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The NDP, poised for power but to what effect?

Canadian Politics

Fifty years after its founding, the New Democratic Party swept to Official Opposition status in Ottawa on May 2, 2011, propelled by the “Orange wave” in Québec where it captured an astounding 43% of the popular vote. Canada-wide, the NDP share of the vote increased from 18% in the previous federal election (2008) to 30.6%.

Winning 103 seats in the House of Commons, and coming second in another hundred or so constituencies, the NDP now became for the first time a “government in waiting” with a credible perspective of replacing the Harper Conservatives in 2015.

This historic breakthrough for the party was achieved despite the near-unanimous opposition of the big-business media: 31 Canadian newspapers editorially supported the Conservatives, while only one (the Toronto Star) gave the NDP a qualified endorsement. Although the Conservative vote had nudged up only slightly, to just short of 40%, Harper had clearly established the Tories as the hegemonic party of Capital.

But this hegemony came at a price. Capital in Canada has traditionally ruled through a system of alternance between Liberals and Conservatives, each ready to replace the other if defeated in Parliament or by the electorate. With the crushing defeat of the Liberals — now reduced to 34 seats, an all-time low for the party — the scenario was radically altered. Although the Tory government’s parliamentary majority is secure for the next four years, the alternance is now up for grabs.

For Canada’s ruling circles, this poses a dilemma. Should they bank on rebuilding the Liberals? Or should they start thinking of the NDP as an acceptable option at the federal level, as they already do in some provinces where the NDP has governed for many years?

Provincial office is one thing. But the central government, with its crucial jurisdiction over banking and finance, foreign affairs, the military, trade and commerce, criminal law and the senior courts and judiciary, etc. — and above all its role in protecting the territorial and institutional integrity of the state and forestalling any challenge by Québec to that integrity — that’s a somewhat different matter.

The NDP, created at the aegis of the trade unions in English Canada, has historically been viewed by Capital as a workers party and for that reason has never enjoyed the unalloyed confidence of big business — despite all the efforts of NDP leaders down through the years to neutralize and overcome that antipathy.

Moreover, under Jack Layton’s leadership the NDP had attempted in recent years to accommodate Québec’s historic concern for autonomy over matters of language and culture, and had even questioned Ottawa’s claim that it had the unilateral right to determine whether it would accede to a majority yes vote for sovereignty by the Québécois.

Canada’s rulers could find solace, of course, in the apparent fragility of the NDP’s new status. The electoral advance of this “political arm of the labour movement,” as it is generally seen outside Québec, comes at a time when the NDP’s organic ties to the trade unions are weaker than ever before in its history, and the social movements in English Canada that have traditionally looked to the party as a political outlet are largely fragmented if not demobilized. Furthermore, although its parliamentary caucus is dominated by Québec MPs, the QuébecNDP is historically one of the weakest sections of the federal party.[1] It would be a major challenge for this federalist party to consolidate these gains and build a strong base in a province where most of the left and progressive forces pursue the objective of an independent Québec.

The NDP’s 2011 advance might be dismissed as purely conjunctural, the result of a chance confluence of factors — not least, the collapse in popular support for the Bloc Québécois. Post-election opinion polls indicated that voters switching from the BQ to the NDP were motivated by fear at the prospect of a Harper majority and attracted by the NDP as a party with a social program similar to the BQ’s but — unlike the BQ —offering them the prospect of a socially progressive ally in the Rest of Canada that is sympathetic to the “Québec difference.”

But closer scrutiny reveals some longer-term shifts in the popular vote. Canada-wide, the Conservative vote in 2011 was just a couple of percentage points higher than in 2008, when the party’s vote was no higher than the combined vote in 2000 of the now-merged Conservative, Reform and Alliance parties. But the Liberals were in secular decline, their vote falling steadily from 40.8% in 2000 to 18.9% in 2011. Meanwhile, during the decade the NDP vote had consistently risen: from 8.5% in 2000 (1.8% in Québec) to 18.2% in 2008 (12.2% in Québec) followed by the surge to 33.1% in 2011 (42.9% in Québec). Whatever the explanation, the fact that more than four million voters — about twice as many as in 2008 — had turned, despite the media hostility, to a party of the broad “left” that traditionally ranked third or fourth in the federal Parliament, represented a huge collective protest against the right-wing thrust of politics in Canada.

The NDP is now positioned as the hegemonic opposition in Canada’s parliament and politics to the right-wing agenda of the Harper Tories. But the party’s problematic relationship to its core constituency, the organized working class in English Canada, and its historic difficulty in grappling with theQuébec national question, suggest that it is ill-equipped to contend with the major class and national confrontations that ultimately shape the course of politics in the Canadian state.

Social Democracy

Although today’s NDP is shy about its self-identification in its statutes as “socialist,” the party is a member of the Socialist International, a loosely organized alliance of parties that trace their historical antecedents back to the pre-World War I international workers and socialist movement — more specifically, in the NDP’s case, to British Labourism and a similar reformist but minority current in the Marxist SDP in pre-war Germany. This reformist current held that the working class could overcome its subordination without the overthrow of the capitalist state, through working for legislative reform within the state institutions, primarily Parliament.

In the early 20th century, socialist and labour militants were active in a variety of parties and trade unions, especially in Western Canada where colonization and urbanization were rapidly transforming an agrarian and resource-based economy. Some managed to win election to provincial or municipal office. Many identified as Social Democrats.

After the First World War, militants inspired by the example of the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 joined in founding the Communist Party, responding to the Russian call for creation of a new, Communist International to replace the Social Democratic parties that had betrayed socialist internationalism by supporting the war effort of their respective countries.

While the revolutionary CP privileged on-the-job and extraparliamentary action, the reformist wing of the workers’ movement set its sights on electing worker representatives to parliament. During the 1920s a few were elected to the federal Parliament. These Labour MPs later combined with radical farmer MPs to form the self-styled “ginger group,” which comprised the pre-Depression parliamentary left.

In 1932, in response to the deep social crisis produced by the Great Depression, this parliamentary left issued a call for the formation of a new party that would unite and incorporate “the three major classes in the community whose interests are the same — industrial workers, farmers, and the middle class.” At a conference in Regina in 1933, they founded the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF).[2]

Although its founding document, the Regina Manifesto, famously proclaimed the CCF’s goal to be the “eradication” of capitalism, the party program privileged using state planning and administration, selective nationalization (“socialization”) of key industries, and progressive taxation to steer capitalism out of crisis and lay the basis for what came to be known as the welfare state. It was to be a parliamentary party, seeking election to government in Ottawa and the provinces.

Like most Social Democratic parties, the CCF sought alliances with trade unions. But although it self-identified as a “federation,” the party initially had no provision for representation or affiliation of unions as such in its structures. And the only province in which it elected a government, Saskatchewan in 1944, was primarily agrarian.

Until the late 1940s, the Communist party (CP) continued to be a fierce contender with the CCF for influence in the labour movement. Supporters of both parties were prominent in the leadership of the new industrial unions that mushroomed in the late 1930s and during World War II, although neither was hegemonic. Many union leaders, especially in the craft unions of the Trades and Labour Congress (TLC), were Liberals. And after 1942 the CP (now renamed the Labour Progressive Party) was informally allied with the Liberals in the prosecution of the war effort.

With the Great Depression still fresh in their memory, many working people radicalized during the war and a rapid increase in electoral support for the CCF was accompanied by a wave of union affiliation to the party. By 1944, about 100 local unions were affiliated, mainly in Ontario. However, these unions, with 50,000 members, constituted barely 7% of total union membership in Canada. In 1943, the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL), representing the major industrial unions, voted in convention to endorse the CCF “as the political arm of labour in Canada.”

But the affiliation movement soon ground to a halt, and by 1952 the number of affiliated locals was down to 44, comprising just over 1% of union members. The party’s share of the popular vote declined sharply as Canadian politics shifted to the right.

Capitalism had entered a phase of unprecedented expansion. Economic prosperity, accompanied by the anticommunism of the Cold War, led party leaders to question the primacy of public ownership and state planning and to embrace the mixed economy and Keynesian fiscal policies as their fundamental mechanisms for completing the welfare state. In 1956, the Regina Manifesto was replaced by the Winnipeg Declaration. Capitalism was still “basically immoral,” the Declaration stated, but “in many fields there will be need for private enterprise which can make a useful contribution to the development of our economy.” [3]

This brought the program and policies of Canadian Social Democracy into much closer alignment with the changing needs of the capitalist system. Toronto socialist academic Bryan Evans, in a recent study of the NDP’s evolution, labels this transition a “refoundation” of Canadian social democracy: the expression of “a declassed and technocratic Keynesianism that signalled a retreat from class as the ideological and organizational centrepiece of its politics.”[4]

A labour party?

But the class struggle works both ways — and there was no evidence that Capital was leaving the battlefield. The working class still needed a political outlet it could call its own. In a parallel and not unrelated process, the trade union movement (many of whose central leaders were CCF members) was reorganizing its structures and perspectives in a process that would link it with the CCF in a new political party.

In 1956, the TLC and CCL had merged to form the Canadian Labour Congress, which now embraced a large majority of organized labour outside Québec, but included as well most of Québec’s “international” (U.S. based) unions. At its 1958 convention, the CLC (in close collaboration with the CCF leadership) called for creation of “a broadly based people’s political movement, which embraces the CCF, the Labour Movement, farm organizations, professional people and other liberally-minded persons.”[5]

As the formulation suggests, the goal was to create a broad party that could embrace major components of the Liberal party — like the CCF, routed in the 1958 federal election — in a recomposition of Canadian politics along left-right lines. Labour’s input would reflect the politics of the new labour congress — now purged of CP-led unions, embracing the Cold War anticommunist ideology, and domesticated by the constraints of a postwar industrial relations regime under which unions had won legal recognition in state-defined bargaining units but at the cost of restrictions on strikes and secondary boycotts, the substitution of grievance procedures in place of on-the-job action, and mandatory residual management rights clauses in all union contracts. With the unions increasingly focused on workplace bargaining and away from broadly-based solidarity struggles, the party — led by a core elite of experienced Social Democratic politicians inherited from the CCF — would advocate their legislative agenda and, if electorally successful, establish governments more amenable to labour’s interests.[6]

When the NDP was founded in the summer of 1961, the union affiliation provisions did not differ radically from the CCF’s. The new party was to be the “political arm of the labour movement,” all right, but the new relationship was structured to preclude union domination of the party. Unlike the British Labour Party, where unions received a vote for each affiliated member, the NDP gave the unions no block voting rights at party conventions or on the party executive. However, the unions were given representation in the party’s executive and on its federal council, as well as in the corresponding decision-making bodies in the provincial sections. And they were given special voting rights at party conventions using formulas that weighted their representation according to the number of union members. Affiliates paid dues to the party of about 20 cents per member per month.

Although the guarantees of posts for union officials in the party’s leadership bodies remain more or less intact today, the unions were less successful in their attempts to mobilize membership support for the party. In the first place, of course, labour political action in Québec followed a quite different course; the CLC’s Québec affiliate soon took its distance from the NDP and moved toward closer identification with the sovereigntist Parti québécois, as did the other major union centrals in Québec. But in English Canada, too, the affiliation movement soon faltered.

Although the number of affiliated union locals rose steadily during the 1960s and 1970s, most of this growth occurred during the party’s first two years; 1963 was the high-water mark, when 14.6 percent of union members were affiliated to the NDP. Since only 30% of the non-agricultural work force were members of unions, however, this represented less than 5% of the total work force. The pace of affiliation slackened thereafter. By 1979, almost 300,000 workers were affiliated to the party, but they accounted for only 7.3% of total union membership — barely above the highest level of affiliation with the CCF in 1944, when affiliated members constituted about 6.9% of the organized work force. And of the 730 locals affiliated in 1985, more than three quarters were located in Ontario; less than 2% were Québec-based.[7]

The party’s affiliation provisions reflected an underlying assumption that unionized workers had achieved a sufficient level of class consciousness that they would be susceptible to identifying the NDP with their interests as a social class, and determine their political allegiances accordingly. However, as numerous surveys have documented, there is no automatic link between employment and political views. The latter may be equally or more determined by one’s ethnicity, gender, overall social mobility, etc. And the NDP has never won consistent support from even a majority of union members, still less among the unorganized. At most, studies show, NDP affiliation provides a “cue” to union members that their union favours a vote for this particular party.

The NDP in government – Adapting to neoliberalism

Furthermore, the NDP itself has disappointed many who look to it as a means of achieving some meaningful improvement in their lives. The NDP has at various time formed the government in five provinces (British Columbia, Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario and Nova Scotia) and one territory (Yukon). The historical record reveals a clear transition in the party’s politics from its original Keynesian framework to a somewhat incoherent social liberalism as successive NDP governments adapted to neoliberalism. In the earlier period:

Saskatchewan’s CCF government (1944-64) pioneered in establishing government-financed hospital care (a precursor of medicare), legislated limits on the work week, the highest minimum wage in Canada, collective bargaining for civil servants, and the creation of new Crown corporations. A later NDP government (1971-82) established more Crown corporations and used the revenues from increased resource royalties to fund new social programs and raise social assistance rates.
The first NDP government in British Columbia (1972-75) established a government monopoly, the British Columbia Petroleum Corporation, with limited responsibility for marketing of natural gas and oil; a state auto insurance monopoly; increased mining royalties; improved income security for seniors and disabled; a pharmacare program; and increased support for public housing.
In Manitoba, the first NDP governments (1969-77, 1981-88) pioneered an “equal pay for equal work” program to end gender-based pay discrimination and introduced anti-scab legislation and paternity leave. 

These popular provisions strengthened the NDP’s electoral base in all three provinces, and bolstered the party’s progressive reform credentials, notwithstanding the occasional use of strike-breaking laws by all three governments, and cabinet support in Saskatchewan and Manitoba for Trudeau’s wage control program in the mid-1970s.

As the neoliberal onslaught gathered force, however, NDP governments shifted from Keynesianism to fiscal orthodoxy, an emphasis on competitiveness and capital accumulation, and an obsession with deficits and debt fighting.

In Saskatchewan the NDP, returned to government in 1991, lowered resource industry taxes and royalties, introduced fiscal austerity that closed some hospitals, capped social assistance rates and reduced the education budget, while allowing the minimum wage, once one of the highest in Canada, to fall to one of the lowest.
The British Columbia NDP, returned to government in 1991 under Mike Harcourt, enacted some labour law reforms including anti-scab and secondary boycott provisions and mandatory first contract arbitration, substantially increased public sector wages, and raised taxes on corporations and high incomes. But Harcourt and his successors Glen Clark and Ujjal Dosanjh focused increasingly on deregulation, deficit reduction and tax cuts. Public service wages were frozen, social assistance eligibility tightened and overall per capita public expenditures were reduced by 2.2 percent. In the 2001 provincial election, the NDP was crushed; it was left with only two seats.
The Manitoba and Nova Scotia governments, elected in 1999 and 2009 respectively, have pursued similar approaches focused on deficit busting and austerity. 

It was Bob Rae’s NDP government in Ontario (1990-95) that provoked an open breach with and within organized labour that remains unhealed to this day. Faced with a ballooning budget deficit of almost $10 billion within one year, the government shifted toward public sector austerity. The Social Contract Act (1993) was “unprecedented both in the abrogation of collective bargaining rights and in the spending cuts sought.”[8] The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) responded by calling on affiliated unions to break their ties to the NDP; while a bloc of public sector unions and the Canadian Auto Workers moved to disaffiliate, another bloc composed of private sector unions instead called for continued support of the party.

The government’s defeat in 1995, and the election of the right-wing anti-union Conservatives under Mike Harris, led organized labour to rethink its exclusive reliance on electoralism as a political strategy. “This opened the door to an unprecedented embrace of extra-parliamentary activism within the ranks of organized labour. The Days of Action, a series of local general strikes, allied labour with a wide range of social justice movements” in resistance to the Harris government’s aggressive attacks on social programs and workers’ rights.[9]

Although the OFL eventually abandoned these extra-parliamentary tactics and renewed its relationship with the NDP, the CAW, some teachers’ unions, the Ontario government employees union, nurses and building trades unions instead launched an Ontario Election Network in support of “strategic voting,” effectively marking the re-emergence of a Liberal-Labour alliance that was sustained through subsequent provincial elections in 2003, 2007 and 2011. Between 2000 and 2003 union donations to the Ontario Liberal party surpassed union donations to the Ontario NDP![10]

The federal NDP under Jack Layton’s leadership, less controversially, fell in step with its provincial counterparts. The “corporate welfare bums” rhetoric of the 1970s, with its nods to public ownership, social policy enhancement and income redistribution, “has been replaced by an ideology that sees viable social programs as dependent on a well-functioning market economy.”[11] The party’s 2011 federal election platform called for tax incentives for small and medium-sized firms (to reward “job creators”), a modest increase in corporate tax that would keep it lower than the lowest U.S. corporate tax rate (to ensure “competitiveness”), and a host of modest reforms in health care, public pensions, public transit and housing strategies that would distinguish the NDP from the Harper Conservatives but had little to do with redistribution of resources and real power.

Needless to say, the party’s international policy was set firmly in the framework of the military, trade and investment alliances of global capitalism. For an end to Canada’s “combat involvement” in Afghanistan (a position the party adopted in 2006, four years after the first troops were sent). But no references to NATO, NORAD, or the numerous “free trade” agreements Ottawa has signed in recent years other than a call for Canadian companies to “abide by international human rights law and environmental standards when operating overseas.” The NDP would “maintain the current planned levels of Defence spending commitments.” On the environment it supported the Kyoto emission-reduction goals but promoted carbon taxes and said nothing about the Alberta tar sands, Canada’s major source of greenhouse gas pollution.[12]

The program rejected deficit financing (a staple of Keynesian economics) and Layton defended the Bank of Canada’s autonomy in setting monetary policy. To prove the NDP’s suitability to govern, Layton repeatedly referred to the “prudent” fiscal records of NDP governments in the western provinces.

Québec – A poverty of imagination

Firmly committed to working within the confines of capitalist state institutions, the NDP has been baffled by the Québec national question and the powerful movement it has spawned in opposition to the very state and structures with which the NDP so fervently identifies.

A major goal of the new party in 1961 was to make inroads into Québec, always infertile territory for the CCF. However, initial attempts produced only modest results. At the founding convention, a large Québec delegation — attracted by the promise of a new labour-based party — managed little more than to convince the party to substitute the word “federal” for “national” in its statutes and had to abandon the attempt to win recognition in the program of Québec’s right to self-determination. However, in 1963 delegates to the federal convention, impressed by the progressive dynamic of Québec’s Quiet Revolution, called for a “complete rethinking of our federal system and of the relations between the two nations which established Canada.”[13]

But in 1963, as well, the party’s fledgling Québec wing divided over differences on the national question; the majority went on to form an autonomous Parti Socialiste du Québec. By the mid-1960s, the PSQ was calling for adoption of a sovereign Québec constitution and the negotiation of a new “confederal” accord with English Canada, failing which Québec should proclaim its political independence[14] — prefiguring the “sovereignty-association” formula of René Lévesque when he broke from the Liberal party to establish the Parti Québécois. The PSQ was eclipsed by stronger independentist forces, the Rassemblement pour l’indépendance nationale and then the PQ, and disappeared before the end of the decade.

Québec sovereignty was neither then nor since a notion the NDP would willingly embrace, even as a prelude to association with Canada in some form of common state structure. As a result it was caught short by the rise and radicalization of a pro-sovereignty movement in Québec that largely isolated the party from labour and the left in the province.

The federal NDP, for a short period in the mid-1960s, supported special status for Québec as “the guardian of the French language, tradition and culture,” as did other federal parties. But when the Liberals shifted toward a new aggressive stand against Québec nationalism, the NDP backtracked as “Trudeau’s vision of individual rights, pan-Canadian bilingualism and official multiculturalism pushed the ‘two nations’ concept off the political landscape in Canada outside Québec.”[15]

When constitutional reform returned to the federal agenda, following the defeat of the 1980 referendum, the NDP’s approach was complicated by the insistence of provincial governments — including those headed by the NDP — that the process also address English Canadian regional concerns such as energy policy and Senate reform. NDP constitutional positions became increasingly incoherent as the party sought to balance regional demands with its general predilection for a strong central state.

Led by Ed Broadbent, the federal NDP supported Trudeau’s unilateral patriation of the Constitution with a new amending formula that deprived Québec of its conventional veto on constitutional change and a Charter of Rights that would reject parts of Québec’s language legislation and effectively gave the Supreme Court of Canada the power to overrule many other laws adopted by the National Assembly. Saskatchewan NDP minister Roy Romanow, drafting the final deal with Jean Chrétien through the “night of the long knives,” played an instrumental role in sabotaging the PQ government’s united front with provincial first ministers.

The federal NDP supported the 1987 Meech Lake Accord although its Québec section, led by Jean-Paul Harney, criticized Meech because it failed to accord meaningful recognition to Québec as a nation. During the three-year period for provincial ratification of the Accord, NDP support for it frittered away in the face of increasing public opposition outside Québec around a variety of issues but mostly centered on allegations that the Accord’s “distinct society” recognition of Québec would somehow abridge women’s and aboriginal rights and undermine the powers of the federal government. The Manitoba NDP drove a final nail into the Meech coffin when Elijah Harper, an aboriginal MLA, refused unanimous consent to the Accord in the legislature.

In the lead up to the Charlottetown Accord, the federal party and its three provincial governments followed different agendas. While the provinces (Ontario, Saskatchewan and British Columbia) differed among themselves on such questions as aboriginal self-government, a social charter, Senate reform, regional representation, etc., the federal party focused largely on process, arguing successfully for example for a series of regional conferences on the federal government’s proposals. The federal and Ontario NDP support for some degree of asymmetry in provincial powers proved to be a major bone of contention with the western NDP governments, which favoured equal provincial legislative powers. However, the final Accord, supported by all provincial governments, was quickly endorsed by the NDP’s Federal Council and the party agreed to join the Mulroney government’s campaign for the yes vote in a pan-Canadian referendum. This dismayed many party members, and feminists in particular helped mobilize left-wing opposition to the Accord. In the end, the Accord was defeated, not only in Québec where nationalists campaigned against it, but in many parts of English Canada.

In the 1995 Québec referendum, the NDP supported the No side just as it had in 1980, of course. But this time no one on the federalist side could credibly promise renewed federalism. And the NDP reverted to the view that economic growth and social programs could resolve the national question. However, the party was unable to evade the issue.

A Social Democratic Forum on Canada’s Future sponsored by the party in the late 1990s came up with a host of proposals for constitutional change, many of them later incorporated in the Sherbrooke Declaration, discussed below. But in 2000 the NDP parliamentary caucus voted with only two exceptions for the Clarity Bill, which makes Québec sovereignty following a successful “yes” vote contingent on agreement by the federal Parliament.

The Sherbrooke Declaration

When Jack Layton became federal leader, in 2003, he undertook to clarify and modernize the party’s thinking on Québec. In 2005, the party’s small Québec section adopted a document drafted at Layton’s request that is now commonly known as the Sherbrooke Declaration. Entitled in part “Federalism, Social-Democracy and the Québec Question,” it was subsequently endorsed by the federal NDP at a 2006 convention and is the most complete statement of the NDP’s current thinking on the constitution.[16] The document claims to offer “a new vision of federalism,” that will, if implemented, “allow Québec to embrace the Canadian constitutional framework.”

The NDP, it says, “recognizes the national character of Québec,” which “is based primarily, but not exclusively,” on a “a primarily Francophone society in which French is recognized as the language of work and the common public language,” a specific culture and sense of identity, a specific history and its political, economic, cultural and social institutions.

But it notes that Québécois efforts to “build a social and political project based on solidarity” have been “centered around the Québec State.” This concept, it says, “obviously contrasts with the vision put forward by a majority of people in the other provinces who see the federal government as their ‘national’ government and the provinces as playing a secondary role.” To enable these two “visions” of the state — the Québécois and the Canadian — to coexist, the Sherbrooke Declaration advocates “asymmetrical federalism,” which it says is “the best way to consolidate [conjuguer] the Canadian federal state with the reality of Québec’s national character.”

The NDP proposes that Québec must be allowed to opt out where the federal government intervenes in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction (as in health and social services, education, family policy, housing, municipal infrastructure, etc.) and in return to receive funding from the federal government in equivalent amounts. “No conditions or standards should be applied to Québec without its consent….” This appears to be a significant concession to the principle of Québec autonomy, although it is confined to areas in which Québec already has jurisdiction.

As the principal mechanism in its asymmetrical federalism, the Declaration falls back on an old stand-by in NDP constitutional discourse: “cooperative federalism,” which, it says, “must aim to combat the federal government’s unilateralism and ensure multilateral decisions and negotiations with a long-range outlook.” It would model its cooperative federalism on the Social Union Framework Agreement (SUFA), signed between the federal government and nine provinces — but not Québec — in 1999.

A notable feature of the Sherbrooke Declaration is its explicit recognition of “Québec’s right to self-determination,” which, it says, “implies the right of the people of Québec to decide freely its own political and constitutional future.” This can include sovereignty, but it “can also be exercised within Canada,” the Declaration notes. However, if Québec were to hold a vote on sovereignty “the NDP would recognize a majority decision (50% + 1)….”[17]

The Sherbrooke Declaration undoubtedly represents modest progress by the federal NDP in clarifying and improving its approach to Québec, notably in its pledge to recognize a simple majority vote for Québec sovereignty. However, a closer reading reveals some important ambiguities.

The statement is notable for its failure to address Québec demands for a change in its constitutional status, whether through reform or independence. It notes that most of the Declaration’s proposals can “be applied in the present context without formal constitutional reform.” In fact, the Sherbrooke Declaration can be read as an attempt to circumvent the issue of constitutional reform in favour of essentially administrative and bureaucratic approaches designed to “make federalism work.”

The NDP’s concept of “cooperative federalism” involves not a reallocation of powers but a never-ending process of policy and program negotiation between Québec and Ottawa and (in most cases) the other provinces and territories, negotiations in which Québec may and often does find itself alone arrayed against the other ten or more governments. The Declaration’s model is the SUFA, and it calls on the federal government to obtain Québec’s consent to the agreement “following negotiation and amendment” — which would presumably require consent of the other provinces as well, a process that failed in 1999. The Declaration provides no indication of how such consent might be obtained.

The SUFA, rejected by a PQ government, was criticized even by most federalists in Québec for its threats to Québec jurisdiction.[18] But a new SUFA, says the NDP, “must provide a framework for federal spending power” in areas of provincial jurisdiction. “Many Québec policies (CLSCs and other community health centres, early childcare, pharmacare, etc.) can be strengthened by the federal government.”

The document’s recognition of Québec’s right to self-determination must be read in this context. Legally formalizing how this right could be exercised “is not useful or necessary,” it says. It cites the Supreme Court statement, in its Secession Reference judgment, that the future of Québec is “ultimately a political question and not a legal one.” But the Supreme Court insisted that recognition of the legality of a Québec decision to secede would be contingent on achieving a “clear majority” on a “clear question” in a referendum — what constitutes “clear” to be determined, impliedly, by the other “partners” to the union, i.e. the federal government and the provinces. This language was incorporated in the federal Clarity Act, which in fact did formalize the process.

The Sherbrooke Declaration does not mention the Clarity Act or the NDP MPs’ support of that Act. The right of self-determination, it acknowledges, means that the Québec National Assembly should determine the content of the referendum question, but it adds that “in response to the results” of the referendum the federal government should “determine its own process in the spirit of the Supreme Court ruling and under international law.” Self-determination, by this interpretation, appears to be part of a strategy aimed primarily at avoiding its exercise!

The Sherbrooke Declaration limits its attention largely to demands (“special status,” “asymmetry,” “opting out,” “compensation”) that Québec has raised defensively as an oppressed minority nation primarily concerned with fending off unwanted federal intrusions on its vital jurisdictions. It is cast as a strategy for winning Québec acceptance of a federal union even before any constitutional guarantees of its national character have been achieved. It substitutes inter-governmental bargaining and accords for any form of popular participation (for example, the constituent assembly the party has occasionally proposed) that might re-conceptualize a genuine federalism.

The NDP cannot be faulted for recognizing the practical impossibility in today’s conditions of altering Québec’s status through constitutional amendment. But it shares some blame for this impasse, above all because the party has made little effort over the years to re-imagine the national question by engaging with labour and the left in Québec, and to educate around these questions in the Rest of Canada.

It is noteworthy that the NDP’s support of constitutional reforms opposed by unions in Québec has embarrassed its cothinkers in the CLC leadership. In 1993, following the defeat of the Charlottetown Accord, the CLC signed an agreement with the FTQ that essentially gave the Québec federation the status of an autonomous trade-union central in Québec. CLC and FTQ leaders then showcased the agreement, which postal union leader Jean-Claude Parrot says established a relationship of sovereignty-association,[19] as a model for Canadian federalism! During the 1995 Québec referendum, CLC leader Bob White “publicly declared that Québec had the right to self-determination and that, in the event that Québec did choose sovereignty, the rest of Canada would be obliged to calmly and reasonably negotiate the terms of secession.” And in 2000 the CLC broke ranks with the NDP parliamentary caucus by “taking a principled stand in opposition to the Clarity Act.”[20]

A new direction?

The NDP appears to have greeted its 2011 electoral breakthrough as proof that its overall course needs little amendment. No policy changes were proposed in either the June 2011 federal convention or in the seven-month long leadership contest following Layton’s untimely death. Some stumbling by MPs on issues of particular concern to Québec — the party’s initial indifference to Harper’s appointment of an auditor general and Supreme Court judge who were not bilingual — was attributed to simple negligence, while the award of a multibillion dollar shipbuilding contract to east and west coast contractors, overlooking Québec’s distressed shipbuilding facilities, went uncriticized by the parliamentary caucus. When the English media revealed interim leader Nycole Turmel’s membership in the Bloc Québécois and Québec solidaire, and pressured the party to outlaw such indications of sympathy for Québec sovereignty, the party did not defend her. There is a danger in this.

MP Alexandre Boulerice, who is a member of both the NDP and Québec solidaire, told Le Devoir[21] that he saw no contradiction in membership in both parties as the question of Québec’s status “will be settled in Québec.” While this is consistent with the Sherbrooke Declaration, it seems naive in light of the ample evidence that any yes vote or revival of the independence movement will be met with fierce resistance by Ottawa — for which the NDP and its members seem totally unprepared.[22]

Unfortunately, the NDP has no process by which programmatic issues like these can be debated and decided democratically by the membership as a whole. It publishes no journals, maintains no general media for internal policy debate, and conducts no ongoing education. It is typical for a three-day policy convention to spend less than a day in total on program debate, the rest of the agenda being devoted largely to official speeches, organizational matters and entertainment. At the base, the party is largely an electoral machine, a “party of the ballot box,” the membership mobilized solely for fund-raising and getting out the vote.

The last — and virtually only — major party debate on the NDP’s programmatic orientation occurred more than 40 years ago, when the “Waffle” organized around a Manifesto for an Independent Socialist Canada.[23] The Manifesto called for the NDP to become “the parliamentary wing of a movement dedicated to fundamental social change.” Echoing the anti-imperialist and participatory democracy themes of the youth radicalization of the Sixties, it sought to reconcile its Canadian nationalism with Québec nationalism, proposing to ally with Québécois in building a “united Canada” that alone could save the country from “American control.” At the 1971 NDP convention that elected David Lewis federal leader, the Waffle candidate Jim Laxer received about 40% of the delegate votes on the final ballot. But when its supporters began to organize for their views among workers in the steel and auto unions in the Ontario industrial heartland, the provincial NDP leadership, egged on by union officials, moved to ban the Waffle — effectively prohibiting party members from organizing around coherent policy positions that challenged what the party’s leadership considered their fundamental program. This bitter fight chilled debate in the NDP for many years afterwards.

In fact, the NDP suffers from a chronic deficit of rank-and-file democracy. Day-to-day policy, including on issues of major importance, is set by the parliamentary caucus or, where the party forms the government, the cabinet. Both the caucus and the cabinet can ignore decisions by other party leadership bodies; for example, in 2000 the federal caucus supported the Clarity Act despite the Federal Council’s opposition to it. And in recent years, federal legislation (supported by the NDP) banning union donations to parties and requiring the separation of federal and provincial parties has enhanced the institutional strength and independence of the caucus and the party leader by distancing them from the federal party’s traditional power brokers, the major unions and provincial NDP sections and leaders.[24] The federal NDP, like some provincial sections, has adopted a “one member one vote” (OMOV) system that accords no special status to convention delegates from affiliated unions. At the same time, of course, the party’s new dependency on public funding for political parties makes it less independent of the state.

Bay Street, the Alberta oil titans, and Canada’s ruling class as a whole can rest assured. With Thomas Mulcair at the helm, the federal NDP will likely continue the shift to the right that it was taking under Jack Layton. A former minister in Jean Charest’s Liberal government and before that an attorney for Alliance Québec, he had angered solidarity and union activists prior to his leadership bid by his support of Israel and of NAFTA. In 2008 Mulcair, along with Layton and his runner-up rival for the party leadership Brian Topp, was one of the architects of the coalition agreement with the Liberals led by Stéphane Dion. Although a formal pact with the Liberals is not now in the offing, there is no secret about NDP readiness to ally with Liberals if that will help ease their way into government. The party’s enhanced governmental prospects will no doubt attract a substantial layer of career politicians as resource personnel and potential candidates, bolstering opportunist tendencies within the party.

It must be acknowledged that the Harper government’s right-wing agenda leaves Mulcair and the NDP considerable space to manoeuvre in the centre of the political spectrum. Furthermore, they are under little pressure on the left from social movements or trade unions, especially in English Canada. Meeting just one week after the May 2011 election, the Canadian Labour Congress listed “connecting with the NDP” as just one of the five “strategic” political priorities in its Action Plan: to “maintain our historical … relationship of working with the New Democratic Party as the best choice of working people.” Hardly a ringing endorsement. However, the NDP has spoken out strongly in Parliament against the government’s legislation banning strikes and imposing arbitration on post office, airline and railway workers.

As for activists in the social movements, they clearly loath the Tories and greet the NDP’s victories but expectations are few that the party will qualitatively advance their causes. For many, an NDP vote continues to be a way to express opposition to the right-wing direction of Canadian politics. But it contributes little to building the needed culture of class solidarity that alone can point the way beyond capitalist oppression and exploitation.

Richard Fidler blogs at Lefe on the Left. A French version of this article, addressed to a Québécois readership, is published in the current issue of the left journal Nouveaux Cahiers du Socialisme devoted to “La question canadienne,” a critical analysis of the “Harper revolution.”


[1] In April 2011 the Québec NDP had only 1,700 members. As of mid-February 2012, the Québec membership was 12,266, still a distant third behind British Columbia and Ontario with more than 35,000 each. Total Canadian membership was 128,351, an increase of more than 40 percent from the previous year as a result of recruitment during the party’s leadership contest.

[2] By this point the CP had adopted the “Third Period” ultraleft sectarian line of the now-Stalinized Communist International and turned to denouncing the Labour MPs and social democrats as “social fascists,” the “third party of capitalism,” rejecting united action with them for common objectives. As a result, what was then the largest body of organized Marxists in Canada left the field to the reformist Social Democrats to lead this process of labour-socialist unity.

[3] Both the Regina Manifesto and the Winnipeg Declaration are published as appendices to Walter D. Young, The Anatomy of a Party: The National CCF, 1932-61 (University of Toronto Press, 1969).

[4] Bryan Evans, “From Protest Movement to Neoliberal Management: Canada’s New Democratic Party in the Era of Permanent Austerity,” in Evans & Schmidt (ed.), Social Democracy After the Cold War (Edmonton: AU Press, 2012), p. 45.

[5] Ibid., p. 22.

[6] See in particular Donald Swartz and Rosemary Warskett, “Canadian Labour and the Crisis of Solidarity,” in Ross & Savage (ed.), Rethinking the Politics of Labour in Canada (Halifax: Fernwood Publishing, 2012), pp. 22-25.

[7] Keith Archer, Political Choices and Electoral Consequences: A Study of Organized Labour and the New Democratic Party (Montréal: McGill–Queen’s University Press, 1990), various chapters. Statistics on union-party organizational links are more elusive now, as a result of changes in the laws governing election and party funding. Federal NDP officials were unable to respond to my requests for more up-to-date information; however, it is unlikely that there has been any major increase in affiliation since the mid-1980s.

[8] Bryan Evans, “The New Democratic Party in the Era of Neoliberalism,” in Ross & Savage, op. cit., p. 57.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Larry Savage, “Contemporary Party-Union Relations in Canada,” 35 Labor Studies Journal 1 (March 2010), p. 15.

[11] Ross & Savage, op. cit., p. 58.


[13] Murray Cooke, “Constitutional Confusion on the Left: The NDP’s Position in Canada’s Constitutional Debates,” p. 3. A draft paper, available at Quoted here with the author’s permission. Cooke’s paper is the most comprehensive critical review of the evolution of the NDP’s constitutional positions prior to the Sherbrooke Declaration. Useful accounts of the party’s relation to the Québec question in its early years may be found in Roch Denis, Luttes de classes et question nationale au Québec, 1948-1968 (Presses socialistes internationalistes, 1979); and André Lamoureux, Le NPD et le Québec, 1958-1985 (Éditions du Parc, 1985).

[14] Programme du Parti Socialiste du Québec,

[15] Cooke, op. cit., p. 9.

[16] To my knowledge, the federal NDP has never published the Sherbrooke Declaration, although it was frequently cited in the Québec media during the 2011 campaign. A few NDP candidates in Québec linked to it on their web sites. The version cited here was published bilingually by Pierre Ducasse when he ran unsuccessfully for the NDP in Hull-Aylmer in the 2008 federal election.


[17] This commitment was reiterated in January 2013, when Toronto NDP MP Craig Scott introduced Bill C-470, An Act respecting democratic constitutional change. For a critique, see “The NDP revisits the Clarity Act.”

[18] See, for example, Claude Ryan, “The agreement on the Canadian social union as seen by a Québec federalist,” Inroads No. 8, May 1999, pp. 27-43. Appended to Ryan’s article is the text of the agreement. The French text of the SUFA is available at (see Appendix III).

[19] My Union, My Life, Jean-Claude Parrot and the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (Fernwood Publishing, 2005), p. 291.

[20] Larry Savage, “Organized Labour and Constitutional Reform,” 60 Labour/Le Travail 137-170, at pp. 168-69.

[21] May 7, 2012, p. 1.

[22] Boulerice told me in August 2012 that he and other NDP MPs have dropped any memberships they had in Québec solidaire. Federal leader Thomas Mulcair has indicated more than once his intention to establish a federalist provincial section of the NDP in Quebec that would compete with QS.


[24] Murray Cooke, “Layton’s Legacy and the NDP Leadership Race,” The Bullet, September 22, 2011,accessed August 1, 2012.


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