After a snap election call, just two years after the previous federal election, and ostensibly to allow Canadians to set a path out of the pandemic, the new government looks almost identical to the old government. The Liberal Party is back with a minority, under the leadership of Justin Trudeau, having picked up only three new seats. The left-leaning New Democratic Party (NDP) picked up one extra seat. The Conservative Party seemed to be gaining ground during the campaign, but their last-minute gaff supporting the failed COVID-19 strategy in Alberta proved a defeating blow, leaving their seat count the same. The Greens stayed at two seats, but lost half of their popular vote count. The Bloc Québécois, which runs only in the francophone province on a Québec nationalist platform, kept their 32 seats and made no gains. The biggest shift from two years ago has been the growth of the ultra-right Peoples Party of Canada (PPC), which still has no seats, but which went from 1.6 percent of the popular vote in 2019 up to 5.1 percent this time around.
No one was particularly excited about this election, because there were no bold platforms for working and oppressed people, or to address the climate crisis. The election was called cynically two weeks prior to COVID-19 benefits expiring. Canadians, including gig and unemployed workers not otherwise eligible for employment insurance, have been receiving 2,000 Canadian dollars per month since the early days of the pandemic. When this program ends in October, many people who have been just managing to pay the bills may now find themselves in a crisis. While COVID-19 rates in Canada have not matched the U.S., and vaccination rates are now above 75 percent, the delta variant has nevertheless led to a late-summer surge. Unemployment rates remain high, and many are still faced with the challenge of keeping their loved ones safe and managing disrupted schooling and child care in the face of high case counts.
Despite having two “left” electoral parties in Canada, neither has elicited the excitement of a Bernie Sanders campaign. The NDP, having arisen in a period of significant struggle after World War I, and remaining structurally connected to Canada’s labor unions, has failed to take a radical, anti-neoliberal stand. It has a history, at least since the seventies, of rejecting organized left movements, such as the Waffle and the New Politics Initiative. More recently, it failed to adopt a Green New Deal platform called the Leap, which was put forward by more radical members. It is further hampered by the actions of its provincial counterparts, some of whom are in power, demonstrating in clear view the limitations of a social democratic government.
To take the most current example, the NDP government in British Columbia is reviled by many in the climate and indigenous rights movements due to their refusal to stop old-growth logging, the ongoing development of the Site C mega-dam project, and, perhaps most egregiously, their support for Coastal GasLink in the development of a Liquified Natural Gas pipeline through the unceded territory of the Wet’suwet’en peoples. Each of these policies has met sustained and principled resistance. The blockade at Fairy Creek, the site of old-growth logging in one of the last old-growth valleys of Vancouver Island, is now the base for the largest civil disobedience protest in Canadian history, with over 800 arrests in the past two years. The brutal attack on indigenous land defenders in Wet’suwet’en territory shortly before the COVID-19 pandemic led to a Canada-wide resistance movement, initiated by the Wet’suwet’en, and supported by many First Nations as well as settler allies, who blocked rail lines, disrupted traffic, and shut down the British Columbia legislature on opening day.
In response to the failure of the NDP to credibly adopt a just transition climate program, many progressive folks have turned to the Green Party, which had grown in the last election to about 5 percent support nationally. Yet the Greens are in fantastic disarray. This election was the first with a new party leader, Annamie Paul, a centrist who defeated her popular left rival Dimitri Lascaris. The leadership contest expressed the divisions within the party, which in many ways mirror those also found in the NDP. A more radical left-wing has failed to dislodge the control of the liberal establishment. The tension came to the surface just prior to the election call when Paul’s hand-picked assistant, Noah Zatzman, a well-known Zionist, tweeted publicly his intent to work to defeat those politicians (including Green Party members!) who didn’t adequately support Israel during the most recent attacks on Sheik Jarrah and Gaza. In addition, one of only three Green members of Parliament crossed the floor to join the Liberal Party, and many of the party members began demanding that Paul fire him.
This crisis laid bare the ways in which the Green Party establishment, as in the NDP, will actively work to contest radical policy, even where it has been democratically adopted by the membership. The visibility of the dispute led some high-profile Greens, such as long time environmental activist David Suzuki, to openly abandon the party and support the NDP during this election. The disarray of the Greens unfortunately means they are no longer playing one of their traditional roles, which has been to shift the NDP left on environmental issues. Their results were quite dismal, winning only two seats, losing a seat in Nanaimo (a city on Vancouver Island), and Paul losing in her electoral district for the third time.
This is particularly frustrating when, for the first time, climate is the top issue for Canadian voters. To their credit, the Green Party platform was ambitious: net negative by 2050, retraining and job guarantees for all displaced workers, 100 percent renewable energy for the Canadian grid by 2030, canceling new pipelines, and phasing out fossil fuel production. This is exactly the sort of bold program we need, coming after the hottest summer in Canadian history, where the village of Lytton in British Columbia completely burned to the ground, followed by months of endless wildfires and smoke. One TV news broadcast in early August asked unhappy travelers to the Okanagan wine region what they were most scared of: fire, smoke, or COVID-19. It is truly sad that the Green Party climate program received very little airplay and did little to nudge the debate more broadly.
Another top issue for Canadians this fall was the question of decolonization and addressing both the historic and ongoing oppression of Indigenous people. In the midst of the heat and the smoke, the summer was disrupted by the locating of 215 unmarked graves of Indigenous children at the Kamloops Indian Residential School. In the following three months, over six thousand additional graves were found at residential school grounds. While the deaths have long been documented, both within indigenous communities as well as formally in the government’s own Truth and Reconciliation reports in 2015, uncovering the actual grave sites created a new reckoning on the Canadian state’s fundamentally racist nature and the complete failure to acknowledge or reconcile with this history and ongoing fact. Every party has made Indigenous issues more prominent in their literature. Several offer small amounts of funding to deal with the shameful living standards on many reserves—notably the longstanding problem with supplying clean and drinkable water. No party has responded to the call from the Assembly of First Nations for reparations for Indigenous peoples.
The NDP claims to be committed to implementing the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), but yet again, their actions create a credibility problem. After the British Columbia NDP government passed provincial UNDRIP legislation, they publicly articulated that this would not give a “veto” to First Nations, nor would it apply to decisions already made. This set the stage for the ensuing Royal Canadian Mounted Police attack on Wet’suwet’en land defenders to facilitate the construction of the Coastal GasLink liquid natural gas pipeline.
On economic issues, the platforms contained significant spending plans—in the tens of billions—from most of the parties, including the Liberals and Conservatives. So while the NDP has indeed shifted left with proposals for child care, some student debt relief, and Pharmacare (a national subsidized drug program), increased spending is part of a generalized trend we’ve seen from all the major parties since the start of the pandemic. The NDP did have a plan to tax the rich that differentiates them, and one of the few highlights of the election has been hearing this call placed on the political agenda.
Yet taxing the rich will be cold comfort for those facing the biggest cost-of-living challenge for workers and the poor—the exorbitant cost of housing. This crisis was exposed during the pandemic, as city councils and provincial health authorities tried to address the thousands of houseless people across the country who were living in tent cities. A very brief reprieve in rent prices in the early days of COVID-19 has now more than disappeared as the fall school year brings students back to campus, but in many cases with nowhere to live. The crisis is so acute that students are quitting their programs and heading back home. At the same time, average mortgage payments have skyrocketed to 45 percent of income as house prices surged in the past year. Meanwhile, rental vacancy rates are back at their historically low levels of under 1 percent in most cities, and it is becoming increasingly common for people to offer increased rent in order to secure an apartment.
For decades, governments and the Canadian central bank have implemented policies that turn real estate further into an investment commodity at the expense of everyone who actually needs a place to live. No government nor party has proposed fundamentally changing this dynamic, as the Canadian economy becomes ever more dependent on residential investment as a primary source of economic activity. It now makes up almost 10 percent of GDP, a larger ratio than in the U.S. just prior to the 2008 market crash. Because real estate is market-driven, major Canadian cities have thousands of luxury condominiums sitting empty as investments, while workers and students can’t find affordable housing.
Every political party has essentially the same response: provide more money for Canadians to rent or buy homes. This could be done through longer mortgage amortization, tax-free house purchase savings vehicles, or (in the NDP’s case) cash for renters. But these policies only exacerbate the issue, driving up prices further. No party, including the NDP, is willing to do what is necessary: treat housing as a right, not a commodity, and nationalize and build the net-zero affordable homes people need as a public good. While each party has promised to build some number of new affordable homes, without details, these promises seem like empty rhetoric. The NDP’s plan was alluded to in a tweet by its leader, Jagmeet Singh: “[to] close loopholes that allow rich developers to build unaffordable apartment buildings”. This is a far cry from a national public housing strategy.
Given our current context, it is not surprising that the electoral field generated so little excitement. The politics on offer match the frustratingly low level of struggle. With the exception of the Fairy Creek old-growth blockades, some small continuing climate actions, and last summer’s protests in support of Black Lives Matter, the movements on the street have suffered a real setback due to the pandemic. Our failure to collectively rise up is reflected in the lackluster programs that were on offer during this election.
The same dynamic has played out in the unions. Many who were in negotiations during the start of the pandemic opted to roll over their agreements. Even recently, the national postal workers union, CUPW, has recommended a rollover offer from the employer to the membership. With the exception of a few small militant strikes, such as hotel workers with Unite Here Local 40 in Vancouver, the labor movement remains trapped by the decades-long employer’s offensive. We have seen no major actions to confront unsafe working conditions during the pandemic, and nothing to advance workers’ position coming out of the pandemic.
In the absence of anything truly exciting on the Left, and, more importantly, given the low ebb in movements, the only party to significantly gain ground was the far-right People’s Party of Canada (PPC). The electoral polling has mirrored the movement on the streets, in which the anti-vaxxer “freedom” movement has mushroomed. During the campaign, there were almost daily “freedom” rallies hosted by the PPC and attended by their growing number of supporters, which include hundreds in some large cities. What began in Canada as a fringe movement of a few dozen protesting weekly has now found voice and organization. If there is a lesson to be learned from this unwanted election, it is how the far right can find an audience in the absence of struggle on the streets and in the workplaces from the Left.
Left movements spent much of the last two years writing up grand policy statements. To be fair, the shock of the pandemic was a serious blow to organizing. But the argument that all we need is to place our great ideas out there is in serious need of reassessment. Watching the far right grow should be a warning to the rest of us that the question is not simply ideas, but also power. We have great ideas for a Green New Deal and a just recovery. What is missing is action to build power to make these ideas happen. We will need renewed activity in the fights over material issues for workers and the poor—housing, minimum wage, just transition, COVID-19 safety, and unemployment support—to shift the current trajectory.
Featured Image Credit: Photo by Jonathankslim. Modified by Tempest.
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Tara Olivetree Ehrcke is a high school teacher, climate justice activist, and member of the British Columbia Teachers Federation. They write regularly on education issues, climate justice, the labor movement, and Canadian politics.