Liberal minorities have set the stage for some of our biggest progressive achievements; now we have another chance.

Historically, Liberal minorities where the NDP holds the balance of power have coughed up some of the biggest, enduring concessions to social movements—from medicare in the 1960s to billions for housing and transit in 2005.

The 2019-21 minority didn’t have the clear-cut feeling of generating a progressive victory. The NDP was scared of an election call and didn’t mobilize public support for popular demands like dental care, fare-free transit or building social and cooperative housing. Social movements, not at their strongest to begin with, were fragmented and distracted by the pandemic.

During that time, the NDP made demands that fed into things that the Liberals likely wanted to do anyway. CERB did help people, but injected money that prevented mortgage defaults that could have deflated the housing bubble. CEWS helped businesses stay afloat but also transferred billions to the biggest corporations with minimal oversight.

It’s fair to say that this approach should not be repeated.

The Liberals did introduce a new childcare plan, seemingly without much prompting from the NDP. But it’s clear that a Liberal majority government would not have done so. Desperate and weak Liberal governments are more motivated and more progressive. 

Now, for the first time since the Pearson governments in the 1960s, Canada has elected successive Liberal minorities with the NDP holding the balance of power. Lightning has struck twice, and social movements now have a second chance to take advantage and replicate some of the big gains of the past.

The top tier of the NDP leadership suffers from a deep-seated drive to solicit support from the corporate sector, via the diversionary concept of “small business”. In spite of the available grab bag of progessive campaign pledges (pharmacare, publicly-owned telecommunications providers, dental care, and others), support for “businesses,” left unchecked, could again sneak its way to the top of the NDP’s legislative agenda.

While there are many leftist MPs in the party, their influence is greatest when external forces create a climate that empowers their voices.

That means that any big demands will have to come from the grassroots. A concerted push that results in legislation being tabled would involve a coast-to-coast days of action, demonstrations, educational events, direct action, articles, debates, policy research, and pressure campaigns targeting key players. 

But can dozens of national groups, hundreds of community organizations and organizing groups, and hundreds of thousands of individuals get aligned on one or two priorities?

The window for action is short. 

When Medicare for all was adopted by Pearson’s Liberals, it was a policy that had been implemented provincially, had a critical mass of civil society behind it, and was fueling a clear and present electoral threat to the Liberals in the form of the Federal NDP. 

Campaigns with the best chances at success are those that have already been active for a few years.

Some candidates for transformative legislation include:

  • Free and expanded public transit—already an NDP priority, it has groups across the country actively campaigning for it. Its adoption would deliver disproportionate benefits to working class and poor people, and its advancement could help call the Liberals’ bluff on their climate rhetoric.
  • Land Back—while the TRC calls to action and MMIWG Inquiry’s calls for justice remain crucial, shifting control of vast “crown lands” to Indigenous governance and stewardship would cut to the core of the colonial policies that have driven centuries of grievous harm to Indigenous people, and unleash a new kind of positive, sustainable rural economic development not ruled by the short term profit-seeking of a few extractive giants.
  • Delivering Community Power—postal workers have been campaigning for years to transform Canada Post into a hub for rebuilding disadvantaged communities in urban and rural areas through banking services, economic development, zero-carbon energy generation and transportation, and communications services. Their early successes could provide a toehold for a shift in perspective in Conservative strongholds and take the fight to places where support for the People’s Party of Canada is on the rise. (Full disclosure: the author was involved in the first phase of this campaign.)
  • Pharmacare, dental care, mental healthcare, and vision care—these have been mainstays of the federal NDP platform, but the party has done little to mobilize people outside of electoral cycles to make them a litmus test for progressive governance. There’s an opportunity to grow a grassroots coalition that can wield power, but we know the impetus won’t come from the top tier of party leaders.
  • Telecommunications—everyone hates their phone company, and we know that the last remaining public provider, SaskTel, provides better service and lower prices despite serving one of the lowest-density areas in the country. The NDP membership and Jagmeet Singh have already made noises in this direction. At a time when pandemic restrictions lock in the digital divide, nationalizing some or all of the telecommunications network could provide a rallying cry and inspire new policy horizons in other areas. 
  • A Green New Deal—though keeping things “achievable” is good, it could be argued that now is not the time to think small, and instead focus on a massive green jobs program administered by a new Crown corporation dedicated to drastically decarbonizing infrastructure and commerce while creating hundreds of thousands of homes, millions of living-wage jobs and remaking the economy. As usual, the NDP has elements of such a plan in its platform, but spent little of its $24 million election budget promoting them.

The Quebec Student Strike of 2012—one of the biggest and most successful confrontations with neoliberalism in our recent history—owes some of its success to the little-known “Red Hand Coalition”. La coalition main rouge brought together 140 feminist, union and student groups, and made the decision early in 2012 to back the students in their struggle against hikes in tuition fees. That didn’t mean those groups dropped their own struggles, but every group agreed to help boost what they saw as a strategic campaign. The decision opened lines of support and communication deep into civil society, extending far beyond student circles. It was a critical precursor to the society-wide mobilization that ensued, toppling the provincial government , repelling an austerity measure affecting students, and unleashing a popular political awakening.

There is no formal equivalent to the Red Hand Coalition in the rest of Canada. But if one or more demands gains critical momentum, it will be through a combination of energetic campaigning, effective persuasion and timely alliances. We won’t have the satisfaction of a grand assembly ratifying a final decision, but everyone from individuals to independent media can help the process by reflecting critically early and lending support to a demand that gains momentum—even if it wasn’t a first choice or a core priority.

An equally likely option is that no key demand emerges, and most people and organizations wait for someone else to step into a leadership role. In situations like this, the reaction of many social movement actors is to wait for leadership from legislators, while MPs are disciplined by their caucus and disempowered by the lack of social movement activity.

It’s impossible to know what sequence of events will lead to bold and transformative changes that give social movements new foundations to build on in the future. Whether it’s by encouraging, discussing, participating, amplifying and proposing, everyone can create favourable conditions for the forces that will drive that change to grow.

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