Not enough recognition has been given to the impact that Alex Macdonald, who died on March 5 at age 95, has had on the way we live in British Columbia today. It was Macdonald, Attorney-General in the Dave Barrett-led NDP provincial government from 1972 to 1975, who led the long-overdue liberalization of the province’s antiquated liquor and entertainment laws, and broke the grip that the B.C. Hotelmans’ Association held over the dispensation of alcoholic beverages in BC. If “no-fun-city” Vancouver is dying (a slow death) today, surely the heavy lifting that Alex Macdonald did during those 39 remarkable months has a lot to do with that.
As a child of privilege (his father was also a provincial Attorney-General, in a pre-WWII Liberal government) who embraced socialism as a young man, Macdonald, throughout his long political career, which continued for several decades after he retired as the sitting Vancouver-East MLA in 1986, never lost sight of two big things. One was his sense of social justice, and his anger whenever it was denied. The other was that life was short, that there was no pie awaiting us in the sky, and that socialism was about the good things in life — love, friends, companionship; food, drink, laughter, pleasure — as much as it is about the vote, the 8-hour day, and socialized medicine. Until the end of his long & rich life, Macdonald was curious about the world around him and the people he encountered — an interest that he never had to fake.
Not for Alex Macdonald was the easy cynicism that comes all too readily to career politicians of all stripes. Most politicians would be content, in their memoirs, to justify themselves, to enhance their reputation, to try to get in the last word. Not Alex. He would not be persuaded to write a memoir — our loss; it would have been a fascinating and (probably one reason Alex did not go there) unflattering peek into the workings of government. Instead, he chose to write books that were unabashed pamphlets, entertaining on the surface, but powered by a deep sense of anger at unresolved social injustices.
Alex published two books with New Star, “My Dear Legs .. .” in 1985, which went through a couple of printings in short order, and Alex in Wonderland, in 1993. Raincoast Books published a third book, Outrage: Canada’s Criminal Justice System on Trial in 1999. Later, Alex turned to actual pamphleteering, producing two saddle-stitched publications that he handed out at national and provincial NDP conventions, which he continued to attend religiously, as it were, as long as his health allowed. The second, Why I am Still a Socialist, went through two editions and three printings; Alex must have given away thousands of copies himself.
It was easy to see that the energy of politics is what fueled the private Alex — he needed that fix, and even when nothing actually got fixed, he never lost faith in the people, and their ability (and right) to eventually get it right, even if it meant getting some things wrong along the way. Alex was a strong leader, as anybody who ever worked with him can attest; but he was never a mere commissar, never saw it as his job to set people right in their thinking. Respect, logic, humour: that was how you reached people, how you changed minds and, eventually, the world. A nice glass of wine in a pleasant setting: that was part of that, and so as political as anything else he accomplished as A-G — and I don’t mean to slight the more high-profile and substantial reforms that he was part of in that government.
Let us raise a glass to the memory of Alex Macdonald, who will be missed. And in doing so, let us recall that Alex himself has made it considerably easier to raise that glass here in BC.