As New Democrats gather in Ottawa at their national policy convention, their party faces divisions as deep as those it faced in the 1970s. That was when the socialist and Canadian-nationalist Waffle wing formed what was almost a party within the party.

In the 1970s the divisive issue was Canada’s independence from its domineering U.S. neighbour. Wafflers, led by economists Mel Watkins and Jim Laxer, wanted to turn the NDP into a “truly socialist party”.

The Waffle called for an end to domination of Canada by the “American empire” — not through homegrown capitalism but via “national planning of investment and public ownership of the means of production.”

The NDP establishment eventually kicked out the Wafflers. After trying, with limited success, to form a new party, the Waffle movement disbanded. Many Waffle leaders later returned to the NDP and became leading forces in the party.

Today there is a nominally socialist faction in the NDP. And during the leadership campaign Niki Ashton did float the idea of increasing public ownership in a few niche areas. But neither Ashton nor anyone else has come close to advocating nationalization of the main economic sectors. 

What divides the party today is not based on the traditional socialist versus social-democratic division. It is not about gaining full control of all economic levers as opposed to the more modest goal of an enhanced welfare state.  

All about bitumen and a pipeline

What splits New Democrats in 2018 is all about the environment and, more specifically, pipelines. The two provincial NDP governments are at loggerheads over a plan to get the main export product of one of them through the territory of the other.

We are talking about Alberta’s oil sands product here, and about the fragile environment and coastline of British Columbia.

Alberta’s premier Rachel Notley has put in place stringent climate change policies, but still supports the oil sands industry, which is crucial to her province’s economy. She needs a pipeline to confirm her bona fides on the latter score.

British Columbia’s premier John Horgan won many seats not too long ago along the proposed pipeline’s route, based on a pledge to do what he could to block the project, despite federal approval.

When NDPers last met at a policy convention in Edmonton in 2016, where they voted to summarily dismiss then-leader Tom Mulcair, pipeline and environment policy also split the party.

The LEAP manifesto was on the agenda then. LEAP supporters oppose any and all pipelines carrying Alberta bitumen not only out of concern for spills and other environmental damage, but because they want a complete end to all extraction of oil from the Athabasca tar sands. We should leave oil sands bitumen in the ground, LEAPers say, because there is no sustainable way to exploit that dirty resource. 

Now, in 2018, the LEAP movement is still part of the big picture in the NDP. But, despite having accepted the Leap Manifesto as an aspirational document in Edmonton, much to Notley’s chagrin, the party still does not seem ready to wholeheartedly accept its ambitious environmental philosophy. Having a principled and organized environmental voice in the room will, however, influence conversations among delegates about the Alberta-B.C., pipeline dispute.

While in their backyards, the B.C. and Alberta NDP governments could both, in the medium or long term, gain from their opposing positions on the pipeline expansion, the federal party is in a more awkward situation.

Overall, the NDP tilts strongly toward B.C. and Horgan. British Columbia has long been an NDP stronghold, after all. Alberta? Well, not so much. Still, despite the pipeline spat, Notley is much admired by NDPers across the country. Her victory in the spring of 2015 gave a party that had found itself outflanked by Justin Trudeau’s Liberals a shot of political adrenalin — which was welcome, even if its effects turned out to be temporary.

NDPers appreciate the Notley government’s efforts to preserve health and social services in Alberta during a time of economic dislocation.

And when commenting on the pipeline dispute, they always nuance their support for the B.C. position by crediting Notley for instituting a carbon tax and taking other significant measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

NDPers know a Jason Kenney-led United Conservative government would roll back much of Notley’s progressive agenda, while actively attempting to sabotage the Trudeau government’s timid and tentative efforts to combat global warming.

Challenge for the Ottawa convention

Somehow, the NDP federal leadership has to hope that the convention in Ottawa can at least paper over the differences on environmental policy — by emphasizing other key areas where there is widespread agreement on policy.

That’s why NDP leader Jagmeet Singh has been talking a lot about such policy initiatives as tough measures against foreign tax havens and a national pharmacare program.

It is a fact that our patchwork and sketchy means for covering the cost of prescription drugs puts Canada at the back of the pack of countries with similar health care systems. As the progenitors of Canada’s current health care system, New Democrats are well placed to argue for an expansion that would fill a glaring gap in that system.

Pharmacare is becoming a signature issue for the NDP, although the party does have to worry about the Liberals stealing it.

On Indigenous issues, where the Liberals have been hesitant and confused since taking power, and where the NDP has had legitimate grounds to take the government to task, Prime Minister Trudeau just made a big effort to undercut the NDP with his pledge, on Wednesday, that the government would from now on adopt what is, in effect, an all-of-government approach to Indigenous services and rights.

NDPers such as Roméo Saganash and Charlie Angus can legitimately argue that the Trudeau Liberals might not have acted had New Democrats not relentlessly pushed them to get beyond the rhetoric and symbolism and work harder to achieve better results on Indigenous issues. In the end though, if Trudeau really does follow through on his pledge, he and his party will be able to take credit.  

Such has been the party of the left’s dilemma since its founding as the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in Calgary, in 1932. CCFers (and later NDPers) were the first to propose: old age pensions, a minimum wage, labour laws protecting the right to unionize, economic support for struggling farmers and underdeveloped regions, equal rights (including equal pay) for women, measures to counter anti-Semitism and other forms of racial and ethnic discrimination, public broadcasting, unemployment insurance and, of course, universal health insurance.

In the 1970s, when Pierre Trudeau and his Indian Affairs minister wanted simply to do away with Canada’s treaty obligations to First Nations — in a wrongheaded effort to abolish the Indian Act by, in effect, abolishing Indigenous identity — the NDP opposed that too, although there were few votes to be gained by supporting Indigenous people back then.

History and the belated actions of Liberal and Progressive Conservative governments have proven CCFers and NDPers right on many of those policy fronts. 

Today, as the party meets in the federal capital, it has to decide what sort of influence it wants to exert in the coming years. Of course, these days the party will talk about not just having influence but taking power. The heady period from 2011 to 2015 when the party was the Official Opposition has fuelled its ambitions.

In the end, though, having influence and taking power are not really antithetical goals. They both require that the party clearly define what it stands for.

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Karl Nerenberg

Karl Nerenberg joined rabble in 2011 to cover Canadian politics. He has worked as a journalist and filmmaker for many decades, including two and a half decades at CBC/Radio-Canada. Among his career highlights...