1006 Three bad bills of 1983

Tranquility Lost: The Occupation of Tranquille & Battle for Community Care in BC
by Gary Steeves

Gibsons, Nightwood Editions, 2020
$21.95 / 9780889713864

Reviewed by Ron Verzuh

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Three bad bills revisited: BC’s Operation Solidarity and the attack on public services in the early 1980s.

Being on a picket line, protesting in the street, or participating in an occupation are all moments that create life-long comradeship. One event proves the point better than many. It is the summer 1983 occupation of Tranquille, a residential institution for the developmentally disabled in Kamloops.

Gary Steeves (1950-2020)

Gary Steeves, who passed away as this book was being released, offers his account of the events that helped trigger a general strike and a social movement to protect British Columbians from the “regressive” Social Credit government (a.k.a. Socreds).

The first part of the book sets the scene for this unique two-week conflict with the Socreds who were bent on cutting spending by eliminating social services such as those at Tranquille, which was home to more than 300 residents.

The Tranquille mental health facility, circa 1970. Courtesy BCGEU Archives
The first “bad bill,” BC Premier Bill Bennett (1932-2015), in 1982. Photo courtesy Canadian Press

The workers – about 600 caregivers, cleaners, cooks, maintenance, and other support staff – were members of the BC Government Employees Union (BCGEU), the union that assigned Steeves to organize a fight back. The challenge was immense. The enemy ruthless.

Leading the government charge were then premier Bill Bennett and human resources minister Grace McCarthy. They were equipped with two pieces of draconian legislation. “The ministry knew that Bill 2 would wipe virtually all collective agreement benefits and protections for Tranquille workers,” Steeves explained, “while Bill 3 would give government the right to fire any workers for any reason.” With Bill Bennett in the mix, one public sector union slogan called them “Three Bad Bills.”

Working with caregivers can be tougher than it is with other sectors for one simple reason. If it comes to a fight for their rights, they will always put the patients, in this case the residents, first. A way had to be found to maintain service while keeping pressure on the government to relent.

Tranquille members protest in front of Kamloops MLA Claude Richmond, 1983. Photo courtesy BCGEU Archives
John Fryer on Webster! January 1983. Courtesy YouTube

This is the moment when union staff members like Steeves develop an abiding respect for the people the union is supposed to protect. At this point, local workers can make or break an action as big as an occupation. At Tranquille they put the residents first and with help from Steeves and other unionists, they also said no to McCarthy and her bean counters.

This is a human relations story first, with Steeves describing the “bravery, fearlessness, and dedication of the employees.” They are the David in this story, facing the heartlessness of the Socreds in their rush to cut the provincial budget at the expense of Tranquille residents, workers, and the community. But it is equally a union story.

Cliff Andstein on Webster! October 1983. YouTube

Several BCGEU leaders of the day are highlighted with short biographies. The late John Fryer earns praise for steering the union forward. Head negotiator Cliff Andstein played the role of mentor to Steeves. Communications director Robbie Robinson’s skills at handling media are lauded.

Lesser known local leaders do not go unnoticed either. In fact, the BCGEU and the Union of Psychiatric Nurses (UPN), the other union at Tranquille, elected a management committee to replace the official one. It was an impressive practice of workplace democracy. The ad hoc committee “made decisions quickly, accurately, effectively and with the highest possible degree of sensitivity and empathy for residents and their families,” Steeves recalled.

Tranquille members listen to MLA Claude Richmond. Gary Steeves photo
Gary Steeves at Hope Bay, North Pender Island

The occupation arrived in time to fire up not only the BCGEU, but all unions. The three bad bills were driving worker opposition to the Socreds deeper as the summer of 1983 wore on. Events like Tranquille served as the spark for a social movement called Operation Solidarity and the catalyst for renewed awareness of the power of organized labour.

A chapter late in the book talks about the songs, poems, and articles in the Tranquille Tough Times that the occupation inspired. For Steeves, it illustrated how the workers created “the art for their movement and brought light to BC in ’83.”

Twenty years after Tranquille, with the election of a right-wing Liberal government under then premier Gordon Campbell, labour peace was again shattered when the premier decided to borrow a tactic from Bennett’s Socreds and crush community services across the province.

The labour movement went into action to protect communities from budget-cut devastation. For many workers the memory of Tranquille helped revive their fighting spirit.

Today, thanks to Gary Steeves, the light keeps shining brightly.

The Tranquille Sanatorium in its heyday, circa 1940s

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Ron Verzuh

Ron Verzuh is a writer, historian and documentary filmmaker. As a staff member at the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) in the early 2000s, he developed the “Strong Communities” campaign to counter the Gordon Campbell government’s attack on B.C. public sector workers and their communities. Editor’s note: Ron Verzuh’s recent contributions to The Ormsby Review include books by Ian Haysom, by John O’BrianScott StephenChristine HayviceKeith PowellTony McAleerNorm Boucher, and Ron Shearer.

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