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Robert Williams Interview Transcript

Oct. 5
Robert Williams
Chair of the Board
Insurance Corporation of British Columbia
Room 526
151 W. Esplanade
North Vancouver, BC V7M 3H9
W 604-661-6001
Fax 604-661-6647

Dave Beckwith

I'd be interested in your story. Why do you do what you do and what brought you to it?

Robert Williams

My story, wow, I come from a family that were activists, not in my parents' generation but the generation before. My grandfather, well I didn't know my grandfather but I was interested. He was mayor of .the adjacent municipality and was an activist in the labor movement and the early organizing on the waterfront which was very dangerous in the early times. He was a part of the six co-conspirators in that big general strike in 1919 which was a watershed actually in Canadian labor history. So it's partly those tales that interested me and the family. We're an old socialist family, so I guess that was imprinted to some extent, and grew up in relatively poor neighborhoods on the island. But I guess I'd have to be honest, I was also an illegitimate child, to use the old fashioned term. I think that was probably a driver for me, the whole label of illegitimacy is pretty offensive. I guess I've carried it with me through my life to the point where I still use the term, because I think so much of the system defines legitimacy and illegitimacy in intriguing ways and not just in terms of children but countless things. So I guess that the root of it is that sense of legitimacy in democracy when you get right down to it and I'm so god damned offended by a label there.

You know the story of the Smithsonian Institution?

No I don't.

Smithson was the illegitimate son of a very wealthy Englishman and he was so mad that he left the country and put his money to public use in the United States.

Well there you go!

It's a great driver.

It clearly is. It clearly is. .

So how did you get involved in sort of career ways in political policy or social change?

Well, I was always interested in politics as well, partly because of that family background, but when I was in graduate studies I bitched so much about political issues amongst my friends, they said why the hell don't you join a party, you're such a pain in the ass. I wasn't interested in campus politics so I did.

Where were you in school?

At UBC. My post graduate stuff was in city planning, from the working class east side, interested in city improvement and all that stuff, so that was the driver. I became active on the East Side and thought that I could probably be elected to city council after graduating, and I did. I guess I was the first lefty elected to city council in this town since about 1939, so that was great fun. Then it was it was a way of beginning to learn coalition building, which I didn't know. So it was great fun to deal with right wingers on the council and get to know what really made them tick and what drove them and to partly modify my own position or build alliances so you could get a majority. That was great training and wonderful productive work. Tenants didn't have the right to run for office in this town when I was on city council, so I actually got the charter changed. I was able to do that by building a coalition amongst the wealthy conservative people of council who were starting to move into apartments and leaving their houses. Old Aeneas was dean of the Council at that time, and actually a lovely man and we really liked each other. I said, Aeneas, it's not right that your good burghers of the west side of town should be deprived of the right to run for public office simply because they're making a lifestyle change to move into an apartment.

And he saw the justice of that issue?

Indeed he did. And I was able to get a majority on council.

That's a great story!

But a significant minority didn't give a rat's ass for those ragged ass birds on the East Side. So I was able to go to the UN charter and talk about feudalism this is the last remnants of feudalism in a free society and,

Good stuff!

Yah, it was wonderful stuff! I guess I probably would have enjoyed staying at that level, you know, the truth be known, because it's a wonderful city in many, many ways.

It's councilor a paying job?

Mmm, well it's about half the normal pay, it certainly was back then, it's a little better now.

About 25,000,

Yah, that's still about the same relatively. Then it was just sort of a broader world opening up and I really then became more interested in those earlier times after the civic stuff in doing a range of things in the city that were a lot of fun. You look at the regional and resource nature of this province and it's so grand. I felt that we wouldn't be able to have legitimacy and become government if we didn't have people that built up their capacity around the natural resource base in the economics of the province. So I spent time in Finland and so on. So I started moving to a very different level at that point. Then I think I really only came back to the community stuff when we were out of office, in the mid 70's and then we did this caper of taking over Van City Credit Union. I mean the right wing by then had taken over city hall and I thought well, they can have city hall and we'll take over the - the lefties can take over the bank!!!

A wild idea, but since it was a credit union there was a little access,

Right. Precisely, and so we did it and that was 20 years ago. But it was a miserable exercise initially because we were broke. And bad management, they'd invested in moose pastures and we were in a real estate decline. So we basically had 5 years of cleaning up before we could actually move on to an activist program. But then it's been an activist program ever since, and that's been a delight because it's been a learning opportunity for us all,

Both business success and community success,

Well exactly. And you know, you actually start owning business skills. I was lucky because when I was in government I was minister of many things and I took over. It was socialist, it was the whole god damned banana, but I learned, I had to learn. I learned, sitting on top of a ministry that had a paper plan but I learned how to hire good people and it was wonderful. I guess the business, I learned that I got a kick out of it. And it's taken me along time to move from the traditional left position to realizing that business can be and is a tool, you know, depending on how you play the game. So anyway, that learning career I guess kept evolving to the point with Van City where you know, we had to cut a deal between management and ourselves. The management was going the wrong direction, bringing in a national bank, squandering our resources. We were a regionally based institution and the board was split 50/50. I said we have to cut a deal here. And the deal was we'll create a regional subsidiary that focuses on economic development of the region and those jerks can go do their national bank and it'll fail. We'll carry on, and we'll say I told you so and that is what happened. But in the evolution of our plans for a regional development corporation, I'd concluded that our business planning was totally inadequate, it had to be strengthened, and the culture wasn't up to it. Our credit managing etc. was too narrow, too conservative. It wasn't in tune with the nature of the new economy in the future in this region. And so backing off for more of a CED socially oriented economic development approach, I said if we're really going to build this credit union and let it be a factor in this region, we better be there for business, small and medium sized enterprise. We have to move into sub debt and other instruments, we've gotta be bold. We've gotta think about royalties and kickers and riding the up side and playing the game of the capitalist and seeing venture capitalism in social terms. So that's how we moved along. And that's been a gas, learning all the rest of it. So that's where we're at, a to a point, and the sub game plan was that we would bring in a top notch executive to run the capital corporation who would take over business lending, clean it up, and then we'd clean house. It happened far too fast, the logic became overwhelming. He became the head of the credit union. So but as I think about it more I'm more convinced that we have to move faster in that direction, that we have to be there for, you know, the new economy here which is only beginning. It's now triggering for me that we in this region are now a cheap labor pool or so it seems and that's our future and we're a cheap labor region for Hollywood and that's our future. As we've developed this little capital corporation, our expertise is moving in those 2 directions and I'm now privileged through our work here to bring about 5 software outfits that are coming in and there are 4 others, and we can be a factor through this shop. We're losing our people, the big I.T. people. It's just screaming at me at the moment so now I can think about how we transform those derelict, vacant areas and make it that, and benefit the poor neighborhoods around. So I'm on the edge of playing with a grand design for all of this.

Do you know Peter Goldsmith? Peter Goldsmith was the head of the New York and New Jersey Port Authority. He created a fifth port; they had a seaport, a bus terminal, trains and planes he created an information port. At the time it was early in the information revolution. You had to have a satellite dish and a hard line, an optical line, a lot of actually hard investment and they put the money right up front, and really it's what kept New York alive in the shadow of the West coast explosion. I've seen this also in Cincinnati. We were down in a neighborhood that wired first for optics, you know, fiber optics, and it's creating an area where there's space and amenities.

We can do the same, and it'll be the third part of our central business district. I met with our chief of planning this last week. Vancouver's downtown comes right up on the East Side and they haven't recognized it as a resource. Once you've got that in your head, you treat the poor neighbors on the east side as a resource to be used rather than a problem that needs clearing, I think we can plan a transformation. You go through all those exercises and spin off all kinds of benefits to the adjacent inner city communities and build the new economic engine and the amenities with it at the same time.

One of the people I interviewed was a person who works in BC and inherited substantial wealth and ignored it for a long time, denied it and ignored it. She said she woke up one day and realized that money was energy and that you could something positive with it. It doesn't have a personality. Sounds like a similar transformation.

Absolutely. I think so. Well, in my younger days I might not have said so but I've always been interested in markets and entrepreneurship, or at least for a long time. But I think in my younger days, I perceived privilege as the main enemy and I guess I'm still offended by privilege, but it's not the driver anymore. You know, I've seen how you can use your energy positively and all that stuff.

Inside government, progressives come in and out with parties. In the larger society, social movements and waves of progressivism or opportunities for progressive activism come and go by their own schedule. What's your take on the state of organizing and activism at this point, and what are the prospects?

I do think that there are times of highs and lows and all that good stuff. And it's sometimes a long time! And we're going into a trough, you know, in terms of the provincial government at least. In this province, it was really a generation between left governments in this province. I guess I probably don't even see left and right the same way anymore either. And there really is, there seems to be more places where right meets left. I think there is at least a significant minority amongst the right in this province that gets it really. I've got as much hope for them as I do for the left because.

Interesting, tell me more, what is it that they get, and what's the sort of profile?

Well the left has always seen government as the answer, to be simplistic. And the right often sees government as the problem. And they may be more correct then the left. I don't know. But, and I guess I've just become overwhelmed by this legitimacy question around the bureaucracy and the naiveté of the left around it. I think it's just staggering, staggering. So in terms of social movement broadly, it's probably reasonably healthy and it won't be the same kind of tide. The NDP will go out with that tide. But they probably deserve to because of incompetence and a misreading of the opportunity. But the right, the hard, dumb right, or traditional narrow right which the bulk of this new government will be next year in this province, may end up getting smacked on the head pretty damn fast, by the traditional left. But maybe more so by that right that's over there and pretty smart. Or if they're lucky they'll listen to them and they'll be a better government from that point. I talked to Sam Sullivan that was sitting on our board and. god knows he's so loaded. But he's probably nominally a big-L liberal. I don't care what the hell he is because he gets it. And to my mind we have may save these public corporations. We've seen the benefits of public power in this province and we have some of the big-l liberals on the board who basically say no, I am where right meets left and there's a case for this animal. So, yah, the jury is out there. It may not be as tough as one would think. Mainly because of the lack of communicating the opportunity so badly. We haven't had any real good left stuff coming out. And the inadequacy of state delivery programs is overwhelming and the capacity of the bureaucrats. I mean I'm a fan and I mean, I teachers and social workers and bureaucrats. It's just ghastly. I mean, we've got a lot of good teachers and we've got a lot of good social workers, but it's not the answer. And 9-5 is full of shit,

Only help people so much

Of course. We worked on the business plan for the capital corporation and I had the leisure of going around with that for around 15 minutes. Staff and I had the leisure of going to Chicago and DC and meeting Margaret. Cheap and all the other folks and that was very helpful, and a real pleasure, but Ron Grzwynski and others basically said, we really want to see economic democracy. So when we hired our new CEO for Van City capital we flew off, a dozen of us the same day, the same bloody day. It was wonderful because this guy was something of a hard ass traditional banker, smart, young, you can't hold him back from Vancouver to Montreal after being number two in this big national institution, and bingo.

Business, politics, the struggle,

It was marvelous. We went to Italy and saw Stefano Zamagna. He is a brilliant man and revered and responsible for their coop statutes and what blew our CEO's ass off was that he was as rigorous and demanding as anybody he'd met at Harvard, and there he was on the left, nominally, talking about how cooperatives were key. He was demanding and rigorous, blows state delivered systems out of the water, replaces the community control systems, where the state backs off and does monitors of satisfaction levels and a national audit. And that's it! And this is in a region that is really communist, European communist, Italian communist, i.e. Social democratic since 1945, and the recently they found they have one enterprise for every 11 citizens - go figure - highly entrepeneurial, not a trade union and not an old line industrial trade vehicle structure.

The vision of a better society extends to the operation of business and the interrelationship of businesses. So as I understand about business networks there, they're just constantly forming and reforming and it's built on relationships and,

Precisely, it's a galaxy, it's a marvelous galaxy, and it's of course family. They love you to death, and we have a son that's married into one and of course is being loved to death! But the other side to it is quality, quality, quality, these are the great people from the middle ages, artists and artisans, and so, it just blows you away thinking about how you could have cooperative infrastructure and galaxies of these things without the hierarchy and with this pluralistic control and yet cooperation. And so the Italians and I fear it may be a cultural thing to some extent, but the ability to braid cooperation and competition has been brilliant.

I think that it's, certainly there are other possibilities that we haven't figured out.

Really, I mean, that may be true. Basically the north and south of Italy, the Norman royal thing led to the Mafia. But the Po River valley was where the first cooperation took place between landed gentry and peasants in Europe. So the region around Bologna has the longest history of cooperation in Europe. And then there was an alignment between them and the Scots during the enlightenment. I wasn't aware of that. So that cooperative ideas in the enlightenment were basically a linkage between the Scots and the northern Italians. And the first great economic texts were written in Geneva, Zamagna tells us, and were about the civil economy and they were the poor Adam Smiths.


Really. It's wonderful, it's a feast. So we had Zamagna come over here and he sat with us. He was wonderful. I think we'll probably go back in the spring again. But you know, it's transformational stuff, and at this stage in my life it's transformational stuff that interests me.

Jean Ward, at the meeting the other night said, I haven't got time for any more board meetings, I just want to make a difference. It's exciting to see someone who is achieving some age, whose attitude is not it's time to slow down, whose attitude is, it's time to speed up.


Part of my understanding of it anyway is that there has always been a wild popular aggressive kind of, not just advocacy, but protest as a part of that mix in Italy, and certainly in the other places where I know about where there's been transformation, but uncontrollable democracy is at the heart.

And so activists who have become politicians and have become bureaucrats, have put their passion at risk.

So, how do you sustain your spark?

I run into assholes every day! And I haven't gotten used to it! As one of my best friends say, you're still not used to it! My wife says to me, well how come you're surprised?

So the assholes are your source of motivation, that's pretty exciting! There's a good supply!

There's a wonderful mentor of mine, he was a bureaucrat, and I was lucky to have him work with me through much of my life and he says, There's much of it about, Bob, there's much of it about! And he was kind enough to, on his deathbed, tell me that I was his mentor.

That's great.

When I got first elected into the provincial legislature, the leader of the party was a Scottish working class intellectual. He could quote all the great Scottish writers. But he came to Canada as an indentured laborer on a farm. Anyway, Robert started this insurance company and so I walked into the door about 24 years later, the guy that started it said that those reserves were here for a reason. Use them well. One of the projects we're doing is a new University that'll be across the River here in Surrey. There's a commercial strip there that's a shit pot mess and lots of social problems; it's been a dumping ground forever. And yet in the regional plan they see it as a city center. But, you know you're only going to get a real city center there as a public institution. So we took it on, we bought the local mall which is 20 acres, and we spent we picked it up for 40 million, and renovated in that decade for 40 million, so it was a hell of a good buy and it was adjacent to Skytrain stations, our main transit system. We did a deal with the city on the adjacent 12 acres and we said we'd build in a city center, we got the land for free from the city. We're building a 25 story high building for the insurance corporation, we're moving our IT shop out there. We're building the new technical institute of British Columbia, as part of the exercise. We'll have an interface then between our huge I.T. shop and the technical university, which is a computer university. And we're putting kids in the mall and we're putting snobby professors, kicking and screaming into a gallery over at the mall. So they'll be kids moving, and all of a sudden this shitty neighborhood will be a new gem. Spending a quarter of a million on that.

Not coincidentally, a generator of talent for ICBC.

That's right. We're a union company, we have the biggest payroll in Canada. And we can hire students, 4 hour shifts, they get very high wages, pay for them going to university. That whole kind of mix. And it's a place where demographically all the kids don't think about going to University and there'll be a University right at their doorstep. I'm bored by all the talk of them being offenders and stuff.

So, we did start talking a little bit about what gets you up in the morning. What do you think it's going to take besides a change in government to wake up and to motivate and to support another generation of activists?

I think, I don't know if it's predictable yet. You know, I don't know if there's any clear kind of breeding ground. There's such a schism in this province between, and I'm terribly regional, between the hinterland and the big city. This city has enough power behind it now that it's on it's own. The province is virtually irrelevant. It may end up coming out of the region. Especially if we provided some of the opportunities and tools and a leg up. Now, in this province, for example, our resources are public, and 94% of our land base is public. If a significant chunk there were transferred to the communities, it would be transformation and I think then moving up that learning curve that I've moved in my own life would be otherwise impossible for the people in the region, without having that equity. So that community enterprise, potentially is an engine, if we gave them some of the assets. But they're owned by bureaucrats, so this incredible mess ensues, and the bureaucrats at the end of the day are an obstacle. It's a matter of how much we loosen up that hold, but it can happen in time.

If you think about social change as a sector, just like you would think about software or transportation, if you wouldn't mind, let's press the question, what would it take to advance that sector, if it's troubled or growing, which ever?

I don't think I really have a clue. People come to us from a lot of different places. I used to mention Monica Hay, my assistant. She comes from such a different background and yet there she is. I'm not sure what motivates her. But I guess the whole question is how these networks are built and grown and evolve and are established, maybe that's part of what you're asking. I'm not sure I know. You know, however, when activists take over an institution like Van City it provides whole new layers of opportunity. Building, or growing, or educating. So much of it revolves around policy. I haven't given it a lot of thought, I just keep moving. The other side of it is that the nature of democracy is that it's always a handful that makes the difference. We're not talking big numbers. As Monica sometimes says, we're really only 100 people in this town. And in some ways that's true. But that's another story. When I first heard Pierre Trudeau, who just died this week, he was a junior minister and I'd wanted to hear him. So I went to a local meeting. He said, some kid was pushing him about leadership. And he said there aren't enough people of quality around. We have to set the priorities. That was it for Pierre Trudeau and me. That was bullshit, you know! So if people and community are given half the chance, of course.

The question is, after you win, what are you going to do now, you've stopped the road, or you got their attention, and what do you do now? In a lot of ways you know, we may not own the insurance company, but if we could say to the insurance company, look, here's an example of where they've figured it out.

Well, I think a lot of it is, is just being opportunistic, you know. Jack Sullivan asked me that, well what's the ticket? I guess thinking about my own experience, I reconsidered, and I said no, I think it's dreaming dreams, and keeping them on the shelf, a lot of the dreams, and maybe there can only be so many, and they're all variations of the theme and then you're waiting for the opportunistic moment to take that one off the shelf.

It's 80% preparation and 20% inspiration.

And then it's also just the dialog too, so if you get together with the right people, the sparks start jumping and so. Al and Nancy and I got together just in the last couple of weeks and I was thinking about legacy and some of the small endowments we might do out of the insurance corporation. One was sort of using his model. We have a no fault system where for 150 grand, everybody gets covered in this province, that's basic, minimum no fault system. And we're very generous about how we use it, because we're a public insurance organization, we deliver things. You know, for young men that have their lives totally destroyed, we funded recently, it was wonderful creative work created by bureaucrats, the good ones, where they sent a guy on the snake river in southern Utah on a wilderness expedition with other disabled Americans for a week in the wilderness and all of a sudden he realized his life wasn't over. Well, god you wouldn't get that out of a private company at all. So I said, we do this on a one-time basis now. So, the idea then of establishing an endowment for a nonprofit like that to have a safety net or at least a friendship network for the disabled could have a profound effect. Instead of just kicking around what do you do, what do I do, what the problem is, finding a new answer. So, a lot of it is that way, really. But I do think a lot of it is dreaming dreams and having them on the shelf and waiting for the window of opportunity or whatever.

This is a cliché, but seeing problems as an opportunity is creativity.

Absolutely, absolutely.

Not everybody has it. This project I'm doing is really an attempt to create a conversation among organizers and activists, and I've talked to more than 20 people already, we've been through Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, and Alberta, and here.

Did you run into anyone in the Credit Union system in Manitoba? I don't know if his name will come back to me. But he's the Jim Green equivalent in downtown Winnipeg, and he's on the board of the Assiniboine credit union. Tom is his first name.

I'll track him down. (Tom Simms was interviewed later)

Yah, do that.

The other question I have for you is, what observations or questions or curiosities do you have about those other folks? In Canada and Australia and the United States? Activists, organizers, people engaged in social change.

I don't know that I have any questions, some broader theories intrigue me. There's real sociology that we're talking about here that we don't quite get. No. How do you spawn social activism? How do you build people like ourselves?

It's an exciting question.

I have no idea really. Other than I think that I am as, David suggested that such privilege in the face of so much need probably is the driver for some. But I remember when I first met Mary Houton from Shorebank, and I think we were having dinner, her and Ron and I. She said, well what the hell is it that drives you, anyway? And I guess I told her. And she says, Oh, good for you. With me it was just plain goddamn rage! Something like that!

That's good fuel!


Well I appreciate your time. It's really exciting to talk to you.