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Once upon a Waffle

Forty years later, does the Waffle have anything to show for its brief but luminous existence?

Canadian PoliticsSocialism

Mel Watkins (left) and Cy Gonick at the 1969 NDP National Convention.

The Waffle is long dead and little remembered. Forty years ago, at the very tail-end of the fabulous decade known as the 60s—if you missed it, too bad—it burst on the scene as a radical grouping within the NDP with a Manifesto calling for an independent socialist Canada, no less, and did so to media attention the likes of which the Left has yet to match.

The 60s were already in trouble, Richard Nixon having been elected president of the United States and leader of the free world in 1968. Here at home, by 1972 the NDP establishment, an alliance of party and trade union brass, was unwilling to tolerate the Waffle talk inside and outside the party.

It was even less willing to tolerate the Waffle walk as it pushed the choice of David Lewis as federal leader in 1971 to a fifth ballot, and joined strikers on picket lines whether or not the union was affiliated with the NDP.

Too weak to win and too strong to be tolerated, the Waffle was, in effect, turfed out of the party. It struggled on, like a dead man walking, and by 1974 was no more. By then the 60s were also truly dead and buried.

A vibrant sovereignty movement

Forty years later, does the Waffle have anything to show for its brief but luminous existence? Its discourse was that of left nationalism, of opposition to foreign ownership, and of calls for public ownership, particularly in the energy sector. In the 70s, the Trudeau government went tentatively down that road and Wafflers could imagine they had had some influence, but the Mulroney government undid it all and tossed in a free trade agreement with the US to boot (I wonder who paid Mulroney in what hotel room to do that?).

Nothing to take credit for there, you say, and you’re right, except that the concern about Canadian sovereignty, got a huge jolt of energy out of the 60s, so the Waffle can claim some credit. That rejuvenated nationalism, in its turn, though unable to stop free trade, made it a very close thing and has since been able sufficiently to sustain itself to keep us out of the Iraq war and the missile defense system.

The Waffle should be judged as part and parcel of the still vibrant sovereignty movement: think, for example, of the Council of Canadians, Parklands Institute, Polaris Institute, and the Rideau Institute—and the growing self-confidence that Canadians have about Canada’s survival independent of the United States.

There are two specific and substantial matters on which the Waffle showed remarkable prescience. The Manifesto insisted that Canada consisted of two nations—there was no notion then of the rights of the First Nations and the Waffle was as bad as the rest on the issue of aboriginal rights. Even two nations was one too many for then Prime Minister Trudeau, yet it is now embraced even by Harper. James Laxer, in his campaign as Waffle candidate for federal party leadership in 1971, courageously made Quebec’s right to self-determination a centrepiece. Even many English Canadian nationalists would not buy that at that time.

And then there was the matter of the very real contradiction that existed within the NDP where Canadian nationalism was lauded everywhere except in the trade union movement itself. The Canadian labour movement, unlike any other trade union movement in the known world, was dominated by unions domiciled outside the country, namely, so-called international unions with headquarters in the US.

The Waffle deserved its name because it waffled on this issue: the Canadianization of the Canadian labour movement. It was not even mentioned in the Manifesto. But there quickly emerged within the Waffle a Labour Caucus of militant trade unionists supporting independent Canadian unions.

The pull between the party and the movement

The movement to purge the Waffle was led by the Canadian leaders of these branch plant unions. Yet in a matter of two decades, almost all these Canadian branches of international unions had broken with their American masters and Canada had, for the first time in its history, a sovereign trade union movement. I note simply that, again, the Waffle was on the side of history and, again, good history.

From the days of the CCF down to today, there has been constant discussion about the “party” and the “movement.” The CCF, at least in the West, was able to put these together, but the creation of the NDP out of the CCF was in some part intended to purge the movement.

The Waffle was in the party but, with its commitment to day-to-day activism, acted like a movement. It activated riding associations. It organized around issues relevant to Canadian workers without deferring to union leaders, notably in the case of the auto-workers. That, more than anything else, pushed the leadership of the Canadian auto workers to lead the charge against the Waffle. To its great credit, after the CAW was created as a breakaway from the UAW, it apologized for its role in the killing of the Waffle.

The point was often made, particularly by critics of the Waffle, that it mostly consisted of university students and young professors. That was an overstatement, but it’s hardly surprising that the Waffle had a strong campus orientation given that that was true overall of much of 60s activism.

In the longer-run, there was the considerable virtue that Wafflers, then and later, made a significant contribution to the creation of the New Canadian Political Economy, a paradigm that has left its stamp down to the present day on numerous academic disciplines.

The case can be made that the most important movement that came out of the 60s was women’s liberation. Again, to its discredit, the Waffle Manifesto was silent on this issue, but a Women’s Caucus emerged early on and played an active role.

The Waffle died. What happened to the Wafflers? Some left the NDP for good. Others, like myself, drifted back over time. Some became active in the newly emerging social movements.

I was out of the party for a decade and returned because I loved politics and felt sidelined. I twice ran, in 1997 and 2000, as a federal candidate in what was thought to be a winnable riding but turned out not to be. I was sometimes asked how a radical like I was could now run for the NDP.

I like to recall what Cheddi Jagan said. He had been a Marxist chief minister of then British Guiana and was pushed out with a little help from the CIA. Years later, he was elected president of an independent Guyana as a social democrat. When asked by a reporter why he had changed, he said “I haven’t changed but the world sure has.”

A question that no one has ever asked me but I will answer anyway is: If I were writing a manifesto today, what would I write about? The Waffle Manifesto railed against American imperialism and called for public ownership to counter it, but was silent on environmental matters like almost everybody else, though there were voices within the Waffle, which the rest of us chose to ignore.

Today’s manifesto should rail against corporate globalization and call for the building of viable local economies, both in their own right and to lessen carbon emissions and mitigate the global warming and climate change that now haunt us.

Mel Watkins is a Canadian political economist and activist. He is professor emeritus of economics and political science at the University of Toronto.

This article appeared in the November/December 2009 issue of Canadian Dimension (End Times in Copenhagen).


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