What’s wrong with the Left in Canada? We asked the Left.

We asked politicians, strategists and activists to diagnosis their side’s problems. And what really irks them about the other team.

Svend Robinson, Cheri DiNovo, Hassan Yussuff, Libby Davies, Moe Sihota. (Jonathan Hayward/CP; Bernard Weil/Toronto Star/Getty Images; Darryl Dyck/CP; Sean Kilpatrick/CP)

In the February 2019 edition, Maclean’s explored the increased polarization of Canadian politics with dueling cover stories asking “What’s wrong with the right?” and “What’s wrong with left?” (More on why we did this can be found here.) To further the discussion, we contacted politicians, political staff strategists and activists. We asked two questions: What’s wrong with your side? And what really bothers you about the other side?

Below, find the answers from the left. Answers from the right can be found here

Brad Lavigne
Principal at Counsel Public Affairs. Former senior campaign advisor to the NDP, author of Building the Orange Wave

What’s wrong with the left today?
The left loses its edge when it focuses too much of its time merely rallying to preserve its gains or stopping things it doesn’t like. This “Stop & Save” posture positions the left as an upholder of the status quo, a function that it is inherently uncomfortable with and it’s just plain bad at. When this happens, the right look like the agents of change. At its best and most effective, the left acts as an ever-reforming insurgency aimed at promoting the economic and democratic aspirations of working people. Having lost touch with this purpose, the left is losing much of its working-class base and is too often seen as being for others.

What really bothers you about the right?
The inherent hypocrisy of their offer. Throughout Canada and the West, the right has embraced a bait and switch populism that rhetorically caters to working-class grievances, both real and perceived, to get their votes. Yet once elected, the right embrace policies that hurt working people and benefit the very elites they promised to keep in check once in power. Shamefully, race has been re-introduced to further drive divisions and fear-based voting.

David Herle
Owner of the Gandalf Group, former campaign co-chair for Ontario Liberal Party and campaign chair for Liberal Party of Canada

What’s wrong with the left today?
Generally a lack of boldness on policy. There has been a tendency to identify the major challenges facing us—take income inequality and the disappearing middle class for example—and then propose small, incremental policies that play at the edges of the problem but don’t come near to addressing it or its root causes. As long as the left is operating within the existing neo liberal intellectual paradigm, it will be unable to accomplish what it wants. We are at an FDR moment. We need an FDR.

What really bothers you about the right?
The replacement of facts with ideology. It’s a fact that climate change is an existential threat to civilization. It’s a fact that economic growth is now almost exclusively benefitting the affluent. The consensus of economic experts is that minimum wage increases do not cost jobs, but do raise standards of living for the working poor. The right acknowledges none of this because is conflicts with the ideology of low taxes and free markets.

Cheri DiNovo
United Church of Canada Minister and former Ontario NDP MPP

What’s wrong with the left today?
It’s becoming increasingly impossible to live what used to be considered your birthright: a middle-class lifestyle. The middle class—not just in Canada, but in all westernized democracies—is emptying out, and when the centre falls out of economics, it falls out of politics. When the centre falls out, people historically veer left or right. The question is: Why do we seem to be veering right in western Europe and North America? It’s because the right has no illusions—in Canada, they’ve gone the way of Doug Ford and Jason Kenney. They’re sticking to their constituents. Meanwhile, the left has been playing centrist games rather than standing up and offering clear alternatives to the right. I think voters want a clear choice, and so the left has to actually be left. It absolutely is a failure of the left to step up and effectively counter the messages from the right. We’ve tried to play the middle, and it will not work for us.

What really bothers you about the right?
The right is pulling a classic move: divide and conquer. One of the calling cards of the right in Canada and the States has been this anti-immigrant, anti-refugee mentality. They’re playing that card, and the reason they’re getting away with it is that people are hurting economically. Rather than look at the real causes of their hurt, they’re being misdirected towards fighting their neighbours. That’s why these classic bogeymen: racism, misogyny, homo- and transphobia and so on are being resurrected. It’s a terrifying, racist route and it diverts people from looking at those who are really ripping them off, and that’s large companies and the wealthy, who are taking way more than their fair share of what’s being produced. Jobs and opportunities are not created by denying them to other people.

Max Fineday
Executive Director of the Canadian Roots Exchange. Citizen of Sweetgrass First Nation.

What’s wrong with the left today?
Too often, the left assumes that simply not being “the other guys” is good enough to capture the support of Canadians looking for an alternative to the right’s vision. This is particularly true for communities-labour, youth, Indigenous peoples, or other traditionally non- right leaning communities—who feel unheard during the tenure of right-wing governments. But fear shouldn’t be, and isn’t, enough to galvanize support. Where is the push to inspire the hearts and minds of these communities? Where is the push to explain to the rest of Canada why we should create legislation that will advance these constituencies, and thereby advance the rest of Canada? Because I’m not seeing it.

What really bothers you about the right?
What frustrates me about the right, and what I enjoy dismantling, is the reliance on myth and stereotype, especially when it comes to issues concerning my community. When faced with Indigenous issues, the right reverts to well-used talking points about being “tough of crime,” demanding “more accountability,” or declaring an end to “special treatment.” These points are like prairie fence posts from a time gone by, fraught with rot and desperately needing to be replaced. Like many other Canadians, they were never taught about Indigenous communities so their guessing at the rhyme and reason behind the issues is just that, a guess. By relying on old tropes, the right is missing a great opportunity to engage with the fastest growing population in this country.

Svend Robinson
Former NDP MP

What’s wrong with the left today?
With the survival of our planet at risk from climate change and nuclear war, and sharply rising inequality in Canada and globally, the left must be much bolder in challenging capitalism and the god of the market, and sharing our positive and hopeful democratic socialist vision of a world of economic, social, racial and environmental justice. No more mushy middle. Redistribution of wealth and power. People and the environment before profits. October 21 may be our last chance.

What really bothers you about the right?
The right worships at the altar of the market and profits, and attacks the role of democratically elected governments, when it is clear that their economic system, capitalism, is destroying the environment, threatening human survival, and failing to meet the most basic needs of housing, good health, education, peace and justice. Indigenous peoples, women, LGBTI people and racialized minorities have been particularly targeted by the destructive policies of the right.

Hassan Yussuff
President of the Canadian Labour Congress.

What’s wrong with the left today?
The left used to be considered a radical voice, but has become far too cautious. The problems facing working people are big problems that require bold solutions. If people can’t see that their path to a better life is intertwined with their neighbours’, they will retreat into cynicism and self-interest. And that is exactly what has happened. It is time for the left to return to its ambitious roots by speaking directly to those who feel disenfranchised or abandoned by political elites and showing them how to be a part of challenging the status quo. When families are struggling with prescription drug costs, we should demand universal pharmacare; when average people can’t afford life’s necessities, we should demand a living wage; and so it goes. It’s time for the left to be inspiring again.

What really bothers you about the right?
The right is exploiting public feelings of disenfranchisement and desperation to turn people against each other and themselves. Politics these days are getting nasty and divisive, and it is fueling sexism, homophobia, racism and Islamophobia. Essentially, rather than taking responsibility for the Harper-era policies that helped to gut the welfare state and deepen the divide between the rich and the rest of us, the right is telling people to blame immigrants, women and equity-seeking groups. We can’t let this con continue. Respect for each other is a cornerstone of community and market forces will never deliver a compassionate society without policies and laws that level the playing field and spread prosperity. We cannot let the right use hate and propaganda to turn us against human rights and income equality.

Libby Davies
Former Health Critic and Deputy leader of the NDP. Member of the Order of Canada.

What is wrong with the left today?
The left has a tendency to unnecessarily divide and split itself rather than striving for a more disciplined stance that is based on shared values.

What really bothers you about the right?
A lack of interest in factual information and evidence based decision making.

Judy Rebick
Author, journalist, activist, and feminist.

What’s wrong with the left today?
The rich are getting richer and the rest of us are getting poorer. The political left has not reorganized itself to put forward an alternative, and that’s a global weakness. But it’s not that the work is not being done. It’s being done at the grassroots level, but the NDP has become removed from on-the-ground movements that used to be the lifeblood of the party, and the result is that big grassroots ideas are not being raised to the level of big politics. The right is gaining ground because they sound like they’re willing to smash the old system—of course they’re just reinforcing it, but they sound like they’re opposing it, and people want somebody who’s going to fight for them. Ultra-right authoritarian leaders look like they’ll fight for their constituents, while the political left is not providing a clear alternative vision of what we can accomplish, or a real plan on how to get there. That’s what has to happen. If the left doesn’t risk bold initiatives now, it’s going to become a very ineffective force.

What really bothers you about the right?
The most destructive thing about the right is their anti-immigrant mentality. They’re using immigrants to whip up their base, directing people’s real fear about their futures to the fact that immigrants and refugees are coming into our country, stirring up racism and xenophobia to distract people from destructive neoliberal policies that hurt everybody but the rich. That’s what bothers me the most. A close second is that they lie about everything.

Moe Sihota
Former President of the BC NDP

What’s wrong with the left today?

The left needs to be more mainstream in its pursuit of policies and ideas. Rather than catering to marginal issues and serving as the conscience of the nation, it needs to be more proactive in pursuing power.

What really bothers you about the right?
It troubles me that they don’t see government as a positive and necessary instrument in improving our quality of life. Supporting government through fair taxes Is a necessary prerequisite to building a fair and civil society. Government should not be viewed as a hindrance.

Jessica Bell
Ontario NDP MPP for University-Rosedale and the Official Opposition Transit Critic

What’s wrong with the left today?
I think the challenge with the left today is that, globally, there are not enough people actively advocating for progressive change. A large segment of the public believes in environmental protection, high quality public services, asking the very wealthy to pay their fair share in taxes, and addressing racism and sexism. Very few people, however, take the next step and volunteer, donate to a progressive candidate, run for office, or participate in issue-based campaigns. We, the left, should do a better job of inviting people in and keeping them engaged as active participants in the movement for a better world. When we really support people who are mad or hopeful enough to take action for the first time, we see sustainable action on the ground.

What really bothers you about the right?
Recently, the right has gotten into a new, troubling habit: making up stories that are just not true. It’s a right-wing myth, for example, that society has to choose between the environment and jobs. There are exciting, truly good quality green job growth opportunities in the tech, transportation and energy sectors-to unlock them, we need a government to stop making things up to scare folks into thinking expanding green energy would hurt the economy. We’re seeing governments across Canada and the United States use social media with less and less regard for the truth.


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