Vancouver History: Emery Barnes

Comments 2 by Rebecca Bollwitt

Most parks in Vancouver are named after former Parks Board members or royalty – but not Emery Barnes Park in Yaletown. The grass, stone walkways, water features and new playground on Davie is named after a man born in New Orleans in 1929 who made his way to Canada, into BC Provincial Legislature and is forever in our history books.

Emery Barnes Park
Photo credit: venturevancouver on Flickr

In 1952 Emery Barnes was an alternate for the US Olympic high-jump team, while he also played football for the University of Oregon and was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 1954.

I was just out of the army, with a young family to support. I had a college degree but could not get a job. In fact I asked for help from an Oregon Alumni Booster Club Member who had tried to recruit me with athletic scholarship a few years earlier. I could not get to see him personally but was told they would try to get me a job as a Red Cap at the local train station. I had always believed in the United States, its constitution and the principles it stood for. I may have been naive but I believed all the slogans. When I left to play football in Canada I felt like a political refugee. [1987 Interview with Barnes]

It was football that led him to Canada, and ultimately Vancouver. His time in Green Bay wasn’t long and he found himself in the CFL, playing with the BC Lions when they won the Grey Cup in 1964 (although he was sidelined during the actual championship game). During this time he also attended UBC and received a bachelor degree in social work, which was a passion of his.

In the years following his football career, Barnes opened a nightclub at Harrison Hot Springs, visited Victoria and was pitched NDP and Social Credit party membership, then became the Director of Children and Teenage programs at the Killarney Community Centre.

It was Dave Barrett who encouraged him to move into politics. The first time he ran for the BC Legislature, Emery was not elected. At that time, the city of Vancouver was not as culturally diverse as today so he had less chance of success. Emery did not talk much about the barriers he faced even though, particularly during his childhood in New Orleans, he had suffered harassment which prompted his family’s move to the West Coast. [Reflections on Emery Barnes]

Emery Barnes – Source

It wasn’t until 1972 that he was elected to the BC Legislature and there he was re-elected for four consecutive terms and served our province until 1996. He and Rosemary Brown (NDP) were the first black politicians elected to a legislative office in British Columbia.

I see politicians as catalysts. Though not elected Martin Luther King was as much a catalyst as a leader. He happened to appear on the scene at a time when a little old black lady said she was tired and wanted a seat on the bus. Many people thought that was a reasonable request. [1987 Interview with Barnes

Barnes worked with the BC Black History Awareness Society (established 1993) to develop the Greater Victoria School Board’s curriculum, to build a cultural community in Vancouver for those of African heritage, and was the first president of the BC Black Cultural Association.

In 1994 he was elected Speaker of the Legislature in BC, the first black person in any Canadian province to hold this position. Barnes passed away on Canada Day, in 1998.

I am a Canadian citizen and have no regrets. Over the years I have come to realize that prejudice is not limited to the USA. There are different kinds of people in all societies. None is perfect. I am less quick to condemn anyone and have probably mellowed a bit. With age and experience I have come to believe that we are the architects of our own destiny. I am more interested in the evolution of society and of my situation as an individual than in blaming any group or any society for all the evils on earth. [1987 Interview with Barnes]

Emery Barnes Park
Photo credit: Alexis Birkill on Flickr

Emery Barnes Park opened in 2003 and recently expanded to fill up the entire block of Davie between Seymour and Richards.

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2 Comments  —  Comments Are Closed

  1. KarenWednesday, October 27th, 2010 — 10:28pm PDT

    Really glad you are looking into the people that parks are named after. I admired how Emery Barnes he took up a challenge for two months to see how people lived on social assistance at a time when it was $350 a month. This is what he said about the experience:

    A group of community organisations known as the ELP (End Legislated Poverty) issued a challenge to the Premier and Leader of the Opposition to designate a member to experience first hand life restricted to income available under BC social assistance.

    After seriously considering a number of factors including the political motives of the organisers and potential damage to the party from media comments we decided to take up the challenge.

    The rules laid down by the ELP were fairly simple. I would have to live on $350 for 30 days. Of this no more than $200 could be spent on rent. I was also required to purchase a bus pass for S40 in order to look for employment. The rest could be used for food, drink, entertainment or whatever I wanted. I agreed to accept no handouts or freebees although many were offered.

    I was supposed to respect the rule whereby any income of $50 or more had to be reported to my social worker and deducted from my cheque. This rule discourages people from seeking help and punishes them if they get work. The possibility of fraud is really not significant. I found most welfare recipients instinctively struggling for survival. There can be no fraud in trying to survive.

    Many people are able to exist on welfare only because of what they receive in donations from others and what they can scrounge in the back alleys. My experience led me to conclude that it would take at least $700 a month to live even at a subsistence level.

    As a public figure some would say my experience was not typical. It is true that at first I generated a lot of media coverage. That is why I extended my stint the extra twenty-three days to the end of February.

  2. Carolyn WoldFriday, April 1st, 2011 — 10:31pm PDT

    I was just looking up Emery Barnes as he was the first person I ever voted for Provincially (NDP) when I became of age to vote. That was in Vancouver years ago..I think about 1972. Now I’m hoping that the NDP can get back in and I hope that they will have some of the same ideas and thoughts of Emery Barnes almost 40 years ago.
    Since I moved away from Vancouver I didn’t even realize there was a park named after him but I’m really happy to hear there is.

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