In the wake of the most devastating war that mankind had known at that point in time, tens of thousands of battered and torn, brave Canadian soldiers sent to the frontlines of a mortal duel between imperial powers, returned home. With them came hundreds of thousands of toiled and impoverished Europeans of all walks of life in search of a better life, of a brighter tomorrow.
Unfortunately, all they found was a gilded cage. The country in which they had invested so many hopes was the private domain of a handful of business moguls who had founded their empires in inequality, on the backs of the men and women who had sacrificed their livelihoods and well-being for the “greater good.”
The Winnipeg strike of 1919 was couched in this misery and inequality, it appeared as a roar, a revolt of the “have-nots” against those that possessed everything. The series of strikes that occurred in Winnipeg during the year of 1919 would create ripples that would reach far beyond the boundaries of Manitoba, it would create a movement.
The “Bolsheviks”, the striking workers as they were labeled, would continue to organize with the objective of not merely forging better working conditions in the their immediate environment, but of profoundly transforming Canadian society. As Podemos was born out of Peurta Del Sol and other indignant square occupations, that swept Spain in 2011, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation –the CCF, the forerunner of the NDP– was born out of the Winnipeg strike of 1919. Its first leader J.S. Woodsworth was a strike leader and was arrested by the authorities for his “subversive activities” during the strike, for Tommy Douglas it was his political awakening.
Form that starting point, the CCF would become a leading political formation. It would unite the various left wing Canadian fractions which existed at the time and create bridges between the farmer and labour movements. In 1944, as World War II, yet another war which had torn and ripped apart the world, was drawing to an end, Tommy Douglas would lead the CCF to its first electoral victory in Saskatchewan.
In the witch hunt epoch of Mccarthyism, the establishment of an overtly socialist government in the heart of North America was welcome by few. Criticism came from the right, but also came from the left. On the left, the expediency of the CCF’s reforms weren’t swift enough. On the right (yes that includes the Liberals) CCFers were either utopists or Stalinists.
But the CCF government stood their ground, and offered Canada its first Bill of Rights, a forerunner to the Charter of Rights and Freedoms that would be implemented by the Trudeau administration in 1982. But most importantly, Tommy Douglas’s CCF administration would bring to life a universal public health-care system for all residents of Saskatchewan.
The opposition against medicare was ferocious, negative campaigns sought to turn public opinion against the project, doctors went on strike bringing medical services to an almost complete halt; the CCF stood strong. Now both are recognized essential quilts of the tissue of Canadian identity.
After his tenure in Regina, Tommy Douglas would go on to become the first leader of the newly anointed New Democratic Party of Canada. During one of the darkest times in Canadian history, when Pierre Elliot Trudeau decreed martial law in Quebec, only one voice stood in opposition to the draconian measure. It was that of Tommy Douglas and his NDP caucus.
The story of the CCF and of the NDP is the story of a movement that was born out of misery, poverty and struggle, out of blood, sweat and tears. It’s the story of Svend Robinson and his fight for LGBT and Trans-rights amidst massive discrimination and harassment. It’s the story of Libby Davis and her fight to uphold the rights of sex workers and of safe injection sites, of compassion instead of punishment for drug dependents. Its the story of Elijah Harper and Frank Calder and their fight to uphold aboriginal rights in Canada. It’s the story of a “little” party that managed with 19, with 33, with 103 seats in government or not, in power or without it, to profoundly transform Canadian society for the better to forge Canadian institutions that reflect the goodness in our hearts.
I had promised myself never to write a post about the NDP, promise broken! Because I’m too closely involved in it, my post couldn’t be impartial. But given the desperate times we are living in, the recurrent lack of hope, the mainstream media’s constant spin which reinforces right-wing rhetoric, the straitjacket of neo-liberal propaganda: job-creators, investment, economic growth, free-trade, the poverty of the debate about fossil fuel development, the self-defeatism of some sections of the left endorsing the non-choice of strategic voting, the discourse of sacrificing the awesome possibility of Canada’s first viable left-wing government on the altar of an “Anything but Harper” Campaign, I couldn’t help myself!
Canada needs the spirit of 1919 more than ever! Its never been the NDP’s thing to listen to polls, so forget the polls! To strive for power for the sake of power, let’s leave that to those that are so poor only opportunism guides them!
We must redouble of courage and audacity in this coming year, not merely win an election but create the space to transform Canadian society. That can only be done in synchrony with social movements throughout the country. We mustn’t merely offer an alternative, we must break the framework that sustains Liberal-Conservative hegemony and unmask the voidness of neoliberal agendas and their buzzwords.
Within the NDP we can’t forget the importance of the anti-austerity movements that are organizing against the neoliberal agenda, but anti-austerity movements also mustn’t forget that the best vehicle to stop austerity is having a government that puts people before profit.
Push, shove and struggle, create the space within Canadian civil society for an anti-austerity agenda, we are in dire need of it! As Franklin Delano Roosevelt said to union leaders in 1933 “make me do it!”
Thomas Mulcair recently said that what struck him the most during his travels from coast to coast to coast was the “goodness” that reigns in the hearts of everyday Canadians and how unfortunately it isn’t reflected in our government. I couldn’t agree more! We must put that goodness, the goodness, solidarity and compassion which found its most beautiful expression this year in the community of Cold Lake Alberta forefront and center, at the heart of all our struggles.
At the height of the French Revolution, with reactionary forces at the gates of Paris preparing their final assault against the revolutionary epicenter of Europe, in dire times where the novice republic and all its accomplishments were on a thin razor edge, threatened with possibility of being just another ephemere footnote of history, Danton stood on a pupitre and spoke these words as far as his breath could carry: “We need audacity, yet more audacity, always audacity!”
A luta continua!
PS: This post is dedicated to Libby Davis who has been and always will be an eternal source of inspiration for me.
* Featured image of Thomas Muclair at the Corona Theatre in Montreal, 2011, by Chris Zacchia
* Full disclosure: Niall is both a card-carrying NDP member and works for an MP. As such, he has avoided writing about the party, until he just couldn’t resist.