It was springtime in Vancouver, a time for renewal in more ways than one.
The Cold War was over, the United States had new residents at the White House and Russia’s first president was in his second year at the Kremlin.
Thirty years ago, April 3-4, 1993, Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin met for the first time in Vancouver, bringing the city the most attention since Expo 86. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney was host of what some called the “3-B” summit.
B.C.’s 30th Premier, Mike Harcourt, also in his second year in office, said it was the ideal time and place for a summit between the superpowers. The city known for its 100,000-strong End the Arms Race marches which also declared itself a nuclear-free zone.
Harcourt was one of the few officials who met both Clinton and Yeltsin. He greeted Clinton and his entourage at Vancouver International Airport after Air Force one touched down. He was scheduled to go jogging with the former Arkansas governor on the Stanley Park Seawall, but was replaced by a high-ranking military official.
“Clinton was his usual gracious self and very charming, good meeting and greeting. Boris Yeltsin was the same, jovial. Both of them are quite tall or taller than I thought they were,” said Harcourt, himself one of the loftier premiers in B.C. history. “They were both quite pleasant, brief experiences and I think they enjoyed their stay in Vancouver. Who doesn’t, you know?”
Harcourt had more time with Yeltsin, who hosted him, B.C. Federation of Labour president Ken Georgetti and aboriginal leaders for a private breakfast in his Pan Pacific Hotel suite.
“That was quite a remarkable breakfast,” the former NDP leader remembered. “It was Russian breakfast with dark pancakes and cream, caviar and it was attended by myself and Grand Chief Edward John and a number of First Nations people that presented him with a talking stick. Quite an elaborate talking stick, and much appreciated. It was quite an enjoyable event.”
Coincidentally, the previous weekend, the last president of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, was the featured speaker at a Science World banquet. The next day, 60 Minutes featured a Mike Wallace segment about Vancouver becoming a magnet for Asian investment and immigration, called “Hongcouver.”
Harcourt didn’t get to go jogging with Clinton, but Peter German was there as the RCMP’s deputy site commander. Unlike the July 1923 visit by President Warren G. Harding, Clinton’s handlers didn’t want a crowd. The park was cordoned-off and German was in the motorcade with Secret Service officers.
“It was a beautiful, beautiful day, and Greenpeace was just off-shore with one of their vessels and flying a banner obviously for Clinton’s attention, and so he would have seen it,” said German, the anti-money laundering expert and former head of the RCMP in Western Canada. “It was really Vancouver in the day, right? It was almost quaint.”
German said Clinton, wearing a white UBC sweatshirt, jogged for about a mile and there was a marker so he would know when he reached the distance.
“There were some sawhorses there, and he just kept on running, because he enjoyed it so much.”
That wasn’t the only protest aimed at catching the eye of a superpower leader or some of the 4,000 reporters in town. A pair of Greenpeacers also climbed the revolving W sign atop the Woodward’s building and unfurled a banner. Entrepreneurs tried to make a fast buck by flogging summit-themed T-shirts and the Marble Arch held a summit of its own between strippers billed as Miss Nude Russia and Miss Nude U.S.A.
Yeltsin stayed at the Pan Pacific, Clinton at the Hyatt Regency, mainly because it was unionized. They dined at Seasons in the Park atop Little Mountain on Dungeness crab, salmon, blueberries and maple ice cream.
Norman MacKenzie House, the University of B.C. president’s mansion, and the Museum of Anthropology were the main venues for their closed door talks.
While in the city, Clinton also went to Palm Sunday mass at First Baptist Church.
Both went for a short walk outside the Pan Pacific Hotel, delighting Vancouverites, except for the locals who had the misfortune of standing behind the sign-waving disciples of the fringe perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche.
A summit between the nuclear superpowers wouldn’t be complete without a sighting the military aide who shadows the president, carrying the nuclear codes briefcase, known as the “football.”
The Vancouver Convention Centre was a hive of activity. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer was there. Clinton’s press secretary, George Stephanopoulos, driving a golf cart was a sight you don’t see everyday. Same goes for actor Richard Dreyfuss, spotted lurking around the press conference theatre. The Democrat supporter was here for production of Another Stakeout.
Clinton and Yeltsin’s closing, joint news conference lasted nearly an hour. Through an interpreter, Yeltsin thanked the people of Vancouver “for being so hospitable for having so welcomed our delegation, and us personally, the presidents. I should like to thank the journalists, who it seems to me kept a round-the-clock watch out there.”
He had 1.6 billion reasons to be thankful. He went home with a US$1.6 billion aid deal.
Said Clinton: ”The beauty of Vancouver has inspired our work here and this weekend, I believe we have laid the foundation for a new democratic partnership between the United States and Russia.”
Years later, after a meeting at FBI headquarters in Washington, D.C., German stumbled upon a Clinton autobiography signing at a Barnes and Noble store near his hotel. He was eventually ushered in to meet the 42nd president.
“I said, ‘I saw you in Vancouver,’ I didn’t say what or anything else, and his response was ‘love Vancouver!’ It was really cute and he signed the book and off I went,” German said.
Harcourt looks back at the weekend fondly, but with a tinge of regret about what happened in the years since.
Yeltsin handpicked Vladimir Putin as his successor in 1999. Putin took the fledgling democracy and made it an autocracy, invading Georgia and, most-recently, Ukraine, in an all-out war.
“It is quite a different world and, unfortunately, not better,” Harcourt said.
Clinton is of similar mind, regretful that the investment announced in Vancouver didn’t pay off in the long-run. A year ago, after Putin began the war on Ukraine, Clinton mentioned the Vancouver summit and the money given to Yeltsin to bring Russian soldiers home from the Baltic states and provide them housing.
“I did everything I could to help Russia make the right choice and become a great 21st-century democracy,” Clinton wrote in the Atlantic.
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