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Bombs and Waffles: the NDP and NATO in the twentieth century

Long-time observers of the party should not be surprised at the internal disarray over Canadian support for NATO

Canadian PoliticsEuropeWar Zones

L-R: Frank Howard, James Laxer, John Harney, David Lewis and Ed Broadbent, one week before the 1971 New Democratic Party leadership election where David Lewis was elected as the successor to Tommy Douglas. The convention was widely viewed as a battleground between the party establishment and the Waffle. Photo courtesy Toronto Public Library/Toronto Star.

In recent days NDP MPs Leah Gazan, Niki Ashton and Don Davies have come under fire from the Ukrainian Canadian Congress for tweets questioning Canadian support for military assistance to Ukraine and its membership in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). In contrast, NDP Deputy Foreign Affairs Critic Heather McPherson indicated that the NDP supports a pathway for Ukraine to join NATO. The NDP’s official statement on the “escalating threats” of a Russian invasion urges the Canadian government to work with multilateral alliances, including NATO, “to find a real diplomatic solution to the looming crisis.”

Long-time observers of the NDP should not be surprised at the internal disarray over Canadian support for NATO. The party’s stance on Canadian involvement in the alliance has been the source of considerable debate and internal tension within the NDP and the left in Canada since the party’s founding in 1961. The question of whether an NDP government would maintain Canada’s membership in NATO and the North American Air Defense Command (NORAD) was one of the few sources of dissension at the party’s founding convention. Connections between party activists and the peace and nuclear disarmament movements ran deep through the years of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) which preceded the NDP, and delegates at the convention criticized the draft program’s commitment to pull Canada out of NORAD while remaining in NATO. According to historian Desmond Morton, only the intervention of former CCF leader M.J. Coldwell, CCF President David Lewis, and soon-to-be NDP leader Tommy Douglas saved the compromise policy from defeat on the floor.

A since deleted tweet from NDP MP Leah Gazan on the Ukraine-Russia conflict, criticizing Canada’s hawkish stance.

The New Left and the Waffle

Nevertheless, in the late 1960s the NDP was the only major Canadian political party closely associated with opposition to the Vietnam War. Federal NDP leader Tommy Douglas condemned Canadian complicity in the “bloody and barbaric” war in Vietnam in a February 1967 speech to the House of Commons. New Democrats were regular speakers at anti-war rallies, and NDP riding associations and youth groups sporadically assisted in organizing protest demonstrations. The party campaigned for an end to American bombing in North Vietnam during the 1968 federal election campaign. Its stance helped attract students, academics, unionists and New Leftists to the NDP in the late 1960s.

In 1969, a group of New Left and NDP activists—including the founder of Canadian Dimension magazine, Cy Gonick—issued a “Manifesto for an Independent and Socialist Canada,” becoming widely known as the Waffle for an early participant’s comment that they would rather “waffle to the left than to the right.” The Waffle Manifesto, as it came to be known, denounced “Canada’s membership in the American alliance system” alongside American ownership of the Canadian economy and Canada’s complicity in the Vietnam War.

The Waffle Manifesto and its supporters shook up the 1969 NDP convention. A Waffle-backed resolution advocating Canada’s withdrawal from NATO, NORAD, and other joint military agreements with the United States passed a policy panel despite opposition by the NDP’s long-serving foreign affairs critic. Andrew Brewin urged delegates to reject the withdrawal policy, arguing that “if we have no NATO then we are going to have bilateral alliances … and that would be a greater danger than what we have now.” Historian Stephanie Bangarth explains that Brewin’s firm belief “in the power of multilateralism … mark[ed] much of NDP foreign policy into the 1960s and 1970s.” Under his influence, the NDP federal caucus had argued throughout the decade that Canada should withdraw military commitments to NATO but maintain its membership in order to retain a seat at the table. Yet, in the tumultuous atmosphere of the 1969 NDP convention, Brewin’s arguments did not prevail. Even the Ontario NDP provincial secretary John Harney and Saskatchewan MP Lorne Nystrom supported the withdrawal resolution, suggesting that the Waffle’s opposition to American militarism was shared by some young party moderates. Brewin declared immediately following the convention that he had “no intention of advocating the policies approved at this convention in the Commons.”

Reluctance and compromise

The NDP caucus and leadership remained saddled with a withdrawal policy it did not wholeheartedly support throughout the 1970s. The party featured withdrawal from NATO in its campaign materials during the 1972 federal election campaign, but leader David Lewis paid the issue little attention in his relentless focus on “corporate welfare bums.” A federal NDP pamphlet produced for the 1979 federal election denounced NATO and NORAD as “costly” and “worn out military alliances” but in the following year’s election campaign leader Ed Broadbent urged only the need to “reconsider” Canada’s involvement in these military alliances so that the country could maintain its commitment to “defend Western values.” During the same campaign, prominent advertisements produced by the right-wing National Citizen’s Coalition emphasized the NDP policy of withdrawal from NATO. Potential supporters could be forgiven for some confusion. But party members remained steadfast—conventions in 1983 and 1985 endorsed the withdrawal policy despite pleas from Broadbent and Foreign Affairs Critic Pauline Jewett to water it down.

The federal NDP seemingly found a compromise solution in time for the 1988 election campaign. The party’s federal council endorsed a new policy entitled Canada’s Stake in Common Security which retained the commitment to withdraw the country from NATO and not to renew the NORAD agreement three years hence. But the document also promised that an NDP government would not withdraw from NATO during its first term in office. As it turned out, it didn’t matter—the NDP finished third in an election fought over the question of free trade with the United States. As with most Canadian election campaigns, questions about foreign affairs struggled to resonate with voters more concerned about domestic economic and social issues.

Waffling over NATO airstrikes in the 1990s

In March 1999, when NATO forces began their bombardment of Serbian targets in response to evidence of the ethnic cleansing of Albanians in Kosovo, the NDP joined with other major Canadian political parties in support of the airstrikes. However, a month later, the party caucus changed its tune. Arguing that a month of active bombing had not achieved its initial objectives, British Columbia MP Nelson Riis and leader Alexa McDonough urged the Canadian government to withdraw support for NATO’s aerial bombardment. After touring Kosovo and refugee camps in Macedonia, maverick BC MP Svend Robinson likewise reversed course and called for an end to NATO’s bombing campaign.

As today, the issue of Canadian support for a NATO-led military intervention in eastern Europe generated considerable debate on the left. Some urged support on human rights grounds—at the close of the twentieth century, they argued, ethnic cleansing could not be permitted to go unchallenged. Others expressed doubts based on their reading of late twentieth century history; a history of American-led military interventions that failed to achieve their stated objectives and could lead to more harm than good. Some on the left even expressed concern that NATO’s actions could precipitate a greater crisis in the future. Former Waffler James Laxer explained, “in 10 years, when we’ve all forgotten what Kosovo was, will we be looking at a crazed xenophobic regime in Moscow and asking, ‘did we help put that regime into power?’ That’s a really dangerous thing.”

No doubt Jagmeet Singh and the NDP caucus are pondering this history as they plot a course forward for the party on the current Ukraine-Russia crisis.

David Blocker teaches history at Huron University College and the University of Windsor and has written on the Waffle, the New Left and the NDP.

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