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The Social Democrats Rise in Canada

Gary Engler

That “wow” you heard late Monday night from north of the border was the sound of Canada electing a record number of social democratic Members of Parliament.

The New Democratic Party (NDP) won 103 seats out of a total 308 to become the official opposition, the first time Canada’s socialist party will fulfill that role.

Unfortunately it was not enough to prevent the Republican-wannabe Conservative Party under Prime Minister Stephen Harper from winning a majority government with just under 40 per cent of the national vote and 166 seats. The NDP’s showing all but destroyed both the Democrat-lite Liberal Party, which won 34 seats (down from 77 last election and the lowest ever) and the separatist Bloc Quebecois, which was reduced from 49 to just four seats. The leaders of both the Liberals and Bloc lost their own ridings.

The Green Party won a single seat in British Columbia, the first time Greens have won anywhere in North America. (All results as of late Monday night.)

So, what’s the significance and why should Americans care?

Admit it. You don’t understand Canada. And why should you? It’s a place with socialized medicine and where the Tea Party is something that happens every afternoon at the Empress Hotel in Victoria.

Even Canadians have a hard time figuring out how things work. The country has an incomprehensible political system that includes an unelected Senate populated by political cronies of the party in power — based on a 145-year-old formula that gives 10 members to New Brunswick, population 750,000, four to Prince Edward Island’s 140,000 residents, but only six to 4.5 million British Columbians — and a “head of state” supposedly appointed by the Queen of England. And these people are socialists?

Still, Canada does matter. After all, it is the largest foreign supplier of energy (both oil and electricity) to the USA. Not to mention comedians, pop stars (you thought Justin Bieber was American?) and hockey players.

The first thing to understand about Monday’s election is that the results are a historic shift in the Canadian political scene. While the NDP has governed provincially in B.C., Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario, Nova Scotia and the Yukon, the union-affiliated party, which created Canada’s first socialized medical system, has never even come close before at the national level. Its previous best result was 43 seats in 1988. Before this election NDP averaged 15.4 per cent of the vote at the federal level. This election it doubled that, winning 31 per cent.

Why the big shift to the left? Because of Quebec. For the first time Canada’s French-speaking province voted NDP, many voters abandoning the separatist Bloc Quebecois, which only runs candidates in that province. The NDP won 60 of the province’s 75 seats.

Hundreds of thousands of leftwing Quebecers came to the conclusion that it makes more sense to vote for a federal party that could actually form a government and create better social programs for all Canadians, rather than simply register another protest vote against a federal system they find stifling. The Bloc was successfully going nowhere, but perhaps the NDP will be able to accomplish something socially useful.

The other historic shift in Canadian politics is the poor showing of the Liberal Party. To grasp the significance of this imagine a socialist party with strong ties to unions replacing the Democrats as the alternative to the Republicans. That’s what has happened in Canada.

The NDP is to the left of the Liberal Party on many social, environmental, economic and foreign policy issues. It lacks the Liberals’ significant ties to corporate interests. All this offers hope to Canadians who believe in social and economic democracy.

But, there will be a big push by corporations, most of the media, the military-industrial-foreign-affairs complex and other cheerleaders for unfettered capitalism to demonize the NDP and push it closer to the “mainstream” consensus that only the rich and powerful can have a say in running the world. Most of the NDP provincial governments have gone through this process with often disappointing results (from the point of view of people who see a better way than capitalism).

Still, this federal election is an important step forward for working-class Canadians. The party closest to us has made significant gains. We may have to endure four years of an extreme right wing Conservative government. But at least there’s now hope for a better government in the future.

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Gary Engler is Vice-President of CEP Local 2000, B.C.’s media union, and author (under his nom de guerre of Ernesto [Ernie] Raj Peshkov-Chow) of Great Multicultural North — A Canadian Primer for Hosers, Immigrants and Socialists released by Fernwood Publishing.

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