When Canada’s Liberal Party is forced to seek support from other parties, opportunities for social movements to secure tangible gains abound.
Improvements to the Liberals’ stated priorities—like housing costs, child care, climate and the self-determination of Indigenous people—are usually imagined by movements and impacted people as systemic changes that directly confront those profiting from the crises themselves.
Liberals tend to conceive of “solutions” quite differently. The appearance of action is typically elevated above other measures. Members of Parliament are deeply susceptible to pressure from corporate lobbyists and business interests with an interest in continuing to profit from everything from fossil fuel extraction to loopholes that help hide corporate cash offshore.
As movements attempt to build power to confront these crises, what considerations and lessons should they keep in mind? The Breach spoke to five organizers—John Clarke, Archana Rampure, Syed Hussan, Rebecca Sinclair, and Chris Gusan—about strategic opportunities afforded by a minority government.
With the exception of Archana Rampure, these responses were recorded before the recently-announced Liberal-NDP deal. However, their insights are applicable beyond the specifics of any particular configuration of Parliament. Answers have been edited for clarity and length, and each response has an accompanying audio clip.
John Clarke, formerly Ontario Coalition Against Poverty
In the realm of housing, it is the Liberal Party that played the absolutely decisive role in pulling the federal government—which then led the provinces to follow suit—to pull out of the provision of social housing. The lion’s share of this situation is really in the lap of the Liberal Party, not the Conservatives.
Today, I think that the political uncertainty of the Liberal Party is probably the same as what faces the Democrats in the US, who find themselves experiencing a similar kind of situation. The parties of the neoliberal centre have become incredibly discredited. So Trudeau clings to power, again as a minority regime, really by default, because a clear enough alternative hasn’t been created that will move people towards it. The Conservative Party is in disarray in various ways. I would argue that the New Democratic Party suffers from a perennial inability to put enough daylight between itself and the neoliberal centre.
This creates a situation of a minority government and some people see in that, an incredible opportunity in and of itself.
This is the second time around with a Liberal minority government. Yes, the NDP put a bit of pressure and there were some pandemic related measures that happened—measures that probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise—minor concessions were made. But fundamentally, the Liberals proceeded with their agenda.
They have dismantled the somewhat elevated income protection support that they gave during the period of the pandemic lockdown. Today, they are moving to implement an agenda that will be highlighly exploitative and regressive.
It may be that a minority government, inherently unstable, gives a potential advantage to an ascendant and powerful social movement. If we had rejuvenated trade unions, and social movements that are massive and powerful, the political crisis of a minority Liberal government would be advantageous.
Archana Rampure, Canadian Union of Public Employees
(Interview conducted by Dru Oja Jay)
I’m a fan of knowing that we have stability for four years. It lets us move from always being ready to campaign, to actually having the time to try and get our ideas put into action by politicians. Stability where we still have a little bit of an edge on the government of the day is a good thing.
A big deal for us is funding for public services. Every budget that comes up is an opportunity and a test of how successful we’ve been in making the case, both to the politicians, but also to the public. Health care—and by that, I mean, the broadest interpretation of health care, long term care, acute care, dental, pharmaceutical—all of that is a huge priority. I think the pandemic has brought into public focus things that those in the health sector have always known. We are so badly underfunded. And that has given the right an opportunity to say, “public delivery of health care doesn’t work for Canada, we need to look at privatization.”
Another big one is our crumbling infrastructure. There’s a lot of pressure from banks and wealthy investors who see this as an opportunity to grab infrastructure funding and make a profit. It’s an opportunity for us to push public funding, which makes all the difference in how infrastructure is designed—and actually delivered.
Most would agree that the greatest challenge is climate change, but the delivery of public health care, the delivery of public services, infrastructure funding, all of that has a huge impact on climate change. So I think that’s an opportunity for us as well.
I spent so many of my first years doing political action work with our membership. The distance between local conditions and federal policy can seem vast. Your most immediate concerns are, you know, who’s paying you? What kind of shelter do you have? What kind of public transit? So attention is drawn towards municipal and provincial issues.
Most people when they think of the federal government think, okay, military spending. One of the things I think we need to talk about is how much federal transfers matter to the provision of services. The federal government still collects the vast majority of taxes Canadians pay and decides how they’re spent.
Because of the war in Ukraine, people are paying more attention to foreign policy, and I see it as an opportunity to talk about things beyond the war. The pandemic is the greatest disaster that was visited upon all of us, not just in Canada, but across the world. One thing that is critical, but doesn’t get a lot of attention, is how much we are a part of a global system of vaccine inequity.
Everybody wants to get out of the pandemic. But the single biggest thing we can do as a country to get us and everybody else out of the pandemic is to focus on getting vaccines to people who don’t have access to them. That’s something that no municipality or no provincial or territorial government can do—that is a responsibility of the federal government.
Syed Hussan, Migrant Workers Alliance
Struggle is a calculation of your balance of forces. What are the objective conditions that you find yourself in? What are the social forces, or the social conditions that we can develop on our end? When you understand that balance, you can determine what you can win.
The objective conditions include the political parties that are in power.
In this current context, with the configuration of the ruling class as it is and the absence of counter institutions, the social movement response has to simultaneously be waging campaigns against and for: against the existing social status quo that is hurting our people, but in that process, for building the political consciousness of people.
The fight is not enough. I mean it at every level. People will go to a protest outside of Members of Parliament offices and say look how great we are, we did a protest. The message is not, look, we did a protest and it didn’t work. We march on the streets and a reportback comes out and it doesn’t say, “look we did this and it is amazing, but it is not enough.”
We are missing moments—opportunities to raise political consciousness around what it would take to actually win.
If we think about this in a cycle, we could say: there could be a Conservative Party government for six or eight years after this period. What will come after that? We can’t win this next one, but in [several] years, how can we be in a better situation to win our demands? What would it take?
For those who believe that it needs to happen through electing a political party—alright, so how are you going to create, or take over, a political party? For those who believe that it is going to happen through freeing up vast tracts of the country from Canada, liberating them, creating semi-autonomous zones, how will that happen?
And I say this within the context of this cycle, because we have a clock of a few decades on the environment, which is enough to give us a very serious pause. I would urge everybody to make 20-year plans. Not alone, but with organizations and institutions. And start, you know, very clearly assessing how that will happen. And as far as we’re concerned that is what we’re doing, because this is a fight of generations, and I think that we need to build the capacity of the next generation to fight better and how to succeed, by creating institutions that are resilient and capable, so that they have a fighting chance.
Rebecca Sinclair, Indigenous Climate Action
Today we as Indigenous people are still playing in their sandboxes. That’s a phrase I have heard several times from elders and traditional knowledge holders. Basically, it feels like you have invited us to your sandbox with your rules and told us that we are important but not important enough for you to actually make us feel safe, or give us access to any of the toys, so to speak.
I think that this analogy is important to differentiate how the climate policy plans are being put into place in Canada right now.
Today, part of the rhetoric that is happening with the NDP and with the Liberals, should be seen in this context. So in reality a lot of these plans, a lot of the effort put forward by any political party is really weighted on the economics of the things. It is the sexiness of the economics at play, Bay Street’s priorities and investor priorities, that takes precedence.
This is how a lot of our organizing and actions get diminished.
This is the origin point of a lot of that talk around claims about Indigenous people not wanting jobs, or even poor people in general not wanting jobs, claims that such communities don’t want to support the economy. But this is not true at all!
When I reflect back on the work that we do, the efforts that we are making, I have to centre myself around my traditional teachings and centre myself around what the goal is. The goal is not to dismantle all of Canadian politics—I don’t think that is the goal of most people.
So I bring it back to this inherent duty, this responsibility to the land. It is never going to matter who is in the seat, whether it is the Conservatives, the NDP, or the Liberals, whoever is making those decisions. It is never going to matter because it is still a patriarchal system, it is still a system built on oppression, and we haven’t been making changes to that system.
There is a duality to this situation, there are small changes that we can make. We can have more and more people accepting whose land and territory they are on, which has become an embedded part of many organizations in Canada now and that is a small, small victory, because that doesn’t mean Land Back, that just means acknowledgment.
Today, we are seeing this play out through the TRC, through calls to action, through the Truth and Reconciliation process, that are all carrying words that are coming into our youths’ minds who are going to be the leaders of those changes.
This is the important part: how we navigate the education of our youth and how they are going to be the leaders of a larger change that will take generations.
Chris Gusen, 350.org Canada
I think that there are a lot of possibilities for organizing at this moment. Many people feel the crisis, whether they are focused on environmental concerns, the climate, or if they are angered around the government mishandling the pandemic, or experiencing the rising inequality that we are facing as a society.
So more and more people are waking up to this crisis and realizing that something has to give, we are certainly seeing that in terms of our base and the people that we engage with in the public.
There are people every week who take action, who haven’t taken action before, who then reach out to ask about how to get involved, so there is definitely a reality of people looking forward ways to be part of mass movements and to find ways to be part of a challenge to a status quo that is not going to cut it and is not getting us through these moments of crisis.
Right now we are really focused on the Just Transition Act which is a specific promise that Justin Trudeau made in 2019. The way that we view it is that there can be no effective climate policy in Canada unless it is paired with just transition policy. We are not going to move as quickly as we need to move, as science has said we need to move, until we put programs in place to make sure that we have the backing of workers and people at the community based level.
The change that is coming is going to be disruptive, whether we like it or not. There is a chance to really push the government on that. If they are calling themselves climate leaders, are they going to back that up with a concrete plan to get at the root of the problem, which is the continued production, extraction and burning of fossil fuels?