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dave obee Provincial sales tax started in 1948

By Dave Obee

Apparently it's all John Q.'s fault. If he had put up more of a fuss back in 1948, perhaps the provincial government would have had second thoughts about introducing that darned sales tax. But no. He was apparently not one for civil disobedience.

"It looks as though John Q. Public has accepted it," tax commissioner Lloyd F. Detwiller told the Victoria Daily Times on July 2, 1948, the day after British Columbians had to start paying extra for just about everything we bought.

Of course, it was only three per cent, not the seven per cent we put up with today. Prices were lower then, and anything priced at 15 cents or lower did not incur a tax. Detwiller noted that some shoppers were choosing to split up their purchases into several small transactions to beat the levy.

Overall, the imposition of the tax did not seem to be a big deal in Victoria. No protests were reported in either the Times or the Colonist, and only a handful of advertisers bothered to point out the advantages of buying before stores closed on June 30.

The Colonist did its best to stir the pot with an editorial about the tax.

"Despite government assurances to the contrary, the cost of living moved upward for a number of people in British Columbia yesterday, as the provincial sales tax went into effect," the editorial said. "It was a question of 'one cent more, please' on many types of purchases over the 15-cent level."

Tobacconists, news vendors, druggists and general retail outlets were all affected.

"It is a nuisance tax of the first order; a headache to the merchant, and of no special comfort to the public, met with a cent advance in nearly everything it buys."

In an advertisement, the provincial government tried to reassure us that the tax would not be as bad as we feared.

"You are not required to pay tax on certain essentials of living, since there is no desire on the part of government to add to the householders' burden any more than is absolutely necessary," the ad said.

That meant there was no tax on rent or foodstuffs, on fuel for cooking or heating your home, on medical or dental prescriptions, on ice to conserve perishables, on insurance, insecticides or antiseptics, on gasoline, or on meals costing less that 51 cents.

The Times did its best to make it easier to understand. Foods were not taxable, but confectioneries were taxable, the newspaper said. That meant there would be no tax on a 15-cent milkshake, but there would be a tax on a 15-cent ice cream soda. A pound of peanuts for cooking would not be taxable, but a pound of salted peanuts would be.

"Generally if such foods are set up in attractive packages and ready for eating they will be taxable," the Times said.

The Colonist's tirade against the tax noted that the initial excuse for the levy -- "to help the municipalities" -- had been forgotten. "It is ironical that the province will take two-thirds of the net proceeds after administration costs, and leave the municipalities a slim remainder," it said.

The province said it expected to get $12 million from the tax, with $8 million going to the social security fund to cover the cost of programs such as old-age pensions and the social allowance. The other $4 million was to be split among the municipalities.

At the time the tax came in, British Columbia had 30,000 retail outlets, and overnight all of them became tax collectors for the government. They had to record their transactions with one-, three- and five-cent tax tickets, and had asked for a total of 15 million of these forms.

The government had not been able to meet the demand, and blamed the June flooding in the Fraser Valley for delaying shipments of paper.

That flood had been big news in the weeks before the tax was introduced, but many other things were happening at the time.

The Fraser Canyon section of the Trans-Canada Highway opened east of Yale on June 28. It was one-way in spots, and not paved, so drivers were urged to proceed with caution.

In early July, B.C. Electric shut down its Beacon Hill and Outer Wharf street car lines, replacing them with buses. That brought to an end an important era in our transportation network.

Garbage was piling up in Victoria because barges were having trouble taking it out of the harbour at low tide. It was also washing up on our beaches.

The solution? Dredge the harbour to give the barges more clearance, and bring in a crusher to compact the garbage so it would sink to the bottom of Juan de Fuca Strait like we wanted it to.

On July 2, 48 hours too late for tax-conscious shoppers, the new 1949 Ford arrived at National Motors. There was also a new car, exclusive to Canada, called the Meteor, that was being sold at Gladwell Motors, the Mercury dealer. It looked suspiciously like a Ford with a funny grille.

At the York Theatre, Bob Nolan and the Sons of the Pioneers played concerts on July 2 and 3. They were on a tour of western Canada and the American Pacific Northwest.

And what, you ask, became of Lloyd Detwiller, the first tax commissioner? He was 30 at the time, and upwardly mobile.

He stayed in the tax job for just two years, then became the commissioner of the B.C. Hospital Insurance Service. He later became assistant deputy minister for hospital insurance, then the administrator of the Health Sciences Centre at the University of British Columbia. He became known as a principle architect of B.C.'s health-care system.

Detwiller died in Vancouver in 1987 at the age of 69. The psychiatric unit of the UBC hospital was named the Lloyd F. Detwiller Pavilion in his honour.


July 1 1948 -- three per cent
April 1 1954 -- five per cent
March 27 1976 -- seven per cent
April 11 1978 -- five per cent
April 3 1979 -- four per cent
March 10 1981 -- six per cent
July 8 1983 -- seven per cent
March 20 1987 -- six per cent
March 31 1993 -- seven per cent
February 20 2002 -- 7.5 per cent
October 21 2004 -- seven per cent

Posted Feb. 24, 2008


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