Canada's Left is having a moment

by Ed Broadbent, Michal Hay, Émilie Nicolas




Something quite remarkable is happening in Left politics in Canada. And no, we don’t mean the fallout from the NDP convention in Edmonton, though we’ll return to that in a moment.

What we’re talking about is the fact that virtually every major Canadian news story of the past few months has revolved around the advancement of core progressive concerns.

The Left, broadly defined, is on a roll. Think about it. A small sampling includes:

Across the country, the fight for a $15-an-hour minimum wage is picking up steam. In Toronto and Montreal, Black Lives Matter and Montréal Noir are successfully pushing for public consultations and independent inquests in recent police shootings and are raising awareness about persistent systemic anti-black racism. Meanwhile, Indigenous rights activists have followed suit with widespread actions to draw attention to chronic underfunding and injustice.

The Alberta provincial budget’s determination to reject austerity and instead protect core public services, invest in new infrastructure and enact new climate protection measures is being widely applauded. The Supreme Court of Canada has rendered two historic verdicts, one dismembering the Harper government’s dubious criminal justice legacy, the other extending important new rights to Métis people.

Roiled by Liberal fundraising scandals, the Ontario and Quebec governments are in full-on damage control mode to rid politics of corporate and union contributions – a long-standing progressive demand. Finally, the federal government’s announcement of a process to reform our voting system is imminent, opening the door for Canada to join the majority of democracies with more effective electoral systems based on the principle of proportionality.

What’s not on the public policy agenda? Well, with few exceptions across the country, the hoary canards of the political Right: government retrenchment, “tough on crime” legislation, restrictions on civil liberties, and old-tyme climate change denial, are rarer than Canadian hockey teams in the Stanley Cup playoffs. In fact, both the Ontario and Manitoba Progressive Conservative parties have recently come out in favour of carbon pricing.

Why is this leftward tilt in our political discourse and public debate happening? One reason is certainly that in the wake of the recession, and with rising inequality, environmental degradation and flagging employment impossible to deny, the political Left has momentum around the world and Canada is part of this tide.

This increasing progressivism takes different forms in different countries. In Europe anti-austerity parties like Spain’s Podemos are gaining ground powered by record engagement of young people. In the United States, the unlikely candidacy of Bernie Sanders has captured the imagination both of aging hippies and tech-savvy millennials.

You know things are changing when Merriam-Webster dictionary reports that “socialism” was the most looked-up word on its website in 2015.

Which brings us to the current situation of the federal New Democratic Party. Admittedly, for those not in the room at the Edmonton convention, it’s difficult to understand why such a gathering would have such an upbeat atmosphere (and it was) yet produce such seemingly acrimonious results.

The reason, we think, that the same convention that gave Alberta Premier Rachel Notley countless standing ovations for her inspiring leadership and adopted a resolution to discuss the principles of the Leap Manifesto (not, it should be noted, the Manifesto itself) was because of a clear desire for change and to have their voices heard. The NDP delegates felt that there are historic opportunities for progressives across a range of issues, in Alberta and across the country, and want to ensure their party is best positioned to take advantage of this moment.

The truth is that the big new ideas to bring about more justice, prosperity, sustainability and democracy have always come from the political Left. This is tough and important work. To help the discussion along, the Broadbent Institute will be kicking off a national conversation, including new research, country-wide events and online engagement focused on energizing and building new constituencies for social democracy. It will culminate in the Institute’s Progress Summit next spring in Ottawa – one of our contributions to Canada’s 150th birthday year.

So let’s be clear: the most important headline about the Canadian Left is the vast number of headlines being driven by the Canadian Left. The necessary reflection being undertaken by the NDP is part of that picture. What confronts progressive leaders and activists across Canada, both in and out of politics, are a world of opportunities to move important issues forward in a way unimaginable even a few years ago.

Ed Broadbent is Chair and Michal Hay and Émilie Nicolas are directors of the Broadbent Institute.

This op-ed originally appeared in the Toronto Star.