Photo: CPAC/YouTube

Just before the recent NDP convention, this writer harkened back to the 1970s when the Waffle movement within the NDP caused a major rift in the party. 

Wafflers, led by James Laxer and Mel Watkins, advocated an independent, socialist Canada. Their left-of-centre version of Canadian nationalism was as important to them as their robust version of socialism. That nationalism constituted the novel element the Waffle brought to Canadian progressive politics.

Laxer ran as the Waffle’s candidate for the New Democratic leadership when the party met to choose Tommy Douglas’s successor in 1971, and he did surprisingly well against David Lewis, John Paul Harney, Frank Howard and Ed Broadbent. Laxer placed second and lost on the fourth ballot to Lewis.

This past Friday, February 23, Jim Laxer died at the age of 76, suddenly and unexpectedly, while in Paris, France, doing research for a new book.

Issues raised in 1971 are still relevant

The key policy debates instigated by the Waffle movement in 1971 reverberate to this day.

Wafflers called for gender equity on principal party bodies. At the convention, the late Krista Maoets (then married to Laxer) put forward a motion to that effect. It went down in flames. At the time, many New Democratic women considered gender quotas to be a form of tokenism.

The Laxer-Watkins group also advocated public ownership and control of natural resource and other key industries, such as transport. The party establishment, including the NDP government of Manitoba and the big trade unions, would have none of that radical, scary-socialist stuff.

Perhaps the most contentious Waffle position was on Quebec, at a time when the sovereigntist movement was in ascendancy.

Laxer, Watkins and their group urged the NDP to support Quebec’s right to self-determination, which included the right to secede from the rest of Canada. Tommy Douglas, David Lewis and other party leaders were aghast at that suggestion, which, they were convinced, would scare voters in English Canada.

Indeed, the NDP leadership would not sanction any resolution that even remotely suggested Quebec had a right to secede. Their only concession to the rising sense of discontent in Quebec was a commitment to renegotiate constitutional arrangements between the federal government and all of the provinces. There would be no special consideration for Quebec.

Over the years, New Democrats have considerably evolved on this issue.

In their Sherbrooke Declaration, New Democrats now say a 50 per cent plus one Yes vote in a referendum on sovereignty would oblige the federal government to enter into negotiations with Quebec. This position sets the NDP apart from both Conservatives and Liberals, especially Liberals. Justin Trudeau’s party made hay with the NDP’s willingness to “split the country on the basis of one vote” during the last election campaign.

At their recent convention in Ottawa, New Democrats might have handed the Liberals yet another national unity club. NDPers passed a resolution stating that the 1982 repatriation of the Canadian constitution, on terms not acceptable to Quebec, was an “historic mistake”.  It was the current Prime Minister’s father who engineered that “mistake”, which includes a made-in-Canada amending formula and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms.

And so, the issues Laxer, Watkins and others put on the table nearly half a century ago are quite alive today and continue to preoccupy and bedevil us.

Still, despite the similarities there are big differences between the political debates of 1971 and those of today. Much of what we debate in 2018 was absent 47 years ago.

Two cases in point — at the contentious and raucous 1971 NDP convention there was no significant discussion of either Indigenous or environmental issues.

Leadership candidate Frank Howard, the long serving MP for Skeena riding in British Columbia, was the only one for whom Indian Affairs, as they were then called, were important.

And neither the Waffle’s candidate, nor any of the other candidates, made the environment a central issue. Such challenges as pollution of air and water were barely mentioned in 1971. What is a central preoccupation for today’s LEAP movement was almost off the radar in the Waffle’s time.

As it turned out, the movement Laxer, Watkins and others created did not last long. The NDP establishment, and notably Ontario leader Stephen Lewis (David Lewis’s son), considered the Waffle to be a party-within-the-party and almost ruthlessly had it purged.

Despite that bruising experience, Laxer and Watkins eventually made their peace with the NDP. Laxer served as the party’s research director for a while in the 1980s. Later, Watkins ran, unsuccessfully, as a federal NDP candidate in Toronto.

A life spent commenting, analyzing and teaching

There was more than party politics for Jim Laxer, much more.  His chief, and very significant contributions over his long career were as an author, teacher, commentator and mentor. 

Duncan Cameron, the former chair of rabble’s board of directors, remembered Laxer this way, in a long and heartfelt post on Facebook:

“Jim had a big influence on me as a young University of Ottawa academic trying to master Canadian political economy. His book with his father Robert Laxer ‘The Liberal Idea of Canada’ landed squarely in the middle of many important debates… Jim wrote a terrific piece for me when I edited Canadian Forum on the consequences for Canada of integrating economically into a declining superpower, a policy choice he reminded us Canada had avoided after World War I, when Britain was that declining power. Tying Canada to the U.S. through the Mulroney-Reagan deal had consequences foreseen and unforeseen, which we live with today, while waiting for the more promising directions Jim spent a lifetime suggesting were possible.”

This writer’s personal connection to Jim Laxer was second-hand, but still, perhaps, worth mentioning.

In 1977 and 1978, I was on the staff of the now defunct CBC radio program Morningside. We were a small, tightknit team, working out of ramshackle quarters in a onetime girls’ school on Toronto’s Jarvis Street. Those were the early days of Morningside, which would last more than two decades. It was hosted then by the late actor and comic Don Harron, but eventually became the long-time radio home of Peter Gzowski.

The creator of the show — which she conjured out of the ashes of its precursor program This Country in the Morning — was the very young, intense and dynamic executive producer, Krista Maeots. That’s the same Maeots who had participated actively in the 1971 NDP convention and who was married to Jim Laxer.

Krista died too young at the age of 33. I did not know her children then but have had the good fortune to meet her son Michael Laxer subsequently. Michael has written movingly about his parents.

James Laxer’s life was, like Krista’s, also cut short unexpectedly, while he was busy living it. At the time of his death, and at an age when many are happy to savour retirement, he was in Paris — not to take in the sights, but to research yet another book, this one on Canada’s role during the Second World War.

From his public persona one could tell that James Laxer had a sharp intelligence, an unquenchable curiosity and a questing spirit. It is fitting that he was fulfilling his role as a public intellectual right up to the end of his life.  

I can speak for everyone at rabble in expressing our sorrow, sadness and sympathy to Michael, Jim’s brother Gordon, and all of James Laxer’s family and friends. 

Photo: CPAC/YouTube

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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...