As education minister, Ray Williston introduced the idea of university education for teachers, among other then-radical innovations. As minister of lands and forests, he had his greatest impact. From the mega-power projects to improved forestry practices, all major industrial developments in interior and northern BC during the 1950s and 1960s had Williston's stamp on them.
He oversaw the building of the Bennett Dam on the Peace River and subsequent flooding of the valley behind it -now called Williston Lake - and the flooding of the Arrow Lake and displacement of many people in the Kootenays, but he was a man of his times and was determined to pull rural British Columbia into the modern era.close this panel
Some of Ray's responsibilities as MLA for Fort George were mixed blessings, and this was especially the case on the July day in 1958 when he stood on a platform at Taylor Flats overlooking the Peace River. Blue and gold ribbons fluttered overhead and flags billowed in the breeze, while round the platform were crowded press representative from all over the world. Beside Ray, the mayor of Fort St. John grinned as he looked up at the summer sky. "We're sure lucky with the weather," he said.
This was very true since the centre of attention that day was H.R.H. Princess Margaret, who was there to officially open the pumping station for the Westcoast Transmission pipeline to Vancouver. Ray's job as MLA for the region was to act as the princess's co-escort with Lieutenant Governor Frank Ross during the northern part of her royal tour. For both the lieutenant governor and Ray there was a certain degree of tension on this trip. The princess had already exhibited the willfulness for which she was noted during a ceremony in Victoria where Premier Bennett had handed her the deed to Portland Island off the Saanich Peninsula. She was then supposed to deliver a prepared speech giving the deed back to the premier, and the island would be renamed "Princess Margaret Island" and dedicated as a marine park for the people of British Columbia.
So the script went.
What really happened was that Margaret omitted the most important part of the speech, the part in which she gave the deed back to the premier. Instead she concluded her speech with "As I travel through the country, I shall feel a special pride. For, thanks to this wonderful and generous gift which you, Mr. Premier, have just presented to me, I shall be able to feel myself already a land-owner in the province. I can assure you that no other token of your affection could have given me so much pleasure." And off she went with the deed to the island tightly clutched in her hand.
Needless to say, Ray and the lieutenant governor were apprehensive as they stood on the platform at Taylor Flats with Margaret, watching the spectacular flaming pillar that was created as Pacific Fort St. John No. 4 gas well was turned on for the first time. Below them, a photographer from Paris Match, noting that her skirts were billowing in the breeze, dashed down the embankment for a better view. Close on his heels was a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted. "But I only weesh a photograph of zee royal leg," pleaded the Parisien. "I have not bombs, only zee camera."
"No leg," said the mountie.
On the platform, Princess Margaret made a short speech and declared the pipeline open. The ceremony over, half a dozen limousines carried the royal party to Westcoast's compressor station No. 1 where Frank McMahon, company president, was to be the guide for a tour of the plant. And that's when it happened. Although even the smallest details of the visit had been meticulously planned, when she spotted a closed door, the princess turned the knob and disappeared through the doorway. Panic ensued because not only was this definitely not on the itinerary, it was also extremely dangerous since much of the plant was still under construction. But before anyone could react, Margaret re-emerged unharmed and unconcerned. The flap was over.
With the tour complete, the official party climbed back into the waiting cars to return along the dusty gravel road to the airport. Suddenly the princess, riding in the last car, pointed to one of the other buildings in the refinery complex. "I should like to go into that one," she announced. Although no more stops had been scheduled, the chauffeur immediately complied, turning off to the right. Meanwhile, the mounties in the lead car looked straight ahead, unaware that the princess was no longer with them; the drivers of the other cars dutiffilly followed the mounties.
Outside the building of Margaret's choice, the chauffeur of the royal limousine stopped and smartly opened the car door for her. She alighted, and trailed by Ray and the lieutenant-governor, marched inside. As could be expected, the guys at work in the plant-most of them stripped to the waist because of the hot weather-stopped to gawk as Princess Margaret walked into their dirty, half-built, pipe-festooned plant, but she strolled among them and chatted amiably, appearing to be genuinely interested in what they were doing.
About this time it dawned on the mounties that they had lost the princess. Turning the cavalcade around, they vroomed back, spotting the royal limousine parked with its driver at the wheel. At the side of the road an onlooker, watching this drama, commented, "Talk about embarrassing! They've got a guard on every bridge and behind every telephone pole, and there's wee Margaret cavorting around on her own in a rambling, big barn that's not halfways finished."
"Yes," agreed her friend, "and all those big apes sweating away inside, including my dear husband."
A few hours later, beside the Prince George railway tracks where the royal tour would board the PGE to head south, the princess was given a gold-panning demonstration. The scenario had old Alex Moffat, who had panned for gold at Quesnel long before he opened his Northern Hardware Store in Prince George, panning sand that had teen seeded with gold nuggets. Real ones. As each nugget appeared in the pan, Ray was to pick it up and put it in a velvet-lined box to be presented to the princess. However, before he could pick up the first nugget, Margaret's hand shot out and snatched it up. Moffat looked up in surprise, but he shook the pan again. Again the royal hand grabbed the nugget ... then the next ... and the next . . . until Margaret was jiggling all the nuggets in her little hand. The official presentation had fizzled out. Later, on the train, Ray handed her the box. "Here," he said, "you may as well put your nuggets in this."
That evening, steak was on the PGE dinner menu. Margaret ordered hers rare. When it arrived, she noticed Ray glancing at the bloody meat on her plate. She laughed and said, "If Mum were here she would say, 'Margaret, why don't you let them kill the animal before you eat it?"'
North of Williams Lake the royal train pulled into a siding for the night, and here Margaret stepped onto the rear platform of the train for a smoke. "Dammit!" she cried. "There goes my cigarette holder!" It had dropped to the tracks below. Dutifully, everyone climbed off the train to walk up and down the tracks in the dark, looking in vain for the cigarette holder. It may be there yet.
Princess Margaret had two ladies-in-waiting, plain Lady Ogilvie and attractive Mary Peak, and before each ceremony the princess saw to it that Mary Peak's outfit did not outshine her own. Lady Ogilvie she didn't have to worry about. Lady Ogilvie, however, was a charming woman and popular with the rest of the entourage, so the next day as the train moved out of the siding and she showed an interest in its operation, Ray took her up to the engine cab. Going in to Williams Lake, the engineer handed her the controls, and Ray took a photo of her running the diesel. When he told her he would send her a copy, she was delighted, but she made him promise he wouldn't tell Margaret that she had driven the locomotive. Nobody upstaged the princess.
For the stampede in Williams Lake the royal party was given a special box in the stands. Once more the Frenchman circled below, singlemindedly pursuing his goal of photographing the royal leg, but to his frustration, Princess Margaret sat down, and with her legs hidden behind the enclosure, kicked off her shoes and became absorbed in the show.
"When she eez seating down," moaned the photographer to the mountie who was detailed to follow him, "from here I cannot see."
When the time came for the royal tour to move on again, the lieutenant governor came to Margaret. "Your Highness, we must be going now.
The princess didn't budge.
A few minutes later he came back. "Your Highness, it's time we were leaving." Still she didn't move.
Then somebody had a brain wave, and a few minutes later a voice came over the loudspeaker: "Would everyone now stand while the band plays 'God Save the Queen'? Her Highness has to leave now." Princess Margaret, of course, had to stand. When "God Save the Queen" was over, the crowd remained standing while the princess put on her shoes and walked out.
The princess and her entourage then boarded a DC-6, the first big plane to take off from the new, still uncompleted Williams Lake airport, and headed for Penticton. Having been told about Lieutenant Governor Ross's Douglas Lake Cattle Ranch, Princess Margaret said she would like to see it from the air, so the plane circled low over the world-famous stock farm. A lot of good, red, rare beef down there, she must have mused.
In Penticton the royal party changed to a Grumman Goose for
the flight to Vernon, Margaret's first ride in an amphibian. As the party boarded the plane, two black specks approached in the distance: the man from Paris Match with the mountie in pursuit. Before long the plane descended over the shimmering turquoise and blue of Kalamalka Lake, shot along the surface with a great splash and taxied towards the beach where a crowd of local people waited to welcome the princess. After the reception the plane carried the royal party back over the lakes to Kelowna where Premier Bennett awaited the arrival of his royal guest. Ray breathed a sign of relief; his duties as an escort were over.
And Portland Island? Well, some years later, through diplomatic channels, the island was pried loose from the princess. Today the marine park bears the name of Princess Margaret, but the island is still Portland Island.