Canada: Climate justice movement shakes the NDP

Issue 

In a stunning rebuff to the party establishment, delegates to the federal convention of the Canada's social democratic New Democratic Party, meeting in Edmonton, Alberta April 8-10, voted to reject Thomas Mulcair as their leader. They voted to begin reorienting the party to become a leader in Canada's climate justice movement.

In a stunning rebuff to the party establishment, delegates to the federal convention of the Canada's social democratic New Democratic Party, meeting in Edmonton, Alberta April 8-10, voted to reject Thomas Mulcair as their leader. They voted to begin reorienting the party to become a leader in Canada's climate justice movement.

They voted overwhelmingly, in the face of vehement opposition by the NDP's revered Alberta leader Premier Rachel Notley, to endorse the Leap Manifesto. This is a radical statement opposing Alberta's tar sands petroleum industry and its associated pipelines and advocating a “great transition” in energy conversion — a leap — to “prevent catastrophic global warming”. The Manifesto denounces Canada's record on climate change as “a crime against humanity's future”.

The convention vote was correctly interpreted as a “turn to the left” in the business media. Until now, like the NDP leaders, it had ignored the Manifesto, first published in the midst of last year's federal election campaign.

“The leap,” says the Manifesto, “must begin by respecting the inherent rights and title of the original caretakers of this land. Indigenous communities have been at the forefront of protecting rivers, coasts, forests and lands from out-of-control industrial activity ...

“Moved by the treaties that form the legal basis of this country and bind us to share the land 'for as long as the sun shines, the grass grows and the rivers flow,' we want energy sources that will last for time immemorial and never run out or poison the land.

“Technological breakthroughs have brought this dream within reach. The latest research shows it is feasible for Canada to get 100% of its electricity from renewable resources within two decades; by 2050 we could have a 100% clean economy.”

Among its demands, the Manifesto calls for “a universal program to build energy efficient homes ... training and other resources for workers in carbon-intensive jobs”, a “far more localized and ecologically-based agricultural system,” and an “end to all trade deals that interfere with our attempts to rebuild local economies.”

“Rebalancing the scales of justice, we should ensure immigration status and full protection for all workers. Recognizing Canada's contributions to military conflicts and climate change — primary drivers of the global refugee crisis — we must welcome refugees and migrants seeking safety and a better life.”

The Leap Manifesto has attracted broad interest and spawned some related campaigns among working people. An example is the bold campaign recently launched by Canada's militant postal workers union to convert the post office to a “revolutionary green make-over”.

This includes such innovative measures as conversion of its vehicle fleet to 100% electricity, creation of vehicle charging stations at post offices, along with postal banking to provide financial services in under-served communities and low-cost credit for renewable energy installations.

The convention met amid widespread dissent over the NDP's disastrous election result in last October's federal election. The party, by appearing to be to the right of the victorious Liberals, turned a promising lead in the polls into a rout that demoted it to third-place standing in parliament.

Members' anger was stoked by Mulcair's failure, until the eve of the convention, to acknowledge his own responsibility for the setback. A “Campaign Review Report” by federal NDP officials, a narrowly conceived analysis that failed to placate party critics, added to the criticism.

The convention came on the heels of a disastrous showing in Saskatchewan's provincial election. After the party's previous loss of government in Nova Scotia, disappointing results came in British Columbia and Ontario, and with the prospect of the likely defeat next April 19 of Manitoba's NDP government. The surprise election last May of an NDP government in Alberta is the sole exception in this pattern.

But Notley's impassioned plea to federal convention delegates to support her government's promotion of “pipelines to tidewater” for export of tar sands products left many cold. As did Mulcair when, in a last-minute attempt to save his job, he promised to endorse whatever program the convention adopted — even if it included opposition to the Energy East pipeline, which he has consistently supported.

On a leadership review motion, only 48% supported Mulcair's continued leadership. The affiliated unions were divided; Canadian Labour Congress president Hassan Yussuff had called on Mulcair to step down while some major union leaders publicly supported him.

The forthcoming leadership campaign will be difficult. Mulcair, when all is said and done, was in NDP terms the best the party could come up with at this point. Fluently bilingual, excelling in the repartee of parliamentary debate, he was the leader this parliamentary party deserved in 2012, the party having become in 2011 the official opposition with a majority of its MPs newly elected in Quebec.

None of the party MPs now being publicised in the corporate media as potential leadership contenders can come close to him in these respects — and none of them came out publicly in support of the Leap Manifesto.

It was the Leap Manifesto that dominated the program debates from the outset of the Edmonton convention. An ad hoc grouping, “New Democrats for the Leap Manifesto”, formed in advance to agitate for making the Manifesto the major programmatic issue at the convention.

About two dozen constituency associations endorsed it in one form or another. In reaction, other New Democrats, led by former MPs Craig Scott and Libby Davies, mobilised in support of a proposal to postpone a direct endorsement of the Manifesto pending a membership discussion and further debate at the next convention, in 2018.

They worked closely with Avi Lewis, a co-author of the Manifesto, partner of ecology activist and author Naomi Klein, and a scion of past party leaders.

The final resolution adopted at the convention praises the Manifesto as “a high-level statement of principles that speaks to the aspirations, history and values of the party”. But it stipulates that specific policies advocated in the Manifesto “can and should be debated and modified on their own merits and according to the needs of various communities and all parts of Canada”.

Intended to placate NDP critics of the Manifesto in Alberta and elsewhere, this formulation leaves wiggle room for tar sands and pipeline advocates in the party to postpone meaningful action to end fossil fuel dependency. However, there is no denying that environmental activists and ecosocialists now have a major opening to further and deepen the debate on climate justice in as well as outside the NDP.

An ecosocialist left might well develop within and around the NDP — a left with supporters qualitatively more rooted in their communities than the perennial Socialist Caucus that has long laboured for recognition and support in the party. (The Socialist Caucus sponsored no fewer than 29 resolutions for the Edmonton convention, not one of which cited the Leap Manifesto, although the Caucus inserted a one-page endorsement of the Manifesto in its convention pamphlet.)

This is not the first time in the NDP's history that the party has become a focus for attention and participation by social movement activists. In the late 1960s, the Manifesto for an Independent and Socialist Canada (the “Waffle Manifesto”) expressed within the party the popular and youth radicalisation stimulated in part by opposition to the Vietnam war.

The Waffle was later driven out of the party (under the aegis of Avi Lewis's father Stephen), its candidate Jim Laxer came a close second on the fourth ballot in the 1971 contest for federal NDP leader.

In 2001, the New Politics Initiative won the support of about 40% of delegates at an NDP federal convention. It reflected the radicalisation then developing around the global justice, feminist, gay rights and environmental movement.

Despite this promising beginning, the NPI was arbitrarily disbanded by its steering committee, without even a consultation with its members, when its leaders decided to support Jack Layton's bid to become federal party leader.

Will the Leap Manifesto suffer a similar fate in the NDP? That is an open question. All signs point, however, to deepening climate crisis and increasing consciousness among broad layers of the population of the need for radical anti-capitalist solutions.

This consciousness is reflected in Jeremy Corbyn's unexpected, albeit fragile, election as British Labour Party leader. It is even seen in Bernie Sanders' surprising support for his “socialist” advocacy in the US Democratic Party primaries.

A strong ecosocialist presence in the coming NDP debates could anticipate similar responses (and, as the Edmonton convention shows, opposition) to radical anti-capitalism if some of the major ideas sketched in the Leap Manifesto can be pursued in the direction of developing an explicit and radical strategy and program.

[Slightly abridged from Richard Fidler's blog, Life on the Left. A more critical take on events in the NDP and Leap has been written by fellow Canadian socialist Roger Annis, which can be read at Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal. Canadian ecosocialist Ian Angus is a featured guest at the Socialism for the 21st Century conference in Sydney (details on page 12), where Canada's crucial climate justice movement will be discussed.]