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What Canada’s Social Democrats Must Do

When the Canadian parliament reconvenes this month, the Liberals will likely need the New Democratic Party to retain power. The center-left NDP’s support should not come from petty electoral calculation, but from an understanding that bold action is needed by both the country and the party.

Jagmeet Singh at the Ontario Federation of Labour Convention in November 2017. Photo: OFL Communications Department / Wikimedia Commons

Other than Canada’s Liberal Party partisans, just about everyone believes that prime minister Justin Trudeau prorogued parliament to escape a conflict-of-interest scandal. When parliament returns on September 23, there will be a throne speech that will lay out the government’s plans to deal with COVID-19 and related economic issues.

Although unemployment has declined since its peak in May, it’s still close to 11 percent. While most parts of the service sector have reopened, there is not an expectation that many more people will return to work in the near future. For that reason, along with a reworked Employment Insurance program to deal with those still unemployed, the throne speech is also likely to stipulate an increase in spending to help the economy. But the catch for Trudeau and the Liberals is that they are running a minority government, and, in order to pass their plans and avoid an early election, they will need the votes of one of the three official parties in opposition: the Conservatives, the Bloc Québécois, and the New Democratic Party (NDP).

Other than the Bloc, there does not seem to be much of an appetite among opposition parties for an election. The Conservatives just recently chose a new leader in Erin O’Toole, but recent polling suggests that, at least for the short term, he is not going to give them much of a bump in the polls.

The Bloc, meanwhile, have said they are willing to sink the government in the wake of the WE Charity scandal, which has hurt the Liberals’ standing in Québec. The polls suggest, however, that the Bloc would only finish with around the same thirty-two seats it has now. More concerning for the Bloc’s viability is the fact that the party leader, Yves-François Blanchet, has been anonymously accused of sexual misconduct on social media. Blanchet denies the allegations, but they could become a major issue if an election were to happen.

That takes us to the NDP. The party’s recent fundraising has been subpar, and the media generally cites this as a reason that they will want to avoid an election. This undoubtedly will play a factor in the party’s decision on whether or not to support the government. However, the party is polling above their vote share of the last election, and its leader Jagmeet Singh’s personal polling numbers, on voter perception of qualities like honesty and integrity, are above Trudeau’s. And Singh has proven to be an effective campaigner. While the NDP lost seats in the last election, it was his campaigning that kept the party from hitting the apocalyptic lows that many had expected.

Now Is the Time for an NDP With a Spine

Thus far, Singh has laid out what he wants to see from the Liberals in return for NDP support. Singh has asked for more money for childcare, education, and health care. He has also asked for a permanent strengthening of the Employment Insurance program after years of anti-worker adjustments and as the government’s pandemic specific cash payment program comes to an end.

But the second major crisis of capitalism in just over a decade needs a bolder response. Calling for Trudeau to do more than deliver platitudes, Singh has spoken out against racist policing, but the opportunity to force real action on the issue of police reform at the federal level should be a necessary condition for NDP aid to the Liberals.

Related to policing is the surge in overdose deaths that has occurred during the pandemic. While Singh has called for decriminalization of drugs in the past, Trudeau currently rejects this policy despite public health experts, prosecutors, and even police chiefs asking for it. Demanding decriminalization is a new way to envision public safety that goes beyond shoveling more money to the police.

In addition, the government, in a very Liberal fashion, has been trying to look like it is taking action against an oppressive practice while in fact barely doing anything about it. A bill that would supposedly end solitary confinement in prisons has been called nothing more than a “cosmetic rebranding” by its critics in parliament. Members of an expert panel set up to oversee the solitary confinement reforms say the government stonewalled them by not giving in to their requests for information. Simply put, any claim that Canada has abolished solitary confinement is false. Taking action on policing right now is a must, but it should come with attendant action on prison injustice.

The pandemic has also exposed the plight of the most vulnerable workers in Canada. Many farms in Canada, particularly farms in Ontario, rely on migrant labor that comes to Canada through the Seasonal Agricultural Worker Program (SAWP). Like many other guest worker programs, these workers are tied to a single employer and can easily be deported, and enforcement of the existing rules has always been insufficient. During the pandemic, 1,300 migrant workers have contracted COVID-19 and three have died.

The past couple years have seen some much-needed reforms. Unfortunately, they do not go far enough. For example, in May, the federal government announced a pilot program that would allow workers who come to Canada via the SAWP to apply for permanent residency. However, the program only lasts until 2023 and will allow only 2,750 to gain permanent residency per year. For perspective, Canada brought in 46,707 workers under the SAWP in 2019. The program has been criticized for the complexity of the application as well as the language and education requirements.

The Canadian government did provide $50 million to farmers to help with costs of quarantining migrant workers for two weeks upon their entry to the country, the provision of PPE, and putting them in living quarters that would allow for social distancing. However, this aid mostly benefits Canada’s agricultural industry. It does not help workers directly. With the increasingly common recognition of essential work during the pandemic, it is time to acknowledge these migrant agricultural workers and extend to them permanent residence and the rights and government benefits that all other workers possess.

Activists across the country have recently protested to raise further awareness of these issues. The NDP must signal its advocacy on behalf of migrant workers with something more than speeches.

Boldness or Irrelevancy

The NDP has proposed a strong Green New Deal–like policy entitled Power to Change: A New Deal for Climate Action and Good Jobs. Trudeau himself has talked about the need for an ambitious plan to tackle climate change coming out of the pandemic, and it is expected that new finance minister Chrystia Freeland will announce new spending on green initiatives this autumn. That will no doubt be something that the NDP will support. But the NDP needs to go much further.

The oil industry has been decimated by the pandemic. Foreign oil firms have written down or divested of their Canadian assets. Oil revenues for the Alberta government are estimated to be only $1.2 billion this year, down from $8.9 billion just five years ago. The crisis of profitability in the Alberta oil sands started several years ago as oil prices dropped. The pandemic has only accelerated this trend. It’s time to admit the oil sands are not just an environmental catastrophe, they are also economically unviable.

Singh not only has the opportunity to finally kill the Trans Mountain Pipeline project running from Alberta oil sands to the British Columbia coast, he should also follow the lead of outgoing Green Party leader Elizabeth May and declare that “oil is dead.” That is something the NDP has been reluctant to do in the past. As the Trans Mountain Pipeline construction moves forward, indigenous opposition is intensifying, as is government and corporate harassment of land defenders. The timing could not be better for the NDP to demonstrate leadership on this issue in parliament.

Now is the time for serious action from the NDP. Will they follow the lead of movements on the ground in order to force major issues on the Liberals? Or will they simply allow for some progressive tinkering to pass parliament to prevent an election? Trudeau is signaling that he has an “ambitious” program that is prepared to spend billions more to get the economy back on track. But if there is to be something truly transformative coming, the NDP will have to push the government even further.

If the NDP are unable to get improved benefits to the unemployed beyond what the Liberals are promising, despite banging the drum for years on the issue, they should reconsider what it is, exactly, that they offer the Canadian polity. And without a major investment in childcare included in an economic stimulus package, given the havoc wreaked on working women by the pandemic, the party’s credibility will be in shambles.

The NDP needs to match the scale of these crises and show itself as a force capable of delivering real reforms to its base. We can’t just settle for a few targeted investments and let concerns over the size of the deficit dominate public debate.

Moments like this rarely happen — we need an NDP prepared to take advantage of it.