Looking for the Canadian Left-In-Waiting

June 13th, 2001
By Naomi Klein

I’ve never joined a political party, never even been to a political convention. Last election, after being dragged by the hair to the ballot box, I was overcome by a wave of ennui more acute than the pain suffered by my friends who simply ingested their ballots.

Does this mean I’m a no-brain, knee-jerk anarchist, as many a Globe letter writer has claimed? Perhaps. But then why do I find myself agreeing that we need a new left political alliance, maybe even a new party?

What’s clear is that the left as it is currently constituted—a weakened NDP, and an endless series of street protests—is a recipe for fighting like crazy to make things not quite as bad as they would be otherwise. A revolutionary goal for the left would be to actually make things better.

Is the New Politics Initiative the answer? It could be.

First, the basics. The NPI, leaked to the press last week, is not a new party trying to overthrow the NDP and crown Svend Robinson king of the socialists. It’s an idea about what a new party could and should be: more internally democratic, committed to electoral reform, tied to grassroots movements (http://www.newpolitics.ca).

It is not doing what most people I know have already done—writing off the NDP entirely. Instead, it is putting forward a concrete proposal for the NDP to adopt resolutions at its November convention that would transform the party into this new entity. Already, some of the most grassroots-minded NDPers have endorsed the idea, as well as respected activists such as Judy Rebick and Jim Stanford.

And, no, I haven’t decided whether I’ll sign. The real question for people with itchy, painful party allergies like mine is this: What happens in the unlikely event that the NDP membership actually goes for it? That’s when the idea for a new politics turns into a living process—and the real test begins.

To those outside the Labour-NDP axis, all this talk still looks like the usual suspects jockeying for position. Genuinely new politics would mean bringing together communities that have nothing to do with the Canadian left as it looks today—either with the NDP, or the mass street protests such as those that took place in Quebec City. This task doesn’t just requite better "outreach." It requires wiping the slate clean, systematically identifying the constituencies that are suffering most under the current economic model—and are already organizing against it most forcefully—and building a national vision from there.

Who am I talking about? Here’s a start, by no means complete:

The burgeoning city power movements—environmentalists, anti-poverty activists—that finally have proof that the federal and provincial downloading buck stops with them. And it comes up considerably short, with not nearly enough to cover basic human needs such as water safety, public transport, and housing.

Immigrant communities that have always voted Liberal and are now questioning that allegiance, having just discovered, via the Draconian Bill C-11, that they are in this country on a guest pass.

Left-wing Quebeckers, fed up with the PQ’s endless postponement of action on social issues, and looking for alternatives.

First Nations communities whose prospects for real self-government are once again being delayed, this time by paternalistic concerns about "governance" and federal defiance of Supreme Court rulings on resource control.

Resource communities—whether Prairie grain producers, West Coast loggers and fishers, or PEI potato farmers—that have already found out that there is no level, free-trade playing field when your biggest trading partner writes the rules and breaks them.

Bringing these, and other, forces together would draw out deep conflicts between natives and non-natives, unions and environmentalists, urban and rural communities—as well as between the white face of the Canadian left and the darker face of Canadian poverty. To overcome these divisions, what is needed is not a new political party—not yet—but a new political process, one with enough faith in democracy to let a political mandate emerge.

That could well mean re-examining some of the traditional left’s most basic ideas about how to organize a country. After all, the thread that connects municipal rights to sustainable resource management, as well as Quebec sovereignty to native self-government, is not a stronger central state. It is a desire for self-determination and local control.

Creating this process would be an arduous long-term project. But it would be worth it. Because it is in the connections between these largely off-the-map issues and communities—not in the current internal squabbles—that you can detect the rough outlines of a powerful, truly national, Canadian left-in-waiting.