Voices from the Canadian Left

Print edition : July 07, 2001

The Canadian Left is making an energetic bid to enrich its politics and policies with more content.

A FLURRY of activity is taking place on Canada's political Left. Within the space of a month, there were three important conferences on issues relating to the Left. The "Whose Economy?" conference in Toronto was followed by the conference on "Future of Social Democracy" in Montreal and the recently concluded "The Future of the Left: Organising to Challenge the System" in Toronto. Besides these, numerous articles have been written in the media by those involved in the process and by independent journalists and columnists. Later in June, a conference on the future of the New Democratic Party will be organised by its socialist caucus, and the NDP convention will be held in November.

Some serious NDP members, including Member of Parliament Svend Robinson, seemed to have banded together as a ginger group to provoke and push the party into a new mood and a new beginning. In a newspaper article, activists Morna Ballantyne, Dave Meslin, Judy Rebick, Svend Robinson and Jim Stanford declared their intention to launch the New Politics Initiative. They admit that the Left is at a crossroads.

Protests in Quebec City have provided the momentum to grassroots activism, which, according to the authors, "needs a strong political party to voice its concerns and solutions, not just during election campaigns but all the time. Yet too many Canadians, including many union, social justice, and environmental activists, feel they have no real voice or choice in conventional electoral politics." They add, "We've concluded that the best way to rejuvenate the Left party is to build an inspiring new movement-connected organisation, one that encompasses both NDP members and other progressive and active Canadians, drawing in the thousands of concerned Canadians who have disengaged from conventional politics."

The failure of the NDP in the last elections (it won 13 seats) and the recent defeat of the NDP government in British Columbia, where it won just two seats, have raised the level of concern among party members. It is in this context that the movers of the New Politics Initiative have called for the creation of a new political party, "a party dedicated to the ideals of egalitarianism, solidarity, environmental sustainability, community responsibility, and socialism." The group believes that the "NDP should lead a process of constituting this new, progressive party". It therefore remains to be seen what happens at the November convention.

The NDP itself was born out of the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in 1961. The CCF was formed in 1932 through the coming together of many groups such as farmers, labourers and socialists. Although each group maintained its identity, they had a common enemy to fight - capitalism, "the cancer which is eating at the heart of our society." The party's success lay mostly on the Canadian prairies, but Ontario provided the breakthrough for it in 1942 when Joseph Noseworthy won its first CCF seat in the National Parliament. The CCF won 34 seats in the Ontario legislature in 1943 and in 1944 the party won in Saskatchewan and formed the first democratically elected social democratic government in North America.

This new surge towards finding a new meaning for the Left came from Sam Gindin's proposal for a "structured movement". In early 2000 some Left activists and intellectuals in Toronto met regularly to discuss the prospects for a new political project. They sought to focus on anti-capitalism, activism and extra-parliamentary movements. This was followed by a two-day conference in October. One of the key speakers at the meet was Prof. Himani Bannerji, an academic, Marxist and author of a number of works on Marxism, feminism and anti-racism. She said: "In this project of re-building the Left - though I have to say my emphasis lies on 'building' rather on the prefix 're' - I think a lot of building, of covering ground, has to be done before we can talk of having a large and consolidated Left."

Prof. Bannerji felt that being on the Left had also to do with addressing the issues of "gender, race, and class". She said, "An empty Left politics that leaves class as an abstraction, non-socialised, has its opposite in the petty bourgeois politics of ethnic and 'race' consciousness by some non-white Canadians."

A Former staff member of the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), a powerful union, Gindin, in a piece, "Toward a Structured Anti-Capitalist Movement", written in Canadian Dimension (January 2001), said: "The argument that we should directly move to some kind of a new party, I think, is premature. Parties can't just be proclaimed. They can only emerge out of people in motion who have built a base of common experiences and trust. Even if, therefore, party-building is seen as a future goal, the immediate issue has to be to develop ways of struggling together and creating the kind of movement that will then itself be the base for debating the if, when, and nature of an appropriate party. As for looking to revive the NDP, I see no reason to spend a great deal of time on this here. The real leadership in developing a culture of resistance has, at least since the free trade debates, clearly shifted from the NDP to the unions and the coalitions." Gindin's call has aroused activists in some of the major cities in Canada and the SMAC is likely to gain further impetus with time.

At the Future of the Left conference in Toronto it seemed that many groups wanted the Left to be more radical, obviously encouraged by the results in Quebec City. On the prospects of the SMAC, an editorial in the current issue of Canadian Dimension says, "Nothing is certain as to the fate and fortunes of this nascent movement. It is clear, however, that unless the socialist Left throws itself wholeheartedly into its activities and debates, and acts in a constructive and non-sectarian way, it will not receive a hearing during this or probably any future wave of radicalisation."

Among the groups that support a radicalisation of the Left is the Toronto-based Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP), which organised an impressive rally against the Conservative government in Ontario last year. It plans an even bigger rally later this year.

Former NDP leader Ed Broadbent, who took the initiative to hold the Montreal conference, called for unity and cautioned against the Left getting fractured. "Think of reform, yes, think of many changes, but let's not split the Left. If we split the Left, the Right will be delighted and the Liberals will be in total euphoria," he told 200 delegates at McGill University. He cautioned, "I am saying to those thinking of building a new party ... to think very seriously about the implications for this country."

Lorne Nystrom, MP, remarked: "History tends to go in cycles." He said in an interview: "We have to have a broad-based social democratic party in place, for when the Liberals lose credibility. And as sure as day follows night, the Liberals will lose credibility."

Commenting on the New Politics Initiative's stated positions, a Left-leaning columnist for The Globe and Mail, Rick Salutin, wrote, "I feel some sympathy for Opposition parties in this situation. When they change names, it's not just as if they're trying to fool voters into thinking something magic and new has snuck in. Maybe they're also trying to persuade themselves. Of what? That changing the damn government is worth the damn trouble."

He added: "Let me finish with some thoughts on the movement for a revitalised, or just renamed, NDP. It seems to me a great mystery of Canadian history is why the NDP has almost always managed not to get elected. It's mysterious because the political culture of Canada has been and remains basically social democratic, as evidenced, for instance, by the yearly Ekos surveys on attitudes toward government."

The author of the book Imagine Democracy, publisher of a new website, www.rabble.ca, and one of the organisers of the parallel People's Summit during the Summit of the Americas in Quebec, Rebick disagrees with the politics of violence and was unhappy at the ugly turn of events in Quebec. A former president of the National Action Committee on the Status on Women, Rebick wrote on the Montreal conference: "The NDP seems ready for just about anything in order to recapture some energy and momentum. The problem is that the party has lost so much credibility with activists, especially in provinces where it has been in government, that it's difficult to see how it can re-invent itself in its current form. If the NDP is smart, it will initiate a process to create a new party that can unite the broad Left under one banner at the federal level."

The author of the best-selling book No Logo, Naomi Klein, says: "There's a big space in the political landscape for a new party, one that looks at the calls for localisation and doesn't see a dire threat to national unity. There is a very simple reason to have a left-wing alternative to the Liberal Party: people are suffering. Despite all the wealth created by deregulated markets, many Canadians are seeing no part of it."

In his book In Search of a New Left : Canadian Politics After the Neoconservative Assault, James Laxer, former research director of the NDP and currently Professor of Political Science at York University, Toronto, says, "For Canadian social democrats, the first half of the 1990s was the best of times and the worst of times. The New Democratic Party held office in three provinces - Ontario, British Columbia and Saskatchewan. Over 50 per cent of Canadians were governed by NDP provincial governments. Yet, within a few years, it became apparent that the NDP's provincial victories in the 1990s were merely pyrrhic. So compromised were the New Democratic provincial governments by the policies adopted and by the times in which they governed that social democrats descended to a level of despair unparalleled in their history."

The Left is at a crucial juncture in its history. With the NDP as its fountainhead, it would be necessary to repeat what one of the leading authorities on the party, Alan Whitehorn, said some years ago: "The NDP, as it currently exists, may no longer be the best vehicle for Canadian social democracy. Like its predecessors, the Progressives and the CCF, it may be coming to the end of its role, and it may be necessary to pass the torch to another and more vibrant standard bearer."

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