We Need Another Phil Gaglardi
by Margret Kopala

Published in the Ottawa Citizen, July 1, 2006

It’s official. Summer is here and it’s time to hit the road. In British Columbia it will probably be a road built by Flyin’ Phil Gaglardi.

“Outside of W.A.C. himself, I’m still the most remembered cabinet minister in the history of this province,” the flamboyantly immodest Phil Gaglardi told his biographer and then editor of the Kamloops Daily News, Mel Rothenburger. “W.A.C. said to me before he died, ‘Phil, it was you and me, we were the ones that got things done.’”

Typically, the former British Columbia Minister of Highways in W.A.C.Bennett’s 20 year Socred government was just being ‘honest’, as he would say. Kevin Falcon, B.C.’s current transportation minister might agree. Last year, he told the Vancouver Board of Trade the B.C. government would undertake “the most massive investment in transportation infrastructure than we’ve seen since the glory days of W.A.C. Bennet and Flying Phil Gaglardi.”

Whatever the premier and his minister have up their sleeves, it wouldn’t be big enough or fast enough for the one-time Kamloops MLA. Racing around the province in a Lear jet or in large American cars amassing speeding fines on the highways he constructed, Gaglardi’s hands-on management style became legion. “You can’t run the Department of Highways from a swivel chair,” he explained.

Rothenburger’s Friend o’ Mine The Story of Flyin’Phil Gaglardi shows how the ingredients for success existed from the beginning. The son of Italian immigrants, the 5 foot 5 inch speedball (“…I made up my mind if I was going to be shrimp, I was going to be the best little shrimp God had ever made”) with the voice of an Italian tenor and a gift for inspired malapropisms worked as a bulldozer operator but soon found his calling in Pentecostal evangelism. Having created Canada’s largest Sunday school with stirring sermons and a large fleet of school buses, politics wasn’t far behind. In 1952, Social Credit upset the Liberal-Conservative Coalition on a three point platform of individual rights, pay-as-you-go, no monopolies and a promise to improve B.C.’s roads, only 10% of which were paved.

Geography was the culprit. One government report summed it up: dense rain forests, interior dry-belt regions, endless varieties of rock and soil conditions, mountains … Until Bennett, no government would tackle the job.

No mere ‘populist blacktop’ government, the Bennett/Gaglardi infrastructure initiatives helped B.C. become more than the sum of its parts, Rothenburger writes. B.C.’s vast resources could only be harnessed with good transportation, communications and utilities. The spending required would alone create an economic boom.

The vision needed drive, courage, ability and, yes, ego, all of which Gaglardi, “Building highways is as easy as ABC”, had in spades. Through his tenure, thousands of miles of highway were built or resurfaced, along with several bridges and tunnels, including the Deas Tunnel between Vancouver and the U.S. border; and the ‘sawdust highway’, built to overcome peat bogs, on the Burnaby freeway. He also created the B.C. Ferry system. But it was the world-famous Rogers Pass Highway, a 92 mile section that engineers claimed couldn’t be done, that he regarded as his biggest achievement. As the final link in the Trans-Canada Highway, the $50 million cost was shared with Ottawa but later, protesting risible federal contributions, W.A.C. Bennett would replace all federal highway signs from the B.C. section of the Trans-Canada Highway with provincial signs.

Inevitably, scandal struck. Always a pesky presence, no allegations against Gaglardi were proved. Even so, he resigned his cabinet post humiliated and in 1972 lost his Kamloops seat. After a brief stint as the town’s mayor, he ended his days running the Sandman Inns.

The legacy, however, now dog-eared and in a state of disrepair, lives on and the lessons for our time are clear.

The era of the Phil Gaglardi style politician may be gone, but if Canada’s infrastructure requirements are to be met his modern equivalent is desperately needed. This summer, tourists, truckers and commuters will face frustrating, costly and sometimes dangerous conditions on the Trans-Canada Highway. It could be a good place for Canada’s next Phil Gaglardi to start.

MARGRET KOPALA’s column on western perspectives appears every other week.

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