to limit development, in a region compared to Africas Serengeti, in glowing terms.

Clark, Glen

Clark, Glen

For an announcement that could have been contained in a two-page fax, the event was imbued with as much symbolism as public relations stagecraft could devise. There was the dramatic, cedar-vaulted setting of the First Nations Hall of Learning on the University of British Columbia campus. There was ceremony in the flowing syllables of the Coast Salish language, as a Musqueam elder invoked the Great Spirit and Mother Earth. There were bright young faces, bused in from a Grade 9 class in Squamish, and stirring, large-screen video visuals of large animals in vast scenery, set to a symphonic sound track. And at the centre of it all, a beaming politician. "Today," B.C. Premier Glen Clark told the audience invited to hear him announce the creation of a nature preserve larger than Nova Scotia, "you are witness to a milestone in our history. This is a global treasure."

On this occasion at least, there was some truth to the B.C. leaders stump hyperbole. Environmentalists greeted the decision to limit development, in a region compared to Africas Serengeti, in glowing terms. "This is globally outstanding, a gift to the earth," said Monte Hummel, president of the World Wildlife Fund (Canada). More unusually, oil executives also endorsed protection of the untouched Muskwa-Kechika wilderness in the provinces northeast (they will get relaxed development rules outside the protected zone). But for Clark, even choreographed displays of agreement are becoming increasingly rare. More often lately, the 39-year-old premiers agenda has been dominated by confrontation.

Private sector critics accuse the New Democrat of "declaring war on business" - while the provincial economy stagnates. In the capitals of the neighboring U.S. states of Alaska and Washington, Clark is persona non grata, while relations between Victoria and Ottawa hit a new low last month when Clark branded the national government as "treasonous" for failing to support his tussle with the two states over salmon. Among premiers seeking constitutional peace with Quebec, Clark has stood out for his reluctance to join the debate. Meanwhile, his domestic rivals on the right are putting aside differences that helped split the vote in the May, 1996, election and keep the NDP in power. By most measures, Clark has little to smile about. That the scrappy former union organizer continues to exude a nearly supernatural degree of confidence says something about British Columbians' fondness for a good fight, as well as about his character.

Despite the good-news aura of the conservation announcement, until late last month senior advisers harbored doubts that Clark would sign on to the proposal. In the last week of September, officials from the B.C. environment ministry packed the premier, along with a video camera and two lobbyists - one representing the oil industry, the other environmental causes - aboard two A-Star 350 helicopters for a tour of the region. Under rare cloudless autumn skies, Clark flew for nearly seven hours over high brown plateaus, alpine slopes and lush river valleys unscarred by development - an area wildlife experts say is the largest intact ecosystem of large predators and their prey outside of Africa. An estimated 27,000 moose, 18,500 elk and caribou, 9,000 Stones sheep (the worlds entire population of the big-horned mammals), and 5,000 mountain goats sustain 1,000 wolves and 500 grizzly bears, amid some of the most spectacular wilderness on earth. Set down briefly atop a towering grey butte overlooking twin lakes, the city boy from working-class east Vancouver gazed out in unfeigned awe over the turquoise water 300 m below and marvelled breathlessly: "Theres a very high possibility that no human being has stood here . . . ever!"

The package Clark ultimately approved provides special protection for a huge swath of the northern Rocky Mountains. More than one million hectares are set aside for complete protection from development - mainly the steady march of drilling rigs along the vast oil and gas reserves of the eastern Rockies. Resource companies will be allowed to operate in another 3 million hectares, but under close environmental controls. At the same time, officials said, red tape would be eased in the rest of northeastern British Columbia to allow for stepped-up development.

Welcomed as it was by environmentalists and industry alike, the Muskwa-Kechika compromise was a rare success for Clarks gloves-off style of politics. On other fronts, his government faces mounting problems and growing isolation. With economic growth trailing all provinces except Newfoundland and Nova Scotia last year, and house prices dropping in many Vancouver neighborhoods, it is apparent that the B.C. economy has stalled. The two factors most often blamed: an ebb in wealthy Asian immigration - and NDP policies that have burdened forestry, the provinces biggest industry, with the worlds highest operating costs. The former may be beyond Victorias control, but forest policy consultant Les Reed blames the woes of the forestry sector mainly on the NDPs new Forest Practices Code, designed to reduce loggings environmental impact. "The government has its abyss just a step away," Reed predicted last week, "in terms of ballooning deficits, swelling unemployment rolls and the wreckage of its entire forest policy."

The fight Clark picked in the summer with British Columbias American neighbors over salmon, meanwhile, has bogged down in the trench warfare of the courts. A decision by the B.C. government to sue Alaska for failing to live up to the terms of the Pacific Salmon Treaty put Clarks picture on front pages as far south as California - but shows little sign of compelling concessions from the Americans. Meanwhile, the B.C. premier was omitted from talks between Ottawa and Alaska that produced an agreement to restore ferry service between the U.S. state and Prince Rupert, cut off by the Americans after 200 Canadian fishing boats in the B.C. port blockaded the American ferry Malaspina for three days in July (Alaska is suing the boat owners for compensation for that disruption).

Clarks relations with his fellow first ministers in discussions over the future of the country are not much better. In offhand moments, he is contemptuous of the Atlantic provinces - "Theyre client states of the federal government." And he dismisses Saskatchewan Premier Roy Romanows drive to forge a constitutional offer to Quebec from the rest of the provinces by as early as January as "a discredited, elite process of premiers getting together and cutting a deal." Insists Clark: "That process has no chance of success."

Clark is still smarting from the memory of having championed the Meech Lake and Charlottetown accords only to see public opinion in his province reject both deals. This time, he refuses to step out ahead of his constituents. "I want genuinely to hear British Columbians tell me what they think I should do," Clark asserts. "This is why I get so annoyed by people, including Mr. Romanov, who keep trying to say, 'Constitutional change, for Quebec, by December.' Each one of those things prejudges consultation." Clark says he will name a panel in the next few weeks to hear B.C. voters' views on national unity - but will not force it to march to Romanows timetable. And while he expects British Columbians to endorse change on some issues - a stronger federal role in social programs, for instance, in exchange for more local control over the fishery - Clark sees no future for the constitutional recognition of Quebecs differences that Romanow is seeking. "I believe British Columbians will be strongly supportive of Quebecs role in Canada, including its uniqueness," he says, "provided we dont get into constitutionalizing it."

As Clarks enemies' list grows, his opponents are mending fences. Just 24 hours before last weeks announcement protecting the Muskwa-Kechika, the regions representative in the legislature, Peace River North MLA Richard Neufeld, abandoned the B.C. Reform party to join the official Opposition Liberal caucus. "A year and a half ago, we split the vote," Neufeld said, explaining his decision. "And weve been regretting it ever since." His move left the NDPs majority unchanged - the party has 39 seats to the Liberals' 34, after Neufelds defection, while Reform and the Progressive Democratic Alliance have one each. Further consolidation of the self-styled "free-enterprise alternative" to the New Democrats may lie ahead. Gordon Wilson, the former Liberal leader who is the Alliances sole sitting member, has said he will decide by the end of the month whether to retire from politics - a decision that may trigger a byelection in his Powell River riding.

But if Clark, the son of a Scottish immigrant, is daunted by the number of skirmishes he is provoking on diverse political fronts, he does not show it. "There are always bumps in the job," he says. "But actually, things are going really well." Proud of his populism, Clark moves easily among ordinary voters. During his recent visit to the Muskwa-Kechika area, leaning back on the porch of an outfitters lodge, he looked at home in rumpled blue jeans and the same cowboy boots he wears to ride his secondhand 600-cc Honda Shadow motorcycle. "I dont believe in government that tries to muddle through and not offend anybody," Clark concedes. "Government is to take action, to do something and make changes. That has put me at odds with establishment opinion."

And in many B.C. kitchens, his combative readiness to take on David-against-Goliath odds strikes a resonant chord. Many of the callers to DArcy Rinalds daily talk show on Vancouver Islands CKEG radio station are unemployed forestry workers. Others stand to lose their jobs at the Nanoose naval base if Clark is able to make good on his threat to close the facility as part of his campaign against American overfishing of salmon (the Americans use the base for testing torpedoes, and Ottawa has taken Victoria to court to oppose the move). Even so, a straw poll among Rinalds listeners in September suggested most preferred Clarks New Democrats to their rivals. More scientific, provincewide polling by Vancouvers MarkTrend Research, meanwhile, has shown Clark consistently ahead of the rest of his party in popularity, while voters opposed to the NDP continued to divide their support between Reform and the Liberals. "The bombast is working - Clark standing up to the Americans," notes Rinald. "It has an appeal."

In British Columbia, it also has tradition on its side. In a province whose geography often seems overwhelming, politicians with oversized egos have prospered. From the self-christened Amor de Cosmos, British Columbias second premier, through the long tenure of Social Credit patriarch W. A. C. Bennett and including former NDP premier Dave Barrett, the most successful B.C. leaders have seldom shrunk from a battle. But critics say Clark should learn to focus his fighting instinct. "Hes a scrapper," observes former Liberal MLA Barry Clark (no relation), now host of a talk show in Kelowna. "But Bennett was more selective in what he chose to scrap about. He didnt scrap for the sake of scrapping, which Glen does."

If Clarks bare-knuckled attitude is part of B.C. political tradition, last weeks park announcement was in step with another long tradition: trophy public works projects. In de Cosmoss day it was railways - encouraged by lavish land grants to their backers. Later, Bennett built hydro dams and highways. Now, it is parks. Clarks Muskwa-Kechika is larger than the Tatshenshini reserve that his predecessor Mike Harcourt created. It might have been bigger still. Before Clarks cabinet approved the protected area, advisers jokingly considered telling their competitive premier the land reserve was big - but still smaller than one in Alaska. Clark, they reasoned, would not be able to resist tacking on a little more wilderness if it put British Columbia - and himself - in the spotlight.

The Other Unity Debate

Residents in the Rest of Canada - those dwelling east of the Rockies, that is - could easily be forgiven for believing that a tide of separatism is rising in British Columbia. Conservative Senator Pat Carney set off the noisiest rocket when she returned from travelling the province for several weeks in a motor home - to muse in an interview that British Columbians should negotiate its place in Confederation - and consider secession as "an option" if it was not satisfied with the results. But Carney was hardly alone. The same notion is developed at length in the current issue of Vancouver magazine, which hired Gen-X author Douglas Coupland to edit a special issue dedicated to the fictional creation of an independent Vancouver in 2001 "after years of Ottawas arrogant and city-bashing policies."

Months earlier, the provinces official constitutional adviser, Gordon Wilson, included secession among choices he said the government should consider in the wake of any future crisis over Quebec. Even Premier Glen Clark, who distanced himself from Carneys comments, agreed last week that B.C. secession "will be part of the discussion if Quebec decides to leave Canada." And radio talk shows and letters-to-the-editor columns were flooded with expressions of support for Carneys outspoken stand. "She hit a chord," said Nanaimo radio host DArcy Rinald. "People are talking about it - the marriage breaks up, who gets the car, who gets the house."

In fact, federalists have little to fear from the far west - for the time being, at least. "The reality is that British Columbians dont want to leave Canada," observes Daniel Savas, senior political analyst in the province for the Angus Reid Group. "They want more of a role in Canada." According to Angus Reid research, fewer than 10 per cent of British Columbians believe that secession is even worth discussing in advance of a decision by Quebec - with barely one per cent of people surveyed in recent polls advocating it outright.

Still, some British Columbians are discovering that saying the S word aloud has its merits - if only because of the reaction it generates in Central Canada. "This is a tool more than anything else," suggested Savas, "to get Ottawas attention." The uproar evoked comparisons to the famous observation by Quebec constitutional expert Léon Dion, father of federal Interprovincial Affairs Minister Stéphane Dion, that the threat of separation puts "a knife to the throat" of the rest of the country in any negotiations over power. In that, at least, British Columbia may indeed be following in Quebecs path.

Maclean's October 20, 1997