The Bill Vander Zalm era of British Columbia politics is unique in ways too numerous and complex to detail here. He remains to this day a charismatic, energetic person of charm and intensity, something he nurtured but was also clearly born with. He sits in one of two large leather chairs in his home office, a little bungalow detached from the main house that is his home, on a farm in Ladner. He still answers the telephone for calls about the nursery business he has run, in some form, his entire professional life: “Van’s. Bill here.” The business is mainly bulbs, tulips of course, and predominantly lilacs, and there is not much he doesn’t know about this line of work. Still, the tumultuous years of his political career are what capture most people’s attention, even today.
He is in great demand: “Four or five fundraisers each month that I attend personally, and almost always donate bulbs or young plants, to help the cause.” The causes range from Doctors Without Borders, through various schools, and on to organizations like Surrey’s Luke 15 House. “I really like what they do there,” he says. “The question is asked, ‘What do you do with kids after they are released from the programs?’ So often, they revert to their old social group, and all those bad habits. But Luke 15 tries to provide real skills and self-esteem they can use in life.” He pauses, smiles, and says, “Lillian and I have a group over to the farm once in a while. We give them a shovel and some cedar saplings, and they spend a day planting trees. Lillian makes them a lunch, and they always say to us that they are exhausted at the end of the day, and that they really enjoyed it.”
He has been largely out of politics for 20 years. The interpersonal skills and resolve that saw him into a cabinet post, and eventually the at-once tumultuous and productive premiership is still amply evident. Also, Mr. Vander Zalm is a very good listener. It is easy to see why people gravitate to him. He was drawn into politics because of an issue, a redevelopment plan for a park area in Surrey. He presented a case to Surrey City Council, in favour of preserving the park. Eventually he and his group lost that battle, but he was drawn to the fray, and was eventually cajoled and convinced to run first for civic office, then provincial. He was even courted by Pierre Trudeau to consider federal politics at one point, early on.
Still, his tenure as premier was rife with controversy, much of it, in hindsight, generated by internecine warfare within his own party, although today Mr. Vander Zalm has no rancour or regret about any of it. “I always spoke my mind, and acted on my principles and the needs of the people first. I did not realize how difficult it is to make change in the government bureaucracy—something I would take a different approach on if had to do it over.” Not that it was an unproductive cabinet portfolio and subsequent premiership. As minister of municipal affairs and transportation, he oversaw the advent of SkyTrain, and as premier, the sale of the Expo lands to Concord Pacific, the building of the Alex Fraser Bridge and the East-West Connector in Richmond, the effective implementation of measures aimed at governmental fiscal responsibility, and the list goes on. But still, his stands on issues such as abortion, transportation and rural representation were lightning rods for partisan criticism back then, and he still stands by his opinions. “B.C. is the size of Western Europe. We have almost everything you could ask for, and yet we can’t seem to solve certain issues.” I mention the “myth” surrounding politicians that, once they are elected, their main job becomes getting re-elected. He smiles, leans forward a bit and says, “Well, that is not a myth. It is a fact. And it is why things don’t work as well as they could, and why we still can’t solve social problems that exist out of our own neglect in the first place.” He sits back, and says, “There were tough times, being premier, but on the whole, we did okay.”