Canada’s NDP Needs to Go Big or Go Home

With an aggressive wealth tax and Green New Deal in their platform, the New Democratic Party of Canada has the potential to change the national conversation. But if the NDP can’t outflank the Trudeau Liberals from the left, it might as well pick up and go home.

NDP leader Jagmeet Singh on October 20, 2019. (Don MacKinnon / AFP via Getty Images)

“. . .[If] this society does not evolve an entirely new set of values, if it does not set itself urgently to producing those services which private enterprise is failing to produce, if it is not determined to plan its development for the good of all rather than for the luxury of the few, and if every citizen fails to consider himself as the co-insurer of his fellow citizen against all socially-engineered economic calamities, it is vain to hope that Canada will ever really reach freedom from fear and freedom from want.”

—Pierre Trudeau, “Economic Rights,” McGill Law Review, 1962.

Just three years after publishing this democratic socialist call to arms, Pierre Trudeau accepted an invitation to run for the federal Liberals. Aside from ego and ambition, his slide into Canada’s “natural governing party” was greased by the notion that the New Democratic Party (NDP), Canada’s social democratic party, could never take office at the federal level. They were simply too radical.

Nearly sixty years later, the NDP is no closer to leading a government in Ottawa. Consigned to their place as “the conscience of Parliament,” the party currently holds only twenty-four seats in the House of Commons. Even so, the party is able to leverage some influence on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s Liberal minority government, which on occasion has required NDP support to remain in power.

This weekend the NDP is meeting for its first federal convention since 2018, though it will take place entirely online due to the pandemic. It’s likely to be the last major meeting of party representatives and riding-level delegates before the next federal election, which is expected to take place later this year.

Fracture Lines

Tensions within the party are running high in the wake of attacks against Manitoba NDP MP and former leadership contender Niki Ashton. Ashton received considerable blowback for the offense of participating in an online event hosted by Progressive International that also featured former UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn. After right-wing organizations and media outlets publicly criticized the event, the NDP’s leadership implicitly cosigned the smears and threw her under the bus.

This skirmish was the latest in a string of attempts by operatives from party leadership circles to marginalize elected representatives or candidates who defend Palestinian human rights and openly espouse anti-imperialist politics.

Tensions outside the party are just as high — the convention comes amid a worsening “third wave” of COVID-19 across most of the country, all while the public is just beginning to learn of the staggering scale of corporate profiteering during the pandemic.

Policy initiatives being discussed by the new Biden administration in the United States have also made things fraught north of the border. Joe Biden’s signaling of serious climate action and significant federal investments in new transportation and energy infrastructure will have ripple effects in Canada. In a country where center and center-left parties make political hay of a purported national character of progressiveness, the threat of being outflanked by America raises policy-making stakes.

Canada’s vaccination programs have lagged woefully behind other wealthy countries, and workplace outbreaks are multiplying with new COVID-19 variants spreading rapidly.

One year ago, during the first wave of the pandemic, the federal Liberal government, under pressure from the NDP, was rolling out monthly emergency response benefits for all those who had lost work. This year the working classes are now on their own.

At this tense political moment in Canada, the federal NDP needs to go big or go home. The party’s convention will feature much digital haggling over whose resolutions get prioritized and debated. But the bigger questions are about the party’s strategic direction and the need to renew democratic participation.

Jessa McLean, a young community organizer and two-time NDP candidate from Ontario, is running for the party presidency on a platform focused on empowering the grassroots membership: “Only they hold the potential to push back against neoliberalism and the rise of the right. We need a political revolution — and it will not be staffed in Ottawa.”

As the Bernie Sanders campaigns showed, rank-and-file members and volunteers can indeed ignite a political revolution — provided you give them policies bold enough to get excited about.

During Canada’s last election, the NDP’s platform included a wealth tax of just 1 percent on fortunes over $20 million. This is a far cry from Sanders’s progressive multi-bracketed wealth tax proposal and is too tepid to polarize national debate and energize the base.

New research by Alex Hemingway of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) estimates that adding brackets of 2 percent over $50 million and 3 percent over $100 million would nearly double the revenue raised in year one to an estimated $19.4 billion. A wealth tax with teeth is both good policy and good politics for the NDP. And poll after poll shows overwhelming support across party lines.

The Need for a Canadian Green New Deal

Another policy that polls through the roof but has never been given center stage in a federal election is a Canadian version of the Green New Deal. One resolution, submitted to the convention by seven riding associations, calls for “generational federal investments” for a post-pandemic recovery that will

. . . stimulate vast job growth across the economy: long-term care, public health, education, renewable energy, clean transit, zero-emission non-market housing, permanent livable income supports, local food, farming and more. Investment must prioritize public ownership and center the needs of BIPOC and other historically marginalized communities.

Whenever the next Canadian election is called, the extra-parliamentary left will be ready to push for an ambitious made-in-Canada Green New Deal. Already in the 2019 election, there was a substantial electoral intervention by youth climate activists. These targeted efforts helped to elect NDP MPs like Laurel Collins in Victoria, Matthew Green in Hamilton, and Leah Gazan in Winnipeg — all of whom made climate action centerpieces of their campaigns.

The overall 2019 NDP platform, however, was far from adequate on climate action, outlining a mere $15 billion in proposed new spending to create green jobs and cut emissions. With Justin Trudeau and the Liberals talking about major deficit spending on post-pandemic recovery, and with the Biden administration promising $2 trillion on new infrastructure spending in the United States, the NDP must scale up its demands.

To this end, Seth Klein’s recent book A Good War provides the outlines of a comprehensive Green New Deal vision for Canada. Leaning on the historic example of WWII-era economic transformation, Klein, the former head of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives in BC, makes the case for more spending, advocating $100 billion per year of new government funding. He also outlines the need for more planning and coordination, and a significant expansion of the public sector in order to achieve a timely phaseout of fossil fuels while creating hundreds of thousands of well-paying new jobs.

Klein’s proposals are all commonsense ideas that cut sharply against the market-centric, green-capitalist “solutions” trumpeted by centrist parties like the Liberals. These proposals include the need for a new generation of Crown corporations in industries such as high-speed rail, renewable energy, and low-carbon housing development and retrofits. A Good War also reminds us that during World War II, Canada imposed “excess profits” taxes on corporations at rates of 100 percent for any profits above prewar averages.

An ambitious climate program is a nonstarter without aggressive wealth taxes. If the NDP combines the two proposals, the Left can begin to transform the national conversation. The only way for the NDP to avoid losing more of their foothold in Parliament is to energize its base. It can do this by staking out an ambitious platform that will unequivocally distinguish its platform from that of the Liberals.

Cat Got Your Tongue

The NDP’s current leader, Jagmeet Singh, exceeded expectations in the 2019 federal election and has maintained higher net favorability ratings than other party leaders. However, he has waffled on key issues — most notably in cases where taking a clear position would have put him at odds with the provincial NDP leaderships in British Columbia and Alberta.

For example, Singh remained mostly silent when, in early 2020, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) raided Wet’suwet’en territory in northwest BC to arrest indigenous land defenders blocking the path of the Coastal GasLink pipeline. Singh’s only criticisms were aimed at federal authorities.

Previous to that, Singh failed to condemn, and at times even outright supported, the Coastal GasLink pipeline. Currently under construction, the pipeline, which crosses through the Rocky Mountains to Canada’s west coast, is a key part of heavily subsidized fracking and liquefied natural gas (LNG) expansion.

Positions that fail to condemn expansion of the fossil fuel sector are at odds with the federal party’s stated position of opposition to fracking and fossil fuel subsidies. Moreover, such positions erode the party’s credibility with environment-minded voters and repel more radical-minded youth climate activists.

These disjuncts also point to a larger contradiction facing the NDP as a whole across the country: the leadership of the relatively weak federal party is often effectively subordinate to the needs of the provincial parties. Meanwhile, many of the key officials at the NDP’s provincial levels are at least partially integrated into establishment politics due to their histories in provincial government.

The leap that Pierre Trudeau took in 1965 is one that has also been taken by far less charismatic figures. One such example is Bob Rae, the former Ontario NDP premier who is now a fixture of the federal Liberals and serves as Canada’s ambassador to the UN.

Put Up or Shut Up

Ultimately, the future of the Left in Canada depends on a willingness to defy centrist accommodation within the milieu of NDP-controlled legislatures and the progressive wing of the political class. Without this firmness of purpose, ambitious policy demands will wither on the vine.

This will entail a readiness to embrace the kind of internationalism embodied by Jeremy Corbyn and pursued by organizations like Progressive International. With the exception of individual initiatives by a few left MPs, the NDP has been absent and disconnected from the new left-wing and socialist movements that have won regional and national elections throughout Latin America. Without a revived and serious internationalism, the electoral left in Canada will remain as marginal as it is parochial.

NDP delegates at the convention would do well to reflect on the fact that Jeremy Corbyn, and the movement that propelled him, for all their limitations, came closer to winning office at the national level than the federal NDP ever has. Too many across the broad spectrum of the Left in Canada have given up entirely on a political vision that includes a left government at the federal level. In this respect, they affirm the very same line of reasoning that Pierre Trudeau wielded against his spurned former comrades as justification for his embrace of the Liberals.

Beyond any convention or election, we need to recover the transformational goals and collective ambition that sustained the founders of bygone left Canadian organizations. The Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, the precursor of the NDP, emerged from the social gospel and militant labor movements of the early twentieth century. CCF cofounder F. R. Scott’s poem “Dedication” still points us in the direction we need to aim toward in order to build a society “for the good of all rather than for the luxury of the few”:

Till power is brought to pooling
And outcasts share in ruling
There will not be an ending
Nor any peace for spending.