Vander Zalm efficient, controversial

B.C.’s 28th premier, Wilhelmus Nicholaas Theodore (Bill) Vander Zalm — aka The Zalm — was never far from the limelight during his tenure at the helm, from 1986 to 1991.

B.C.’s 28th premier, Wilhelmus Nicholaas Theodore (Bill) Vander Zalm — aka The Zalm — was never far from the limelight during his tenure at the helm, from 1986 to 1991.

He produced balanced budgets year after year, but also a steady stream of controversy and scandal. Bill Vander Zalm resigned from office after a conflict-of-interest report found he had mixed private business with public office. He was charged with criminal breach of trust and acquitted.

There he was recently on the front page of one of Vancouver’s daily newspapers, offering to lead a taxpayers’ revolt against the new and hugely unpopular harmonized sales tax (HST). The tax merges the provincial sales tax with the GST, but it will apply to many goods not currently taxed provincially when implemented in July 2010.

The article says the former premier “can be reached at”

Go to the website and it’s an advertisement for Vander Zalm’s 645-page self-published autobiography, Bill Vander Zalm — For The People, available for $39.95 by sending a cheque or money order to Vander Zalm’s home address.

The book is riddled with grammatical errors and spelling mistakes. It’s also a fascinating tale of a tumultuous, wacky time in B.C. politics.

Vander Zalm immigrated to Canada as a youngster after the Second World War. Armed with a green thumb and oozing charisma, he built up a successful nursery business and became involved in civic politics in Surrey, the city where I live.

He was elected Social Credit MLA in 1975 and joined the cabinet of then-premier Bill Bennett. He soon became legendary for his populist instincts and off-the-cuff remarks. After being appointed minister of Human Resources and seeing costs skyrocket, Vander Zalm threatened to give able-bodied welfare recipients “a shovel.”

The press had a field day with the remark and so did protesters. One day in 1976, a throng of them appeared at Vander Zalm’s family nursery, demanding jobs and bringing business to a standstill. Over the phone from his Victoria office, Vander Zalm told a friend to offer them jobs moving manure from one bin to another for $8 an hour. (Vander Zalm has since raised thousands of dollars for various charities by auctioning off stylized shovels.)

While premier, Vander Zalm — a devout Christian — cut off provincial funding for abortions.

He had a love/hate relationship with the media that endures. In his prime, Vander Zalm’s charismatic presence and colourful comments provided reporters with plenty of material. But in his book, he blames the media — as well as various enemies, including some in his own cabinet — for hastening his political downfall.

He’s not that bitter, though.

One day about six months ago, after Vander Zalm’s successful nursery business had been featured on the Vancouver Sun’s gardening page, a fellow green thumb phoned him up and asked about purchasing some lilac bushes.

Vander Zalm told the man to drop by his acreage south of Vancouver. The former premier spent about half an hour with my dad, who bought three bushes — and mentioned that his son worked in the media.”I won’t hold that against him,” Vander Zalm said, and flashed that grin.

James Kwantes is a former Advocate copy editor. He can be reached at

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