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We Need a Citizens’ Assembly For a Just Transition

Citizens’ assemblies could be the key to solving some of the most intractable political problems of our time

COVID-19Social Movements

Over 300,000 people took to the streets of New York on September 21, 2014 to demand action on climate change. Photo by John Minchillo/Flickr.

The social movements that have so altered the political landscape over the last few decades—from climate justice to Indigenous activism—all reflect a convergence of political consciousness that holds promise for the future. That future has now been unexpectedly thrust upon us by the COVID-19 crisis and its associated economic collapse.

The pandemic has exposed the shaky foundations of the edifice of capitalism. It has destroyed the credibility of the system, and proven the inability of the free market and globalized capitalism to meet basic human needs. As a result, we have entered into an era where the heightened consciousness of civil society is widening the popular understanding of what is possible in the midst of an existential global crisis.

Our proposal—a citizens’ assembly for a just transition—comes in the context of recent social, economic, and ecological struggles that have contributed to a heightened level of political consciousness in Canada and around the world.

The mobilization of diverse communities around issues like the climate crisis and Indigenous sovereignty has resulted in overlapping and intersectional struggles leading to widening solidarity. As was the case with the Occupy movement, escalating engagement in political action during the last decade has given rise to some exciting and radical proposals. The Leap Manifesto and calls for a Green New Deal, to name only two, represent a powerful anti-capitalist dynamic that fuses elements of social, economic and environmental justice. What is particularly remarkable is that young people, often blamed for their lethargy or disinterest in world affairs, have formed the backbone of these movements and the passionate and often semi-spontaneous waves of protest they have inspired.

Indeed, this growing trend of politicization is widespread. Organizations like Leap, the Democratic Socialists of America, Momentum, the Sunrise Movement, Extinction Rebellion, the Courage Coalition and a host of university divestment campaigns have helped to spur mass demonstrations, political mobilizations, international climate strikes, and occupations. They have also done this by utilizing innovative means of organization through digital technology, especially social media, which has generated a plethora of radical sites and alternative information sources. A landscape of resistance has replaced a culture of defeat.

Despite all this, and the crossover of activist participants, the coordination among these groups has too often tended to be episodic and diffuse. Simultaneous cross-country protests and coordinated campaigns against the Trans Mountain pipeline, for example, have been largely spontaneous and lacking a unified mandate from an acknowledged leadership group. Localized actions, while often militant and inspiring, have tended to dominate the agenda. This is so despite the proven capacity to engage in mass actions such as the hundreds of thousands in Quebec who demonstrated against a proposed pipeline across their territory last year, or the tens of thousands of students in Ontario who protested government changes to their curriculum. These manifestations of united, militant action arose from an escalation of political consciousness and a renewed sense of agency that have had game-changing impacts on the political landscape.

The COVID-19 pandemic and the economic crisis it has created has exposed the total dependence of the wealthy on cheap labour and the state to deal with the messy details of holding the edifice of capitalism together. What’s more, the pandemic has dramatically and decisively stripped credibility from the traditional ideological shibboleths of the capitalist system. Those who have upheld the alleged inefficiency of state enterprises, argued for austerity to balance budgets, and celebrated the ‘accomplishments’ of consumerism and individual greed, simply do not have a leg to stand on.

As a result, we have entered into an era of profound disorientation. This is happening at the very same time when important constituents of civil society have become politicized and developed heightened social awareness. This is a unique moment in Canadian history. It has great potential, but requires a transformation in the popular imagination of what is possible.

The COVID-19 pandemic, whose final outcome is still full of uncertainty, has also shone a spotlight on the neglected inequalities and deficiencies of current governments in numerous countries throughout the world. Capitalist regimes have scrambled to address the blows to the economy and the safety and health needs of the populace as a whole. Everything is turned on its head. That which was proscribed by mainstream institutions of government, business and media—the ideology of balanced budgets and the supremacy of the market—has now been bypassed in the public consciousness.

Workers are being paid to stay at home; huge injections of money have been allocated to put social services and health care on a footing akin to a war. Those who are regarded as indispensable are not stockbrokers or day traders. Service workers, nurses, personal care workers, janitorial staff, caregivers, all either underpaid or overlooked, are now termed heroes deserving hazard pay. But the hazard is not only to their own safety; it is also a hazard to a social system which has turned to collective action, state intervention and social measures to preserve the health and safety of the working class which it must do so that it can extract surplus profit from its labour.

The current conjuncture has resulted in the bourgeoning of a developing class consciousness. The contradictions of capitalism have been exposed so broadly that even reactionary politicians are hesitant to speak about a “return to normal” since normalcy has been revealed to have caused the problem. The need for change is universally accepted. But the big questions remain: What changes are needed? And in whose interests?

Graffiti on the streets of Durban, highlighting water as a human right. Photo by Victor Sguassero/Greenpeace.

The time is ripe to bring civil society together to push for a fundamental reset of our economic system. The path forward will not be linear. Many establishment politicians are relishing their roles as perceived saviors and providers of financial security while basking in the daily media coverage which dutifully reports on their neo-Keynesian measures. While still inadequate, these programs, like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), now make a mockery of erstwhile calls for austerity.

The failure of capitalism to respond decisively to save lives is so stark that few are seriously suggesting a return to “business as usual”. Critical questions must be asked. Governments handing out billions of dollars will not find it easy to sell austerity or to make workers pay the price for a disaster that resulted from placing immediate profit before long-term human needs.

There are already incipient signs of a fresh combativeness in the class struggle. Thousands are refusing unsafe work. Across Canada, those in “essential” jobs are fighting governments and businesses to obtain personal protective equipment (PPE). Legions of homeless people are demanding and finally being given housing, albeit too slowly and only temporarily. Tenants are organizing. Salaries and wages are being augmented, though insufficiently, to acknowledge hazard pay. Networks of informal support for vulnerable persons are sprouting. Protests and demands from workers in the gig economy have resulted in their inclusion in federal support and wage subsidy programs, in some instances. Prisoners have gone on strike and succeeded in getting access to sanitizers and masks, as have their guards. The US has also witnessed well over 150 strikes since the start of March. On such fertile soil, more protests and social movements will soon bloom and flower.

None of this, of course, will necessarily lead to the vast and revolutionary reconfigurations needed to upend the neoliberal capitalist system. To seize the historic moment, we need to initiate a broad and inclusive discussion that will allow us to share our stories, to describe our experiences, to exchange our views, and to consider alternatives that will adequately address the needs of the majority.

The momentum for a post-pandemic reset can be channelled at first into local town halls, appealing to specific social sectors to make their priorities known: Indigenous peoples, workers and unions, racialized groups, feminist collectives, professional associations, farmers and agricultural workers, tenants’ associations, municipalities, cultural organizations, migrant workers, immigrants, students, political parties, LGBTQ+ groups, and others. Local meetings between these groups could initiate bold proposals, eventually bringing them to a pan-Canadian assembly where they can be presented, debated and reformulated. The Leap, 350.org and several other groups have already proposed visions of an alternative reset for Canada reflecting our collective needs and rights.

We need to come together to debate these progressive ideas and proposals. And we need to create a common understanding among the participants and the constituencies they represent. Unity is key to achieving the goal of a humane and caring system, where our political actors are not captured by corporate forces. We need to come together, like fingers coiled to make a fist, to be able to assert the force needed to achieve lasting change that values lives above profits.

There are numerous historical precedents for the formation of constituent assemblies during periods of dramatic change. The Patriots in 1837; the decision of Newfoundland to join Canada in the late 1940s; the proposal made by the États-généreux in 1966-69 when the Parti Québécois took power in Quebec; the Citizens’ Forum on Canada’s Future in 1990; or the NDP’s support for a popular assembly before the Beaudoin-Edwards Committee in 1990-91. There are just a few of the precedents we can look back on.

In 2005, Option Citoyenne leader Pierre Dostie, who helped found Québec solidaire in 2006, called, in the pages of Canadian Dimension and elsewhere, for a constituent assembly in Quebec to determine its future.

Major disruptions frequently give rise to popular assemblies. Delegates from all regions and walks of life join together in a transparent process. This takes the shaping of our collective future out of the hands of opaque, elitist and exclusionary parliamentary actors, and places it into those of ordinary people through a direct form of public democracy.

The COVID-19 crisis presents a remarkable opportunity to realize a post-pandemic Canada in the interests of the many through unity and action. Without social solidarity, fundamental change will be impossible. Moreover, the institutions of capitalism are sure to be gearing up for a post-pandemic period of austerity. To achieve fundamental change, we need to find a unified voice and to coalesce around and embrace a historic project of democratic decision-making. Are we up to it?

Harry Kopyto is a retired legal advocate who lives in Toronto. He is a member of the Courage Coalition and New Democrats for Leap.

Gord Doctorow lives in Toronto and is an active member of the Courage Coalition. His interests lie in socialist and labour politics. Before retirement, Gord was on the editorial committee of the Toronto branch of the Ontario Secondary Schools Teachers’ Federation.

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