Unlabelled the Left

December 20th, 2000
By Naomi Klein

Where do we go from here? There’s a big space in the political landscape for a new party, one that looks at the calls for localization and doesn’t see a dire threat to national unity.

There is a very simple reason to have a left-wing alternative to the Liberal Party: People are suffering. Despite all the wealth created by deregulated markets, many Canadians are seeing no part of it.

In fishing communities from coast to coast, on family farms, on the streets of large cities, Liberal Canada’s recipe for economic growth has meant people being thrown into the global market without a net.

In response, we have seen a wave of political organizing and militant protests. Students blockade trade meetings where politicians are bargaining their futures away in exchange for foreign investment. In First Nations communities, from Vancouver Island to Burnt Church, there is growing support for seizing back control of the forests and fisheries—people are tired of waiting for Ottawa to grant permission that the courts have already affirmed. In Toronto, the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty is occupying buildings and demanding the shelter that is the right of all Canadians.

There is no shortage of principled, radical organizing taking place, yet it is almost completely disconnected from the major political voice of the left, the NDP. Listen to the people excluded from the Liberal mainstream and you hear ideas entirely absent from the NDP platform: the deep distrust of state powers, immigration crackdowns, police harassment, punitive welfare offices, and mismanagement of community affairs.

Surveying the rage directed at Ottawa from across the country, the NDP’s only response has been an action plan for better central management. In its policy book, there is no problem that can’t be fixed with a stronger, top-down government.

By consistently failing to speak to the hunger for local control, or to the well-deserved skepticism of centralized power, the NDP has yielded the entire anti-Ottawa vote to the right. The Alliance is the party that offers Canadians outside Quebec the opportunity to "send a message to Ottawa"—even if it is only by demanding a refund for poor service in the form of a tax cut.

A national party of the left could articulate a different vision, one founded on local democracy and sustainable economic development. But before that can happen, the left needs to come to grips with how Canadians see government. It needs to listen to the voices on native reserves and in non-native resource communities where the common ground is a rage at government—federal and provincial—for culpably mismanaging the land and the oceans from urban offices.

Government programs designed to "develop" the regions are deeply discredited across the country. Federal initiatives to get fishermen into eco-tourism, for instance, or farmers into information technologies are regarded as make-work projects, unresponsive and, at times, destructive to the real needs of communities.

Frustration with botched central planning is not just an issue in rural Canada. Urban centres across the country are being turned into mega-cities against their will, just as hospitals where cutting-edge programs once thrived are being amalgamated into inefficient medical factories. And if you listen to the teachers having standardized testing rammed down their throats, you hear the same resentment at centralized power, the same calls for local control and real democracy.

All these local battles are, at their root, about people watching power shift to points further and further away from where they live and work: to the WTO, to unaccountable multinationals, but also to more centralized national and provincial governments. What people really want are the tools, both financial and democratic, to control their destinies, to build diverse economies that are genuinely sustainable. And they have plenty of ideas.

On the west coast of Vancouver Island, they are calling for community fish-licence banks, bodies that would keep fishing rights in the community rather than selling them back to Ottawa or to corporate fleets. Native and non-native fishermen, meanwhile, are doing end runs around the Department of Fisheries and Oceans to try to save the salmon fishery by rehabilitating spawning grounds and protecting hatcheries. In other parts of British Columbia, they talk of community forest licences: taking away Crown land from multinational forestry companies that are interested in volume-based logging, and placing sustainable forest management in the hands of local communities.

Even in Newfoundland, long written off by Ottawa as Canada’s welfare case, there was talk this election of renegotiating federalism to regain control over the province’s rich energy reserves and what’s left of the fishery. It’s the same message from Inuit leaders determined to ensure that, as the oil and gas prospectors move into their territories once again, the benefits go toward regional development rather than simply enriching multinational corporations.

In many ways, these calls for sustainable economic development are the antithesis of the free-trade model pushed by the Liberals, which insists that increased foreign investment is the key to all of our prosperity, even if it means trading away democratic powers in the process. These communities want the opposite: beefed-up local control, so they can do more with less.

This is also contrary to the Alliance model of regional resentment and tax cuts—though for many, those aren’t bad consolation prizes. But there is clearly a deep desire in this country to continue to act collectively, to pool resources and knowledge and build something better than any of us is capable of building as individuals.

This presents a tremendous opportunity for a left-wing party, an opportunity that has been entirely wasted by the NDP. There is a wide-open space in the political landscape for a new party, one that looks at the calls for localization and doesn’t see a dire threat to national unity, but the building blocks for a unified—but diverse—nation. In these calls for self-determination, grassroots democracy, and ecological sustainability are the pieces of a national party platform, a coherent vision that includes many Canadians who have never before been represented by the so-called left.

Right now, we have federal parties that try to hold this country together against its will, and regional parties that pit the country against itself at its peril. A new party could do something else: show the country not the differences but the connections among these struggles for localization and articulate the progressive principles of economic sustainability, self-determination and participatory democracy. Rather than fighting localization, we need to spend national resources in a way that would systematically encourage creative, local solutions, making respect for the local the centrepiece of our national project.

What is needed is a federal party that would relentlessly champion the reinvention of local democracy with the same enthusiasm that the Alliance champions tax cuts. That doesn’t mean abandoning strong national standards—and stable, equitable funding—for health care, education, affordable housing, and environmental protections.

But it does mean that the mantra of a political party of the left should change from "increase funding" to "empower the grassroots"—in towns, on native reserves, at schools, in resource communities, in workplaces. This project doesn’t mean less government, just a different kind of government.

Its slogan: "Protect the Local, Nationally."