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Issue 53

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Issue 53, Jan/Feb 2001

Canadian election masks discontent

    Bloc Québécois suffers losses
    NDP no longer represents working-class interests

The Canadian Liberals coasted to a third consecutive federal election victory in November's snap election. But this only served to conceal the increased anger that is growing against establishment politics, argue JASON BAINES and NIALL MULHOLLAND.

CANADA'S LIBERAL PARTY now commands 172 seats out of 301 seats in the federal parliament, after winning 42% of the vote in November's general election. None of the opposition parties came close to ending the rule of Jean Chretien, the Liberal prime minister.

The former reformist workers' party, the New Democratic Party (NDP), only managed to win 13 seats (down from 21 in 1997), the Quebec separatist Bloc Québécois captured 38 (down from 44), and the Progressive Conservatives won twelve (from 20). The far-right, populist Canadian Alliance, formed early in 2000, although it increased its seats from 60 in the outgoing parliament to 66 this time, was unable to win clear support outside rural western Canada.

The Canadian Alliance leader, Stockwell Day, promotes extreme Christian fundamentalism, opposing lesbian and gay rights, and a woman's right to choose on abortion. He is opposed to the theory of evolution and wants creationism brought back into schools. Previously he taught pupils that 'Jews are children of the devil', while working as a teacher in Christian colleges.

The Canadian Alliance was meant to be a fusion between the Tories and the Reform Party, a right-wing western Canada party. In reality, only a handful of Tories joined it, not enough to break the Liberal stronghold in Quebec, Ontario and the eastern provinces. The Alliance's repugnant far-right ideas were at this stage unable to make gains in the strong working-class and ethnically diverse urban centres. However, the advent of a deep economic crisis and increased cynicism towards 'traditional' parties could see their support increase, unless a mass socialist alternative is built.


top     Bloc Québécois suffers losses

THE LIBERALS WERE even able to make gains in the French-speaking province of Quebec at the expense of Bloc Québécois. A combination of cuts by the provincial Parti Québécois government of Lucien Bouchard, and a weary mood amongst many workers that the national question has dominated political life in Quebec for too long, led to a setback for the Bloc.

There is a split developing in the Quebec independence movement between those campaigning for a new referendum on 'sovereignty' and the majority wing who will wait for 'winning conditions'. The working class correctly treats the opportunist and reactionary nationalism of the bosses' parties with increased scepticism and suspicion. That does not mean that nationalism - or rather the struggle for an independent Quebec - is in terminal decline, far from it. In conditions of economic recession and with increased unemployment, the national question can re-ignite in an explosive manner. Only a mass socialist party committed to genuine self-determination - an independent socialist Quebec as part of a democratic and voluntary socialist confederation of Quebec and Canada - can provide a solution.

The mainstream capitalist parties, which now include the NDP (a poll in the election reported that today's NDP voters are the wealthiest in Canada!), have never been more alike. The lack of choice for Canadians is reflected in the continuing fall in voter turnout. Ten years ago, voter turnout averaged 75-80%. It has currently dropped to 60%, although this figure does not tell the whole truth: some estimates set the turnout at 50% because so many people are not registered to vote. This is a stunning condemnation of the system. In the words of Buzz Hargrove, national president of the Canadian Autoworkers Union (CAW), 'not voting is the second-biggest party'.


The major parties agree on tax cuts, balanced budgets, and 'private-partnerships' in healthcare. NDP takes donations not only from the major banks but also private healthcare providers. With the differences so minor, Canadians reluctantly chose the Liberals who have presided over some economic growth and who promised during the election campaign some increases in social spending. A Liberal vote was also viewed as a 'safe' vote against the far-right Alliance.

In 1999, the economy scored the second highest growth among the top seven industrial economies (the G7 countries). Inflation and interest rates are relatively low, the total government balance is in surplus, and official unemployment figures show a fall, from a peak of almost 12% of the workforce in 1992 to just under 7% today. But the big corporations have made huge profits as a result of massive attacks on workplace conditions and welfare services. Workers are working longer hours and many have not seen their wages improve in real terms. According to The Economist, living standards have declined by 5% in ten years.

Furthermore, in comparison to the United States the economic situation is weak. The US has experienced faster growth and its unemployment rate is only half that of Canada. Ten years of a bilateral free-trade deal and five years of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) have led to US capitalism gaining at the expense of its neighbour. A decade ago one Canadian dollar was worth around 84 US cents; today it is worth about 65. The after-tax income of a Canadian family is about one-third lower than in the USA.


The Canadian economy is heavily dependent on the US giant. Ontario's exports to the US now account for 40% of its GDP; the figure for Quebec stands at 24%. The developing recession or slump in the US will have devastating effects in Canada. The main political parties will demand that the working class pays for the crisis of their system. This underlines the need for workers and young people to transform the unions into fighting organisations and to develop their own independent political voice.

top     NDP no longer represents working-class interests

THE NDP NO longer represents working-class interests and its future is bleak. It is facing an electoral wipe-out in British Columbia where it has a history of being in government. Here the Green Party is reaching a record 8% support in some polls. Both the Tories and the Liberals presented a more progressive housing policy than the NDP during the elections, and this has helped the Tories capture a certain base amongst the working class in eastern Canada. Some NDP leaders are now calling for an end to political donations from labour and big business to any party. They are trying to divorce politics from class.

But class war by the government and bosses continues unabated. Inequality and homelessness have reached record levels. The last couple of years have seen bitter disputes involving mainly public-sector workers. During 1999 nurses took strike action in Quebec and Saskatchewan to fight for higher wages and to defend public health care. Unfortunately, as neo-liberal attacks against Canadian workers continue, most union leaders have proved unwilling to lead a fight back. The leaders of the Quebec nurses' union deliberately sold out on the main wage demands. Labour leaders are increasingly moving back to the 'Gomperism' of 100 years ago, when labour and management worked hand-in-glove.


Canada's rich socialist tradition, however, will not be buried. During the fall of the Stalinist bloc in Eastern Europe ten years ago, the New York Times newspaper declared, 'only the Militant Tendency [forerunner of the Socialist Party in Britain] and the Canadian working class believe in socialism'. It is hardly possible for a continued shift to the right by the labour leaders to continue without new formations from the left emerging at some stage.

Rumblings of such a development are taking place following a serious split in the Canadian labour movement. The largest private-sector union, the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW), has been expelled from all Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) bodies. This split emerged after a revolt by workers in the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) over poor representation and the fact that labour leaders are increasingly collaborating with management. Over 98% of these workers voted to disaffiliate from SEIU and join the CAW. Already, in some cases, the new CAW leadership has won huge gains for these members - well surpassing the improvements made under SEIU.

The CAW leadership is arguing for a fighting labour movement and has acted as a pole of attraction for union militants. It was the only private-sector union to condemn the NDP leaders for their wage-restraint policies and their shift to the right. At the same time, the CAW leaders have sometimes used Canadian nationalist language in their opposition to US-dominated conservative union leaders. Given the close links between the two countries' economies, it is vital that US and Canadian workers link up to fight for their class interests and do not allow nationalism of any kind to divert that struggle.


CAW leader Buzz Hargrove has posed the question of the need for a new workers' party. Although the CAW is still formally linked to the NDP these ties have never been weaker. While Hargrove and the CAW have not yet split from the NDP or started preparations for a new party, the status quo cannot last indefinitely. CAW's expulsion from the Canadian Labour Congress is unlikely to be reversed. The NDP's shift to the right continues. At some point the formation of a new party, with CAW involvement, is a real possibility. Socialist Alternative (CWI Canadian section) supports the idea of a new alternative to the NDP and campaigns for a new mass workers' party with a fighting socialist programme.

But Canadian socialists are not just waiting for better days. The strong electoral showing for Socialist Alternative in recent city elections shows the potential opening up on the left. In a district in Kingston, a city of 250,000, Socialist Alternative polled 12.5% of the vote. In Toronto, in a massive parliamentary-style constituency, Socialist Alternative polled 8% and 20%-25% of the vote in working-class areas. This is with small forces. With the big class battles that are coming, socialists will be able to make big gains.

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