A Positive Voice

By Kevin McKay

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On May 12, 2009, Gordon Campbell was elected as Premier of British Columbia for the third time, following victories in 2001 and 2005. This made Campbell the fourth politician in the history of the province to be elected for three consecutive terms, and the first one since Bill Bennett in 1983.

Campbell has won his seat in every election or byelection he has contended in, and in addition to his historic third term as premier of the province, he earlier served three consecutive terms as mayor of Vancouver. It would be fair, however, to say that this is not how the young Gordon Campbell envisioned his future. He laughs, saying, “Virtually none of my life [so far] was what I thought it would be.”

To this day, he calls Vancouver home.

“I was born in Vancouver in the Willow Pavilion at Vancouver General Hospital, I was raised in Vancouver, and aside from my four years at college and two years overseas, I have lived here my entire life,” he says.

Born January 12, 1948, he was the second child of Peggy and Charles Campbell. His sister Catherine was first born, and brothers Robert and Michael followed.

Tragedy struck the family when Gordon was 13. His father Charles, an internist and the Assistant Dean at the UBC faculty of medicine, died, and left the family without their breadwinner and the children without their father.

“My mother was a school secretary in Vancouver,” Gordon recalls. “She took care of the four of us and though she had family in Montreal, she decided to keep us in B.C. My mom is my No. 1 hero. We were never well off but I never felt poor. My mom never left us in a position where we thought, ‘Gee, too bad for us.’”

While growing up, Gordon worked at a variety of jobs, including paper-boy and delivery boy for the university pharmacy. “My first job was cleaning the gutters at a local pool when I was six years old,” he says. “I worked the whole summer and made a total of $1.25. I had to borrow money from my parents just to buy a model (kit).”

Following high school, Gordon headed off to university, though the route he took to get to Dartmouth College in New Hampshire was anything but direct. “I applied there because friends of friends of my father were playing bridge with my girlfriends parents and they were talking about universities. One of them decided to send me the Dartmouth calendar.”

That summer, Gordon took a summer job in Montreal while living with his grandparents. “My aunt and uncle and I decided to drive down and have a look at the campus. It’s the classic picturesque New England college with the white buildings, up on a bit of a hill, with a quad in the middle and a beautiful steepled library. I fell in love with it and figured there is nothing wrong with applying.”

He was soon accepted at McGill but put on the waiting list for Dartmouth. Gordon’s uncle asked a friend, a Dartmouth graduate, to find out why he was only on the waiting list. The friend discovered that Gordon was in need of financial aid, and there was none available for Canadians. “So this guy, who I have never met to this day, decided he was going to call around to the Canadian Alumni of Dartmouth to see if they would put together a scholarship. They did and the college said, ‘Great. We’ll also give him a loan and a job.’”

Though he entered the hallowed halls of higher learning with thoughts of becoming a doctor, like his father, Gordon soon changed his mind, eventually graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in English with some courses in Urban Studies. He laughs, “I got to class, and this is very hard to believe for a lot of people, I actually had one English professor who totally turned me on to English while I was reading Paradise Lost. I was hooked on English. That’s what I liked.”

With a degree in his pocket, Gordon returned to Vancouver and went to work at City Hall for the first time, working on the capital plan and in the social planning department. While there, he would meet two people who would go on to play vital roles in shaping Gordon Campbell, and influencing his life decisions. One was a young newly elected Alderman named Art Phillips and the other was a young woman named Nancy, whom he would marry a year later.

The young newlyweds decided they wanted to expand their horizons so they agreed to work for CUSO for two years, teaching at a little Nigerian town called Yola, which is located near the border between Nigeria and Cameroon. Gordon worked at the government secondary school with boys, while Nancy taught at the secondary school for girls.

“I was paid $180 a month while I was there and we saved a quarter of that and sent it home,” he recalls. “Housing was provided and, at first, I lived in a traditional mud home with plaster on the outside walls and a large verandah overlooking either the sand or the river, depending on the season. It was spectacular but they felt it wasn’t appropriate for us, so they moved us into a 1960s prefab that didn’t have any of the allure of the traditional home. It was an exceptional experience.”

Gordon enjoyed teaching English, History and General Studies to young men who ranged in age from about 13 to 24. “Any time you teach, you learn way more,” he says. “I remember getting my students to understand Mark Anthony’s speech in Julius Caesar, the one that goes, ‘Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ear’, and why it was such a moving speech. I was going through the speech when the bell rung, and I could tell I was doing a good job because they were transfixed.

“When I finished, they all cheered and one student ran out of the classroom to the outside verandah and said, ‘Literature is too too interesting!’ It was one of my great teaching moments. You know when the class doesn’t move when the bell goes you’re doing okay.”

Though the couple didn’t travel outside of Africa during their tenure there, it was not all work for Gordon and Nancy. They made many new friends from around the world. “We travelled all around Nigeria and West Africa on a Honda 175, which is a pretty small bike,” he says. “We did it and it’s something I will never forget.”

When they returned to Vancouver in 1973, Gordon spent the summer working for Alderman Art Phillips, who was preparing to make a bid to run for mayor. Gordon applied and was accepted into law school at UBC.

That September, after only four days of classes, he had a revelation. “I remember sitting in my in-law’s sunroom on a rainy Sunday, reading torts and contracts and thinking, ‘this is really boring.’ I had spent the summer working around the city, on television ads, really interesting and exciting stuff. I phoned Art and told him I wasn’t sure I wanted to go on to law school. Art told me the election was on the 13th of December and that he would hire me until then. Then, if he was elected, he would hire me as his assistant.

“I called the Dean of law school, who happened to have been my next door neighbour when I was a kid, and said, ‘Hey Curtis, I don’t think I should do this.” And he said, ‘Well, Gordy, I agree!’”

In December, Phillips won the election and Gordon spent the next four years as his assistant, while Nancy obtained her teaching degree and started working in the Vancouver school district. Their first son Geoffrey came along in 1976, followed by Nicholas three years later.

When Gordon wrapped up his work in the mayor’s office, he joined Marathon Realty and took classes at SFU in the evening, which earned him an MBA in 1978. Three years later, in 1981, he founded Citycore Development Corporation, where he stayed until he made the decision to run for political office in the Vancouver civic election.

“The reason I ran in 1984 was that Expo ‘86 was coming and all I heard from council was negative, and I thought this was crazy. This is a great city and someone should be a positive voice,” he says. “When I decided to run, no one thought I could do it, but I was fortunate enough to get elected. I decided early on I was going to say what I thought and why I thought it.”

After serving his term on council, Mike Harcourt decided to leave the Mayor’s seat and Gordon decided to give it a shot. “It made sense for me to run because if I lost, I could get my life clarified and go back to my business, and if I won, I could get my life clarified and leave my business and serve as mayor.” Gordon did win that election and went on to serve two more terms as a mayor who was a strong advocate for literacy.

The tough times British Columbia went through in the 1990s were largely responsible for Gordon’s move into provincial politics. “I saw that we were losing opportunities, and the deeper into the ‘90s we got, the more I could feel British Columbians getting down on themselves,” he says. “I remembered they used to have a kind of swagger, and they didn’t really have that then. I wanted to run because I thought it was important that my kids should know that this was a great place to live. Gordon Wilson decided he was going to have a leadership race and a lot of people encouraged me to run. I decided to try it and the rest is history.”

While Gordon enjoys his life in the public eye, for the most part, he is willing to admit there is a heavy price to pay for living life in the fishbowl. “It is important that you try to get some personal time, and I do that, but I wouldn’t ever pretend that I have a lot. Having said that, when I was in business, I spent a lot of time on business. That’s the kind of person I am, putting a lot of myself into what I am doing.”

Gordon and his family make sure to put time aside every Christmas season to get together. Even though they all lead busy lives, they are committed to seeing each other over the holidays, a time Gordon treasures. “That is the time we have no appointments, no phone calls,” he says. “It’s the family together and it’s a great time.”

Gordon has been around politics long enough to know every politician faces a heavy demand on their personal time. Too late, he learned a lesson about the balance between public life and personal time.

“When I ran for mayor, I remember telling my sons to please tell me if there was ever anything important enough for me to be at,” he recalls. “What’s interesting is they didn’t tell me. I think you have to be alive to these things yourself. I remember Nicholas saying to me, ‘I’d like you to come to a soccer game.’ Now, there were no soccer games he thought were important enough for me to go to, but every game was important for me to go to. That was my bad: I should have figured that out.”

Fortunately, Gordon Campbell finally made it to one of his son’s games and subsequently made more time for his children while they were growing up. It was a hard lesson, but an important one.



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