Beverli Barnes said her father Emery was a politician who chose to “walk the walk.”
“It didn’t matter what walk of life or what race or anything, everybody he treated as an equal, and that’s something that I think people should realize about dad that made him so special,” she said.
One of the most memorable moments of Emery Barnes’ long political career — one that saw him become the first Black Speaker of the B.C. legislature — was when he spent a month trying to live on a welfare wage to experience it first-hand.
Barnes moved from his three-bedroom suburban home into a small room in the Downtown Eastside and tried to live off of $350 a month, the monthly welfare allowance at the time.
Barnes said at the time that he wanted to see what life was like for the thousands of British Columbians living on that allowance.
According to a Canadian Press report at the time, one man told Barnes that living on welfare was a “miserable way to live….it just tears you up inside.”
The longtime MLA was eager to listen.
“He knew the community he represented and he knew their needs and knew their struggles,” B.C. Public Safety Minister Mike Farnworth said. “And he wanted to make sure that he didn’t forget that. He knew and he understood where he came from.”
Born in New Orleans and raised in Oregon, Barnes experienced brutal racism, not just on the streets but in the world of athletics, where he thrived in track and field and football despite the mistreatment.
“Dad actually used that almost like a weapon to train harder and become stronger mentally and physically,” Beverli Barnes said. “And in turn, he became this incredible athlete.”
After serving as the captain of the University of Oregon football team, Barnes was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in 1954.
According to an Associated Press obituary, the racism he experienced with the team was a factor in his move to Canada.
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He earned a spot on the roster of the B.C. Lions and also found a new home.
“He wanted a better life for his kids and he wanted us to not grow up with the racism that he had been subjected to,” Beverli said.
“It was amazing that he didn’t have a chip on his shoulder, the way he was treated, but dad was a very non-judgmental person and he didn’t point fingers or blame anyone.”
Following his football career, Barnes earned a degree in social work and was elected to the legislature in 1972.
“I think it would be unfair to say that he was just a nice guy, which he was, but he also had this really deep commitment to social justice and to making change,” former B.C. premier Glen Clark said.
The former star athlete, who stood six-foot-six, earned respect from his fellow politicians, which led him to be chosen Speaker in 1994.
“There’s a couple of things that always strike me about him,” Farnworth recalled. “One, obviously, was his physical presence. He was a big guy, but he also had a softness to him when he spoke.”
“He wasn’t a bombastic politician,” Clark added. “He really tried hard to work with all sides to get stuff done.”
— With files from The Canadian Press and The Associated Press