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Gary Doer’s Manitoba

Canadian Politics

With his May 22 election victory, Gary Doer is only the second premier in recent Manitoba history to win three consecutive majority governments. The first was Duff Roblin back in the 1960s. In fact, since the election of Ed Schreyer in 1969, the New Democratic Party has been in office for all but a dozen years of the past four decades – nearly enough to consider the NDP Manitoba’s natural governing party.

In general terms the secret of NDP electoral success here has been to do just enough to sustain support from the province’s working class and poor, while avoiding major confrontation with its business class such as would scare off large numbers of middle-class voters.

The dilution of social-democratic principles did not come so easily to Doer’s predecessors, Ed Schreyer and Howard Pawley. Doer, on the other hand, is a quintessential small-“l” liberal. The man doesn’t have a socialist bone in his body, a characterization he would enthusiastically endorse.

Doer has led Manitoba’s New Democrats for nearly two decades – enough time for him to reshape the party in his image. The NDP here has, to a large extent, become Manitoba’s liberal party, almost wiping out the hapless Grits. It has also been adroit in taking on Conservative issues like tax cuts and fighting crime, leaving the Tories with little to campaign on. As Donne Flanagan, a top official in the premier’s office, has admitted in writing, Today’s NDP, as the party likes to call itself, follows a strategy of “inoculating” itself against criticism from its traditional foes.

Business Comes First

The high place accorded business can be illustrated by an incident occurring early on in Doer’s first mandate. In 1972 under Ed Schreyer, the provincial government created the Manitoba Hog Producers Marketing Board with single-desk selling powers. Any packer who wanted to purchase hogs had to buy from that single-desk seller. This collective-bargaining power had been a long-standing demand of hog producers. To entice Maple Leaf Foods to build a hundred-million-dollar hog-packing plant in the province, Gary Filmon’s Conservative government terminated single-desk selling back in 1996. In opposition, the NDP had promised to restore it, so farmers were optimistic that an injustice would soon be reversed when the NDP returned to office in 1999. When asked by a Winnipeg Free Press reporter about it, however, the premier said it would never be restored because he had promised Maple Leaf Foods president Michael McCain that there would be no return to single-desk marketing in Manitoba.

A second incident in its first mandate further confirms that this government would not introduce reforms that did not have the blessing of Manitoba business. Under pressure from Manitoba’s labour movement to reverse some restrictive legislation introduced by the previous Tory administration, the government brought in some amendments to the Labour Relations Act. Mild as they were, they caused the business community to fume, extracting from Doer a pledge to consult with it and seek consensus on all matters that might impact on business.

This promise Doer has kept, including the modest changes introduced to the Employment Standards Act and tepid increases to the minimum wage. As one NDP insider I spoke with in preparing this article told me, Doer has managed to “disarm” the business community. Business leaders I consulted with agreed that, aside from taxes (they conceded he had lowered them, but not enough) and not doing enough to eliminate Manitoba’s status as a have-not province dependent on equalization payments, they had little complaint with his administration.

On the contrary, they applauded several of his initiatives: his promotion of immigration that restocks the province’s labour pool; his support of new hydro dams in Manitoba’s north; his promotion of the north-south NAFTA highway corridor connecting Manitoba to Mexico; and his financial support for the new hockey/entertainment arena on the Portage Avenue site once occupied by Eaton’s. Many of these initiatives make no economic sense, as Bill Loewen, a highly successful, independent- minded businessman told CD. The arena sucks money out of the province, as exorbitant ticket fees end up in the pockets of visiting teams and entertainers. The alternative plan for the empty Eaton’s store – converting it into condos, office space and downtown university classrooms – was rejected by the Doer government. As for the corridor, noted Loewen, Winnipeg lies at the margins of a north-south corridor compared to its historic role at the centre-point of a thriving east-west economy largely neglected by the Doer administration.

Hydro Politics

In Manitoba’s north, politics is dominated by hydroelectric issues: from Grand Rapids, on the west side of Lake Winnipeg, where a dam built in the early sixties has led to social misery by destroying the local economy and environment; through the dams built north of Lake Winnipeg in the seventies as part of the Churchill River diversion project, affecting six communities with the same pattern of Indigenous impoverishment and ecological devastation; around to the east side of Lake Winnipeg, where attempts to forestall hydro initiatives have met with a degree of recent success.

To placate vigorous opposition to building more dams, the NDP has come up with a new twist: allowing First Nation reserves to become part owners. Manitoba Hydro loans them the capital, presumably to be repaid from future revenues earned from hydro sales. The tactic has proved quite successful in winning band support for the Wuskwatim dam, and could be important in the upcoming battles over the much bigger Conawapa dam.

To its credit – as against its Tory opposition and Hydro itself – the NDP supports a protected area on the east side of Lake Winnipeg, even though building transmission lines there, as opposed to the west side, will be more costly. Protecting the land is key to the Poplar River Reserve receiving UNESCO World Heritage Site status, which would put it in the same exclusive company as the Grand Canyon, the Acropolis and the Taj Mahal.

Although this achievement may well be Doer’s ultimate legacy, it did not come easily. A longfought campaign launched by a coalition of Indigenous people and environmentalists, along with the active involvement of some NDP members including cabinet minister Eric Robinson, were key. In conjunction with the proposed World Heritage Site, the government’s Eastside Planning Initiative (now called WNO) will mean that potential exists for sustainable community economic development opportunities on the east side of Lake Winnipeg.

A huge battle is looming regarding the $10 billion Conawapa dam on the Nelson River, intended to provide hydroelectric power for Ontario in place of its pollution-spewing coal plants. Hydro would be transmitted by way of a high-voltage line from the dam to James Bay in northern Ontario, and then south to Timmins and Sudbury, costing another $1.5 billion. The project is strongly promoted by Doer, and it plays a large part in his reputation as a champion of Kyoto.

This megaproject would take at least a decade to complete. It will not proceed until the Ontario government signs a long-term agreement with Manitoba to purchase the electricity; not until it gains the support of 79 northern Ontario Aboriginal communities over whose traditional lands the power lines run; and not until it wins support from Aboriginal communities in Manitoba, who are understandably wary in view of the massive ecological damages caused even by smaller dams. Some Ontario reserves are exploring having equity in the transmission line; others are seeking a revenue- sharing agreement. In Manitoba the provincial government is promoting a partnership with Native bands that would require these communities to borrow a third of the project’s funding in return for a share of the revenue.

Hog Politics

Under Gary Doer’s tutelage, hog production has become Manitoba’s biggest agricultural industry. Most of the hogs are produced by a handfulof mega-barn operators whose annual earnings average $5 million. Most of the hogs are exported, though their manure remains in the province, spread untreated on nearby land.

This kind of intensive hog production causes air pollution – noxious odours, toxic gases and drug pollution. As well, antibiotics, growth-promoting chemicals and other veterinary drugs end up in the animals themselves and enter the environment through their manure and urine, contaminating the water, the soil and our food.

Critics lampoon the government’s claim to having the highest hog-production standards in North America. In response to several instances where rural municipal boards rejected proposals to locate hog mega-barns in their communities, the province took democratic control out of their hands by forcing municipalities to adopt livestock bylaws that conformed to provincial standards. These allow barns to be located as close as 656 feet to any single resident and for lagoons to be located as close as one mile to a community.

Hog politics came to a head in 2006-07 after the province, along with the City of Winnipeg, offered tens of millions of dollars of incentives for a new hog-slaughtering and -processing plant to be located in an industrial park close to downtown Winnipeg. After residents and businesses in the area launched a spirited campaign against the proposed facility, all three political parties withdrew support for the controversial plant.

By the time the Doer government finally imposed a moratorium on the construction of new hog barns in late 2006, the industry had already slowed down, as operators were finding it cheaper to locate in Mexico and Brazil. As well, more evidence emerged connecting hog mega-barns to increased damage to Lake Winnipeg.

Water Politics

Lake Winnipeg, the world’s tenth-largest freshwater lake, is in distress. Blue-green algae blooms in the lake’s north basin are not only unsightly for cottagers and sailors on the lake. They are a real threat to the lake’s inhabitants. After the algae blooms, it dies, absorbing precious oxygen – needed by the lake’s fish – as it decays. These blooms are only expected to increase in extent and frequency as the lake water warms.

Lake Winnipeg, home to Manitoba’s considerable commercial fishery, which employs over a thousand licensed fishers, is more vulnerable than other lakes to a warming climate. It is widely understood that every attempt to limit nutrient loading or pollution of the rivers and streams leading into Lake Winnipeg will help the lake heal and adapt to climate-change concerns in the future.

But water-protection and conservation groups, of which there are literally dozens in the province, complain that, while the NDP government was the first in Canada to create a Ministry of Water Stewardship, its regulatory actions have been late in coming and in any case are weak and ineffective. They say this has been due to a lack of resources in core water management, including the ability to enforce and monitor environmental compliance, as well as to a continuous turnover of staff, deputy ministers and cabinet ministers. Left unsaid is the government’s concern not to annoy the polluting industries, including the burgeoning hog farms.

Poverty Capital of Canada

Gary Doer was lucky to come to office at the right time in the economic cycle. Yet, after nearly a decade in office, his government has made very little progress in reducing poverty in Manitoba or in closing the gap between the rich and the poor. It seems clear that, in embracing the politics of neoliberalism – reduced taxes and balanced budgets, in particular – his government has much less revenue for public services, and none for major reforms.

Having allowed crippling balanced-budget legislation introduced by the Filmon regime to stand unamended, the government is obliged to allocate a significant portion of its annual revenues to maintain a Fiscal Stabilization Fund (a staggering $313 million in the 2005-06 budget year) and another significant portion to reduce the provincial debt.

So, after covering the bases of roads, schools, libraries, hospitals, police, the arts, etc., and after providing competitive subsidies and grants to entice private enterprise into the province while reducing business taxes, the government just about runs out of revenue – even with equalization grants from other provinces. Further, the balanced-budget legislation does not allow the government to increase major taxes without a referendum. All it can do, then, is make incremental increases to childcare, homecare, social housing, public transit and other programs that make a difference to the poor.

Provincial tax cuts over the Doer era have removed nearly $800 million dollars from the public purse. That money could have funded a proper childcare program, or built much-needed social housing in Winnipeg’s inner city, or helped to finance a rapid-transit system, or provided an increase to social allowances, which, after adjusting for inflation, are less than what they were when the NDP took office.

Worse, the distribution of tax cuts has grossly favoured the rich. According to a study by the Manitoba branch of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, the net effect of NDP tax breaks between 1999 and 2005 has saved a family of four earning $20,000 only $150 per year, while a family of four earning $100,000 has saved $1,700.

In real terms, welfare rates hit their peak in 1992 and have declined ever since, despite some minimal increases in 2004 and again in the 2006 pre-election budget. The shelter allowance portion of the Employment and Income Assistance program has remained frozen since 1992, while rents have increased by more than twenty per cent. As a result, families who rely on income assistance dip into already-constrained food budgets to pay for shelter, and more than eighty per cent of these families end up relying on food banks.

Manitoba has one of the highest rates of child and family poverty in the country (19.2 per cent), one of the highest proportions of full-time working families falling below the poverty line (eleven per cent) and some of the lowest average weekly earnings in Canada (only Prince Edward Island and Nova Scotia are lower).

The NDP’s recent “Rewarding Work” program, intended to assist low-income families and move Manitobans from welfare to work, will help a little, but it is no answer to the fact that Manitoba has a E D Continued from p. 15 higher proportion of low-wage jobs (under $10 per hour) than any province west of Quebec. In fact, low-wage employment is on the rise in Manitoba, climbing to one in five workers.

Manitoba’s Just Income Coalition, consisting of 25 affiliated labour, faith and community groups, has mounted a fairly vigorous campaign to “reward work” by ensuring that workers are paid a living wage – one that lifts them out of poverty. The government’s response has been to raise the minimum wage by “two bits” per year over the past four years – another example of the NDP’s pattern of seeming to do something, but in fact doing as little as it can get away with.

Housing Scandal

Nearly one in three Winnipeg renter households do not have access to adequate housing. Thousands of families are on waiting lists for public housing; thousands of rental units are in need of major repair, including some of the old public housing; decaying buildings are steadily dropping off the market; and boarded-up houses, vacant buildings and empty warehouses are allowed to rot away instead of being redeveloped.

Of course, the crisis in affordable housing is not unique to this province. Governments have not built public housing in decades; and since 1993 the federal government abandoned any form of social housing (meaning housing that has some ongoing subsidy).

Until this election was called, the Doer government’s response to this crisis has been to provide bits of funding to community groups to revitalize housing in some inner-city neighbourhoods. It was far too little to have much impact, however – and in any case too often geared to developing homeownership opportunities for families of modest income rather than rental housing for very lowincome households.

In its 2007 budget the NDP unveiled a three-year $188 million affordable-housing strategy that does, finally, address some of these needs – although still not anywhere near enough to eliminate the deficit. The other part of the housing scandal is the government’s decision to support urban sprawl with public land banks. This outdated, car-reliant and big-box-mall style of urban development has turned Winnipeg into a donut and contributes to the urban poverty and decline that all governments say they want to stop.

Aboriginal Capital of Canada

Aboriginal peoples constitute nearly fourteen percent of Manitoba’s population, compared to barely three per cent for Canada as a whole. Winnipeg has the largest urban Aboriginal population in Canada. Most Native residents live in its inner city, and are grossly under-employed and under-educated. Most live in crowded, rundown apartments, rooming houses, or rented houses. More than seventy per cent of children in care in Manitoba are Aboriginal.

But a culture of resistence is beginning to thrive. The key to this development appears to be building places of their own where Aboriginal peoples can connect and develop their capacities, and providing the services they need along community economic development (CED) lines. Altogether, Aboriginal people have built over seventy organizations in Winnipeg alone. Among them are Neechi Foods, an Aboriginal worker-owned cooperative food store and nutrition centre; Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata, a family-service agency; the Urban Circle Training Centre; the Native Women’s Transition Centre; and Children of the Earth High School.

Manitoba governments have yielded to the demands of Aboriginal activists to fund these community- based facilities. Others, like Neechi Foods, are strongly supported by the Assiniboine Credit Union. Even the United Way seems to be bending its efforts away from the charity model and toward a CED model. (Readers who want to learn more about this should read Jim Silver’s splendid book, In Their Own Voices (Fernwood Publishing, 2006).

The Community Economic Development Model

The CED model emphasizes from the ground-up principles: producing goods and services for local use, local decision-making and ownership, skill development and local reinvestment of profits. Over a period of a few decades, and thanks to the dedication of several individuals, Manitoba now has a considerable institutional base for CED. The Doer government helped this along by creating a Community and Economic Development Committee of Cabinet. Its “Neighbourhoods Alive!” program has funded many community-based initiatives, including the renovation of homes in core areas.

This is a very positive development. What it all adds up to quantitatively, however, either in economic terms or in terms of developing the self-governing capacities of Aboriginal peoples, is still an open question. This is understandably a very slow process.

In this regard, however, the Doer government made the uncharacteristically bold decision of transferring all Aboriginal cases in Child and Family Services to Aboriginal agencies. Unfortunately, and contrary to its generally good management practices, this giant move has not been handled well, as few new resources were allocated to the reorganization of an already under-funded department.

Nevertheless, this devolution represents a big step in a de-colonizing, self-governing direction. For, as Jim Silver has remarked, Aboriginal people deeply resent the fact that most services delivered to and for them are still delivered by non-Aboriginal people, “thus earning good incomes from jobs built on Aboriginal people’s grief” – and often doing so in an ineffective way.

Building a Left Politics in Manitoba

Like everywhere else in this country, left politics are scattered and fragmented. Since the heyday of the anti-globalization movement only a half-dozen- or-so years ago, most activists have scampered off toward more local or single-issue politics. Clearly, despite the limitations of the NDP government, many activists feel the need to contain their criticisms and their opposition. Much credence is given to the possibility that a Tory government might privatize Hydro, remove support for CED, remove protection of boreal forests on the east side of Lake Winnipeg, unfreeze university and college tuition fees, allow private health clinics, etc.

But resistance from Aboriginal communities is intense and growing. Whole communities, like Pimicikamak Cree Nation (formerly Cross Lake), have creatively sidestepped Indian Act governance procedures and set themselves up in opposition to the province’s main colonial agent, Manitoba Hydro. Pimicikamak successfully lobbied the State of Minnesota to require Hydro to account to its state legislature every year on the impacts of its dams on the environment and First Nations peoples covered by the Northern Flood Agreement.

Premier Doer sent letters to legislators protesting that the law violates NAFTA provisions. Minnesota buys nearly $800 million worth of hydroelectric power from Manitoba every year.

In other hydro-affected communities, lively opposition groups have sprung up, like the Justice Seekers of Nelson House (Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation). A quieter form of resistance from places like Poplar River, which has demanded to have its traditional territory permanently protected and declared a UN World Heritage Site, can also be found.

In Winnipeg, a range of urban-based groups actively network with one another – from student groups, to Aboriginal organizations like Ka Ni Kanichihk, to support groups like the Winnipeg Indigenous Peoples Solidarity Movement, formerly Friends of Grassy Narrows (see their website for excellent source of fresh information:

The environmental movement is involved in many issues and has considerable vigour, although has to work on its own, since the Green Party here is abysmally weak.

Because poverty is a huge issue in this province, the most promising way to tackle it at this time may be to form a broadly-based left-wing civic party that would bring together Aboriginal activists, environmentalists, labour activists, community groups and socialists.

Most of the Left seems aware of the limits of social democracy in power as an agency for social transformation. Within those limits, however, activists can surely press for some important reforms. We have found that governments like that of Gary Doer do not test the limits of the possible. Indeed, no NDP premier in this province has ever had to worry about pressure from the Left. When the NDP wins office, labour and most other social-justice movements seem to lose their critical edge. At the very least, we must address this. My experience leads me to look outside the party, for few anti-poverty activists or environmentalists or peace activists or leftists of any kind any longer view the NDP as a promising place to do their politics – thanks in large part to its top-down and undemocratic nature. But beyond this, to address the far larger project of doing away with capitalism – not just reforming it – requires a vision far beyond the myopic lenses of the NDP.

This article appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of Canadian Dimension (Artists & Politics).


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