Wednesday, July 04, 2012

BIll Barlee - 1932 - 2012

I only found out today that Bill Barlee died on June 14th.   I had not seen in him in number of years.

I was first introduced to Bill years before I met him.   My father bought his books from early on which meant I grew up with ones like Gold Creeks and Ghost Towns: East Kootenay, Boundary, West Kootenary, Okanagan and Similkameen.  In the summers in the 1970s my family would try and find the places he described in his books.  As a kid I dreamed of finding some of the lost treasures he talked about in his books.

I met Bill Barlee when he was minister of Tourism but it was only after he lost the 1996 election and I had moved to Lillooet that I got to know him well.

Bill and I shared a love for the history of BC and old maps.    We only saw each other once in awhile while I lived in Lillooet but were on the phone about once a month and talked for hours about the history of BC.   Our phone conversations started because of the research work I was doing on various different specific claims for First Nations.

Bill seemed to know about everyone that had any role in the interior in the 19th century.   He also had what is likely the best collection of 19th century memorabilia in BC.   His knowledge and collection formed the basis of the show Gold Trails and Ghost Towns.  Over ten years CHBC in Kelowna made 130 episodes of the program, one of the few times a local TV station in Canada actually created original programming.

Bill was a longtime CCFer and New Democrat but he was also an entrepeneur and knew that what you did not needed to make a buck to make sense.  I remember sitting in a coffee shop with him one time and mentioned a friend was getting a book published and hoped it would sell 5000 copies, which is good for a BC non-fiction work.   Bill looked at me with a stunned expression and then said "I would never do a book unless I thought it would sell 100,000 copies.  It is not worth my time to have a book only sell 5000 copies, you can not make money doing that."   Bill  produced 10 or more books about BC history, initially self published but later he had a publisher.   They sold well and have been more or less constantly available in rural town coffeeshops like Chum's in Cache Creek.

Several times between 1995 and 2002 I ran into Bill at Joyce William's Prints and Maps.   It was a favourite haunt for both of us when we were in Vancouver.    Don at the gallery would put on tea and the three of us would talk about old maps and the Canucks - Bill had the most encyclopaedic knowledge of the Canucks of anyone I have ever met.   In 1997 or 1998 I had been in the gallery for a bit and found an only geological map of the interior of BC, I had put it aside on a table while I was still going through the other maps.  Bill came in and saw the map and immediately told Don he wanted to buy it because it was a map he did not have.   Don had to inform him that I beat him to it.  Bill tried to convince to sell it to him but relented when he found I was buying it specifically to help with First Nation specific claim.

Bill Barlee was first elected to the legislature on June 8th 1988 in a by-election in the riding of Boundary Similkameen - he had been the NDP candidate in 1969 and 1972.   He then ran in the riding of Okanagan-Boundary in 1991 and won comfortably.  In 1996 he lost by 27 votes out of 18,282 cast.

He served in cabinet for his full term in government, first as minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and then as Minister of Small Business, Tourism and Culture.   He was a good minister but ultimately ended up on the outs with the powers that be in the NDP.

In 2000 he made his last stab at politics when he decided to run as a Liberal federally in the 2000 election in the riding of Kootenay-Boundary-Okanagan.   He came a distant second, but much better than any Liberal had done before or since in the southern interior.

Bill was a passionate man about BC and if I were ever asked who should be called "Mr BC", I would have to say it was Bill Barlee.

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