Corky Evans bids a meaning-filled farewell

He talks about a new “religion”, a new “god”, and how “the top ten economies of the world that used to be countries became private corporations”

By David Thomson –

Corky-EvansM.L.A. Corky Evans’ farewell speech to the British Columbia Legislature is a most candid, thoughtfully crafted and moving rendition. From “good, old, independent, competitive free enterprise–type businesses, to monopolies, to sixty-year-old men who “sob in [their] pick-up truck”, he shares his perspective of 20 years of British Columbia’s progression through the actions of the British Columbia Legislature.

In his reflections he takes us back to “the dismantling of the Soviet empire and the fall of the Berlin Wall” and the prevailing notion “that the market had defeated the centrally planned economy, and now the market was god and could do no wrong”.

He talks about a new “religion”, a new “god”, and how “the top ten economies of the world that used to be countries became private corporations”.

He argues for “social democracy”.

He admits he’s “a bit of an anachronism”.

And he talks about his failures,  failing to note that the fundamental nature of “good, old, independent, competitive free enterprise–type businesses” is continual expansion, the pursuit of greater market share, the consumption of competitors, ultimately to morph into monopolies.

He mentions greed but not the corruption contaminating the law that now serves and protects private corporate interests and others who commit crimes against humanity.

But then he talks about “a chance to save [his] grandchildren Madeline and Dawson and Sydney’s planet”.

His sage advice is to “[f]ind another way to measure the success or failure…than gross domestic product. That measurement belongs to an era that needs to be finished now for the sake of the earth”.

He begs of “those of you who watch and those of you who care: don’t let this moment pass us by”.

Hansard Excerpts

Legislative Assembly of British Columbia


March 12, 2009

C. Evans: I’m pleased to rise to speak on the budget for the year 2009. In truth, though, that’s really only a context, sort of a procedural rationale, to allow me to speak on the eve of leaving this place in the spring of this year.

I want to start by saying it has been a great honour to serve. I want to thank the New Democrats of Nelson-Creston for being brave enough to nominate me 23 years ago. I know it was then a great leap of faith on their part to think they might make me into a credible MLA, and I’d like to thank the citizens of Nelson-Creston for sending me here on three occasions over two decades.

I want to thank all the wonderful people who taught me to do this work, starting with Anne Fraser-Moll, who had the tough job of trying to make me look credible; then Lone Jones, Christine Hunt, Jane Hertig, Ken MacLaren, Pradik Moda and on and on; and most recently, Lucy Mears. To list all the good people I was lucky enough to share this work with would take over an hour.

Lastly, I’d like to say that for every moment of the time I did this job, I did it as partner with my co-worker and friend, Sandy Korman. It is a truism of this job that somebody gets the credit, somebody’s name is in the newspapers and on all those lawn signs every time there’s an election, but that person is rarely responsible for whatever it is that they are credited with having achieved. In my case, none of what I might have achieved was done by me; it was all done by the great collective us.

I also want to thank my neighbours at home, who looked after me for the last 20 years when I was mostly unable to look after myself, and my family, who put up with this particular career choice and all that it has meant for all of us.

I want to thank the people who make this building and this job happen here at the Legislature — the folks who feed us, those who sustain the building and the men and women who manage to provide security and yet a welcoming ambiance at the same time. Almost nobody in the world gets to work every day in such a beautiful place as those of us who work here. Thank you to all of you who make it possible.

I made my first speech in this room on March 25, 1992. In that speech I tried to explain some of the raison d’être for my seeking office and some of the things I hoped to achieve here. I reread that speech recently to try and figure out what had worked and what hadn’t.

My rationale for running, as described in that presentation, pretty much came down to an argument for local control and against the idea of centralized decision-making. I thought then and, as a matter of fact, I still think that we run this province pretty much on a colonial model and that my time here ought to concentrate on trying to find ways to devolve power away from the Legislature or to share power with the people who live in the regions.

There was a bit of a list of objectives in that speech too. In the 1980s life was pretty tough in the Kootenays, and
[ Page 14463 ] we had some serious issues to resolve. The Columbia River Treaty topped that list of issues. The elders who sent me here asked for some form of recompense to deal with their sense of plunder that the treaty had visited on our people and our land. Plunder of the region was really the theme of that speech.

I suggested that we might resolve our land use disputes with a comprehensive land use plan; replace the Kootenay School of the Arts, which had been closed by previous government; stop the slow death of the orchard industry and try to learn to feed ourselves again; save the railroads and keep our highways from becoming subsidized industrial corridors; and try to bring an end to the parochial abuse of both our people and our land that the mountains had hidden for so long.

Some of that has actually come to pass. We rebuilt the Kootenay School of the Arts. We funded women’s centres. We doubled the parks system. We invented a partnership with the Crown to share the resource wealth of the great Columbia River, called the Columbia Basin Trust.

Then we took that partnership model, applied it to forest stewardship and created community forests in Revelstoke, Harrop, Creston, Kaslo and most recently Slocan and Nakusp — all of it in an attempt to invent a decentralized decision-making and marketing and wealth-generating model to replace the colonial style of management from here.

Selling the idea of decentralization and local control has not always been easy, regardless of who governed. I remember once when we governed and some of us were trying to convince the cabinet of the day to accept the idea that later became the Columbia Basin Trust and the Columbia Power Corporation.

I was in an argument with the minister of the Crown who did not, at the time, support the concept, and I asked the minister why she stood in the way. She answered: “Because, Corky, we differ on our understanding of the nature of this job, you and I. I think” — said the minister — “we were sent here to govern, and you think, on the other hand, that we were sent here to devolve governance.” That minister’s analysis was right on. That is what I thought, and 14 years later, leaving, that is what I still think.

In those days the notion of local control was just an experimental construct. It was untried and distrusted by both the capitalist right and the socialist left. Capitalists didn’t like it because it flew in the face of their idea of efficiency. They said: “Obviously, it is more efficient to manage everything from one office and one staff and one minister than to try to replicate management around the province.”

Socialists didn’t like it because the idea of the Crown, to them, was the way to ensure that all resources were always used to benefit the greatest good for the greatest number. They argued: “Who are some local people somewhere to say what happens to the wealth of the people?”

Now, though, the idea of local control and management of resources can no longer be said to constitute an experiment or a risk. Here’s the part I’m most proud of. Now we can say that it works.

It works not just from the standpoint of making healthy and sustainable decisions about land and water. It works from an economic and wealth generation point of view too. This is what the present government — the people who designed the present budget that ostensibly, at least, we are here to debate — have yet to learn.

Let me give you some examples. The government desires to create new electrical power for the province. That’s a good idea, and it has pretty much always been a good idea. So who is it that has produced the most green, utterly defensible and controversy-free electric power in the province over the last ten years?

Well, it’s the Columbia Power Corporation. That partnership between the Crown and local people that is Columbia Power has built the Keenleyside power plant on time and on budget, rebuilt the Brilliant dam and power project on time and on budget, and are about to start the Waneta project — and in every case produced union jobs, community stability, wealth and green electricity without flooding a single acre of land.

In forestry, too, it has been proven to work. Something like 21,000 people have been laid off in logging and sawmilling in British Columbia in the last two years, and mills keep closing that may never reopen again.

We in the Kootenays, of course, are having our troubles too, but in my constituency when I came here, we started out 15 years ago with seven sawmills. After reductions to the allowable cut in the interest of sustainability, after doubling the parks system from 6 percent to 13 percent of the land base and after making five community forests in the area, we still have today seven sawmills running in Nelson-Creston.

Why is that? I submit that it is, at least in part, because we have not fallen victim to the absolutely deregulated “Let ’em go do anything they want” crazy analysis behind the consolidation agenda of the present government. We have maintained a large degree of local ownership and free enterprise competition for logs, and we do not have monopoly control by anybody over our land base.

My thoughts on how we organize an economy and the risks of allowing monopoly capital in any region are not new. In 1948, the year I was born, Tommy Douglas said: “Political freedom by itself can mean being free to go hungry and without a job.” He said: “It can mean being free to produce commodities below the cost of production. Until we add economic freedom to the political freedom we already have, we will never be entirely free as men and women.”

He said: “Whenever the principal assets of our country are in the hands of monopolies and cartels, we believe that they should be owned by the people themselves. We believe that when any economic activity controls the life of a people, it should be owned by the people.”

I think that what Tommy Douglas was talking about is a philosophy that we call social democracy, which was first explained to me by my friend and mentor, log truck driver Bob Cunningham.

Bob explained to me that capitalism was simply the very best way ever invented to make sure that people could find work and feed themselves and eat and trade goods back and forth and better themselves, and that he, a socialist — a democratic socialist — was just fine with that. The trouble, he said, was that capitalism is also a disease which, like cancer, can get out of control and multiply exponentially within the host and kill the very body that it lives within — in our case, the body politic, our society.

Social democracy, according to Bob, was the medicine that was required to make capitalism work without allowing it to get out of control. While I’m pretty happy with some of the things we have managed to achieve at home, boy, have we ever allowed the cancer to get out of control here in British Columbia.

There are special words that we need to describe this kind of capitalism gone crazy that we see today, special words that some of us never even heard before. I was talking to a rancher the other day, and he used the word “oligopoly” to describe the meat-processing industry and the centralization of control that has happened in that industry during the time of the present government. Oligopoly is not a word any of us heard growing up. I first learned that word in correspondence from the manager of a logging company, talking about the consolidation and centralization of control that has happened in his industry, too, in this century, the time of the present government.

The Liberal mindset in British Columbia has pretty well destroyed the old idea of free enterprise in B.C. It replaced free enterprise with monopolies and oligopolies and corporate strangleholds on wealth and land and communities in just about every sector you can name.

We have over the course of the last few years centralized the distribution of food to the point that producers cannot even get the product into the grocery store in the very town in which they live.

We created a corporate computer system that encourages transnational mining companies to buy up the mineral rights that used to go to British Columbia prospectors — who did real, physical work — and to buy those rights without even leaving their office in New York or Bonn or Tokyo.

We have destroyed the independent fishing industry, where men and women for decades thought of themselves as the last real economic adventurers, and replaced their right to fish with corporate armchair fishermen who never go on the water and rent out their licences like land barons of old used to use sharecroppers to farm their land.

I cannot think of a single land-based industry that the Liberals have not managed to turn into some kind of fiefdom. I grant you that this has been an accomplishment without the overt bloodshed that we saw when the same thing happened in Scotland with the clearances, but the outcome is the same and the out-migration is the same, and it will result in the same kind of control. The oligopolies will be the new London rich, running the land on which the people used to farm, fish, run sheep and log.

[S. Hammell in the chair.] How in the world did we get into this mess? How did we take this province that we built and ran for a hundred years and turn it into somebody’s fiefdom? Why did our present government think it would be a really good idea to wipe out good, old, independent, competitive free enterprise–type businesses and replace them with monopolies?

Well, you can name the beginning of this kind of thinking anywhere you want. You could just say it started with Maggie Thatcher or the University of Chicago. I like to trace it back to 1989 and the dismantling of the Soviet empire and the fall of the Berlin Wall. When the Berlin Wall came down, instead of celebrating the end of the so-called dictatorship of the proletariat, the whole world seemed to come to the wrong-headed conclusion that the market had defeated the centrally planned economy, and now the market was god and could do no wrong.

The new temples of this religion would be built in the name of the new god, and they would be called think tanks. Governments were then considered an impediment to the sanctity of the market, and the top ten economies of the world that used to be countries became private corporations.

Here in British Columbia the free enterprise party, called Social Credit, would die, and the globalist party, the Liberals, would get itself born. Direction would come down to that government like stone tablets from the temple called the Fraser Institute. The people’s work in this building and in this room would become a sideshow.

I don’t think this Legislature is a sideshow. I know I’m a bit of an anachronism in this regard. I know it’s been popular in Canada for the last 25 years or so for politicians, even, to denigrate politics and public service and legislatures and legal and regulatory measures intended to limit excess, and even to denigrate the public service.

All of us in this room, on both sides, have been living through a time when we learned to call the employees of the Crown by the pejorative term “bureaucrats” in order to dehumanize them and strip their work of the honour and dignity and pride that used to accompany managing this land and human well-being. It reminds me of when the American people learned to call the Vietnamese people gooks in order to justify making war in their country.

In short, it has become hip to belittle the idea of the Crown and the function of this place to generate discourse or to resolve issues. One minister that we all know has even been known to suggest that politicians have better things to do than to serve the people in public, on the record and in this room. I despise this trend, and I would like to see it end now.

I think that government has to exist. I think that government has to raise taxes to do the people’s work and use those taxes to buy civilization. I think parliament has to exist and even meet and use the public record as a way to express alternative ideas about what that civilization should look like and how it should function.

I think there has to be a free press and not a monopoly press. The people who own that press actually have to employ people to report what happens here and to tell the story to whomever wishes to know.

None of this would happen if it wasn’t for this place and if it wasn’t for two sides — or maybe three or six, which I happen to think might be better yet — working here. This present government has for years operated on the view that government is a wasteful indulgence and that capitalism can manage anything better than the people can do it for themselves.

Where I live, the Crown used to plow the snow. Remember that? Now a company does it for profit. We used to run our own ferries here in British Columbia. We owned and sailed more ships than the Canadian navy. Now a company we don’t understand runs them, and companies we don’t know build them in Germany. Governments here for decades managed forests and built roads, and they created electricity. Now all or most of that is done by corporations.

This whole idea that governance is better done by corporations than by the state reminds me of the concept of the invisible hand popularized by Adam Smith centuries ago. Only in its modern iteration, the intellectual construct of Adam Smith has taken on a kind of mythological power — some would say the status of a god — in that the hand is assumed to exist and yet cannot be seen and therefore cannot be questioned.

I would agree that in the relatively esoteric world of finance or in the utterly practical world of land-based business like logging and farming, mining or fishing, private interests are the appropriate interests to manage and to profit from the enterprise. That’s why Bob Cunningham said that capitalism is the best way to make jobs and money.

British Columbia, however, is neither invisible, nor is it an enterprise. Adam Smith used the excellent metaphor of the pin factory to prove his thesis. British Columbia is not a pin factory or some kind of human creation. It is a land mass bigger than Oregon and Washington and California put together, and it belongs to the people.

It belongs more to its citizens in the utterly practical sense of land-ownership than any Canadian province or American state. It is our patrimony, passed on to us by the previous generations of good people working in this room who chose, unlike almost every other jurisdiction in the world, not to capitalize their society by selling the land or the water or the ore or the coal or the trees or the fish. In the simplest sense, it’s the people’s farm, and it takes real, practical, visible human hands to manage and sustain, not the invisible and mythical ones provided by some marketplace in the sky.

I submit that we who work here are the caretakers of the most publicly owned land mass of any democracy anywhere on earth. That makes the people in this room more capable of public good and more capable of failure than our counterparts almost anywhere.

So where are we in the world in history? The speculators out there and the greed specialists have pretty well killed the golden goose, eh? And the transnationals are lined up at the gate to suckle at the public breast. Wow. That worked really well, didn’t it?

The great experiment in replacing government with deregulated and unfettered capitalism has failed all over the world. And here, in this budget, the people are running out of bread, but on the eve of the Olympics we are being reminded to look forward to the circus.

The failures of the Fraser Institute faith are legion, but I’m sorry to say they are not alone in failure. I, too, on this side have failed to achieve a good many of the objectives that I set forward for myself in this place, and it would be unfair of me to suggest that only Liberals are capable of failure.

I’ve been pretty hard on this administration in this, my last speech in this place, but it would be stupidity if those of us on this side made the mistake of imagining that we, in our turn, have not been capable of failure. Way back in that first speech 17 years ago I said I wanted to put ranger stations back into Lardeau and Kaslo and New Denver so the communities could know the forest workers and the forest workers could manage the land that they lived inside of. I failed in that endeavour, and we, too, became enamoured of centralized government and moving the workers to some cities.

As Minister of Highways I personally laid off 400 surveyors that used to work for the people to measure their progress, and that was wrong. As Minister of Agriculture I supervised the closure of offices in farming communities and further alienated government from the people, and that was wrong.

I failed as Minister of Highways to turn the ministry of blacktop into a real Ministry of Transportation, with concern for railroads and water transportation and the issues of public policy that matter still to my constituents. I failed, too, to sustain the wild fishery and personally held the fishery portfolio while the federal Liberals privatized our cherished common property resource.

I failed, except on one occasion, to have the people’s equity listed in the budget documents alongside the people’s debt. I failed, in spite of asking for years, to convince any government on either side to end the idiocy of using gross domestic product as the measurement of our well-being. And in what I think must have been my greatest personal failure, I have not managed ever to make food and farming a part of the political or electoral discourse in British Columbia. Under all governments, we remain last in Canada in support for food production.

What those failures — and actually so many others — suggest, of course, is that some of the stuff we do here works and some of it doesn’t. We are, on both sides, after all, just people. We work in a really pretty place and do work that to me is almost sacred, but we remain just people in really nice clothes.

And nothing is over, hon. Speaker. The stuff that we haven’t done yet, or haven’t done well, is just the work that falls to the next generation of leadership. There will be an election in a couple of months. A whole new group of MLAs, I hope, will work here, joined, I hope, by a younger generation. I have just a little bit of advice for that new group of MLAs.

(1) When you get here, love the building and respect the people who work here, regardless of their station or their beliefs. You came here to argue your ideas and for your constituents, not to assume that you are more right or more important than anybody else.

(2) Refuse flat out to make decisions about land you haven’t seen or communities you haven’t visited. Go there, and then decide.

(3) Sorry, fellas. Refuse to say words that are not your own. You are not an actor; an election is not a screen test. You wouldn’t let anybody else put you in a box, so don’t do it to yourself.

(4) Respect the other side.
C. Evans: I lost my head. [Laughter.] Respect the other side. This place doesn’t work when there is only one point of view. We found that out from 2001 to 2005. If the other team didn’t exist, we would have to split in half and send a faction over there just to have somebody to bounce our ideas off.

(5) Find another way to measure the success or failure of the governments that work here in future than gross domestic product. That measurement belongs to an era that needs to be finished now for the sake of the earth.

(6) Listen up. What you cannot fix, leave alone. If you sell it or give it away, you foreclose the options of future generations.

I said all this because I think my generation’s idea — our very idea of leadership —needs to end right now. We thought, pretty much since World War II, that we could define our success and our failure by measurements of growth. We built a system to make ourselves comfortable by threatening the planet of our grandchildren. When new people come to work here, blame us old folks if you need a scapegoat. Ignore us if you can. Pretend that we just didn’t know any better.

You new people working here, on the other hand — those who work here after May 12…. They can’t help but know. The whole world knows now.

That generation will be the leadership elected into the moment of economic and environmental collapse. They will be the first generation of leadership elected with a mandate to change everything, because no party in these times would be so foolish as to try to run for office suggesting that they will maintain the disaster of the present status quo.

Here’s the good news about change. I think it’s happening already. Intellectually, you can read the demands for change in the pages of The Economist magazine and even in the speeches of the world’s super-elite in Davos, Switzerland, asking for re-regulation to save capitalism by limiting its capacity for excess.

Personally, I feel it happening inside myself. I was driving through Oliver a few weeks ago with a 45-gallon drum of fertilizer in the back of my truck, and I turned on the radio to hear the inauguration of the new President of the United States. Aretha Franklin started singing, and I found that I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t drive because I couldn’t see the road through my tears. When Aretha finished singing, I got back on to the road, and I made it as far as Osoyoos. Then the new President of the United States began to speak.

I hid my face and my pickup truck in an alley behind the laundromat, and I sobbed for 17 minutes. Now, I’m 61 years old, and I’m a guy, and for a little while longer I’m an MLA. And we old MLA guys don’t hide in parking lots and sob in our pickup trucks. I kept thinking: “Why is this happening to me?”

The answer I came up with was simply this. We made it. We, my generation, the generation who watched the Berlin Wall come down and celebrated and then watched the whole world lose its collective mind and despaired, had maybe made it to the end of that terrible, shortsighted, speculator-driven, utterly selfish and self-serving pendulum swing.

Maybe now Bob Cunningham’s medicine might have a chance to save my grandchildren Madeline and Dawson and Sydney’s planet and invoke the economic freedom that Tommy Douglas so desired. Maybe that meant I could go home now.

I beg you, those of you who remain and those of you who watch and those of you who care: don’t let this moment pass us by.