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Canada: The NDP -- new wine in an old jar?

NDP leadership candidates.

[For more on the Quebec national question, click HERE.]

By Richard Fidler

March 13, 2012 -- Life on the Left, posted at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal with the author's permission -- Apologies to subscribers to this blog for my recent silence.A lot has happened recently, most notably the revival in the fortunes and prospects for the Quebec independence movement, which I will comment on before long.

But the immediate item of note is the federal New Democratic Party [NDP, a social-democratic party similiar to the British, Australian and New Zealand Labour parties] leadership race, which will come to a close on March 24, 2012, at a convention in Toronto. There, the postal votes of the pan-Canadian membership will be tallied and the new leader will be selected by delegates, probably after more than one elimination ballot since it appears that none of the seven remaining candidates enjoys clear majority support.

It has been, on the whole, a lacklustre campaign with no candidate proposing any new ideas that would make the party much more than the electoral machine that it now is, dedicated to proving its readiness to govern the country as a kinder, gentler version of neoliberal politics. Even the trilingual Indigenous candidate Romeo Saganash, who in the past has written cogently on the national question from both an Indigenous and Québécois perspective, seemed unable to offer any message that demarked him from the other candidates, all committed to pursuing “Jack Layton’s legacy”. Saganash eventually dropped out of the race. So what is there to say?

Last year, I accepted an invitation to join a collective based at the University of Ottawa that is associated with the excellent Quebec journal Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme. In one of our initial discussions, on the topic of the NDP after the May 2, 2011, election, I was asked to lead off with a discussion addressed to four specific questions. My written presentation, dated December 1, 2011, is translated below.

Far from attempting a comprehensive analysis of the NDP, it does address some questions that are in the minds of many serious left activists, including no doubt some of those voting this month in the leadership election. I have added a few notes in the translated version to update it and identify some acronyms for English-speaking readers. A postcript recounts a few key episodes in NDP history with particular reference to the Quebec question. At some point I hope to write about others, such as the left-wing “Waffle” and the New Politics Initiative.

These notes are offered in the hope that they can help initiate further discussion by others.

– Richard Fidler

* * *

1. Is the Quebec breakthrough conjunctural or is it something more substantial?

Since its founding, the NDP has defined itself as a federalist party, opposed to Quebec independence. The party’s historic approach to the “Quebec question” is well documented in two books: Roch Denis, Luttes de classes et question nationale au Québec, 1948-1968 (Presses socialistes internationalistes, 1979); and André Lamoureux, Le NPD et le Québec, 1958-1985 (Éditions du Parc, 1985). I attach, at the end of these notes, a brief update of Lamoureux’s account. See also François Cyr & Pierre Beaudet, “Le NPD et la question québécoise: continuités et ruptures.”

The vast majority of NDP members and sympathisers are committed federalists. The party operates in Quebec as a party that seeks to “make federalism work”. This orientation is integral to its DNA, as is its acceptance of the framework of the capitalist state and the institutions of global imperialism.

The NDP’s May 2, 2011, electoral breakthrough in Quebec was not due to any change in its approach to Quebec (it campaigned in 2006 and 2008 elections on virtually the same positions); it reflected primarily popular disaffection with the Bloc québécois and the BQ’s inability to pose a pan-Canadian alternative to a Conservative Party majority government, while the NDP presented a certain openness to Québécois demands on a number of questions, including language rights. As long as Quebec is part of the federal system, the NDP can retain significant electoral support in the province, but only as a “lesser evil” than the BQ and other federal parties.

The NDP’s future in Quebec is closely linked to that of the Quebec national question. Is the national consciousness of the Québécois destined to disappear? All indications are, to the contrary, that Quebec’s alienation from the federal regime will continue to deepen and intensify, albeit unevenly, and that the national movement will in the long run orient increasingly toward the conquest of political independence.

The current decline in electoral support to the federal Liberal Party and Conservative Party is accompanied by a deepening of the crisis of the bourgeois sovereigntist parties, the Parti québécois (PQ) and the BQ, which have generally exhausted popular illusions by squandering their progressive potential. The national and social movements are now in the early stages of a process of recomposition that offers the left independentist party Québec solidaire (QS) the possibility of weaving some important links with the unions and social movements as the party of “the other Quebec” as a democratic, eco-friendly, feminist, pluralist and grassroots-based party. The NDP’s federalism places it largely outside this process.

Notwithstanding its electoral breakthrough and the current leadership contest, the NDP has so far not recruited more than about 3000 new members in Quebec, for a total membership of 5000 — compared with close to 100,000 individual members of the party in Canada.[1] (The figures for members affiliated to the party through their unions are not readily available, but in any event the party has few affiliated members in Quebec, where the BQ and PQ are supported by the FTQ and explicitly or implicitly endorsed by the CSN and the CSQ.)[2]

The federal electoral breakthrough has not generated corresponding gains for the NDP in the other provinces. In the last five provincial general elections this year, the NDP’s vote has generally remained firm (except in Saskatchewan, where its legislative representation was almost wiped out). In Ontario, the NDP remains the third party, although it won more seats in the October provincial election.

2. What are the prospects for a change in the federal NDP’s policies and strategy?

Up to now there has been no sign of a change. The NDP members in Canada congratulate themselves for achieving an electoral breakthrough in Quebec, but there is no indication of any questioning of the party’s position on the national question, even when the media draw attention to contradictions in the Sherbrooke Declaration, which expresses the party’s proposals on the Quebec question. The declaration accepts that a referendum on Quebec sovereignty would carry with a 50% + 1 majority. But at the same time, it accepts the Supreme Court of Canada judgment on the Secession Reference, which held that negotiations based on recognition of the result would be commenced only if the referendum produced a “clear majority” to a “clear question” — “clarity” being determined in both cases by the federal parliament and the other provinces. The Sherbrooke Declaration and my critique of it are referenced at the end of these notes.

There have been, reportedly, a few differences expressed behind closed doors within the parliamentary caucus, for example when the party initially supported the government’s appointment of a unilingual Anglophone judge to the Supreme Court, or when the federal government failed to allocate a share of the military shipbuilding contract to the Davie Shipyard [in Lévis] — a decision the party’s spokesperson hailed as “a great day for Canada”. But these differences were not made public. The NDP will continue to be torn by its ambiguities on the Quebec question.

Since the defeat of the 1980 referendum, the decline in the Quebec radicalisation of earlier years, the PQ’s rightward turn and its acceptance of neoliberalism, the left in Canada has shown little interest in Quebec, which it no longer considers the leader or vanguard of social change that it was in the 1960s and '70s. Even during this previous period there was little understanding of the national question, as Serge Denis documented in his book, Le long malentendu: Le Québec vu par les intellectuels progressistes au Canada anglais, 1970-1991 (Boréal, 1992). Insofar as the Canadian left solidarised with the left in Quebec (for example, the left-wing "Waffle" tendency in the NDP in the early 1970s), it was usually in the hope of building a common alliance in opposition to US imperialism, and not against the Canadian state. For the Canadian left — and not only within the NDP — Canadian nationalism has consistently trumped solidarity with the national struggle of the Québécois.

Nor have we seen any sign of attempts by the new Quebec MPs of the NDP to reorient the party’s thinking on Quebec. It is a weak caucus. These MPs were recruited as candidates from a small membership (1700 in all) at the time the election was called. Most are federalists. There are many non-Francophones. Several are young but for the most part they are not known for their involvement in the social movements. The most experienced parliamentarians, Thomas Mulcair and Françoise Boivin, are former Liberals. The few trade-unionists among the NDP’s Quebec MPs worked primarily in pan-Canadian unions (Steelworkers, CAW, CUPE, PSAC)[3] and not in the CSN or the CSQ. Almost none were active in the nationalist movement.

In the parliament, these MPs are under immense pressure from the federalist media, the government and the Liberals to declare their support of the federal system; only the four MPs of the Bloc québécois are committed to defend “the interests of Quebec”. It may be too early to gauge the impact on Quebec public opinion of the NDP’s slippages on the national question. But it is certain that a new rise in the Quebec national movement will further expose the contradictions and ambiguities of the NDP. Stay tuned....

3. Will the NDP go to the “right” (merger with the federal Liberals) or will it go to the “left” (closer to the social movements)?

My short answer: neither, nor! Neither to the right nor the left, at least in the short term.

Having achieved the status of Official Opposition, the NDP can now present itself as the “government in waiting”. This certainly increases the pressure on the party to demonstrate its “reliability” to the Canadian and international bourgeoisie. But the NDP has always done that, and never more than under the leadership of Jack Layton, who moved the party a bit further to the right to occupy the “centre” of the political spectrum. See Murray Cooke, “Layton’s Legacy and the NDP Leadership Race”. 

The NDP has aimed since its founding to replace the Liberal Party, just as the British Labour Party did in England in the 1920s. For 50 years the NDP has not managed to do this. And I think this is unlikely to happen in the near future. Bob Rae’s Liberals are finding it hard to recover their status as the natural governing party. But there is no evidence that the ruling class has abandoned the Liberals, their preferred party of goverrnent. Should mass social agitation threaten to destabilise Canadian politics, the elite might turn to the NDP as a means of deflecting that possibility. But at this point the capitalist media are pressuring the NDP to dissociate itself from the “separatists” (the Turmel affair[4]) and break its remaining links with the unions — links already seriously frayed by legislative restrictions on party funding by unions and the establishment of a system of state funding of parties, now the NDP’s principal source of income.

In the current leadership race, no candidate advocates fusion with the Liberals, although none of them exclude it for all time. Some, such as Nathan Cullen, advocate closer collaboration with the Liberal MPs in parliament on specific issues, instead of an adversarial relationship. There are some tensions and informal divisions within the NDP membership between those who advocate rapprochement with the Liberals and those — generally closer to the party’s electoral base in the working class and social movements — who would prefer a more militant response to the Steven Harper Conservative Party government’s agenda.

However, the social movements in Canada are politically quite weak, the unions continue to retreat in the face of the neoliberal offensive, and there is little real pressure on the NDP to move further to the “left”. And up to now the NDP leadership race has not produced the hoped-for “battle of ideas”.

A major problem for all left opposition currents in the NDP — and this is a direct product of the party’s electoralism, its parliamentarism and the resulting opportunism — is the lack of democracy within the NDP. Generally speaking, the party is an electoral machine that provides little space, even in local membership bodies, for political debate or education of its members. The bureaucratic structures and the total absence of internal or external party communications media guarantee the marginalisation of any present or potential left-wing tendency. The existing “Socialist Caucus” is completely marginal. It received the support of less than 1% of the membership for its candidate in the last leadership race (2003).[5]

4. What are the various options now facing the social movements and the left in Quebec and in Canada?

First of all, a comment about some particular features of the post-May 2 political context.

The NDP faces a major dilemma. It is, dogmatically, a parliamentary party. It seeks above all to “make Parliament work for Canadian families” (Layton). But the Harper government is using its new-found parliamentary majority to avoid debate and impose its program without regard for the opposition. NDP MP Alexandre Boulerice’s heartfelt protest in Le Devoir clearly expressed the frustration of the NDP caucus. Will that force the NDP to align itself more directly with the opposition in “the street”? Far from certain, at this stage. Generally, however, there is an inverse relationship between the NDP’s extraparliamentary activism and its immediate prospects of electoral victory or accession to government.

It is possible that new opportunities will develop for the social movements to involve NDP members and leaders in their mobilisations as a means of helping to advance those movements. However, at this point the social movements in Canada are still reeling from the Conservative electoral victory and lack any perspective of parliamentary victories, still less governmental power, in the foreseeable future.

What about the unions and their (often problematic) relations with the NDP? The federal NDP’s enhanced status in parliament could stall some tendencies to dissociate from the party (e.g. in the CAW), and might even bring some unions traditionally cool to the NDP closer to the party (e.g. the Canadian Union of Postal Workers [CUPW], whose members were favourably impressed by the NDP’s filibuster of the back-to-work legislation in June). But a section of the union bureaucracy might simply see the party’s gains as an additional incentive to leave politics to the NDP. At this point the unions do not appear to be under much pressure to alter this approach. It should be noted, however, that Canadian unions, unlike the NDP, have displayed relatively greater sympathy for Quebec nationalism and have adjusted to demands for autonomy by Quebec unions. As [former CUPW leader] Jean-Claude Parrot has put it, the relationship between the FTQ and the CLC can be described as the union equivalent of “sovereignty-association.”

Historically, the Canadian left has been unable to formulate a clear strategic perspective for power in the Canadian state, largely because the Quebec struggle since the 1960s has oriented toward power in Quebec and national independence. While a stronger NDP presence in Ottawa (as a “government in waiting”, with a majority-Québécois caucus) seems to offer an alternative perspective, the underlying dilemma will reappear in new forms to the degree that the national movement in Quebec regains its initiative.

In the past, Canadian nationalism proved to be a major obstacle to the establishment of durable links between progressives in Quebec and Canada. Furthermore, entire layers of the Canadian left lost their sympathies for Quebec with the rightward turn of the PQ after the defeat of the 1980 referendum and its abandonment of any credible claim to be fighting for independence, which also demobilised and demoralised a sizeable section of the Quebec left. We saw the results in 2000 when the Chrétien-Dion Clarity Bill aroused very little obvious opposition in either Quebec or Canada. Even the massive mobilisations in Quebec in 2003, which played a decisive role in the Canadian government’s decision to stand aside from the war against Iraq, did not have a major impact in the rest of Canada.

There are some reasons to think the situation is evolving now, however. For one thing, as noted earlier, the Quebec social movements — in particular, the women’s and student movements, and the environmental movement — remain relatively stronger, and this encourages activists in Canada and stimulates the prospects for collaboration with the Québécois. Especially because the Canadian state and the policies of the central government continue to constitute a common enemy.

Furthermore, the global justice (altermondialiste) movement — for example, in solidarity with the Indigenous and anti-capitalist movements in Latin America, and the anti-war mobilisations — mobilises and radicalises young people in both Quebec and Canada and provides a new basis for popularising the concept of self-determination. The looming ecological catastrophe poses the need for global and globalising solutions, and Canada’s role as a major polluting country tends to reduce the attraction of Canadian nationalist ideology. Indigenous militants are beginning to play a much more important role in the movement against climate change. These movements have a common attraction for militants in both Canada and Quebec, and tend to reinforce each other.

Thus, while it is still difficult to envisage the possibilities for adoption of a common strategy for the conquest of governmental power(!), there are some favourable openings for increased collaboration in the next period between militants in Quebec and Canada — not as a comprehensive coalition to “defeat the right” but rather around specific issues and campaigns.

Finally, let us note that any rise in protest movements may well generate tensions among the members and supporters of the NDP, and result in challenges to a number of positions long held by the party leadership. Among the contradictions between the NDP program and the social and progressive movements are:

  • popular opposition to imperialist war (especially in Quebec), vs. the NDP’s support to the “responsibility to protect” doctrine and military alliances like NATO and NORAD;
  • popular sympathy for Palestine vs. the support of numerous NDP leaders to the Israeli state and Zionism;
  • the environmental movement: the growing opposition to the development of petroleum extraction in Alberta’s tar sands vs. the NDP’s lukewarm support to such development provided the dirty oil is refined in Canada;
  • opposition to capitalist trade and investment deals such as NAFTA vs. the support to these agreements by many NDP leaders (and Mulcair in particular);
  • crime laws and prison expansion: while Quebec leads the opposition, the Manitoba NDP government supports many of the Harper government’s measures, such as jailing teenagers.

Last but not least, there is the issue that reflects the principal line of cleavage in the Canadian state: the fundamental contradiction between the independentist movement in Quebec and the NDP’s federalism. The Canadian state was founded on the national oppression of the Québécois and the Indigenous peoples. The divisions between progressives in Quebec and Canada have always weakened the left and reinforced the hegemony of the capitalist ruling class. Thus any durable alliance between progressives in Quebec and Canada must include, as a basic principle, the recognition and defence by the Canadian left of Quebec’s right to self-determination in all its expressions, including language rights.

Further reading

The Sherbrooke Declaration and my criticism of it: The federal NDP’s electoral breakthrough in Quebec: A challenge to progressives in Canada; Layton chooses Supreme Court, Clarity Act over NDP’s Sherbrooke Declaration.

Pierre Beaudet, La gauche et le NPD; La consternante performance du NPD; (with François Cyr), Le NPD et la question québécoise : continuités et ruptures.

André Frappier, Quelle attitude face aux néodémocrates.

Richard Fidler, Labour parties, the Comintern debates and the durability of Social Democracy (this document, written in 2002, was part of a discussion on the Marxmail web list. It responds in part to the comments of participants in other countries that have mass social-democratic or labour parties).

A note on some episodes in NDP history

[Le NPD et le Québec, 1958-1985, by André Lamoureux, is an important book, unfortunately never translated into English. Here are excerpts from some comments I made last year, based on this book, on an email discussion list. They are slightly edited for coherence.]

At the new party’s founding convention in 1961, the draft program referred to “the Canadian nation” and the draft statutes used the word “national” throughout in reference to the various party structures. However, the Quebec new party members defended the idea that confederation was a “pact between two nations” — an historically dubious thesis, but since the late 19th century the prevailing myth about the events in 1867 that was developed by traditional Québécois nationalists in their attempt to interpret the constitution in a way that would allow the “French-Canadian nation” some autonomy.

In the Quebec provincial committee, prior to the party’s founding, Jean-Marie Bédard, representing the International Woodworkers of America, proposed that the new party’s founding documents recognise Quebec’s right to self-determination including secession. But he withdrew his amendment when persuaded that the recognition of the principle of two nations included ipso facto the right to self-determination.

Michel Chartrand then moved that the party replace the words “national” and “nation” by “federal” or “Canadian” and recognise that “the French Canadians [the common designation at that time] constitute a distinct nation”. This enraged some other delegates, including Eugene Forsey, who was research director of the Canadian Labour Congress and, as it happens, a constitutional scholar who had fashioned a career through his frequent articles contesting the “pact” theory of confederation. (Marxist historian Stanley Ryerson challenges Forsey’s views in a postcript to his book Unequal Union.) Forsey denounced the amendment and, when it was adopted, announced he was leaving the party. (Pierre Trudeau later made him a Liberal Party senator.) But Chartrand’s amendment passed. As Lamoureux notes, for the Quebec delegates this was an “important and promising victory”.

The party leadership then got the convention to define Canada as a “bicultural nation”, hoping thereby to dilute the impact of the two nations position. The differences within the NDP were over the implications of that position. While the Québécois members thought it implicitly included the right to self-determination, the Douglas leadership saw it as a device to press for patriating the Canadian constitution (then an act of the British parliament) and to adopt a constitution that would clarify the federal government’s pre-eminent powers, for example, in social policy — which Quebec had historically resisted.

The Quebec wing of the NDP split in 1962, in part over differing interpretations of federal-provincial constitutional relations, although the split was also over the issue of autonomy for the Quebec section. The majority then went on to found in 1963 the Parti socialiste du Québec, an independent party with Chartrand as its first leader (later succeeded by Bédard). The NDP continued as a federal party only in Quebec.

These were huge debates at the time, and not only within the NDP. Recall Prime Minister John Diefenbaker’s bitter opposition to any, even verbal, recognition of Quebec as a “nation”, one of the things that eventually led to his removal as leader of the Progressive Conservative party. Yet another story ...

Lamoureux’s book ends in 1985, when it was published. After the defeat of the PQ government that year, and the signing of the Meech Lake Accord in 1987, former Toronto NDP MP John Harney moved to Quebec and, as “Jean-Paul Harney”, re-established and led a provincial Quebec NDP, which in 1988-89 attracted a membership of some 18,000 and was instrumental in electing the federal NDP’s first Quebec MP, automobile “lemon-aid” consumer advocate Phil Edmundston, in a by-election. (He was defeated in the subsequent general election.)

Harney’s version of the Quebec NDP explicitly defended the right of self-determination of Quebec; many if not most of its members were former Parti québécois members or supporters who opposed PQ leader Pierre-Marc Johnson’s watered-down substitution of “national affirmation” in place of that party’s defining support for “sovereigntÿ”. The NPD-Québec, by the way, initially criticised the Meech Lake Accord because it failed to recognise Quebec as a nation, although it later stifled its public criticism when federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent supported the Accord.

But the Quebec NDP collapsed when Jacques Parizeau took over the leadership of the Parti Québécois and set it resolutely on the road toward another referendum on sovereignty. The thousands of former péquistes who had joined the NDP left to rejoin the PQ. The Quebec party, much reduced, adopted a pro-sovereignty position in the early 1990s under the leadership of ex-FLQ leader Paul Rose. It dropped its relationship to the federal NDP and later participated in the process that led to the founding in 2002 of the Union des forces progressistes and later Québec solidaire.

As for the Sherbrooke Declaration, it was adopted by the Quebec Council of the NDP in 2005, and endorsed by the federal NDP in 2006. I do not know what discussion went into it, or whether there was much debate on it in either the (then) tiny Quebec NDP or the federal party.


[1] By mid-February 2012 (the cutoff date for members eligible to vote for the leadership), these numbers had risen to 128,351 in Canada as a whole, an increase of more than 40 percent from October 2011. Quebec membership was 12,266. Other provinces: British Columbia 38,735; Ontario 36,760; Manitoba 12,056; Saskatchewan 11,264; Alberta 10,249; Nova Scotia 3,844; Newfoundland/Labrador 1,030; New Brunswick 955; Territories 924; Prince Edward Island 268.

[2] FTQ, Fédération des travailleurs et travailleuses du Québec [Quebec labour federation, the Quebec affiliate of the Canadian Labour Congress]; CSN, Confédération des syndicats nationaux [National trade-union confederation]; CSQ, Centrale des syndicats du Québec [Quebec trade-union central]. Under Quebec law, trade unions are prohibited from affiliating to a registered Quebec-based party.

[3] CAW, Canadian Auto Workers; CUPE, Canadian Union of Public Employees; PSAC, Public Service Alliance of Canada.

[4] See “Nycole Turmel’s induction in the federalists’ wonderland” and “Some Québécois reactions to the Turmel affair.”

[5] However, it is worth noting that the New Party Initiative (NPI), a short-lived caucus calling for a more progressive NDP, failing which it would initiate the formation of a new party, received the votes of about 40 percent of the delegates at the NDP’s 2002 federal convention. The NPI dissolved soon after its leadership, without consulting their members, endorsed Jack Layton in the 2003 leadership contest.

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