Canada: Activists Face the Future

Against the Current, No. 91, March/April 2001

Toby Moorsom

ELECTORAL POLITICS PRESENT challenging problems for labor movements all over the world. In the absence of strong working class parties, labor activists are often compelled to support parties that implement anti-worker legislation simply because they represent a lesser evil. While reforms are certainly necessary, the investment of activist energy and resources into the electoral process can often distract union and social justice organizations, preventing them from undertaking the important task of generating solidarity within more impoverished segments of the working class.

A small step in addressing this dilemma of political organization was made at a conference in Toronto, Ontario this past October entitled “Rebuilding the Left.” Instead of focusing on the role of political parties, the conference sought, at this point, to build a more inclusive and explicitly anti-capitalist movement.

The organizers felt it necessary to discuss the possibility of a political organization that could act as a point of convergence for activist campaigns and encourage the long-term development of anti-capitalist politics. An organization of this sort, it was felt, might lay the foundations of a future party after a strong and inclusive movement is developed.

Judging from the participation of more than 700 people, it seems others were thinking along similar lines.

NDP in Severe Decline

The impetus for the conference came from several sources. Most immediately, it was a response to the sharp decline of the social democratic New Democratic Party (NDP) in both recent federal and provincial elections. [In this fall’s Canadian parliamentary election, the NDP barely maintained its “official party” standing with twelve seats in the House of Commons –>ed.]

In Ontario, this followed on the heels of an unprecedented period when the NDP held office for a single term in the early 1990s. Although the party has historically been backed by unions, it has proved equally willing to accept neoliberalism and legislate restraints on labor as any other capitalist party.

Many believe these actions of the Ontario NDP even paved the way for the present hard-right Conservative government of Mike Harris to implement even more reactionary policy.

These events spurred a 1996 wave of city-wide general strikes against the Harris provincial government called “Days of Action.” Unfortunately, interunion fighting and continued support by top-level industrial union labor leadership for the NDP halted the actions. This was particularly demoralizing for labor activists as the events had managed to build the largest protests in Canadian history.

Many here have in fact been angered by the extreme level of apathy that has since dominated the NDP. As with social democratic parties elsewhere in the world there is ample evidence to suggest that those within the NDP really do not believe radical change is possible. Their “third-way” policy orientation really only seeks to humanize the existing capitalist social relations, which are seen as inevitable, instead of trying to achieve greater democracy, equality and environmental responsibility.

At the 1999 convention, the NDP adopted policy positions emphasizing fiscal responsibility and tax cuts in language similar to the Liberals and newly formed right-wing Canadian Alliance Party. Some activists have also expressed concerns about the NDP’s uncritical efforts to gain support from small businesses as a way of increasing the declining voter base.

Resisting Globalization and Poverty

The other big catalyst for the conference has been the international anti-globalization protests. Canadian protests in Vancouver against the Asian-Pacific forum APEC, in Montreal against the G20, and the events in Seattle and Washington saw the development of a new layer of activists and new points of solidarity for labor.

Ontario also experienced a heightened level of protest as antipoverty demonstrators fended off attacking riot police outside the provincial legislature in June of last year. Out of these events has developed a recognition of the need to maintain a sustained resistance to the undemocratic institutions of global capitalism.

On the left there has been a feeling that younger activists have a lot to contribute, having successfully experimented with organizational models that were ignored and even denounced by labor leaders unwilling to damage their relationships with those in power.

Another notable contrast between the labor activists and those organizing the anti-globalization protests has been the latter’s interest in trying to achieve levels of democracy that are totally foreign to most unions.

Many people now see the need to move this energy forward, though conversations about how to do this have been difficult when much of the activity has come from environmentalists and young people who are, rightly enough, very skeptical of labor (and socialism). The youth who are active in anti-globalization protests are less likely to work in unionized jobs and have little reason to count on a labor movement that has often compromised their future for the sake of near-sighted gains.

Anti-Capitalist Diversity

Taking into account this skepticism, the Rebuilding the Left conference had a minimal base of unity premised on “anti-capitalism” in recognition that it was a broader term around which more people might be motivated to organize.

This premise also communicated a willingness to discuss the merits of all forms of organizing. The conference tried to push beyond narrow debates among left groups and provide a forum for resolving some of the issues that have continued to divide the working class on the basis of race, gender, age, ability and income.

In this spirit the organizers solicited political endorsements from about thirty organizations from around the province. These included groups ranging from the local Anarchist Free Space, to the traditionally more social democratic Metro Network for Social Justice and Centre for Social Justice.

It was also endorsed by radical left journals such as the Socialist Register and Canadian Dimension as well as a number of locals of the Canadian Union of Public Employees.

This link to activism was important because people felt that the conference should be more than just a talk shop without any tangible results. While generally in agreement that the movement was not sufficiently developed to be able to support a new party in Ontario, the participants felt some structure should come out of the conference.

A position proposed by Sam Gindin, former assistant to Buzz Hargrove (President of the Canadian Auto Workers) and now professor at York University in Toronto, was that of a “structured movement,” something, he suggested, to be “more than a coalition” but “less than a party.”

Working Workshops

The conference was divided into four parts that began and ended with plenary speakers. More than half the time, however, was devoted to workshops that allowed greater participation and gave people the opportunity to gauge the possibility for working together in a new organizational model.

The first workshop was devoted to drawing links between “anti-oppression” politics (such as issues of gender, race and sexual orientation) and “anti-capitalist” politics. The second workshop was devoted to discussing the challenges and opportunities that would arise in trying to move ahead with any new organization.

While the attendance of the conference was not as broadly representative as would be necessary for a truly new left movement, the fact that this was explicitly acknowledged by speakers and facilitators provided a positive starting point for linking anti-oppression and anti-capitalist politics.

Many people commented that there was a level of genuine respectfulness that they had not previously encountered on the left. Tensions were expressed, however, about the pace and process of organizing a “structured movement.”

On the one hand, there was a general sense of immediacy as people were aware of the Ontario government’s plan to increase its attack on labor with a bill to raise the maximum work week to sixty hours, end compulsory holidays and make it easier to decertify unions. At the same time, many felt the need to spend more time building greater representation and solidarity among excluded communities before the project could be taken forward.

In spite of these tensions there was a significant interest in keeping the re/ building process going and to coordinate a similar event in another six months time. People also felt the project could pursue popular cultural and educational events, the development of a newsletter, an activist network and national speaking tour.

Following Up

Presently groups in Toronto are meeting to develop a larger and more democratic coordinating committee to work on these goals. Two open meetings have followed with the participation of more than 100 activists in both cases. Various working groups have also been initiated under the banner of “Rebuilding the Left.”

An “activism and outreach” working group has already begun working on a multifaceted anti-policing initiative. An “organization” working group is meeting to develop recommendations for establishing an effective structure for the group. Finally, an “education and culture” working group has been established that, among other things, hopes to make the left a fun place to be.

Similar initiatives also exist in other cities such as Vancouver, Winnipeg and Ottawa. The recent meeting in Vancouver brought out another 400 people. If the Rebuilding the Left initiatives across Canada can continue to draw in committed activists connected to ongoing projects, then we may have the basis of a new project to push us beyond the current limits of electoral politics.

ATC 91, March-April 2001