The newspapers of the day depicted it as nothing less than the Russian Revolution packaged for export. For six weeks in the spring of 1919, more than 70 unions and 30,000 workers joined in a general strike that paralyzed Winnipeg. On June 21, a demonstration turned into a bloody riot that left one dead and 30 others injured after Royal North-West Mounted Police charged into the crowd on horseback. The strike collapsed four days later—but it was an early indication of the Western radicalism that, 13 years later, resulted in the birth of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), forerunner of the NDP. Indeed, one of the strike’s organizers, former Methodist minister J. S. Woodsworth, became the first leader of the CCF at the party’s founding convention in Regina. And the CCF’s statement of principles, the Regina Manifesto of 1933, ended with a radical declaration that a CCF government could not rest “until it has eradicated capitalism.” Last week, that kind of
extremism was a relic, as more than 2,000 delegates and seven candidates assembled in Winnipeg for the New Democratic Party’s leadership convention.
Power: Instead, the party reaffirmed its commitment to the pursuit of power along the more moderate, pragmatic course set by Woodsworth’s successors, including retired leader Edward Broadbent. The party’s gradualist strategy has even been embraced in the western heartland of Canadian socialism, where opinion polls show that two moderate NDP provincial leaders, Roy Romanow of Saskatchewan and Michael Harcourt of British Columbia, may be poised to take their parties to victory in upcoming provincial elections. Declared University of Saskatchewan political scientist John Courtney: “Ideologically, it [the NDP] has to be a different beast. Socialism is a pretty tough word to sell now.”
But in the years that followed the CCF’S birth, the party was indeed radical. That radicalism was fuelled by the desperation of the Depression on the Prairies as many farmers, devastated by drought and collapsing prices for agricultural
Commodities, were forced into debt with central Canadian banks and investment companies.
Distrust: To many Prairie socialists, the Depression represented the ultimate failure of capitalism—and a profound reason to distrust Canada’s eastern economic establishment. As a result, Woodsworth, who had won a Winnipeg seat in Parliament in 1921 as an independent labor candidate, joined with M. J. Coldwell, an upright, English-born schoolteacher from Regina, to help forge the coalition of farmers, small trade unions and intellectuals that became the CCF. Among the earliest recruits was a young Baptist minister and former bantam-lightweight boxing champion from Manitoba named Thomas Clement Douglas, who would become famous for his ability to sweeten the socialist message with a wry wit. Douglas’s description of Depression-style free enterprise: “It’s every man for himself, as the elephant said when he danced among the chickens.”
The Regina Manifesto set out a dramatic program for battling the Depression, including socialized health services, the nationalization of financial institutions, public utilities, and jobcreation programs to put Canadians back to work. That platform struck a chord in the West: in the 1935 federal election, the party elected seven MPs, including Woodsworth, Coldwell and Douglas. And the CCF’S popularity actually increased with the return of national prosperity during the Second World War.
It was a prosperity fuelled by government programs mainly designed to help the war effort, but which were remarkably similar to the CCF’s call for publicly funded job creation. Desmond Morton, the University of Toronto political scientist who has written extensively about the NDP, says that “what the CCF advocated in the 1930s and everyone dismissed as hopelessly irresponsible turned out to be possible during the war.” As a result, in the 1945 federal election, voters awarded 28 of the 245 Commons seats to CCFers.
Pioneer: But the party had already scored a big breakthrough in the 1944 provincial election in Saskatchewan, a province governed by the Liberals for all but five years since it entered Confederation in 1905. Under the leadership of Douglas, the provincial CCF ran a strong campaign—even as the Red-baiting that had dogged the party since its inception reached a fever pitch. The electorate responded by giving the CCF 47 seats to the Liberals’ five. Douglas governed the province for the next 17 years, pioneering medicare, state auto insurance and programs to provide electricity and indoor toilets for rural residents. Nationally, however, the CCF began to de-
cline after its electoral gains of 1945. To head off the threat from the left, Liberal Prime Minister Mackenzie King adopted several of the CCF’s social-welfare proposals, including family allowances and unemployment insurance. That marked the start of a long Liberal tradition of co-opting the more popular reforms proposed by the CCF and, later, the NDP. The federal Conservatives, meanwhile, added the word “progressive” to their party name and elected their own Saskatchewan populist, John Diefenbaker, as leader. And in 1958, Diefenbaker swept 208 of 265 Commons seats. The CCF was reduced to only eight seats.
Labor: In the wake of that debacle, the CCF embarked on a period of anguished soulsearching, deciding to temper its western grassroots socialism and reach out to organized labor in Central Canada. In 1961, socialists laid to rest the CCF and created the New Democratic Party—with the support of the Canadian Labour Congress. Douglas stepped down as premier of Saskatchewan to lead the new party, which modelled itself on the more orthodox social democratic parties of Western Europe. The party struck a more moderate tone on economic issues, eliminating the old rhetoric about eradicating capitalism in favor of a mixture of private and public ownership.
That path had long been advocated by Toronto labor lawyer David Lewis, who had served on the CCF’s national executive since 1937 and went on to succeed Douglas as leader of the NDP in 1971. But, in spite of the change in direction, the NDP’S electoral gains outside the West have been modest. Although the party has enjoyed some success in Ontario, it has been unable to make a breakthrough in Quebec or lasting gains in Atlantic Canada—with some critics blaming watered-down policies for the failure to yield concrete electoral results.
Meanwhile, the NDP has clearly remained a force in the West. In Saskatchewan, where the party lost power to the Liberals in 1964, it won re-election under Allan Blakeney in 1971 before falling to Grant Devine’s Tories in 1982 in a crushing defeat. And in the Manitoba provincial election of 1969, Edward Schreyer formed the first-ever NDP government in that province. He remained in power until his loss to the Conservatives in 1977, but the NDP rebounded under Howard Pawley, who was premier from 1981 until losing to the Tories in 1988.
Left: Despite those successes, critics on the left accuse the party of diluting its socialist principles in the West in order to buy victory. Schreyer, for one, insisted on being called a “social democrat” rather than a socialist. In fact, perhaps the only party leader of recent years who has approached the firebrand style of the old CCF was David Barrett, who took the NDP to power for the first time in British Columbia in 1972. His government’s interventionist programs, capped by the decision to buy shares in an existing pipeline company in order to create a provincial oil-and-gas company, prompted the New York City-based financial magazine, Barrons, to nickname Barrett the “Allende of the North”—a reference to Salvador Allende, Chile’s Marxist president from
1970 until he died in a 1973 coup. Barrett’s removal from office was less violent than Allende’s. After only three years in office, the NDP lost to the Social Credit party in a 1975 election.
Now, the moderate tones of the current western NDP leaders stand in stark contrast to the fiery radicalism of their political forebears. In both Saskatchewan and British Columbia,
where elections are due by the fall of 1991, the opposition NDP is leading the governing parties by more than 20 percentage points in the latest polls. But provincial leaders Romanow and Harcourt have both stressed the need for co-operation between business and government.
Over the past year, Romanow has held a series of meetings with Saskatchewan business leaders to discuss their concerns and expectations if the NDP returned to government. Said Romanow: “We have long been seen as a party that addresses the redistribution of wealth. It’s time that we clearly enunciated ideas and policies for the creation of wealth.” Added British Columbia’s Harcourt: “We believe in a mixed economy. We are addressing issues that are important in the 1990s—rather than the 1930s or 1950s.”
Roots: But statements like that still anger some NDP activists and supporters who claim that the NDP has drifted too far from its origins. Said longtime NDP supporter Roy Atkinson, a past-president of the National Farmers Union who farms near Landis, Sask., 120 km west of Saskatoon: “The party needs to remember its roots and follow an approach based on its principles.” But other observers, including political scientist Morton, say that it is precisely because the party is still seen as too radical by many Canadians that it has failed to break out of its traditional third-place ghetto in federal elections. Reconciling those views into a consensus that will take the party into the 1990s is perhaps the greatest challenge facing the new leader of the New Democrats.
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