Lawyer Paul Winn vividly recalls the day he was preparing for a Sunday afternoon barbecue in Emery Barnes’ backyard when the late politician received a phone call from an irritated senior citizen residing in a high-rise British Columbia complex whose apartment was without heat because of a broken furnace.
The residents had had enough of the building superintendent’s inactivity and wanted immediate action to help fix the problem.
“We jumped into a car and drove about half-an-hour to the complex,” Winn recounted. “While meeting with the residents, the furnace that was not working for weeks was fixed while Emery was there. It was amazing that someone showed up on a Sunday to effect those repairs when residents were complaining for weeks about the problem. That, to me, showed his power and the respect and high esteem in which he was held.”
The first Black Speaker of the Legislature in Canada, Barnes died in July 1998 at age 69. A park bearing his name was unveiled recently in Vancouver.
Winn, a close friend of Barnes for nearly four decades, attended the opening.
“Emery fully deserves this honour,” said Winn. “I met him when I was 17 and he was 27 and we remained friends until his death. Age difference did not matter in our relationship. He was simply very loyal and genuine and he served his constituents well. In addition, he was an inspiration and he proved that if you put your mind to any task, you can achieve anything.”
Born in Louisiana in 1929, Barnes was an alternate high jumper for the 1952 United States Olympic track and field team, a standout football player at the University of Oregon where he earned a Bachelor of Science degree and a 10th round draft pick by the National Football League Green Bay Packers in 1954. He played two games for the Packers in 1956 before coming to Canada the following year to represent the British Columbia Lions in the Canadian Football League.
Barnes turned out for the Lions in 30 games and received his Bachelor of Social Work degree from the University of British Columbia before becoming a social worker and then entering politics. First elected to the British Columbia legislature in 1972, the New Democratic Party member was re-elected four consecutive times. He and Rosemary Brown were part of a political coalition that formed the first social democratic government in the province.
Work on the Emery Barnes Park in Yaletown started a decade ago. The first phase, featuring a fountain, stream, benches and plantings, was opened in 2003. The $5.5-million extension last year boasts an off-leash dog park and children’s playground while Phase Three showcases a pedestrian gateway, trellises, chessboard tables and trees.
The launch was proudly welcomed by Barnes’ wife, Laverne and daughter, Constance.
“When I look out into the crowd and I see people of every colour, every nationality, every language, every age, able, disabled, well-bodied and I see a couple of the homeless folks from the downtown Eastside and also people that are going to get into their BMWs and drive home, this is what my father was about,” said his daughter who is chair the Vancouver Park’s board.
“It doesn’t matter where you come from…We are all human beings and we are all here for a reason. We all need to respect each other and not judge each other…That was what my father was about.”
Alvin Curling, retired politician and former Canadian envoy to the Dominican Republic, said Barnes impressed him during the few meetings they had when Barnes visited Toronto.
“From my brief conversations with him, I could tell he cared deeply about the people he represented,” said Curling, who was the first Black Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Ontario. “He was extremely respected in BC.”
Barnes, who was not elected the first time he ran for the BC legislature, was the first president of the province’s Black Cultural Association.
A plaque noting Barnes’ noteworthy contributions was also unveiled in the park.
BY RON FANFAIR