W.A.C. Bennett

by M. Anita Tozer (nee Bennett)

W.A.C. Bennett at 1976 25 minutes MP3.

Or read the html W.A.C at '76

See The Bennett Story

William Andrew Cecil Bennett was made a Freeman of the City of Kelowna in 1952. The special ceremony was conducted on December 9th when the City Fathers gathered to honour the first Premier of British Columbia to come from Kelowna.

When Cecil Bennett first arrived in Kelowna in the summer of 1930, he thought he had reached the promised land! After a dusty three-day car trip from Vancouver via the Fraser Canyon highway, he was impressed by the blue skies, sparkling lake and cherry-laden orchards.

Cecil Bennett came to Kelowna in search of a Hardware Store in which to invest. He had been in the hardware business in Alberta - in both Clyde and Westlock, but had sold out to his partner and decided to try the greener fields of British Columbia. He searched throughout the province but decided when he reached Kelowna he had found the best place. David Leckie, a long time merchant of Kelowna was hoping to sell his business - one which had been situated since 1912 in the same place. Cecil Bennett thought this was a good sign and after much dickering they settled on a price and the deal was made.

May and Cecil Bennett moved to Kelowna with their two children, Anita and R.J. and Bennett's Hardware opened August 18, 1930. The local people often mistook young Mr. Bennett for one of his staff - he did not yet have the "established look" about him. Cecil, also, found another unlooked for problem; there were already plenty of Bennetts in the area and their initials added to the confusions - "A", "C", "W", "WA", "W.C" "A.C." - they were all there. In desperation, he decided to use all three of his initials -just to make sure he got his own mail!

From the beginning, Cecil Bennett was an active citizen of Kelowna and the Okanagan Valley. He joined the Board of Trade, a fore-runner of the Chamber of Commerce, and was its President at one time. He joined the Gyro Club, the Masons, the Kelowna Club. He was active in the United Church. In later years, he was active in the Red Cross, Salvation Army and Community Chest campaigns.

W.A.C. Bennett took a keen interest in the development of the City and the valley. He opened stores first in Vernon and Penticton and, later, in Westbank. His two sons opened the store in Kamloops at a much later date. The Bennett family prospered and continued to grow, a second son, Bill was born and the family moved to larger premises and then, finally, bought the house at 1979 Ethel Street.

The various enterprises in the Okanagan which interested W.A.C. and which he helped to prosper were widely divergent. He encouraged the fruit industry through "Calona" Wines and "B.C. Tree Fruits"; he encouraged the development of the radio station under Jim Brown and helped the City of Kelowna to get reduced rates from the West Kootenay Power Company. He, also, campaigned for better roads and communication inside the valley and helped get the second and third ferries on Okanagan Lake.

The Conservative Party and the political scene was another great interest. He joined the party soon after he arrived in Kelowna and took an active part in all campaigns, federal and provincial, long before he was a candidate. In 1937, he lost the nomination to T.G. Norris who lost the election to Captain C. R. Bull, a Liberal. But in1941, when he gained the Conservative nomination, he sat as the "Apple Cheeked Schoolboy from the Okanagan."

As a member of the legislative assembly, W.A.C. Bennett continued to take an intense interest not only in his Okanagan Valley, but in his whole province. The Conservatives and the Liberals formed an uneasy coalition government to fight the C.C.F. Party which was gaining strength and they remained locked together in an uneasy truce until 1952. During this time British Columbia continued to grow but it was a very poor Province with large areas of empty, undeveloped land. The government set up the "Post-War Rehabilitation Council" to travel all over the province and study the needs of the province. W.A.C. Bennett was an active member of this council and during this time he gained great knowledge of the whole area. Knowledge that was to prove very useful later on.

W.A.C. Bennett, although a Conservative by name and tradition, was interested in representing his area properly. When the Coalition government began to falter after the war, he was one of the first to point out their weaknesses and suggest reform. He attempted, twice, to become the provincial Conservative leader but was defeated by the traditionalist Herbert Anscombe. He ran federally as a Conservative but was defeated by O.L. Jones, the C.C.F. Candidate. When he ran again in the next provincial election and won he knew his place was in provincial politics.

Finding himself unable to reform either the Conservatives or the Coalition from within, he decided to leave the party. In 1951, in a bold and dramatic gesture, he "Crossed" the Floor of the House and sat as an independent Member of the Opposition. At the first possible moment, he returned to Kelowna and reported on his decision in two exciting meetings - there wasn't room for all the listeners in one setting!

When he decided to join the Social Credit Party, he again reported directly to the Okanagan electorate and when the Provincial Election of 1952 was called his new party ran a candidate in every constituency - for the first time. They also won the most seats - one more than the C.C.F.! It was a close hard fought battle which raged for weeks as the new system, suggested by W.A.C. Bennett, of multiple votes took a long time to count! At a meeting of the elected Social Credit members, W.A.C. Bennett was chosen House Leader and so, when Lieutenant-Governor Wallace made his decision, he called upon W.A.C. Bennett to form the government! He and his new cabinet were sworn in in August of 1952.

As premier, W.A.C. Bennett remembered all the problems of the Okanagan and the rest of British Columbia and did his best during the next twenty years to rectify as many as possible. He knew that highways and transportation facilities were essential. As a consequence, roads were built, the railway extended (His dream of a railway connecting Alaska and the Yukon to British Columbia and the U.S. may soon become a reality, a Yukon-Alaska rail link is being studied), the ferry fleet established, and bridges were built. He realized the need for better education opportunities throughtout the province so, as a result, the vocational schools and regional colleges were established and Simon Fraser University was built along with B.C.I.T. and the University of Victoria developed from Victoria College.

He was aware of the need for better medical care throughout the province, so new hospitals and Extended Care units and centres were established all over the province while the Hospital Insurance Scheme was improved and the Medical Services plan came into being.

Okanagan Lake Bridge was another project that he insisted be completed, in spite of objections that it would never be used to capacity! The Honorable W.A.C. Bennett, for so he became after he was made a member or the Queen's Privy Council in Canada, always returned to Kelowna and the people he loved as often as the pressures of business allowed him. For years, his annual Garden Party was a date for all to remember. Thousands flocked to his gardens, munched sandwiches, enjoyed lemonade and tea, and the chance to meet old friends. The Honorable William Andrew Cecil Bennett became the longest serving premier of the province of British Columbia long before his government was defeated in 1972. He gave British Columbia twenty years of dynamic leadership and over thirty years of political involvement before he retired in 1973. He died in February 1979.

Note by grandson Andrew Bennett: I asked W.A.C. Bennett "What Church should I go to?" when visiting him in Victoria on weekend leave from Shawnigan Lake Anglican Private School. He said "Go yourself" "Come home to Kelowna". So I went to Kelowna Secondary in 1977. My grandfather had a longtime housekeeper, Winnie Earle, from 1932. Her mother asked Winnie to go work for Mr. Bennett. That year, in 1977, he was admitted to Kelowna General. There Charlie and Edna Geall visited him and said "We know Winnie Earle". To which he responded "She is a true Christian. She never talks about her religion, but she lives it" and cried. I went to see him often during my school lunch hour. After I left, he said "It looks like we are going to have a preacher in the family!" He said to Winnie: "Do you like Andrew?" She replied "Yes".

Later that year on February 23, 1279 BC he died. Soon after Aunt Winnie called me to my bedroom and asked me if I would like to come to Gospel Meeting. I said "Yes", but had to wait for meeting to start in Kelowna in September of 1979. The day before meetings were to start my Grandmother asked Winnie: "Can't you do something for Andrew? Invite him to your meetings!" Little did she know I was already going. In 1972 my grandmother went with Winnie to Gospel Meeting and heard Margaret Leslie. That year W.A.C. Bennett and May Bennett said they would go with Winnie to Salmon Arm Convention. However, the night before May came to Winnie to tell her "Mr. Bennett has a headache".

Soon May Bennett, Gran to me, was coming to hear the workers with me. She was delighted Margaret Leslie was here and invited her over for tea. After a few years she told Winnie she knew this way Winnie and I followed was the Truth of God, however, she thought she was too old to change, and stopped coming to meeting. I continue to this present time to follow in the Way of Christ.

When May Bennett died: "It's the loss of an old friend, for sure," said Winnie Earle, her housekeeper of 57 years. "I guess I've been the closest to her of anyone, outside her family. She was just the most terrific person."

Stamp of Approval, The Honourable W.A.C. Bennett shown on stamp by Canada Post.

In Remembrance

Cover of Time Magazine

Here is a photograph of W.A.C. Bennett with President Linden Johnson and Prime Minister Lester Pearson at the signing of the Columbia River Treaty.

The home of W.A.C. Bennett is now fully renovated and an activity center and guest house to the residents of the Bennett Estate at Victor Projects.