Emery Barnes was born in New
Orleans. He later moved to Oregon where he was a football and track and field
star at the University of Oregon. In 1952 he was an alternate selection for the
United States Olympic Team in the high jump. He later played football for the
Green Bay Packers and the British Columbia Lions. First elected to the British
Columbia Legislature in 1972, he has been re-elected in each subsequent
election. He was interviewed for the Canadian Parliamentary Review in Vancouver
in January 1987.
Your background is probably one
of the most unusual among the eleven hundred or so federal and provincial
legislators in Canada. Tell us a bit about how you first came to this country?
1 came out of the US army in 1956
and had a tryout with the Green Bay Packers of the National Football League.
That was before Vince Lombardi and the great teams but they did have some good
players like Bart Starr and Ralph Goldston who became a good friend of mine and
was instrumental in my coming to Canada.
During the exhibition season we
went to Greensboro North Carolina for a game. We stopped at a restaurant for
dinner and all the white players went into the dining room. The other blacks
had played in the south before and knew what to expect. Not me. 1 walked right
in and sat down to eat.
A waiter came over in a flash and
told me to eat in the kitchen with the other blacks. 1 was furious and ready to
fight but Goldston and the others convinced me that was the way it was in the
south. The same thing when it came to sleeping. The blacks all had to go over
to an all black motel.
Having lived in the south you
must have known about segregation?
I guess what really bothered me was
the way my white team mates and coaches refused to stand up for me and the
other blacks. It was not just the segregation. One day a team mate, Dave
"Hog" Hanner, a real southern cracker, knocked on the door of my
room. He said he saw me ignore a little white boy who had asked for my
autograph. He told me never to do that again and knocked me back against the
wall with one punch after another. 1 went down. That touched off one of the
deadliest fights of my life. We were both big and strong and went at it for
what seemed like an eternity.
By the time I finally had him
subdued 1 was so furious 1 started to carry him over to the stairway with the
idea of tossing him about five flights through the stairwell. 1 might have
killed him if some team mates both white and black had not stopped me.
When we got back to Green Bay I had
a meeting with the coaches. They told me 1 did not fit into their plans and
they did not have to draw me a picture. As 1 was packing to leave 1 got a note
from Hanner asking me to see him in the club training room. I ignored it but
Goldston said that sometimes you have to do unpleasant things. 1 went not
knowing what to expect. Hanner was friendly, but in a serious frame of mind. He
told me I was one hell of a man to stand up for what 1 believed and that he had
learned something. He wished me well. But what a high price to pay for those
You were not unhappy to
leave the United States?
I was just out of the army, with a
young family to support. I had a college degree but could not get a job. In
fact 1 asked for help from an Oregon Alumni Booster Club Member who had tried
to recruit me with athletic scholarship a few years earlier. I could not get to
see him personally but was told they would try to get me a job as a Red Cap at
the local train station.
I had always believed in the United
States, its constitution and the principles it stood for. I may have been naive
but I believed all the slogans. When I left to play football in Canada I felt
like a political refugee.
Do you still feel bitter toward
the United States?
I am a Canadian citizen and have no
regrets. Over the years I have come to realise that prejudice is not limited to
the USA. There are different kinds of people in all societies. None is perfect.
I am less quick to condemn anyone and have probably mellowed a bit. With age
and experience I have come to believe that we are the architects of our own
destiny. I am more interested in the evolution of society and of my situation
as an individual than in blaming any group or any society for all the evils on
What were some of the memorable
moments of your professional football career in Canada?
I came to Vancouver to play for the
BC Lions in 1957 but suffered a severe leg injury that year that sidelined me
for eighteen months. I missed the entire 1958 season. I took a degree in social
work at the University of British Columbia. As an American ex-serviceman I was
entitled to some $150 a month under the G.I. Bill. My family lived on that.
They were hard times. The following year Hamilton gave me a try out. But they
had already established players at defensive tackle. There was no way I was
going to make their team.
I stayed out of football for three
years putting my degree in social work to use with youth on various projects
including the Narcotics Addiction Foundation and supervisor of Social Training
at the Haney Correctional Institute. My predecessor there was Dave Barrett who went
into politics and later became Premier of British Columbia.
I was still hoping to play football
again and in 1962 coach Dave Skrein gave me a chance when one of the BC linemen
was injured in mid season. 1 was a starter the rest of the season. In 1963 we
made the Grey Cup final. Then 24 hours before that game the defensive coach Jim
Champion told me I would not be playing or even dressing for the final game. I
often wondered if the issue of race did not enter his decision. He was the type
of coach who could say about Willie Fleming, our star player, "the faster
that guy runs the whiter he looks".
Needless to say I was upset by the
decision. The next year we also went to Grey Cup and this time we won it but I
was injured and missed the final few games. There was a possibility that I
might be ready to play in the final and coach Skrein did his best to persuade
me to at least dress but I feared the risk of over excitement would lead to
serious injury so I had to say "sorry coach".
Have you stayed active in sports
since your retirement?
I did some coaching at the
University of British Columbia and with the Meralomas of the Junior league. I
have always been an aggressive, intense person who believed in using every
possible means to accomplish the end result. I did not really enjoy coaching. I
found myself trying to pass along values that may not have been the right ones
for body contact sports. I stayed in good physical condition and am presently
training for some of the Masters track and field meets later this year.
It seems the first part of my life
was more oriented toward athletics and actions. The cerebral part developed
later. I began to develop a social conscience. I took up completely new
activities, like the piano which I started about five years ago and which I
love. Maybe I will have my own group one day.
Describe the transition from pro
football player to member of the legislature?
It certainly was not a direct
route. The key person was Dave Barrett. I had known him as a fellow social
worker for some time. After he went into politics he kept trying to get me
interested. I told him over and over that I was not cut out for politics. But
he kept telling me I had something different to contribute.
In the meantime I quit social work
and started a night club at Harrison Hot Springs. It was called Emery's Plug
and was soon doing a great business. I was having a great time but I guess I
was not too good a business manager because I blew it, lost everything. I came
back to Vancouver broke and out of work. I called up Barrett and went over to
Victoria to see him. It was the first time I had seen the Legislature. He gave
me a tour and urged me to think about getting into politics as a candidate for
While in the building who do I run
into but Herb Cappozzi former general manager of the BC Lions. He wants to
visit a while but he was a Social Credit Member and Barrett said no way. Around
the same time I got a job with the Killarney Community Centre as its Director
of Children and Teenage Programs.
Did you postpone your decision
to enter politics?
No, there was an election coming up
in 1969 and after looking over three possible ridings I decided to try
Vancouver Centre. 1 will never forget that first nomination. A number of high
profile and well qualified individuals were seeking the nomination. I walked
into that meeting without knowing the difference between an Executive Committee
and a Caucus, submitted my name and got the nomination. I lost the election but
got a pretty good popular vote. In 1972 I tried again.
This time it was not as easy to get
the nomination. There were great internal battles in the party but perhaps
because I was not associated with any faction I got the nomination once again
and this time I won the election.
British Columbia politics has spawned
some rather unorthodox politicians. You have added to this tradition by your
decision to spend two months living on welfare. What is the background to that?
A group of community organisations
known as the ELP (End Legislated Poverty) issued a challenge to the Premier and
Leader of the Opposition to designate a member to experience first hand life
restricted to income available under BC social assistance.
After seriously considering a
number of factors including the political motives of the organisers and
potential damage to the party from media comments we decided to take up the
The rules laid down by the ELP were
fairly simple. I would have to live on $350 for 30 days. Of this no more than
$200 could be spent on rent. I was also required to purchase a bus pass for S40
in order to look for employment. The rest could be used for food, drink,
entertainment or whatever I wanted. I agreed to accept no handouts or freebees
although many were offered.
I was supposed to respect the rule
whereby any income of $50 or more had to be reported to my social worker and
deducted from my cheque. This rule discourages people from seeking help and
punishes them if they get work. The possibility of fraud is really not
significant. I found most welfare recipients instinctively struggling for
survival. There can be no fraud in trying to survive.
Many people are able to exist on
welfare only because of what they receive in donations from others and what they
can scrounge in the back alleys. My experience led me to conclude that it would
take at least $700 a month to live even at a subsistence level.
As a public figure some would say
my experience was not typical. It is true that at first I generated a lot of
media coverage. That is why I extended my stint the extra twenty-three days to
the end of February.
This experience must have given
you much ammunition to attack the government?
I have tried to take a rather
philosophical approach and many may be surprised that I did not attack the
government more. I spent a lot of time thinking about my own early days of
poverty in New Orleans. I also thought about the immensity of the problem and
the futility of trying to address it with mere words or studies. Now more than
a year later I am still trying to address some of the thoughts that occurred to
me during that period. For example, why do persons from poor backgrounds who
reach affluence so often forget what it was like and neglect to help the less
fortunate? Even those who give money, do they give out of a sense of guilt? Is
money enough? Perhaps they must give of themselves. I thought about all the
money that goes for studies, for research, for defence. If the only answer is
"that's the way the cookie crumbles" then maybe we should be looking
at a new cookie.
It sounds as though the
experience shook your faith in the traditional political process?
I think a purely partisan approach
distorts our understanding of poverty. Parties will do what they can to address
the problem. I am sure my party will do its best but it will need help. The
party is formal politics we must not look upon it as an end.
Nor is poverty confined to
Vancouver or British Columbia. It is a national and international problem. Its
elimination is not the property of one party. So I have not condemned the
government or anyone in society. There is a lack of will by all.
The question that interests me is
what measures a reasonable man can take . to eliminate poverty. The answer is
not just through partisan politics although that is part of it. Perhaps the key
is in talking to youth or in the streets.
Following my experience I was
overwhelmed with requests for speaking engagements. Yet I did not feel ready to
give what people were looking for and that is leadership. Talk is cheap and I
do not have an answer. Nor am I very interested in looking at other societies
either capitalist or socialist. There is good and bad in all.
We must work towards a marriage of
capitalism and socialism that gives everyone a fair break from the start. We
must govern more realistically in relation to the poverty line. We need a
minimum standard of living, including education, accessible to all.
We should stop thinking of society
in terms of class and think rather in terms of brothers and sisters. Above all
we have to listen, even to those with whom we disagree. For example I used to
be rather contemptuous of society's Fat Cats. But we have to talk to them as
well. Anyone insensitive to these larger issues has a lot to learn about life.
Do you not think politicians
have an obligation to lead?
Yes, they must be leaders, but I
see politicians as catalysts. Though not elected Martin Luther King was as much
a catalyst as a leader. He happened to appear on the scene at a time when a
little old black lady said she was tired and wanted a seat on the bus. Many
people thought that was a reasonable request.
The world needs to be ready for
change. In the coming months I want to know if my concerns are similar to those
of other people in society. That is the key to politics and leadership. It is
not something taught in university but acquired through experience. With that
knowledge then perhaps I will be in a position to make use of what I learned
during my experience.
You have a rather unique
perspective from which to view Canadian-American Relations. I was wondering
what you thought of the future relationship between the two countries?
When you go to the bargaining table
you must know what is your bottom line. The United States bargains on the basis
of strength and will try to exploit the weakness of the other party. There is
nothing wrong with that although they may be mistaken as to what are the
weaknesses. They may even spur us on to greater achievements than we would
Canada has been and still is
dependent on trade with the United States for its standard of living.
Dependency is not a very attractive situation and the question is when we
should stand on our own feet. To my mind political parties should be talking
honestly with Canadians about the price they might have to pay for becoming
self sufficient. To do otherwise is to start from an unsound premise.
We will never gain the respect of
the Americans or anyone else until we are ready to make a collective cost
benefit analysis and accept the consequences. We cannot be bluffing since we
are talking about the lives of people and our own destiny as a nation. We need
a bit of fighting spirit which says 'By God we will survive or know the reason
why not". Personally I did without long enough that the prospect of
putting up or shutting up does not bother me.
In the long term I wonder if the
Americans do not need our friendship more than we need them. We should be
negotiating from that point of view. In this respect I respect an old
adversary, former Premier W.A.C. Bennett who used to say "BC is not for
sale". Of course I think it was mostly rhetoric but he had the right idea.
Again I would like to have a better
idea of how people feel about this issue. We do not have many plebiscites in
this country, perhaps we should have more.