If you’re a progressive Canadian, the last 20 years or so have been a depressing, extremely alienating slog through an endless political quagmire with very few appealing participants. The Liberal Party that governed the country throughout much of the ‘90s and early ‘00s weren’t terrible—they kept us out of Iraq and their reluctance to deregulate the banking industry to the same extent as their Democratic counterparts in America insulated us somewhat from some of the worst fallout of the financial crisis in 2008—but Jean Chretien and his successor Paul Martin weren’t exactly champions of leftist values, either. Their slightly-friendlier neoliberalism still resulted in the same wage stagnation, deterioration of public services and growing wealth inequality that seems today to plague all Western democracies.
And after the Conservative Party, led by neocon android Stephen Harper, capitalized on the tepid economy and a somewhat ginned-up sponsorship scandal to supplant the Liberals as the country’s governing party in 2006, left-leaning Canadian voters spent the next decade voting strategically, often in vain, for whoever stood the best chance at getting rid of them. It was a painful time, as the Conservatives muzzled climate scientists at the behest of the oil industry, presided over the disastrous G20 in Toronto and forced through draconian, civil-rights trampling security omnibus bills in the name of fighting a virtually non-existent threat of international terrorism. Though Justin Trudeau’s election in 2015 represented a welcome change, it has been an extremely long time since Canadians on the left side of the political spectrum have had the opportunity to actually vote for something, rather than against it. Manitoba’s Niki Ashton, currently running for the leadership of the New Democratic Party, is hoping to change that.
As the 2015 national election loomed, the NDP—Canada’s traditionally worker-oriented social democratic party—was poised to form a government for the first time in its history, but an ill-advised move to the center behind then-leader Thomas Mulcair—who made balancing the budget a major plank of his campaign and inexcusably allowed Justin Trudeau to outflank him from the left—relegated them back to third party status and ultimately cost him his position as leader of the party. Ashton seems to have learned the right lessons from that debacle, has taken inspiration from the insurgent, unapologetically progressive campaigns of Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, and hopes to both bring the NDP back to its left-wing roots and ride the same populist wave that propelled those two perennial afterthought backbenchers into the international spotlight.
Winning the NDP leadership race certainly won’t be easy (the election began on Monday, and culminates in October). Her biggest competition is most likely represented by Ontario Provincial Parliament member and deputy provincial party leader Jagmeet Singh, whose profile has risen steadily over the last year. His platform sticks closer to the political center than Ashton’s, but he’d still represent a significant progressive challenge to Justin Trudeau. That said, both Singh and Ashton would face long odds at dethroning the Prime Minister, who remains the most popular political leader in the country, and has been quite savvy in using his youthful looks, eclectic sock choices and inspirational—some might say vapid—social media game to become somewhat of an international celebrity.
But, as Hillary Clinton showed us, becoming a prominent Buzzfeed listicle presence does not always translate to electoral momentum. His approval rating has slipped nine points over the last year as left-leaning canadians who might have been willing to give him a chance have soured on him significantly as the reality of big tent Liberal Party centrism has collided with his legitimately progressive campaign promises.
The central manifestation of this, most likely, was his very clear promise to finally reform Canada’s outdated first-past-the-post electoral system, which many on the left pointed to as the culprit behind the Conservative Party forming a majority government despite winning less than 40% of the overall vote in 2011. His insistence that this would be “the last federal election using first-past-the-post” convinced many on-the-fence progressive Canadians to give the Liberal Party a chance under the pretense that real electoral reform would mean that strategic voting could be a thing of the past by the time the next election rolled around. But in the two years since he was elected, Trudeau seems to have completely abandoned the idea, twisting acrobatically like a puppy-eyed Matrix character to avoid any hurled accusation of a broken promise.
The rest of his progressive shtick seems to have lilted under the bright lights of national leadership and international heartthrob status as well. Canadians knew he was cosy with the oil industry, but his eagerness to approve controversial oil pipelines has stunned even some of his harshest environmental critics. He continued our government’s sale of billions of dollars in military equipment to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which the repressive monarchy has in turn used to wage a campaign of savage brutality onto the people of Yemen, resulting in widespread death, starvation and disease. His response to the belligerent bigotry from the Trump Administration has been tepid, vague platitudes.
Even the much-discussed impending national legalization of marijuana, one of the big progressive promises that Trudeau actually managed to keep, seems to have been paired with a doubling down on the same police/carceral state that has only grown in size and scope in this country over the last 15 years—and which legalization proponents had hoped could be kept in check by moving away from a prosecutorial approach to nonviolent drug offenders. All of this is to say that after a decade of Conservative governance and two years of Trudeau’s warmed-over “woke” neoliberalism, there is a significant voting bloc in Canada that is hungry for a truly progressive candidate to support. We know for certain now that it isn’t Justin Trudeau.
Enter Niki Ashton. If she can take her platform to the national level, it would represent the most progressive campaign that this country has seen in several decades, and a dramatic shift back to the left for the NDP. She is proposing a fairly radical plan to deal with the growing income inequality in this country by both getting serious about curtailing corporate greed and by drastically expanding our entitlement programs with universal pharmacare and mental health coverage. On tuition-free universities, on actual electoral reform, on justice for indigenous Canadians (for whom Trudeau has offered much platitude and little in the way of action), on environmental action, on Israel/Palestine, on racial and gender discrimination; she is offering an extremely bold, genuinely progressive vision that, if adopted, would dramatically reshape this country.
The pertinent question now is whether Canadians are ready to take this kind of a drastic step. Though there is widespread, growing inequality in Canada, citizens have been mostly spared from many of the more drastic economic and social tremors that have plagued America and sent the United Kingdom spiralling into an unknowable Brexit future. Though our social safety net has been relentlessly means tested and generally chipped away at for decades, though our education costs have risen and our wages have not, though our housing crisis is making home ownership a distant dream for a generation, it could always be worse. Any maybe that’s enough reason for the majority of Canadian voters to want to play it safe by continuing more or less in the same direction as we’ve been headed for decades.
But perhaps it is for this exact reason—that it could be worse—that a growing number of people in this country are beginning to clamor for something genuinely different. As America’s northern neighbors, we’re getting an up close and personal glimpse at what “worse” actually looks like, and it is ugly indeed. From the absolute insanity that has engulfed the United States’ political system to the current, steady stream of record-breaking, city-destroying hurricanes slamming into the southeast, it certainly seems as if the economic and social order that has governed the world’s most powerful superpower for decades is in a state of terminal collapse.
And just because things aren’t yet at the same level in Canada doesn’t mean we’re not staring down the same grim conclusion. If that really is what the future has in store for this country if we continue on our current path, it’s clear that a subtle shift in direction is not going to be adequate. As such, it might just be time to hand the wheel to someone who won’t gently nudge it to the right or left, but who will have the political courage to slam the brakes and change course entirely. Niki Ashton seems to be willing, and we’ll soon see if she’ll get her opportunity.