Last week, I participated in rabble’s post-election roundtable in Vancouver. It was a thought-provoking evening, the kind of collective discussion we need to be organizing right across Canada to assess the new political terrain. I found the conversation so stimulating that by the end of the night I was feeling downright optimistic.
The years ahead under this Harper majority will be tough, but we should take heart: the right-wing political project currently in power is not invincible.
Crucially, Quebec continued to strongly reject the Conservatives, which means that Harper has yet to truly achieve his goal of becoming Canada's "natural governing party". Now, more than ever, it's important for those of us in English Canada to get in touch and build genuine links with the social movements of Quebec (members of the NDP caucus aren't the only ones who should be brushing up on their French).
We should also start paying a lot more attention to Quebec Solidaire and its elected representative in the National Assembly, Amir Khadir. Born of a process of left regrouping, this is a party that believes in building movement power, not co-opting it for electoral aims.
The federal vote breakdown reveals other important silver linings -- perhaps most encouraging are the indications that the youth vote is trending towards the NDP. One could argue that this, combined with the Orange Crush in Quebec, points to a coming progressive majority in Canada.
Making this hopeful interpretation a reality will require extraordinary work against shrewd and ruthless opponents who hold all the advantages of governing and of concentrated mainstream media ownership, and who plan to make the playing field even more uneven.
And then there remains a key question: what would we do with that progressive majority? Put another way, what is the political project of the left in Canada? I'm not sure that we have one. But I am sure that we need one, and that we need to think big.
The NDP, to be sure, has an electoral project it's pursuing, but that's far from the same thing (though there will hopefully be many points of convergence). There will no doubt be fierce debates within the NDP about directions, but thus far the leadership's watchwords are "moderate", "pragmatic" and "responsible". The NDP election campaign and platform proposed only very limited curbs on the excesses of corporate Canada's power. In a world beset by an ecological and climate crisis fuelled by an irrational and unfair economic system, however, a truly responsible politics involves thinking far beyond moderate change and (so-called) pragmatic tweaking.
We need a vision for transformative change, and one rooted in more than rhetorical abstractions and denunciations. We need some big ideas, some big proposals, a future to imagine even as we fight defensive battles in the present.
I'll offer here just a few preliminary sketches on some of the issues I'd like to see prioritized, in the hopes that many others will follow to share their ideas. (rabble, it turns out, is launching a whole series around the theme of 'reinventing democracy'.)
Reform the voting system, scrap the unelected Senate
This one's pretty obvious. Hopefully the election of Elizabeth May will mean another voice in the House consistently raising the need for some form of proportional representation. There will need to be a massive ongoing campaign of public education to counteract spin by the entrenched forces in Ottawa who benefit from the first-past-the-post system.
Losing an election or spouting right-wing talking points on TV would seem to be the surest way to a cushy appointment in Canada's Senate these days. Having already rewarded prominent media personalities in recent years, this week Harper appointed three election losers, including two who had earlier resigned their Senate seats to run for office. His extreme cynicism and hypocrisy on Senate appointments will hopefully put wind in the sails of calls to abolish this chamber of patronage. That's the best kind of Senate reform -- it's an utterly wasteful anachronism that needs to go.
Don't just get out of Afghanistan, get out of NATO
Speaking of anachronisms, NATO was a Cold War alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. When we criticize the wars Canada is involved in, it's important to also question what NATO is even doing in Central Asia (Afghanistan) or North Africa (Libya) -- or even in existence. It's time to advocate Canada pulling out of NATO entirely and ditching the policy of integrating the Canadian Forces with the US military. The military budget should be reduced, with spending redirected to fighting the necessary wars against climate change and poverty.
In the meantime, to really make an impact challenging Harper's foreign policy, we have to get creative and bold. A good example of this is the Canadian Boat to Gaza -- the 'Tahrir' -- which will sail with an international flotilla of activists in June. Dozens of Canadians will put their bodies on the line in this direct challenge to the illegal Israeli siege of Gaza which has been so brazenly supported by the Harper government.
Stop the tar sands, start fast trains and green jobs
Industry already has plans to exponentially expand extraction from Alberta's tar sands. In a world in need of emergency action to stop runaway climate change, this amounts to an international crime by Canada and a crime against the indigenous people of the region and their lands. This issue, perhaps more than any other, needs to be stated plainly: we must shut down the tar sands.
As interim measures, it's important to demand a moratorium on expansion and to tax the oil companies enjoying this climate-destroying gold rush. Captured tax revenue should be put into development of good, genuinely green jobs, such as the construction of public transit infrastructure within cities and long overdue high speed electric rail between major urban centres. A Windsor to Quebec City high speed rail corridor could serve more than half of the population of Canada. All of this transportation infrastructure should be publicly owned and operated.
A proper fast rail infrastructure would eliminate the need for short flights - these should be phased out. The airline industry needs to shrink; there is no 'clean fuel' solution in the time frame required by climate science to make drastic emissions reductions. Selective nationalizations could help to better plan and organize this contraction, softening the landing for the workforce.
Prioritize and learn from indigenous struggles
Imagining transforming Canada begins with understanding the genesis of this colonial-settler state. The fathers of Confederation and the authors of the notorious Indian Act had planned to displace and assimilate the First Nations of this land out of existence. They failed. But they succeeded in immiserating and disempowering indigenous people. Neither Harper's delivery of the decades-overdue Residential Schools apology nor his changing of a ministry's name from Indian to Aboriginal Affairs should fool anyone -- his government represents the modern face of an ongoing colonial project. Why do you think Harper had to be dragged kicking and screaming into agreeing to sign on to the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights?
So, in addition to prioritizing support of indigenous people's struggles for land and sovereignty, let's learn from these vibrant movements both within Canada and internationally. Although a much different situation given a majority indigenous population, we should take inspiration from Bolivia, where a revolutionary process has succeeded in refounding the country as a plurinational state. Perhaps the concept of plurinationality has relevance here, towards a goal of dismantling the colonial project and moving beyond the dominant liberal interpretations of multiculturalism under a supposedly bi or tri national Canadian state.
John Ralston Saul has called for understanding and reimagining Canada as a Metis Nation. His vision has always struck me as too focused on urging today's elites to behave more benevolently (he is, for the most part, speaking to his class, his colleagues). But his ideas should be taken and interrogated seriously -- we need more activists and leaders re-thinking our present based on a real understanding of our colonial past.
There's already some brilliant thinking and action taking place on all these fronts, but we need a lot more to pull together the truly transformative political project that the times require.
Harper’s majority is the latest development in a decades-long right-wing political project. Some of its architects and proponents would no doubt argue that Harper has excessively watered down the project in order to hold power. But no one can deny that this reactionary project has succeeded in shifting politics to the right, and in making the distribution of power and wealth in Canada even more unequal.
On our side, we need to think in decades too.
Imagining there’s no Harper is (relatively!) easy, if you try. It takes a little more imagination to think about breaking the domination of corporate power over our economic and political life.
So let’s keep the collective discussion going, as we organize, resist and imagine.
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