The NDP and the Waffle: 50 years later survival takes on a new meaning

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Ed Broadbent and Jagmeet Singh (L-R). Photo: Jagmeet Singh/Facebook

Fifty years ago at a federal party convention in Winnipeg, the NDP rejected a resolution calling for an independent socialist Canada. What was widely known as the Waffle Manifesto was voted down by party delegates.

In debating a draft version of the manifesto, Ed Broadbent reportedly said, "if we are going to waffle, we better waffle to the left," which explains how the Manifesto for an Independent Socialist Canada got its nickname.

Last week in Vancouver, as part of the annual Congress of Humanities and Social Science, Professor Emeritus of Communication at Simon Fraser University (and blogger) Robert Hackett organized a Society of Socialist Studies panel to reflect on what happened in 1969 and what it means today.

Poet, author, and UBC Professor Emeritus of Political Science Philip Resnick outlined classic dilemmas of left political parties and activists as they confront the realities of world politics.

Reading from his forthcoming memoir Itineraries, Resnick pointed to the movement to the right of European social democratic parties following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 as pivotal in understanding the evolution of the NDP since that time. 

As Murray Cooke has written, the vestiges of the NDP as a socialist party officially ended in Montreal in 2013, when with Tom Mulcair as leader, the NDP convention adopted a new preamble to the party constitution. Instead of championing "the application of democratic socialist principles to government and the administration of public affairs," New Democrats now "belong to the family of other progressive democratic political parties that govern successfully in many countries around the world."

In 1969, Mel Watkins and the recently deceased (2018), very lamented James Laxer were the public faces of the Waffle, explaining why -- without the adoption of socialism -- American control of the Canadian economy represented a threat to the survival of Canada as an independent country.

The Liberal government had appointed Watkins to chair a Royal Commission on Foreign Investment that reported in 1968.

In 1973, a minority Liberal government that depended on NDP support created the Foreign Investment Review Agency (FIRA) to look at foreign acquisitions of Canadian firms and screen new foreign investments, but FIRA legislation failed to address existing foreign ownership.

Elected in 1984, the Mulroney Conservatives declared Canada was "open for business" (meaning it was up for sale, remarked Mel Hurtig) and renamed FIRA as Investment Canada. It had a new mandate: to promote foreign ownership and control of Canadian industry and natural resources.  

While Waffle ideas about transforming capitalist ownership of the means of production and control over natural resources have been continually set aside, and not just within the NDP, on one central question -- Quebec -- the Waffle approach won approval.

The Waffle Manifesto said clearly Quebec constituted a nation and that it had the right to self-determination.

Nearly four decades later, meeting in Quebec City in 2005, with Jack Layton as leader, the NDP convention adopted the Sherbrooke Declaration, which echoed the Waffle Manifesto in its recognition of the national character of Quebec and its right to self-determination.

Not exactly controversial, since there had already been two Quebec referendums waged under the 50 per cent-plus-one requirement for victory, the Sherbrooke Declaration nonetheless led critics to attack both Layton and his successor Tom Mulcair for defending it.

While many party members think the Sherbrooke resolution was what prepared the way for the 2011 Orange Wave -- when the NDP won 59 of 75 seats in Quebec, pushing the Bloc Québécois down from 47 seats to four -- the mainstream media treat the 50 per cent rule as a cross for the NDP to bear.

Panellist Ian Angus, SFU emeritus professor and author of seven books, including A Border Within, which argued Canada needed "an ecological relation to the world," outlined challenges facing a political party that draws on social movements for inspiration and resources, but must steel itself to attract Canadian voters.

With the recent announcement by leader Jagmeet Singh of support for a Green New Deal, the NDP has an opportunity not just to ward off the rise of the Green Party, but to break with party politics as usual and open the widest possible debate about survival.

Today the climate change emergency signifies survival of the planet and all forms of life on Earth.

Reflecting on the best way ahead for her party, former deputy NDP leader and panellist Libby Davies drew on her recent memoir Outside In to urge the NDP to be bold in the months up to the election on October 21, and to fight hard for its ideas about how a transition to a green economy is needed and can be made possible.

Duncan Cameron is president emeritus of and writes a weekly column on politics and current affairs.

Photo: Jagmeet Singh/Facebook

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