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A Brief History of Canada's NDP PDF Print E-mail
Written by Greg Gibbs   
Monday, 27 June 2011 17:28

We publish below the notes used by Minneapolis-St. Paul CMPL member Greg Gibbs in his presentation on the history of the New Democratic Party at a recent public forum on the recent Canadian elections.


There is a film called “Prairie Giant” about Tommy Douglas, if you want to watch more about Douglas.

325 miles north of here at Mayday, there exists single payer health care and a progressive, labor-influenced party. Also nationalized and standardized car insurance, free child care and real legal aide. Across that border its safer and the people more educated than in the U.S. The poverty rate is far lower. You don’t have to volunteer to fight useless wars very much, although Canada is still a junior partner to the U.S. and their military strategy. 325 miles, folks. The UN has ranked Canada the best place to live in the world for 6 straight years. Canada is more diversified, and not so dominated by white people – multi-culturalism (see the French language) is part of federal law. Aboriginal rights are not an invisible issue. 325 miles. And we never talk about it – even though it is our closest neighbor. 325 miles. We might as well be Alabama for all the Canadians care. And we are. We’re Alabama. Which is why we are talking about Canada here. We hope to have some real Canucks from the NDP in Winnipeg come down and talk to us at some point, but for now, we’ll have to do.

History of the NDP

The New Democratic Party of Canada (“NDP”), founded in 1961, is a recent phenomenon, but its roots go back to the 1920s. It’s strength since being founded has been up and down – worst when it came close to adopting neo-liberalism in the 1990s, and best in the present election, when it captured Quebec after years of being marginal there. What is interesting is that Canadians do not just punch the ‘party’ button and stop thinking. When they failed to deliver in the provinces –when they moved to the right – they lost. It is now the official opposition, replacing the Liberals in that role. (John will talk about that development.) It has always had a presence in Saskatchewan, where it was founded. Tommy Douglas, who you just heard in ‘Mouseland,’ was from Saskatchewan, and lead the party from ‘62-‘72. At one time the NDP governed Ontario, British Columbia and the Yukon. It was the official opposition in Alberta in the 1980s and other provinces. Presently, the NDP controls the provincial governments of Manitoba, where Winnipeg is located, and Nova Scotia. Members have been mayors and council persons in Toronto and Vancouver, and many other cities. (most local offices are non-partisan, by the way.)

The NDP is allied or grew out of the Second International, and is officially ‘social-democratic.’

Roots of the NDP

The NDP, like the Farmer-Labor Party of Minnesota (“FLP”), but on a national scale, originated out of a merger of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and the Co-Operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF), an agrarian / labor / socialist / intellectual body in the 1950s. The CLC is now the major trade-union federation in Canada, like our AFL-CIO.

Roots - CCF

The CCF was founded in 1932 as a reaction to the depression, and originated out of groups like the United Farmers of Alberta, some academics and Progressive and Labour MP’s called the Ginger Group, and allied farm and union organizations. The “Ginger Group” was named after Ginger Goodwin, a UMW organizer killed by thugs in British Columbia in 1918. He might just be the Canadian ‘Joe Hill.’ His murder sparked the first Canadian General Strike in 1918. The CCF was for a mixed economy and the nationalization of key industries, and a people’s ‘welfare’ state – embodied in the ‘Regina Manifesto.’ Regina is the capital of Saskatchewan, just north of the Dakotas. It ran in elections. Tommy Douglas of the CCF was elected the provincial governor in Saskatchewan in 1944. This government was the FIRST government in Canada to introduce universal health care. According to Joel Albers, it originated when a group of farmers in Saskatchewan created a fund to pay for their own health issues. This government was called the ‘first socialist government’ in North America. In contrast, that same year, the Minnesota FLP merged with the Democratic Party.

The CCF had its ups and downs, was divided over entry into WWII, but was destroyed in the 1950s by the Canadian version of the red scare. The CCF, at its largest, had 90,000 members. It’s full name was the “Cooperative Commonwealth Federation – Farmer Labour Socialist” Sound somewhat familiar? It supported the development of a ‘cooperative commonwealth’ and the eradication of capitalism. The CCF was more radical than our FLP because of the support for a ‘cooperative commonwealth,’ (among other things) which was not part of the FLP program.

Roots - CLC

The CLC was formed in 1956 with the merger of the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada (TLC) and the Canadian Congress of Labor (CCL), roughly comparable to our AFL (specific trades) and CIO (industrial unionism.) The former, of course, leaned to the Liberals for awhile, but the TLC eventually saw the need for an independent approach. The CCL supported the CCF, and was dominated by the CCF. The leadership of the CCL was the result of a battle between the CCF and a block of Liberals and the Communist Party. I do not know the nature of that conflict, but the CCF came out on top.

Roots - TLC

The TLC was founded in 1883 by the Knights of Labor and the Toronto Trades and Labour Council. At that time, the TLC developed a ‘Platform of Principles’ comprising 16 points. Added to its first adopted policies were: free compulsory education, 8 hour work day and 6 day work week; government inspection of industry; minimum living wage; public ownership of railways, telegraphs, waterworks, lighting; abolition of the Senate; use of union label; abolition of property qualifications to vote; supporting arbitration, proportional representation and the use of referendums. In 1913 the vote for women was added as a 17th principle. In 1902, under influence of the AMERICAN AFL and Samuel Gompers, the Knights of Labor were expelled from the TLC. The TLC sometimes supported the Liberal Party, but their official policy was non-partisan, so they also supported the Independent Labour Party.

Roots - CCL

In 1939, the CCL was formed from industrial unions (steel, auto, mining, railroad, woodworkers) It was later expelled from the TLC due to the demands, again, of the conservative American AFL. Many leaders of these unions were supporters of the political CCF. Notice the reactionary role of the American labor movement in Canada throughout the 1900s. This is significant. At some point in the late 1940s, Communist lead unions like UE and Mine Mill were expelled from the CCL. Again, I do not know what the basis for this was.

Roots - ILP

On a personal note, my grandfather, Charles Lionel Gibbs, was an Independent Labour Party (“ILP”) councilperson in Edmonton from 1926 to 1932, part of the labour majority on that council. He was also elected to the Alberta provincial legislature for the ILP from 1926-1934, when he died. Prior to the CCF, in the 1920s, the ILP ran candidates, but increasingly blocked with the Liberals, which gave rise to a split, and the left-wing of the ILP went into the CCF. You can see this is a touchstone in Canada, of how close collaboration with the bourgeois Liberal Party leads to the left-wing splitting from the more conservative members, and maintaining an independent organization.

Formation of the NDP

Due to the collapse of the CCF in the 50s, negotiations to form the NDP started in 1958, after the Canadian Labour Council formed from two prior federal labor bodies. It took three more years for the “New Party” forces to found the NDP itself in 1961. The former represented the trade unions in Canada, and the latter has already been mentioned – farmer, progressive, socialist, Labour and Social Gospel organizations influenced it. (That last - quite different from our own Christians.) It supports most things a moderate left-wing organization would – environmental protections, increasing corporate taxes, getting rid of NAFTA, a living wage, expanding health care, reducing poverty, as well as aboriginal rights, women’s rights and ending the war on drugs. It wants a less aggressive military policy and also wants to reduce taxes on small business – so it has an olive branch to the middle classes. The NDP is against Canadian involvement in NATO, and in the recent debate on involvement in Libya, calls for negotiations. The Progressive Conservatives – the Tories – agree with the U.S. Democrats and Republicans on military action and regime change. No doubt salivating over more control over Libyan oil resources.

Organized labor’s influence is based on the number of members of the affiliated union. Labor controls 25% of the voting membership. Being a provincial or territorial member of the NDP means you are a national member as well, so the NDP is organized on provincial / geographic units. It charter precludes a person supporting parties other than the NDP at the federal and provincial level elections.

History of NDP Campaigns:

  • From 1961 to 1971, the NDP …
  • In 1971, the NDP expelled “The Waffle” – a radical grouping within the party that developed in the 60s. After that, the NDP joined with the liberals under Trudeau, and passed laws on pension indexing and creation of the federal firm, Petro-Canada. (So they are not against coalitionism, but don’t like left factions.)   The present left caucus in the NDP is called the New Politics Initiative, according to the Canadian Encyclopedia. (NPI)
  • In 1974 they then blocked with the Conservatives against the liberals – and lost half their seats. (The wages of sin…)
  • In 1980, Under Ed Broadbent, in 75-89, they brought down the Conservatives.
  • In 1984 the NDP almost overtook the Liberals, and Canadians were talking about a re-creation of the party split in the UK – Labour/Tory, with the liberals a dim third.
  • In 1988 they had another record success.

A footnote. A Quebecois politician joined the party in 1986, but left because of alleged ‘communist influence.’ Now, if you are afraid of ‘communists’ then you should not be around the labor movement, especially a political labor movement.

  • In 1989, Audrey McLaughlin of the Yukon won the leadership. The Quebec branch of the NDP adopted sovereignty, and left the federal NDP at that time.
  • In 1993, the NDP was routed under McLaughlin, after its governing of Ontario and British Columbia was a disaster. (not sure why.) A right-wing Reform Party in the west also took NDP votes.
  • A new leader, Alexa McDonough, was elected. In the 1997, the NDP picked up seats in the Maritime provinces from the Liberals, by voters upset about unemployment and cuts in social programs. However, the unions, lead by Buzz Hargrove of the Canadian UAW, called for her ouster, as she advocated ‘third-way’ policies similar to Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.
  • The election of 2000 was the worst in their history, and the NDP re-organized in 2000, and re-committed itself to a left approach, electing Jack Layton. Layton was former mayor of Toronto, and head of the Federation of Canadian Municipalities.
  • In 2004 the NDP gained an additional million votes, but lost Saskatchewan due to rightist failures of the NDP government there. Layton also indicated his support for an independent Quebec, which alienated some. Clearly, Layton was (and is not) a Canadian nationalist, in the stripe of the Liberals – or US Democrats. Imagine if French-speaking black or Latino people in Louisiana, Alabama & Mississippi, who formed an overwhelming majority of the population, would want to secede. What would the Democrats response be? Certainly not, “you have the right to secede!” The Liberals also played on fear of the Conservative Party to steal NDP votes. (Sound familiar?) However, the Liberals and the NDP were one vote shy of a majority, and the NDP used this to get their issues passed. In 2005, the NDP forced through a budget (even as a minority) that transferred $4.5B in corporate tax cuts to social, educational and environmental programs. Some called it the “First NDP budget” in history. So even as a minority, they were able to change laws.
  • In 2005, after the Liberal refused to come out against privatization of health care, the NDP quit the coalition.       Now, this actually smacks of principle!
  • In the 2006 election, they attacked the Liberals for their position of ‘strategic voting’ – (where have we heard that?). They did not just attack the Progressive Conservatives, mind you. The aforementioned Buzz Hargrove wanted to continue a ‘strategic voting’ for the NDP or the Liberals. In 2006 they won 29 seats, the most since the 80s.       After the campaign, the Ontario NDP EXPELLED Hargrove for his support of the Liberals. Can we relish this for a moment? Who here in the US went over to the Republican Party?       A former VP candidate?       Lieberman, yes. And what about the “Blue Dogs?” No expellees here. Again, in the 2006 parliament, the NDP held the balance of power. The NDP, unlike the Liberals, voted against every key Conservative ‘confidence vote.’ But they have also worked with the Conservatives on limited issues.
  • In 2011, the NDP rose to 103 seats, from a low of 13 in 2000, to the best in their history. And which is one reason we are having this event today.

Now John’s going to talk about the recent election results in Canada and what this means for the labor movement in the U.S. and Canada.

C Gregory Gibbs

June 15, 2011