Former B.C. premier Bill Bennett died Thursday night at age 83.
Bennett, who suffered from Alzheimer’s, was B.C.’s premier from 1975 to 1986.
He followed his father, former premier W.A.C. Bennett as leader of the B.C. Social Credit Party in 1973 and was elected premier in 1975. He went on to win re-election in 1979 and 1983, retiring undefeated in 1986.
As news of Bennett’s passing started to circulate through the community, well-wishes to his family and reflections on the impact he’s had on this community came to the fore.
“This loss is huge for the province and for our city, and I’d like to extend my condolences to his family,” said Kelowna Mayor Colin Basran.
Although Bennett was elected premier before Basran was even born, he said that the impact of Bennett’s political life can still be seen in Kelowna today.
“The Canadian Federation of Independent Business recently announced that Kelowna is one of the top cities in the country to be an entrepreneur and the roots of that are with Bill Bennett, who was a champion of free enterprise and entrepreneurship,” said Basran. “He created a legacy for us to build on.”
News of his illness became public two years ago when family friend Charles Fipke donated more than $3 million to Alzheimer’s research at the Djavad Mowafaghian Centre for Brain Health, a partnership between the UBC Faculty of Medicine and Vancouver Coastal Health, in Bennett’s name.
“The end game has to be to find a cure for this,” Brad Bennett said, following news of the donation. “We still don’t know what causes this disease and there are far too many people afflicted with it and far too many families like ours suffering the horrible consequences.”
Former Kelowna mayor Walter Gray said Alzheimer’s is a cruel disease, one that took its toll on Bennett in recent years.
“For those people who were close to him and loved him, I’m sure today is one of mixed emotions,” said Gray.
Gray called Bennett is personal inspiration for getting involved in politics, saying he will remember Bennett for his rapid fire sense of humour, his loyalty to his friends and his ability to be decisive quickly about whether an idea presented to him was good or bad.
“He was a very quick witted person which came through when you were talking to him one on one or in a small group,” Gray recalled. “But when he started out as Social Credit Party leader, he was very uncomfortable being in front of large crowds and dealing with the media at first, so you wouldn’t see that side of him in public. But in time he did become more comfortable.
“But he was very loyal to his friends he grew up with in Kelowna. When he went into political life, he always kept those connections, when he’d be home here in Kelowna he’s always be playing tennis with friends that he’s know from growing up here.”
Gray said Bennett’s legacy to the Okanagan will likely be seen as shepherding Expo 86 to Vancouver and being able to get the entire province behind it, and construction of the Coquihalla Highway, which was tied into Expo and led ultimately to the Connector route opening up the Okanagan, in particular Kelowna.
Gray said Bennett was also wise to know when to leave politics, surprising many by his decision to step down as premier in 1986, when he was succeeded by Bill Vander Zalm.
“Most of us stay in politics for too long, but he knew when to get out. I can remember talking to him about that at the Social Credit Party leadership convention in Whistler in 1986, and he said he wanted to stay around long enough for Expo to get launched and get the Coquihalla sufficiently underway that no future premier could reverse that decision.
“Ultimately, with the Coquihalla in place, in was only natural then to extend the Connector route as well. Nobody was opposed to that as it was the natural thing to do going forward.”
From a political standpoint, Gray described Bennett as a true visionary, just like his father WAC Bennett before him who was B.C.’s longest serving premier for 20 years from 1952 to ’72, and was able to delegate authority to his political cabinet.
THe CIty of Kelowna is flying its flags at half-mast today, in homage to Bennett.