Four Years to Rebuild Democracy

NGOs and unions must unite to set stage for 2015 revival
June 1, 2011

The 2011 federal election was historic in many ways, and most of us are still trying to process the outcome. It is crucial that we pause to reflect on its meaning and think carefully about the next steps we must take.

While it is true that the remarkable surge in support for the NDP means a more dependable progressive voice in the House of Commons than we have had for years, it is equally true that the most socially and economically right-wing government perhaps in Canadian history has won a substantial majority in the House and -- along with its control of the Senate -- is now free to implement its agenda, even if every member of every other party votes against it.

The Harper Conservatives are now free to:

  • cut corporate taxes and transfer payments;
  • go after public services, public sector workers, and public pensions;
  • allow the growth of private health services to undermine Medicare in the lead-up to the expiry of the Canada Health Accord in 2014;
  • pursue more unregulated free trade agreements like the Canada–European Union CETA that will drastically curtail the democratic rights of local governments to promote local economic development, local resource sovereignty, or local food production;
  • kill the Canadian Wheat Board;
  • fast-track the security perimeter deal with the United States that will violate the civil liberties of Canadians and give away crucial pieces of our sovereignty;
  • kill the long-gun registry;
  • continue to decimate environmental regulations, underfund source water protection, promote dirty energy projects such as the tar sands, gas fracking and Arctic oil and gas drilling, while ignoring the rights of nature; and
  • spend our money on military equipment and prisons that we don’t need and don’t want.

But there are important signs of hope. The Harper Conservatives do not have the support of the majority of Canadians. Almost 40% of eligible Canadian voters did not cast a ballot in the election and, of those who did, fully 60% voted for parties other than the Conservatives. This means that over two-thirds of Canadians who were eligible to vote did not cast a vote for the Harper agenda.

As well, the presence of an opposition with a clear progressive agenda on trade, social and environmental justice, and public services will create the opportunity for unparalleled (until now) collaboration between MPs and progressive civil society. Further, the election of the first Green Party member, Elizabeth May, will open the door for an environmental debate and dialogue too long missing from the House of Commons.

We should also keep in mind that we have fought battles against both majority and minority governments before -- and won. Unfair deals such as the Multilateral Agreement on Investment and the Security and Prosperity Partnership were defeated by popular protest. It was also public pressure that stopped Canadian troops from being sent to Iraq. Similarly, no matter how much Stephen Harper dislikes public health care (and is on record in his preference for private health services), he can go only so far in his dismantling of Medicare, so deeply loved and fiercely protected is this most important of Canadian social programs. And let Harper try to open the doors for commercial export of our water and see how far he gets!

In other words, this country and its values still belong to the people. Neither our democratic responsibilities nor our democratic opportunities ended on May 2. Democracy is a 24/7 pursuit. We have the right and responsibility to act beyond the ballot box.

What is needed now is a coming together of progressive forces in civil society and the labour movement, as never before in our country’s history. Social and trade justice groups, First Nations people, labour unions, women, environmentalists, faith-based organizations, the cultural community, farmers, public health care coalitions, front-line public sector workers, and many others must come together to protect and promote the values that the majority    As the old union saying goes, “Don’t mourn – organize!”

This then is our task: to work hard over the next four years to protect the laws, rights, and services that generations of Canadians have fought for from being dismantled; to fight the corporate-friendly, anti-environmental, security-obsessed agenda that will come at us; and to prepare the way for the kind of government in four years that does in fact express the will of the people – one with an agenda of justice and social security, of care for planet Earth, of the more equitable sharing of our incredible bounty.

This will be hard work and will take a great deal of courage and commitment. But really, what more important thing do we have to do?
(Maude Barlow is chairperson of the Council of Canadians.)