Building Manitoba’s Fightback

Photo by Tony Hisgett

The upcoming provincial elections in Manitoba are worrying. The provincial NDP may cling to power come April, 2016, but a Progressive Conservative government might get elected instead that will impose significant and lasting damage.

The priority is to keep the PCs out of office, but people need to start organizing for the worst-case scenario now because simply waiting for the elections will leave us unprepared for an aggressive PC government. That said, even if the NDP remain in power, an independent left should be built that is not afraid of making public demands in the streets to the left of the NDP.

The emergence of neoliberalism in the 1970s, globalization and the painful erosion of an organized left are well known, but in addition to these trends is something unique to Manitoba. The success of the provincial NDP over the past 16 years has led to the left’s own atrophy to an extent. The party has governed in a way that mutes and institutionalizes the left, effectively eroding activism and the political imagination.

Winnipeg activists talk of the 1990s when a number of grassroots groups packed up shop after the NDP were elected, finding jobs in the party or in community agencies funded by the NDP.

Trade union leaders have geared their efforts overwhelmingly toward door-to-door election campaigning for NDP candidates during elections. The provincial NDP has not imposed significant public sector cuts or austerity measures in return.

However, devoting the majority of union organizing resources to election campaigns rather than worker’s struggle has withered away capacity and experience with class struggle ranging from strike activity to creative direct action. Rebuilding this capacity takes time that we do not have.

This is problematic when the NDP are in power because insufficient pressure is placed upon the party from the left. The labour movement has proven incapable of achieving basic demands like lowering automatic union certification rates to 50%+1 or implementing anti-scab legislation despite having the NDP in power for 16 years, for example.

And while the lack of a fighting labour movement is a problem with the NDP, it becomes outright dangerous with the possibility of a PC government. A range of sectors may be exposed to attack from health care to education and there is very limited experience at mounting effective fight-back.

The Institutionalization of Dissent

Indigenous grassroots activists are among the few groups with any independence today, fighting to protect land and water while battling against Child and Family Services, pipelines and the violence of poverty and colonialism.

Outside of Indigenous circles, NGOs and community agencies funded by the NDP are reluctant to voice independent demands or to develop grassroots movements because their funding is tied to the NDP, because of their charitable status, or simply because many fear destabilizing the party.

Potential young activists that would otherwise provide grassroots vitality and vision are absorbed into branches of the provincial apparatus and community development agencies funded by the party.

This leads to an institutionalization of dissent as any dynamism from the left is absorbed into the party’s orbit. In the eyes of the NDP and its supporters, this approach allows for effective governing. But the capacity of the left is drained over time.

Politics instead becomes so many meetings, policy documents, legislative additions and amendments. The political imagination is dulled and political debate shifts to the right. In other words, the orientation of the NDP over the years has opened up ample room for the PCs.

The Harris years in Ontario are a worrying example of how aggressively the PCs can attack within a short timeframe and how long it takes to develop effective fightback. Militancy is not something that can be turned on and off like a tap but takes time to develop, as editor David Bush has said. This is clearly time that we do not have.

A Likely Scenario

A likely scenario is that Manitoba’s labour leadership will continue to devote its organizing capacity to supporting the provincial NDP with door-knocking campaigns leading up to the April elections.

In fact, given the provincial NDP’s fragility, it is likely that labour leaders will double down their electoral energies rather than building rank-and-file capacity through movement-building and direct actions against Pallister.

Preparations need to be made now should the PCs get elected and an independent left is also necessary should the NDP remain in power.

Building Manitoba’s Fightback

While labour leadership will devote their energies to door-to-door campaign work for the NDP this April, others can focus their attention on building an effective fightback now. The Left needs to be proactive rather than reactive.

The priority now is to help keep Pallister and the PCs out of office. We have to try and give the PCs a hard time in the months ahead while also preparing for a fightback should they get elected.

A group can be developed that prepares for two scenarios: in the first scenario, the PCs win and a broad campaign is launched to fight the PCs in sectors and communities they are likely to attack (labour, education, health care, etc.).

In the second scenario, the NDP remain in power and a more critical Left is developed capable of articulating independent demands to the Left of the party. This second route could focus on concrete goals like stopping the Energy East pipeline, the fight for a $15 minimum wage and 50%+1 automatic union certification, for example.

There are existing models in Canada to draw from. Solidarity Halifax is an explicitly anti-capitalist membership-based organization that wages struggle in a range of sectors, while lessons can also be drawn from the Ottawa-based Solidarity Against Austerity. The grassroots Left in Winnipeg is small, so it is vital to learn from how these groups effectively avoid sectarianism and division.

We can do our small part to keep Pallister and the PCs out, but it is also past time for an independent left in Manitoba. With the 100th anniversary of the Winnipeg General Strike approaching, now is the time to build an independent Left that is not afraid of making bold political demands in the streets regardless of who is in power.

Matthew Brett (@mattbrett_1984) is an anarchist organizer based in Winnipeg, Treaty 1 territory and a member of the Canadian Dimension magazine editorial collective. Thank you to Tasha Spillet, Monique Woroniak, David Camfield, David Bush and Alex Patterson for feedback on this piece. All views expressed here are my own.

This author can be reached at brett.matthew[at]