John Horgan John Horgan. Photo: Province of British Columbia / Flickr / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, license linked at bottom of article

Canadian social democracy, in the form of the NDP government of British Columbia, has sided with business against the environment and indigenous rights, reports John Clarke

In Canada, social democracy has generally had to settle for the role of third party. The Liberal and Conservative parties have taken turns over the years in forming federal governments, while the New Democratic Party (NDP), along with the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) that preceded it, never had a chance to sit around the cabinet table. Unquestionably, the enduring strength of the Liberal Party, a representative of capitalist interests positioned at the political centre, is the decisive factor in this regard.

Canada’s federal system, however, places considerable powers in the hands of the provinces, and the NDP has been able to govern at this level in some parts of the country. To this extent, the evolving political project of social democracy has been put into effect here. Though the equivalent of Labour’s Clause Four, the Regina Manifesto, was abandoned well before Tony Blair made the break with socialism emphatic, NDP provincial governments did play a significant part in establishing the welfare state in Canada. Of particular importance was the role of the NDP in Saskatchewan in advancing public healthcare.

As the economic and political conditions that allowed for post-war reform measures gave way to the harsh realities of the neoliberal decades, social-democratic parties increasingly failed to deliver even a kinder brand of Keynesian capitalism. Not surprisingly, NDP provincial governments in Canada have taken their turn as brokers of the austerity agenda. At present, the antics of the government led by Premier John Horgan in British Columbia are a particularly dismal manifestation of this development.

Resource colonialism

The BC government is brazenly opening a pathway for resource extraction in the face of a mounting climate crisis, and at the expense of the well-being and territorial rights of Indigenous people. It is clear that, in charting this course, the government is falling in line with the major strategic priorities of dominant business interests. An article written last year on ‘Canada and the crisis of capitalism’ suggests that a major drive to export oil and gas to the Pacific Rim is central to an effort to revive lagging rates of profit. This country’s equivalent of the CBI, the Canadian Chamber of Commerce, bitterly complains that ‘instead of emerging as a force in global oil and gas markets, Canada lacks the infrastructure needed to access new markets abroad and at home.’

This goes a long way to explaining why the BC government has placed so much emphasis on pipeline development. When they were in opposition,

‘B.C. NDP leaders never unequivocally opposed LNG [though] they strongly attacked the B.C. Liberals’ taxpayer giveaways to their preferred Pacific Northwest LNG project … But now in office, to praise from corporate media pundits, Premier Horgan has embraced LNG Canada.’

The environmental consequences of this have been made very clear: 85% of BC’s development of LNG ‘derives from the extreme method of fracking,’ and ‘a social and environmental nightmare’ is predicted. In detail, ‘… while B.C. is legislatively committed to reducing CO2 emissions from 64 Mts to 39 Mts by 2030, LNG Canada alone will produce nine to 10 Mts annually.’ This is all really quite indefensible from a standpoint that pays any attention to social and climate justice. 

In addition to furthering fossil-fuel interests, the NDP government has also been guilty of ‘a moral failure to protect the province’s remaining old-growth forests.’ So appalling have the results of this been that one environmentalist was driven to make a truly shameful comparison. ‘In this regard Horgan and his government share with Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro a disregard for the value, work and beauty of primary ancient forests.’ The attack has been curtailed to a limited degree only in the face of a huge and determined mobilisation to protect the forests:

‘Mounties have arrested 962 people since the demonstrations began last year, exceeding the 858 arrests during the so-called “war of the woods,” in Clayoquot Sound in 1993. This number of arrests makes the Fairy Creek demonstration the largest act of civil disobedience connected to old-growth logging in the province.’

Horgan’s loyalty to the most destructive business interests is at its clearest when he combines environmental vandalism with a readiness to trample on Indigenous rights. Responding to the opposition to the Coastal GasLink pipeline across northern BC, that has been taken up by representatives of the Wet’suwet’en nation and their traditional leadership, Horgan left no doubt that police enforcers would be used to clear the way for the pipeline, declaring imperiously that ‘the rule of law applies.’

Last month, in the midst of absolutely devastating climate induced flooding, the RCMP, a force that was modelled on the Royal Irish Constabulary and created to drive Indigenous people off their land, was deployed to make arrests and break up an encampment by Wet’suwet’en defenders that challenged the invasion of their territory by Coastal Gas Link. The description of this outrage that was provided on the Gidimt’en Checkpoint Facebook page put things clearly and starkly:

‘In the middle of a climate emergency, as highways and roads are being washed away and entire communities are being flooded and evacuated, the province has chosen to send busloads of police to criminalize Wet’suwet’en water protectors and to work as a mercenary force for oil and gas.’

Because the RCMP is a federal police force, there has been some uncertainty over the role of the BC government in deploying them. However, the province contracts with the RCMP to serve as its police force, and comments that were made by Chief Superintendent John Brewer leave no doubt that his officers were there because the appropriate NDP cabinet minister authorised them to act as they did. Moreover, the frequently repeated claim that the safety of on-site workers motivated the raid is quite bogus. The Mounties were there to uphold John Horgan’s precious ‘rule of law’ and to further the interests of those it serves and protects.

As I’ve suggested, this appalling conduct by an NDP government unfolds as the impacts of the climate crisis crash down on BC. The recent floods hit the province just months after a devastating heatwave and terrible wildfires threatened its communities. In the face of these, Horgan showed shocking indifference and a failure to accept reality. He responded to multiple heat deaths among the poorest and most vulnerable people with a remark so callous that few right-wing Tories could have matched it. “Fatalities are part of life,” he told the media.

As the floods hit the province, having apparently learned nothing from the outcry his earlier comments had unleashed, the Premier asserted that, “I think all British Columbians fully understand that now we have to better prepare for events like this. But we couldn’t have even imagined it six months ago.” This absurd claim was advanced despite the fact that his government was sitting on a 2018 report from the BC Auditor General warning that not enough was being done to prepare for climate events like wildfires and flooding.  

Push back

Rather predictably, the federal NDP and its leader, Jagmeet Singh, have been very reluctant to point any fingers at their provincial counterparts. Calls for increased accountability for the RCMP have been issued without acknowledging the fact that this force reports to the NDP government of BC. There have also, however, been very significant voices of opposition raised from within the NDP.  More than 1,000 party members have already added their names to a statement that insists that the NDP leaders must ‘call on the BC NDP provincial government and Liberal federal government to immediately withdraw the RCMP from Wet’suwet’en territory.’ The rapidly growing list of signatories includes several NDP MPs and other prominent members. Many trade-union, social-movement, and, of course, Indigenous activists have also expressed their outrage.

The harsh truth is, however, that party unity is always more of a concern on the left of social democracy than it is on the right. Politicians like John Horgan and Keir Starmer have a great deal more loyalty to capitalism than to even the most modest reform platforms their parties might overwhelmingly adopt at conferences. If, when they are in government, they choose to act like the enemy, it’s only fitting to treat them as such. Moral pressure and dissent within party ranks will have limited effect by themselves, and Horgan and his wretched government will have to face mass opposition on the streets, as they have already been challenged and confronted in the woods and on the territory of the Wet’suwet’en.

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John Clarke

John Clarke became an organiser with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty when it was formed in 1990 and has been involved in mobilising poor communities under attack ever since.