In a drenching downpour on a Saturday morning in 1995, I huddled under an umbrella with a ragtag group of local citizens picketing a mushroom composting complex on Lefeuvre Road in the Fraser Valley. A car stopped alongside the roadway and MLA John van Dongen stepped out. Standing under a large umbrella he explained the Farm Practices Act and answered our questions. As the Liberal Agricultural Critic, he was a staunch supporter of farming in the province.
In the ensuing months we had further conversations with him and he came to understand our concerns about the stench emanating from mushroom plants at several locations in Abbotsford. Last week I called him at his home in Abbotsford and he agreed to talk about his early years, his time as an MLA and Minister in the provincial government and the recent Darryl Plecas decision.
His beginnings were humble. “I was born 5 months after my parents came to Canada from Holland in 1949,” he said. “They had $219.00 to get started. In 1951 they bought a little swampy farm, probably with loans from family and friends. I didn’t know much English when I started grade one.”
John’s parents were Catholic. “My siblings and I were taught all the basic virtues of the Christian faith,” he said. “I attended a Catholic school and two teachers, both nuns, had a positive influence on my life. Initially I had serious thoughts about becoming a priest. I attended the Seminary of Christ the King, part of the Westminster Abbey at Mission. After 2 years, I realized I didn’t have a calling to be a priest.”
“My father was a farmer, and by age 16 I decided I wanted to be a farmer too. We’d come running home from school, put on work clothes and go to the barn. My father expected us to work hard.”
At UBC he studied Agricultural Economics, still intent on farming. After his third year, the Ministry of Agriculture hired him as an Assistant Dairy Farm Inspector in summer. “I was 20,” he said, “but I looked 16. That’s when I started growing a beard.”
By 1975 he was renting a small dairy farm in Dewdney. He later bought the 135 acre dairy farm that he still operates with the help of his nephew, who is gradually taking over the family farm. In 1979, at age 29, his political education began as a member of the board of Dairyland. “I read a lot about corporate governance, and I learned from 3 senior Directors”. He was particularly influenced by Peter Friesen, an Abbotsford dairy and poultry farmer. “I held Peter’s hand when he was on his deathbed.”
When Liberal MLA Harry deJong resigned his Abbotsford seat in 1994, John was nominated to replace him and he won the 1995 by-election. “I wanted government to be relevant to the people,” he said. “I tried to educate citizens about their rights. My constituency office worked with people on issues like child protection and income assistance. I would offer to come to the family home to learn about the problem. To be more effective on behalf of constituents, I worked to have constructive relationships with (NDP) government ministers.”
He developed a reputation for following through on commitments and returning phone calls. In regard to the mushroom composting issue I mentioned at the outset, John worked closely with Corky Evans, then Agriculture Minister. When I called Corky at his home and asked for his memory of this matter, he said, “John and I didn’t care about the politics. We just wanted to get the job done.”
The Liberals formed government in 2001. As Minister of Agriculture, John stickhandled through the Avian flu crises and the disastrous “mad cow” disease. Then, as Solicitor General he worked patiently with the federal government and also the Americans, to bring in the Enhanced Drivers Licence. He had been warned the Americans would never accept this.
At the end of our marathon telephone conversation, I asked about Darryl Plecas’ controversial decision to become Speaker of the Legislature. “Darryl took a 50% cut in pay to become an MLA,” he said. “Money wasn’t the motivation. He knew people didn’t want another election.”
When John van Dongen declined to support Christy Clark’s leadership, this decision ended his political career. For him it was a matter of integrity and ethics. The outcome of the recent provincial election suggests a lot of British Columbians agree.