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Bill Otway

Bill OtwayIt’s with great sadness I learned of the death of Bill Otway, the sports fisherman’s constant warrior. Bill was a mainstay of the BC Wildlife Association and its executive director for many years.

I got to know Bill when I was a BC cabinet minister and I was one of three to hold a hearing on the Revelstoke Dam even though it was irreversible. The BC Hydro lawyer was giving evidence and was consistently asked by Bill what would happen to a certain strain of Rainbow trout. He so exasperated the lawyer with this question he finally spluttered out “For God’s sake Mr Otway, we already destroyed that species with the Mica Dam!”

Here’s a “now it can be told” story. The government I was in with one exception (me) couldn’t have cared less about fish and the problems associated with them. I got a call from Bill one day in the Spring of 1979 when I was Environment Minister. He told me that the BC Wildlife Association was going under. As I remember it was $75,000 in the hole. I told Bill that I would do what I could but that I wasn’t hopeful.

Serendipitously, at the next Cabinet meeting we learned that because we had joined the national lottery, (649), all of a sudden we had a bunch of cash outside the budget. What to do?

In the nothing ventured, nothing gained  mode I put the case for the BCWF and told my colleagues about their problem. I told my colleagues that these folks didn’t support the Socreds because we wouldn’t listen to them. To my enormous surprise the Premier asked “what was the amount again, Rafe?”

I told him it was $75,000 and Bennett said, I think we should do it and even though the rest of the room thought he and I had lost our minds it was agreed. We were 18 in number but we knew that if the guy at the end of the table wanted something, the vote was suddenly 19-18!

I must here digress for a moment.

The City of Seattle had the right under an old deal with BC to raise the Ross Dam on their part of the Skagit river near Hope which would have flooded the river on our side, built a sizeable lake and destroyed a beautiful drifting, canoeing and fishing river. This came to a head at the same time and I told Bennett that this simply couldn’t happen on my watch. He directed me to go to Seattle, and buy them off, which I did.

With the saving of the Skagit and the BCWF we gained a lot of Brownie points. This was all in April of 1979 and an election was far from my mind as we’d been less than 3 ½ years in power. When, right after these two events, Bennett called an election I was as surprised as the rest of my colleagues and the media.

I don’t say and will not believe that Bill Bennett called an election because he had catered so grandly to the outdoors voters. He knew I was an environmentalist when he appointed me and while he certainly couldn’t have forecast the BCWF and Skagit issues, he knew that industry was not going to like having me in this position.

At any rate, the same time as the election, BCWF, in its news letter, praised Bill and me to the skies and that sure as hell didn’t hurt! I can tell you that after touring much of the province helping out colleagues, I have no doubt that if we hadn’t done what we did, the very close election would have gone the other way!

Bill Otway, then, quite without intending it, may well have kept us in power.

I saw a lot of Bill during the 80s when he took the boys from the hugely popular TV show, “Dallas”, hunting and fishing. In fact I chaired at least one fundraiser for the BCWF when Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy, Steve Kanaly and Howard Keel were on hand. I did some radio interviews of them, I think all of them.

Bill Otway and I went to Sweden to look at animal issues and how they handled them. We flew to London First Class (those days have gone!). Bill was a rough diamond and as we sat down I kidded Bill saying that if he behaved himself I promised not to tell anyone he’d flown in the front cabin. I was joking, of course, and his rejoinder was that worse than this, he didn’t want anyone to know he’d flown with a god damned Socred cabinet minister!

As we were landing, Bill did something that we kidded about almost every time we met, in private and in public – he barfed his dinner and teeth into the barf bag! My reply to this interesting development was ” and you were doing so well, Bill”!

Bill loved the story.

Maybe you had to be there!

Bill always knew his brief and took care to be fully informed. That’s how he was able to speak for outdoors issues so well and was such a formidable debater. He was a consistent battler against the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and one need only talk to former senior scientists from that department to know how much they respected Bill and how much they wished the politicians would listen.

Bill Otway had all the ingredients to carry the burdens he did – smart, stubborn, fearless, and a thoroughly decent man.

British Columbia lost something it can ill afford – a wise man who said what he thought, when he thought it, and without concern for whom he might offend.

Bill Otway is owed a huge debt of gratitude by us all. Our hearts go out to Carol and the rest of his family.

Rest in peace, friend.

One Response to “Bill Otway”

  1. Randy Nelson says:

    Rafe, Thanks for the story and the recognition of a an iconic conservationist. I and 3 other senior Fishery Officers managed to visit Bill 5 days before he died. Although it was difficult for all of us he still had the passiion for resources. Cancer had made if difficult for him to speak but over the course of an hour sometimes words were not needed. He was a B.C. legend. May the rest of us mortals carry on with his work.

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