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May 5, 2011

Canada: where are we and where do we go from here?

It was an extraordinary election. Both Stephen Harper and Jack Layton got the results they were aiming for. Stephen Harper got his majority and Jack Layton replaced the Liberal Party not only as the Official Opposition but quite possibly as the only federal alternatives to the Harperites. Canada now looks like so many other countries with one party on the Right and one on the Left. So why do I feel so bad?

Firstly, a government that has shown its contempt of democracy in a myriad of ways, not the least lying to Parliament about its spending, won a majority of seats. Now they have no structural limits on their power. True an NDP opposition is a major improvement over a Liberal opposition but a majority government that barely listened to the Opposition when it was in the minority will ignore the Opposition in majority.

Secondly, most of the NDP seats came from defeating the Bloc Quebecois, also a social democratic party. So the 102 NDP Members of Parliament replace a combination of 83 social democratic members in the last Parliament, less dramatic than it appears.  The Bloc members were mostly very effective advocates in Parliament, most of the NDP members from Quebec are unknown. Everyone in English Canada talks about a split between the NDP and the Liberals but the NDP and the Bloc are much closer politically. A major weakness of the social democratic left in Canada is its fierce identification with the federalist cause against the self-determination of Quebec, stopping most progressive people in Canada from seeing their obvious commonalities with the Quebecois and vice versa.

On the other hand, having an NDP caucus that is half Quebecois can bring together the concerns of progressive in Quebec and English Canada. That can only be a good thing.  However, today on Democracy Now, Stephen Lewis declared the NDP victory in Quebec a blow to “separatism,” which is exactly the wrong way to see it. What it seems to be is a desire of the people of Quebec, including sovereignists to stop a Harper majority, as well as a fatigue with the same old Bloc Quebecois and a genuine affection for Jack Layton. We should be thanking them.

An NDP opposition also gives social movements much more voice in Parliament. For example, Jack Layton and much of his caucus are strong feminists. Support for feminist and LGBT rights are bred in the bone for them and they have strong links with those social movements. Jack has often spoken at anti-war rallies and should be willing to call for a federal inquiry into the G20 repression.

My major worry about the Harper government is not that they will go after abortion and gay rights because that would wreck the coalition they have built with Progressive Conservatives and probably undermine some of their corporate support. My major concerns are to do with the environment, Indigenous Rights, privatization, war, criminalization of poverty and dissent, cuts to funding for arts and culture  and of course democracy itself. 

An NDP opposition should also impact positively on the mainstream media, which has moved so far to the right in recent years, without a single left-wing voice outside of the Toronto Star and me on Q. More left wing voices in mainstream media, means Canadians will hear more of the actual debate between Left and Right particularly on economic and environmental issues.

The mobilization of citizen groups, especially youth, was extraordinary during the election and bodes well for the future. Even if it didn’t have a major impact on voter turnout, it did have an impact on framing the debate and no doubt on the NDP high numbers, in Ontario and BC.  Most importantly, a new generation of young people have gotten a taste of activism and hopefully will continue. Lead Now, one of the most effective and impressive group’s plans to continue and build a progressive political movement.

The debate about strategic voting was fierce in the last days of the campaign. I don’t consider the Liberal Party to be in any way on the Left. On economic issues they are no different than the Tories.  The dramatic cuts to social programmes that opened up the gap between rich and poor were mostly carried out by Paul Martin. However in this election there was a difference because the Liberals support democracy. However, as soon as the NDP surge in Quebec started, it made little sense to vote Liberal strategically since no-one else would be doing it. If you look at the ridings the Conservatives picked up in Ontario, there were three way splits, where there had been just Liberal/Tory contests before. The people who check into a strategic voting site are not numerous enough when spread across ridings for strategic voting to work unless the parties are on side.

You may disagree with my analysis about strategic voting but please do not blame the NDP for the election results. The NDP ran a good campaign and won people’s support with their policies and Jack’s personality. That is what parties are supposed to do. The people of Canada rejected Ignatieff and the Liberals. Whether that will be permanent remains to be seen.

In 2001 the New Politics Initiative proposed a new party based on a fusion with the Greens and the NDP and a closer tie to the then rising anti-globalization movement. The NDP now has a chance to create a more vibrant party of the Left by working closely with Elizabeth May and what’s left of the Bloc in Parliament and by speaking for those who have had so little voice over the last fifteen years.  I hope they do it.

And whether they do depends on how much pressure is on them from outside of Parliament.  As Tria Donaldson, a youth activist blogging in said, “we need to raise a little hell.”  We need strong extra parliamentary movements that rely on the kind of grass roots mobilization we saw during the election since state funding will no longer be available for anyone who is really challenging the government. People of my generation need to step aside and make space for young people to provide leadership to these movements.  For too long, progressive social groups and unions have relied on old tactics and old methods, talking to each other.  We need to link up with the most vulnerable people in society who are mostly racialized in the big cities and live in places like the 905 around Toronto. One positive element of this election is that the divisions between left and right in a lot of communities of colour was much more clearly articulated in this election through initiatives like the “go ethnics go” video.

Building much broader support for and profile to the Indigenous struggles to defend their land against the tar sands, mining and clear cutting will also be key.  The environmental and social justice movements are coming together globally through initiatives like the Cochabamba Accord and the UN Declaration of the Rights of Mother Earth. Environmental destruction and its defence internationally will continue to be a major feature of the Harper government.

Finally, we need to build links again between Quebec and English Canada. Last week-end I attended a conference in Montreal that included people both from Quebec and English Canada on climate justice. It was the first Canada/Quebec conference I had attended in years. In the 1980’s we built strong alliances with Quebec against free trade. Now we must rebuild those alliances to fight the attacks of the Harper government. That way if the Parti Quebecois wins the next election in Quebec, which is very likely, the chasm that always grows between Quebec and English Canada when sovereignty is on the agenda can be narrowed.

And as far as the movement for proportional representation goes Fair Vote Canada has already published the results if some form of proportional voting had been in place.  It would have been a minority Conservative government with the NDP in second place. 

The bad news is that both the Conservatives and the NDP benefited from the First Past the Post system so don’t look for changes any time soon despite the fact that Harper used to support PR and as far as I know Jack still does.

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Dotan Rousso. Holds a Ph.D. in Law—a former criminal prosecutor in Israel. Currently working as a college professor in Canada.

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