According to Union of British Columbia Municipalities: The First Century (UBCM / Granville Island Publishing $49.95), municipal governments were initially listed somewhere “between asylums and saloons” in the 1867 Constitution Act.
Although they had responsibilities beyond their means—such as providing road, water and sewer services, managing schools and hospitals, and helping the poor—local governments in British Columbia had little say over how services and social programs functioned, or were funded.
The combined voice of the Union of B.C. Municipalities (UBCM) has done much over the last hundred years to alter this paternalistic relationship with “senior governments.” It has lobbied hard to earn a little respect, and the cash to go along with it.
That’s the gist of The First Century, co-written by Wendy Bancroft, Harmony Folz, Richard Taylor and Marie Crawford.
Born out of frustration at the 1905 Dominion Fair in New Westminster, the UBCM was largely the brainchild of Kamloops Mayor Charles Stevens who spearheaded a group that launched the UBCM with 22 member municipalities. Eventually a Royal Commission was able to pry a few concessions from the province with a revised Municipal Act in 1914.
The First Century overflows with arcana sure to please students of governance, such as the 1913 resolution on Family Support that demanded Canada and the Province provide a “satisfactory way of maintaining the wives and children of persons who desert their families.” It also slammed those “who drank their money away.”
In 1920 there was a resolution to enable fire trucks can go faster than 15 mph, but only when responding to a fire. In 1969, when land was rapidly being scooped up for urban development, Richmond put forth a resolution to create an Agricultural Land Commission. When the provincial government of Dave Barrett’s NDP delivered a variation of that resolution to create the Agricultural Land Reserve, it was not fully endorsed by the UBCM.
There is an account of the Birth of the Municipal Finance and Assessments Authorities, lists of UBCM conventions, presidents and, yes, a 1959 banquet menu. But The First Century also provides a fascinating account of a important journey through B.C.’s shifting political and social landscape.
There are ample archival photographs—including Silverton locals posing with liquor bottles on the first day of Prohibition—press clippings and biographical profiles that flesh out how we got here. Interesting sidebars in The First Century include a profile of Peter Wing of Kamloops, the first mayor of Chinese descent in North America; and an account of UBCM support for the unpopular Socred restraint program of the early 1980s. Newspaper headlines from 50 years ago (about gas tax sharing) could have been written yesterday.
The Great War of 1914 drained communities of almost 56,000 men who left to fight for the empire (more than 10% of the total B.C. population). Property taxes were soon in arrears, the economy stagnated, unemployment soared.
When the province and municipalities ran out of money, public works came to a standstill. This was amplified on a larger scale during the Depression. Municipalities felt helpless, some went broke (including Burnaby, Merritt, North Vancouver). All were trying to help the desperate and unemployed with varying degrees of success (Port Alberni’s cheques to the unemployed bounced).
The UBCM was in a constant struggle with the province, demanding more assistance for its citizens, and was eventually successful getting provincial and federal governments to help pay for B.C.'s 237 relief camps. They could house up to 18,000 men, one-third of the Canadian total, and were a step up from starving on the street.
By the end of the Depression there was a better working relationship between the Province and its communities, with B.C. promising to take on more cost sharing for welfare, hospitals and education. Although it took another decade, the Province did come through when the economy rallied.
Then came the Bennett era. Former UBCM president Ross Marks remarked, “...there was no question that W.A.C. ran the show and Gaglardi was not far behind.” As former mayors of Vancouver, provincial premiers Mike Harcourt and Gordon Campbell have both played significant roles on both sides of the power struggle.
The tug of war between the UBCM and its masters continues. Although the UBCM can claim some significant victories, the Province can still call the shots. The recent Significant Projects Streamlining Act, for instance, has enabled the provincial government to override local bylaws on matters “where the provincial interest was paramount.”
by Mark Forsythe