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A Multi-Faced Crisis

Canadian Politics

In Canada, the political system has long been based upon the illusion of choice provided by a ruling party in power and an opposition party waiting in the wings. However, the Liberal corruption crisis in Quebec, together with the failure of the Liberals to make significant headway in the West, has stripped the ability of the Liberal Party to form a majority government.

Meanwhile, despite the fact that the Liberals are embroiled in the worst scandal of the past half-century, the Harper-led Conservatives have not been able to get beyond 35 per cent of popular support. The defection of Belinda Stronach, the Conservatives’ most visible moderate and urban member, together with the successful efforts of the religious right to win Conservative nominations throughout the country, confirms widely held suspicions that this party harbours a socially conservative agenda of intolerance. Harper’s Conservatives are thus condemned to their rural, small-town western base.

In consequence, with neither a viable ruling party, nor a viable opposition party, Canada sits in the midst of a political crisis with no end in sight.

The crisis has many dimensions, some of which have long histories.

One important reason for the present weakness of the existing Canadian state goes back to the first stirrings for a redefinition of the meaning of sovereignty within Canada. With the advent of the Quiet Revolution in Quebec, Anglo-Canadian elites took the decision to devolve power to the provinces in order to avoid special status for Quebec. Far from undermining the movement for Quebec independence, however, this strategic move has led to the emaciation of the Canadian state and forward to the emergence of wreckers like Ralph Klein, Firewall Harper, the liar Peter MacKay, Gordon Campbell and Mike Harris.

Another dimension of the crisis lies in Canada’s nineteenth-century Constitution, which is silent on the issue of cities and which gives most of the important powers to the provinces–resources, health and education, to name a few–while allocating most revenue sources to Ottawa. At the same time, this disparity between Ottawa’s revenue capacity and the provinces’ revenue needs–the so-called fiscal imbalance–ignores large wealth and revenue disparities among provinces.

Beginning in the 1980s, Alberta won the battle to keep all of its resource revenue rather than sharing it with the rest of Canada. Now, Atlantic Canada and Saskatchewan have claimed the same right while continuing to receive equalization payments. Paul Martin has acquiesced in these demands. He has also caved in to Ontario’s demands that it be compensated for the revenue it has transferred to have-not provinces over the years. As a consequence, the regime of equalization payments, a major component of Liberal-style social democracy, based upon the popular premise that all Canadians should enjoy comparable public services, is in grave trouble.

A third strand to the political crisis is the patronage/kickback system that has long dominated Canadian politics. Through Gomery, this system has been revealed in all its sordid detail, producing a level of public cynicism unmatched in recent times. Widespread dissatisfaction with the unrepresentative legislatures and parliaments produced by our first-past-the-post electoral system adds further to rampant public cynicism.

A fourth strand is the disconnect between the corporate elite and their political henchmen–who demand tax cuts and spending restraint–as against the preferences of a large majority of Canadians, who want the kind of social investments Jack Layton’s deft intervention wrestled from fat-cat corporations. Scientific polls have long been recording public rejection of Liberal and Conservative neoliberal economic policies.

Unfulfilled Demands for Sovereignty

A fifth dimension of the crisis is the continued refusal to accommodate the sovereigntist aspirations of the peoples of Quebec and of First Nations. The demand for a sovereign Quebec is stronger now than ever. Quebec’s outrage against the federal Liberals for their pathetic attempts to divert sovereigntist aspirations with flags and circuses is only one aspect of its seething discontent. The other is aimed at Jean Charest’s Quebec Liberals, which have been determined to diminish Quebec sovereignty by selling off public assets and weakening labour and social movements.

Native peoples are also impatient. Very little progress has been achieved in negotiating modern treaties in B.C. and parts of the north, or in fully implementing those that do exist. Territory and political autonomy are two pillars of self-determination for Aboriginal peoples, yet the federal government pursues privatization of reserve lands and housing, a policy with significant negative implications for Indian self-determination. This is especially so for the inter-generational commitment to land and community. The new (May 31) political accords between the Liberal cabinet and Aboriginal leaders finally promise to give Aboriginal communities (First Nations, off-reserve Indians, Métis and Inuit) a direct say in crafting federal policies affecting their future. Whether these promises will be kept, and whether they will they be matched by corresponding spending, remains to be seen.

The final aspect of the current crisis is the erosion of Canadian sovereignty vis-a-vis the U.S. Across this country, revulsion builds against an arrogant, domineering and increasingly authoritarian America, even as our government signs on to the Security and Prosperity Partnership of North America in Texas this March. While not fulfilling all the plans of the deep integrationists, this agreement is a major blow to Canadian sovereignty.

The Shape of Future Politics

Like the current government, the next one will almost certainly be short-lived, incapable of pushing a coherent agenda in the context of this multi-dimensional political crisis. Quite likely, it will feature the NDP as a kind of Left rump, forming alliances or even governments with the Liberals. This will mean that the NDP will inevitably be mainstreamed. Within this situation, opportunities may present themselves for social movements and the anti-capitalist Left to push forward their own agenda for a sovereign and democratic Canada.

Given this political terrain, can we build a political alliance to fight neoliberalism, regional disparities and the cities deficit, and to campaign for a new democratic sovereignty and electoral reform? Quebec, Aboriginal communities and the rest of Canada share a common desire to resist imperial America and the Canadian corporate elite. Resistance to the United States might become the basis for a certain necessary cohesion. This is all the more so the case in the face of the ugly turn that the politics of the United States has taken internally and externally.

The viability of such a project clearly depends on the willingness of the three Canadian parts of it to evolve in a socially and economically progressive direction that will arouse widespread enthusiasm. Rejecting the American way in favour of a set of progressive Canadian alternatives has to be an integral part of this endeavour.

Of course, sovereignty is not an unambiguous concept in the history of this country. The dominant concept of Canadian sovereignty has historically been grounded in colonialism and sustained by racist policy and political culture. Canadian sovereignty rests on the appropriated foundations of Aboriginal sovereignty. The province of Quebec claims nationhood as a basis for a project of sovereignty, but it, too, rests on that historic and generally unacknowledged foundation.

A different way of framing this is to say that nowadays there are two distinct and contradictory class claims to sovereignty–the claims of the ruling corporate elite and the claims of the Aboriginal peoples, the Québécois and the ordinary people in the rest of Canada. The former is oppressive while the latter are liberatory. In order for Aboriginal peoples, Québécois and the people of the rest of Canada to exercise their sovereignty, they must unite to end the sovereignty of the corporate elite and overthrow the colonial foundations of Canada.

For a Genuine Alliance with Quebec

The possibilities for realignment, however, are complicated by the fact that none of English Canada’s parties, including the NDP, currently support a multinational reordering of the federal state. Jack Layton’s unhelpful railing against “the separatists” represents a break with his position in favour of working with the UFP and against the Clarity Bill. It likely speaks to his goal of consolidating a special relationship with the Liberals.

To be successful, a genuine political realignment must include an alliance between English Canada’s Left and social movements, and those of Quebec. An overwhelming majority of the latter want a fundamentally different relationship with the federal state, ranging from “sovereignty-association” to outright independence.

In the present global political climate, devolving sovereignty downward toward Quebec, the Aboriginal communities and the rest of Canada will be complicated by Canada’s relationship with the United States. Will such a powerful and aggressive nation allow Canada to evolve in a politically and socially democratic direction? Indeed, could a decentralized Canada withstand the direct and indirect pressure of such an America?

These questions require thorough discussion. But we should have no doubt about the need to provide coherent, workable and progressive answers. If we are unsuccessful in raising the need for a radical overhaul of the way the country is structured–to strengthen democratic sovereignty along multi-national lines–the result will be a political dependency, a form of perpetual political adolescence in which sovereignty, self-determination, international autonomy and, dare we say, human rights, are all subject to the prior approval of that octopus of corporate imperialism to the south.

This article appeared in the January/February 2005 issue of Canadian Dimension .


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