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Sunny times are over — it’s time for progressive Canadians to own this angry era

Progressives love a happy warrior.

Can you blame us? Progressive politics is, ultimately, an act of hope. It’s founded on the idea that more unites people than divides them — the idea that if everyday people work together, we can build a better and fairer world.

But in 2023, one thing is clear: we don’t live in sunny times anymore.

In a recent poll, only 30 per cent of Canadians felt like the country was headed in the “right direction.” This is more than just pessimism: it indicates distrust of institutions, divisions in society, and a reduced sense of unity and collective purpose.

Inflation continues to squeeze working people’s pocketbooks. Rate increases by the Bank of Canada try to resolve inflation on the backs of workers in the form of monetary austerity. Despite this tightening, rent continues to soar, with the nation’s average rent increasing more than 12 per cent since December 2021.

And if that wasn’t enough, many economic forecasters predict Canada will enter a recession this year.

Canadians are getting angry. And they should be.

In my role as executive director of the Broadbent Institute, I help working-class people get ready to assume leadership roles — whether it’s getting active in their municipality or organizing for community change.

The tenor of these conversations has changed. Gone are the days when people believe the system works in their best interests. Today, people tell me our systems are corrupt and must be fought.

We can see this play out in the success of Pierre Poilievre. The leader of the Conservative Party of Canada has consistently sought to channel the sense of despair and anger that Canadians feel, saying that “everything feels broken” and, echoing the slogan of the Brexiteers, consistently promising to help Canadians take back control of their lives.

It’s an attack that has emotional resonance. It’s also an excellent contrast with the Liberals, who, despite coming to power on their leader’s empathy, are likelier today to suggest that working people cope with inflation by cancelling Disney+, a suggestion made by Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland that she later walked back.

Poilievre won’t do anything to fix these problems, of course. It is one thing to know the issues, but it is quite another to solve them.

For example, he correctly identifies “gatekeepers” in local government as his nemesis — but his proposed reforms only target big cities while leaving housing-laggard suburbs in the 905 and Lower Mainland untouched and making no movement to reverse the Chrétien and Martin-era Liberals’ draconian cuts to non-market housing funding. His attacks on British Columbia’s safe supply pilot endanger efforts to end the province’s toxic drug crisis.

But we cannot ignore the simple fact: he is channelling Canadians’ anger. And it works.

Progressives, we need to take a page out of his communications playbook. In an angry era, we need to get mad.

Here’s the good news. Although the right is angrier today, anger is historically progressive territory. The left was founded on one simple truth: Working people are getting ripped off.

It’s this discontent that is at the foundation of the labour movement, which channels workers’ anger to fight exploitative bosses. We can look to labour for clues on how to channel people’s anger today.

The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) launched a new campaign last month called Enough is Enough. In the face of an economy where workers pay the price for a crisis they didn’t create, the OFL demands real wage increases and an affordable cost of living.

The Canadian Labour Congress has given Poilievre competition when objecting to the Bank of Canada’s screw-tightening, as companies like Loblaws see soaring profits during inflation while workers’ wages continue to fall behind.

Federal NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh seems to have taken this lesson to heart, building awareness of ‘greedflation’ — a way for Canadians to remember that the cost of groceries and other products is up due to corporate profiteering.

Here’s what these campaigns have in common.

They are angry.

They identify a villain.

Their solutions are market interventions that Poilievre could never co-opt.

And they focus on what brings normal people together — a desire for a better life — not what drives them apart.

For too long, progressive politics — in this country and elsewhere — has been built on the foundation of culture wars to create a cross-class majority.

In 2023, that strategy has run its course.

In its place must be a new strategy: building a multi-racial, working-class coalition for progressive change dedicated to real, measurable, material improvement in the lives of ordinary people.

That’s the mission of the Broadbent Institute. That’s what we’re discussing at the Progress Summit this March in Ottawa.

And in an angry era where trust is declining and people look to charlatans for solutions, it’s how we’ll win back trust — and win a better deal for everyone in this country.

Jen Hassum is the Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute.

This article originally appeared in the National Observer on February 7, 2023.