Canada’s election: NDP gains widen space for social struggles

By Roger Annis

May 23, 2011 – Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal, an earlier version of this article also first appeared in Green Left Weekly -- The incumbent Conservative Party sailed to victory in Canada’s federal election on May 2 with the first majority government in the federal parliament since the 2000 election. There was celebration in the boardrooms of the country. The victory caps a decades-long drive by much of Canada’s business elite to fashion a strong national government on a hard-right agenda.

The result is a deep disappointment for progressive-minded people in Canada. The Conservatives led by Stephen Harper will form the most right-wing government in modern Canadian history, extending the regressive path of its two minority governments won in the 2006 and 2008 elections.

But there is much in the election outcome from which to take encouragement. The Conservative vote rose only by a modest two percentage points (to 40 per cent), notwithstanding the huge sums the party spent on its campaign and the support it received from nearly every daily newspaper in the country. In Quebec, its electoral fortunes continue to decline, down 25 per cent from 2008 and 33 per cent from 2006.

Polarisation and huge shake-up in electoral map

For the first time in modern Canadian history, a party with roots in progressive social movements, including the trade unions, will form the official opposition in parliament. The social-democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) is broadly identified as a party of social reform. Its share of the popular vote across Canada nearly doubled, from 18 per cent in 2008 to 31 per cent, or 4.5 million votes.

In Quebec, the party’s vote rise was astonishing – from 12 per cent and one electoral seat to 43 per cent and 59 of the 75 Quebec seats in the federal parliament. The party’s new MPs from Quebec include many young people; a majority are female, and many bring with them a background of social rights advocacy or activism.

Opinion polls confirm that the large swing to the NDP signifies a serious and progressive search for alternatives to the right-wing agenda that has prevailed in Canada for decades. During the campaign, the party said it would aggressively defend Canada’s public health-care system, improve the national pension plan and curb some of the tax breaks enjoyed by the rich at the expense of the poor.

The NDP’s result dramatically deepened a progressive polarisation of electoral politics at the federal level. Over the past five federal elections, since 2000, the combined vote of the Conservative and Liberal parties, the two historic parties of capitalist rule in Canada, has declined from 79 per cent to 59 per cent of those voting.

A sharper left-right divide has emerged that will propel hitherto marginalised or quiescent social forces into political action.

Maude Barlow of the left-wing advocacy organisation, the Council of Canadians, notes that “over two-thirds of Canadians who were eligible to vote did not cast a vote for the Harper agenda”. She sees the NDP gains as “the opportunity for unparalleled (until now) collaboration between Members of Parliament and progressive civil society”.

Quebec and Canada

The alienation of Québécois from the federal constitutional regime – their unsatisfied national aspirations as an oppressed, French-language population[1] – is the major fault line of capitalist rule in Canada. In this election, the majority of Québécois solidly rejected the anti-social and regressive policies of the Conservative and Liberal parties. The two parties saw their votes decline in Quebec by more than half a million votes compared to three years ago, to a combined total of only 30 per cent of the electorate.

The pro-sovereignty, but equally pro-capitalist, Bloc Québécois (BQ) also suffered a precipitous decline, to only four seats. It has won the majority of Quebec seats in the federal parliament in every election since 1993. (Its actual vote decline was less sharp –from 1.4 million votes to 0.9 million – but Canada’s first-past-the-post electoral system is unforgiving to all but the numerical victor in each electoral district.)

The reasons for the astonishing NDP breakthrough in Quebec are manifold. Voters in the province wanted a socially progressive option and the party’s platform offered a way to express that. Intertwined with this are the experiences of the past 20 years.

  • The federal Liberal Party is suffering terminal decline in the province. It has governed Canada for most of the country’s history and has been the dominant federal party in Quebec. But the nominally bilingual, federal state it created in the 1960s and 1970s to forestall Quebec independence has ultimately failed to satisfy the national aspirations of the Québécois.[2] Its animosity to modern Quebec nationalism has left it with its lowest vote total there in history.
  • The harsh, right-wing program of the Conservative Party is also at odds with most Québécois. During the 1980s, Brian Mulroney’s Progressive Conservative Party adopted an accommodating stance toward Quebec’s desire for constitutional change. He fashioned an alliance with soft nationalists and won majority federal governments in two elections, 1984 and 1988. That combination is unlikely to reappear. The hard-right Conservative Party, formed through the successful unification of the Reform-Alliance Party and Progressive Conservatives in 2003, has turned its back on any accommodation with Quebec and has seen its support there steadily decline.
  • Six elections since its founding, the Bloc Québécois has worn out its claim to be the only means for Québécois to defend their rights in the federal parliament. Its pro-capitalist program was highlighted in the past several years as it failed to oppose the harsh, austerity measures of the provincial Liberal Party and quietly shifted towards acceptance of the militarist policies of Conservative federal governments. It is closely associated with the provincial Parti Québécois, itself a party of social austerity (neo-liberalism).

Amir Khadir, leader of the left independentist party Québec solidaire (which does not run federally), commented after the election that the demise of the Bloc Québécois is the fading of a sovereignist strategy that relied on fostering resentment against Canada. Needed, he said, is an “ecological and political turn that can reveal the exciting potential of freedom to our own people. It must be positive, and necessarily involve huge popular mobilizations.”

NDP leader Jack Layton’s nod towards French language rights during the campaign apparently was enough to allay long-standing suspicion of the party among many in Quebec nationalist circles. But attacks by the new Harper government against progressive social programs or further intrusions on constitutional prerogatives currently exercised by the Quebec government will pose major challenges to the NDP. The party has a long history of staunch defence of the federal, constitutional order in Canada.  

Some NDP leaders now argue that the decline of Bloc Québécois and the rise in the NDP’s fortunes spells the end of sovereignty as the preferred political option for the majority of Québécois. But this claim is belied by the electoral train wreck of the federalist parties in the province. In fact, post-election polls show that the sovereignist Parti québécois is the leading party in the province. More than 40 per cent of respondents tell pollsters they would vote “yes” in a future referendum on sovereignty.[3]

Struggles open up

One of the first targets for harsh treatment by the new government may be the 48,000 postal workers who are negotiating a new collective agreement and trying to beat back employer plans to create a two-tier, cheap labour policy for newly hired workers.

For certain, Ottawa’s growing alignment with Washington will increase, plunging Canada deeper into imperialist war. Within days of the election, the government announced the purchase of 1300 laser-guided bombs to be dropped on Libya. Yet to be released are details on the 1000-member “training mission” of Canada’s military in Afghanistan, scheduled to replace Canada’s 3000-strong combat brigade this July.

Stephen Harper says the new parliament will legislate the building of more prisons and stiffer sentences under the criminal code.

NDP’s record

The Harper agenda will impose major challenges on the NDP’s new caucus. Notwithstanding important struggles that have taken place over the past 20 years and won some gains – by students, women, teachers and healthcare workers in Quebec and other provinces – there has been a steady decline in strikes and other forms of social protest. The NDP’s record on these defensive struggles, let alone the fight for social reforms, is not promising. Last year, for example, along with its trade union allies, it stifled the growing social mobilisation for significant increases to the public pension plan. Governments it has formed in the provinces have largely responded to the economic crisis with the same austerity policies as the big-business parties.[4]

A glimpse at its recent electoral program is unimpressive. New spending on social programs would depend on revenues generated by a “cap and trade” program the party would introduce to regulate CO2 emissions. Its economic platform centred on two modest proposals: placing a cap on credit card interest rates and offering more tax breaks to small businesses in the name of job creation.

The environmental movement has exposed  “cap and trade” as a failed policy for addressing the climate change crisis.

While the NDP has called for the immediate withdrawal of Canadian soldiers from Afghanistan, it barely mentioned the issue during the election campaign and plays no leadership role in the anti-war movement. It has been silent on Canada’s shared culpability in the decade-long-and-counting humanitarian crisis in Haiti.

Demise of the Liberal Party

This election registered the decline of the Liberal Party right across the country, to a historic low of 19 per cent.

In the decades following the Depression and World War II, the Liberal Party fended off electoral challenges from the left by enacting such programs as the Canada Pension Plan, public health insurance (Medicare), unemployment insurance, collective bargaining rights for workers and expanded rights for refugees and immigrants. Of course, most of these programs were won through struggle by workers, but the shine nonetheless benefitted the Liberal Party.

For the last three decades, however, successive Liberal and Conservative party governments in Ottawa have made deep cuts to social programs. They have trashed the environment in the search for profit from Canada’s vast natural resources. They have sharpened attacks on democratic rights. The hardest-hit victims are the 1.5 million Aboriginal peoples, many of whom live in Third World conditions.

The NDP stands to benefit greatly from the shift of voters belatedly recognising that whatever the merits of past Liberal governments, the party is today near-to indistinguishable from the Conservative Party. But for thet electoral shift to result in lasting gains, the NDP and its social allies will have to stand up to moneyed interests and fight for genuine improvements.

The election widens the political space for this. With the startling expansion in the number of NDP MPs in Quebec there are new openings, unprecedented in recent decades, for exchange and political collaboration between left and working-class forces in Quebec and the rest of Canada. From that can emerge even stronger resistance.

In the words of Maude Barlow, “What is needed now is a coming together of progressive forces in civil society and the labour movement as never before in our country's history. Social and trade justice groups, First Nations [Indigenous] people, labour unions, women, environmentalists, faith-based organizations, the cultural community, farmers, public health care coalitions, front line public sector workers, and many others must come together to protect and promote the values that the majority of Canadians hold dear.”

Capturing the same spirit, a statement of the No One Is Illegal social rights organisation in Vancouver says, “Over the next few months and years, we strongly urge our friends and allies across diverse social and environmental movements to come together to effectively organize at the grassroots in our respective communities for Indigenous self determination, environmental justice, a world free of militarization, workers rights and income equity, migrant justice, and gender, queer, disability, and reproductive rights.

“Don’t mourn, organize!”

[Roger Annis is a retired aerospace worker in Vancouver BC.]


[1] Quebec’s population is 8 million, of whom 83% speak French as their first or only language. The population of Canada is 34.4 million.

[2] In 1995, the “yes” side to a Quebec referendum on sovereignty was supported by 49.3% of the voters, with an unprecedented 95% turnout of the electorate.

[3] For more on the election outcome in Quebec, read “NDP breakthrough in Quebec: A challenge for the Canadian left,” by Richard Fidler.

[4] The NDP has governed in five of Canada’s 10 provinces and one northern territory (Yukon), and currently holds government in Nova Scotia and Manitoba.