CHERYL-ANN ABERNATHY doesn’t know much about the allegations of improper spending at the legislature but they don’t surprise her. Lots of things go on in Victoria’s halls of power that have little to do with life in places like Valemount.
“We’re in small towns in the middle of nowhere, and it just feels like we’re along for the ride,” said Abernathy, on the phone from Mclennan’s Car/Truck Stop, a Yellowhead Highway restaurant where the 6 a.m. opening comes way too early when it’s minus 30.
Farther to the south in Revelstoke, sawmill owner Joe Kozek concurs. “We live in a different world up here.” And no, he’s not surprised by what he’s hearing from Victoria. He figures they’ll find more questionable spending in other corners of the legislature if they look.
Steve Pringle, who grows hay in Westwold — it’s between Kamloops and Vernon — doesn’t think any culture of entitlement is confined to the capital. Rather, it’s part of a pervasive “pluralistic ignorance.” The extent of Darryl Plecas’s charges knocked him back on his cowboy-booted heels, though.
After Plecas, the Speaker of the legislature, detailed his allegations against two senior legislature managers — all that juicy stuff about luxury travel, mother-of-pearl cufflinks, a truckload of alcohol and, of course, the wood splitter — I phoned several people in B.C.’s outer reaches at random to ask one question: Were you surprised?
For here’s a news flash: People in B.C.’s hinterland — the Land Beyond Hope, as it’s known — already look at Victoria with a jaundiced eye. There’s a gap between what are seen as the soft, privileged umbrella-twirlers in the golden triangle bordered by Victoria, Vancouver and Whistler and those who face three more months of snow shovels.
Up-country, they might not be as offended by the purchase of the wood splitter as they are surprised that someone in Victoria knew how to use one.
The wood splitter stands out as a symbol, just as when Harper-era cabinet minister Bev Oda was roasted for her spending habits — which included upgrading to a $665-a-night hotel while attending a conference related to child poverty — what resonated with taxpayers was the $16 glass of orange juice she expensed.
That hotel upgrade might have reminded Victorians of the time in 1999 when then-governor general Adrienne Clarkson turned her nose up at the free accommodation at Government House, opting instead to drag her entourage to The Empress, where we paid $1,000 a night for half a dozen suites. (BTW, it was reported in October that Clarkson has billed $1 million worth of expenses since leaving that job in 2005.)
Yes, Victorians, too, get upset about this stuff. (If you get a chance, check out the parody song I Wanna Buy a Log Splitter on 100.3 The Q, sung to the tune of Nickelback’s Rockstar.)
It’s not just allegations of improper spending — as yet unproven, it must be emphasized. It’s the idea that people in the upper echelons have a sense of entitlement that leaves them free of any sense of wrongdoing. It’s the notion that people with six-figure salaries get six-figure retirement allowances on top of their pensions. Did/would you get one? These days, you’re lucky to get a cake.
It all adds to the suspicion that there are two groups of people: those who ride the gravy train and those who build the track. And that fuels the rise of populism, of Trump and the Ford brothers, of purple-faced people in yellow vests who feel they’re being taken for a ride. Whether that is in fact true is secondary to the perception that it is. It undermines faith.
The thing that really stood out while phoning around B.C.? The number of people who were only vaguely aware, if that, of the fuss at the legislature. Kozek was more worked up about being unable to hire mill workers, because he can’t afford to pay them the kind of money they need to buy houses in Revelstoke, where prices have been pushed up by homeowners from the coast cashing out and moving to a town with a ski hill.
To most of those who answered the phone, Victoria might as well have been Mars.
Jack Knox is a born-and-raised Kamloopsian who once worked at the Kamloops Daily News. He is now a columnist with the Victoria Times Colonist. Since joining the Times Colonist in 1988, Jack has worked as a copy editor, city editor, editorial writer and editorial page editor. Prior to that he was an editor and reporter at newspapers in Campbell River, Regina and Kamloops. He won the Jack Webster Foundation’s City Mike Award for Commentator of the Year in 2015.
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