Jack Layton’s legacy to the NDP

Jack Layton received a fond public farewell from Canadians genuinely saddened by his untimely death. Now, the focus has, inevitably, begun to shift as members of his party contemplate next steps and the NDP’s opponents ponder with trepidation what the flood of public affection toward Layton might mean for them. Some NDP MPs and others in the movement are pondering a run at the leadership, an essential move now that Layton is gone. On the political right, some of the nasty people who write columns for newspapers such as the National Post, along with the more churlish of their readers, have now come out of hiding to ask what all the fuss was about anyway, to say that Layton was overrated, or to denounce Stephen Lewis for saying in Layton’s eulogy that his deathbed letter was a clarion call for social democracy.

Behind all of this flux is the reality that something extraordinary has happened. The NDP, and the CCF before it – so often the repository of hard work but dashed hopes – has been chosen by Canadian voters to be the official opposition in parliament. The party won 103 seats (59 of them Quebec) and 30.6 per cent of the popular vote on the May 2 election. The party came second in another 121 ridings and has, temporarily at least, supplanted the Liberals as the government-in-waiting.

Less than four months after that May election Jack Layton received a state funeral – it was a noble gesture by Prime Minister Harper. Members of the RCMP dressed in their ceremonial red tunics carried Layton’s casket to and from the halls of parliament. Here is the great irony. Those who have led the CCF-NDP have long been the recipients of affection and respect from individual Canadians but they and their party have been feared and loathed by the establishment.

Spying and dirty tricks

Canadian Press reporter Jim Bronskill has discovered that predecessors of those same red-coated men who carried Layton’s casket spied on CCF-NDP leader Tommy Douglas from the late 1930s until shortly before his death in 1986. They listened in on his private conversations, examined his links to the peace movement and probed his every public remark. During that time, Douglas a Baptist minister, served as premier of Saskatchewan and later as leader of the federal NDP. The RCMP (almost certainly with the knowledge of various solicitors-general) decided that Douglas was a threat to Canada, but it was he who was later chosen, posthumously, as the “greatest Canadian” by those voting in a contest sponsored by CBC TV in 2004.

In the 80 years since the CCF founding convention in Calgary, social democratic values emphasizing economic and social equality have taken root among many Canadians, but those values have remained anathema to the business, political and media elite. The party was increasingly popular in the post war 1940s, when it won power in Saskatchewan, became the official opposition in Ontario and at one point topped a national opinion poll, but then it fell back.

John Boyko writes in his book Into the Hurricane, that the growing popularity of the CCF in the 1940s prompted a Who’s Who among Canadian business to initiate a well-financed front group called Responsible Enterprise to discredit the party. There was a deliberate campaign to associate the CCF with communism, even though the party and its leaders, including J.S. Woodsworth, Tommy Douglas, David Lewis and others were committed democrats. These tactics were effective during an era dominated by the Cold War and the party fell on hard times in the 1950s. To be sure, the CCF also suffered from its own shortcomings and inconsistencies but the red-scare tactics organized by its opponents played a significant role limiting its success.

When the CCF joined with organized labour to create the New Democratic Party in 1961, Tommy Douglas (still under RCMP surveillance) became its first leader. By that time the party had shed its utopian desire to replace capitalism and had assumed the more pragmatic role of using politics to regulate and humanize the market. The constant refrain since the creation of the NDP has been that the party is the creature of a labour movement whose interests are contrary to those of most Canadians. That criticism remains incessant even today in Canadian newspapers, right wing talk radio programs and among television commentators such as Kevin O’Leary on CBC TV.

Nation builders

The rise of neo-conservatism, personified in leaders such as Ronald Regan, Margaret Thatcher and Brian Mulroney led to a decade or more of market triumphalism, in which any contrary ideas were treated with contempt. The Globe and Mail newspaper was prepared to name Ed Broadbent as its Nation Builder of the Year in 2005, and Stephen Lewis was in the running for the same award in 2008 – yet the newspaper would never have considered supporting their party. The NDP was seen as antiquated and irrelevant. It was accepted, at times, as the conscience of the nation, nice people to have around, but never to be trusted with power.

But a string of recessions, the bursting of the dot com bubble in 1999 and 2000, not to mention the most recent financial meltdown that began in late 2008, have shaken Canadians’ confidence in business and politics as usual. Jobs have disappeared, salaries have stagnated and pensions have evaporated. People appear to be open to some alternatives.

Layton’s legacy

Jack Layton arrived in federal politics in 2003 after Alexa McDonough had brought the NDP back to party status. Layton, who had long experience in Toronto civic politics, had superb organizational, strategic and inter-personal skills. He refused to write off Quebec as some previous NDP leaders had been forced to do and his persistence paid off in the May 2 election. And yes, he showed remarkable courage and stamina in the face of a daunting illness during and after the 2011 election. People who a year earlier had been calling him Taliban Jack and a publicity hound were forced to consider how he had become a politician for the ages.

Many in the media point to difficulties ahead for the NDP in maintaining discipline and focus in a new caucus with (for the first time) more than half of its members from Quebec – without their charismatic leader. That is one way of seeing it. But after decades in the wilderness, this is the greatest opportunity that social democrats have ever had in Canada. We’ll see what they can make of it.


Conservative pundits diminish Breivik’s Norwegian victims

By Dennis Gruending

The flat of NorwayOn July 22, Norwegian extremist Anders Breivik set off a car bomb in downtown Oslo that killed eight people. Then, dressed as a policeman, he traveled to a nearby small island and used a semi-automatic rifle to massacre 77 members of the Labour Party’s youth wing who were attending a summer camp. Now the dead (many of them just teenagers) have been buried. Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg has been unequivocal in saying that Breivik’s unspeakable actions will not change Norway’s commitment to democracy and tolerance. However, many media commentators, columnists and pundits on this side of the Atlantic have conspicuously lacked Stoltenberg’s vision or grace. On his syndicated talk radio program, the notorious Glenn Beck compared the young Norwegian victims to Nazis. As New York Times columnist Timothy Egan described it, Beck said the summer camp attended by the Labour Party youth “sounds a little like, you know, the Hitler Youth.” Continue reading Conservative pundits diminish Breivik’s Norwegian victims

Pulpit and Politics: Competing Religious Ideologies in Canadian Public Life

Released by:

Kingsley Publishers (October 2011)

A provocative expose of the competition between religious progressives and conservatives for power and influence in Canadian politics. Gruending follows this contest between from Parliament Hill to the church basements, synagogues, temples and  universities of the nation and abroad.

Available from the author: dennis.gruending
@sympatico.ca

Tel: 613-730-6902

Readers™ Comments:

Dennis Gruending brings both insight and hands-on experience to that fraught crossroads where faith and politics intersect, helping to trace not only the rise of a Canadian religious right but also the first stirrings of a reawakened religious left.“ Marci McDonald, journalist and author of The Armageddon Factor

“well informed observations on the role of faith in politics, and the politics of faith, an insightful guide to the current political landscape.” Rev. Bill Blaikie, former MP.

“focused like a laser on the analytical heart of today’s burning issues.“ Joe Gunn, executive director, Citizens for Public Justice.

Excerpt:

Over the past few years I have been struck by the growing competition between religious progressives and conservatives for power and influence in Canadian politics. This is an historic rivalry and one that will become even more pronounced now that Stephen Harper has won a majority government in 2011, partly through the efforts of religious conservatives. Their political agenda is anchored in opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, publicly funded childcare, a dislike of many social programs, and a general suspicion of government. Since its inception in 2006, the Harper government has courted conservative evangelicals, along with some Catholic and Jewish voters, to join a political coalition that would change Canada into a leaner and meaner state, albeit it one with more prisons and a larger military.

I will look closely at their political ideology and tactics in these pages, but that is only half the story. I will also report on efforts by religious progressives who are struggling to have their voices heard on issues of equality, justice, human rights, and peace. This is an effort that plays out on Parliament Hill, as well in church basements, synagogues and temples. It is not merely a topic of casual interest; the consequences for our future are potentially dramatic. Religious faith informs political decisions about the division of wealth in our society, education and race relations, immigration, respect for democracy, foreign policy, and environmental issues, to name just a few.

The following pages also examine religiously inspired ideas and events elsewhere that are having an impact in Canada. We cherish our reputation as a peaceable kingdom, but we are not immune to religious fundamentalism, even extremism. The bombing of Air-India Flight 182 bound from Toronto to New Delhi in 1985 killed 331 people, making it the most widely felt terrorist attack in Canadian history. It was planned and executed by Sikh religious extremists living in Canada. There are no tranquil islands in an increasingly globalized world of ubiquitous jet travel, round-the-clock news feeds, and secured Internet chat rooms.

There is a fine body of research and writing in the United States and elsewhere about the importance of understanding the motivation and tactics of religious groups involved in public life. Far less attention has been devoted to the topic in Canada. I am determined that Pulpit and Politics will help to fill this gap.

 

Dennis Gruending to publish book on Pulpit and Politics

Pulpit and Politics by Dennis GruendingThose of you who follow my blog will wonder why I have not been posting for the past number of weeks. In fact, several of you have contacted me to ask about it. The truth is that I have been taken up with the final edits of a book that I will publish in October. It’s called Pulpit and Politics: Competing Religious Ideologies in Canadian Public Life, and Kingsley Publishers of Calgary will release it. The themes and details that I deal with in the book arise largely from this blog, which I have been writing since late 2007. Actually, many of you have contacted me with constructive criticism about the blog and have provided ideas for stories that I might pursue. Many of those suggestions have made their way into the book but it goes well beyond the blog. I have revised the material, updated and added to it, and the book will also contain a detailed index of names and organizations as well as a comprehensive reading list.

I have been struck over the past few years by the growing competition between religious progressives and conservatives for power and influence in Canadian politics. This is an historic rivalry and one that will become even more pronounced now that Stephen Harper has won a majority government, partly through the efforts of religious conservatives. Their political agenda is anchored in opposition to abortion, same-sex marriage, publicly funded childcare, a dislike of many social programs, and a general suspicion of government. Since its inception in 2006, the Harper government has courted conservative evangelicals, along with certain Catholic and Jewish voters, to join a political coalition that would change Canada into a leaner and meaner state, albeit it one with more prisons and a larger military.

The book will look closely at the political ideology and tactics of religious conservatives, but that is only half of the story. I will also report on efforts by religious progressives who are struggling to have their voices heard on issues of equality, justice, human rights, and peace. This is an effort that plays out on Parliament Hill, as well in church basements, synagogues and temples. It is not merely a topic of casual interest; the consequences for our future are potentially dramatic. Religious faith informs political decisions about the division of wealth in our society, education and race relations, immigration, respect for democracy, foreign policy, and environmental issues, to name just a few.

The book will also examine religiously inspired ideas and events elsewhere that are having an impact in Canada. We cherish our reputation as a peaceable kingdom, but we are not immune to religious fundamentalism, even extremism. The bombing of Air-India Flight 182 bound from Toronto to New Delhi in 1985 killed 331 people, making it the most widely felt terrorist attack in Canadian history. It was planned and executed by Sikh religious extremists living in Canada. There are no tranquil islands in an increasingly globalized world of ubiquitous jet travel, round-the-clock news feeds, and secured Internet chat rooms. Canada is not an island, particularly given its tradition of engagement abroad and its increasingly ethnic and religious diversity. It is for these reasons (in addition to natural curiosity) that on my travels and in my reading I pay close attention to the links between religious faith and public life in other countries as well as my own.

I have watched this drama unfold from my base in Ottawa, and I have also participated in it: as a writer, a director of information for the Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops, and later as a Member of Parliament and a blogger. There is a fine body of research and writing in the United States and elsewhere about the importance of understanding the motivation and tactics of religious groups involved in public life. Far less attention has been devoted to the topic in Canada. I am determined that Pulpit and Politics will help to fill this gap.

Pulpit and Politics will sell for $22.00 and will be available (in October) from Kingsley Publishing or Alpine Book Peddlers.  It will also be available as an ebook. I hope that you will consider buying a copy for yourself and perhaps another for a family member or friend. I’ll let you know when Pulpit and Politics becomes available. And now, I will get back to writing for my blog. I promise.

Election 2011, political and religious polarization

By Dennis Gruending

Jason Kenney and Msgr. Patrick PowersStephen Harper won his long-coveted majority government in the 2011 federal election, receiving just under 40 per cent of the votes cast by the approximately 60 per cent of eligible Canadians who bothered to show up. An exit poll of 36,000 voters conducted by the Ipsos Reid company on May 2 yielded some predictable results based upon the religious affiliation of voters, but it also served up some surprises. One thing to note is that 55 per cent of Protestants voted for the Conservatives, a number far higher than the number of Protestants who supported other parties. This is not a surprise because evangelical Protestants in particular have provided strong support to the Conservatives in a string of elections.

Secondly, the NDP did well among Catholics, winning 39 per cent of their vote, compared to the 30 per cent of Catholics who voted Conservative and 16 per cent who voted Liberal. The NDP vote rose dramatically in Quebec where a large percentage of people identify as Catholics even if they seldom attend religious services. It is highly likely that those people were voting primarily as Quebecois who were not impressed by what they saw in the Conservative, Liberal or Bloc Quebecois parties. It is unlikely in this case that they were voting based on strongly held religious preferences.

Continue reading Election 2011, political and religious polarization

Remembering my friend Allan Blakeney

By Dennis Gruending

Dennis Gruending with Allan BlakeneyMy friend Allan Blakeney, the former premier of Saskatchewan, died recently at age 85. I describe him as a friend and he was, although I am aware that he had many friends of longer duration and also many admirers. I was an adolescent when he was involved as a young cabinet minister in giving us medicare in 1962. By 1971, when he became premier, I was a newspaper reporter and my specialty at the time was in covering agriculture, not politics. Later on I became a CBC Radio host and interviewed him on numerous occasions but did not know him well. His closer relationships with journalists were with some of the veteran political reporters. He played small chip poker regularly with a number of them over a period of years and he almost always left with the loot in his pocket.

He was a remarkably good premier even though the hand-pumping side of politics did not come easily to him. Although he liked people and was genial and quick witted in private, his public persona was one of someone buttoned up and cautious. He told me in an interview after he left politics that when he was premier he kept in mind the image of a giant reel-to-reel tape that was always recording. He did not want to commit any embarrassing bloopers that would threaten his government and its social democratic projects. Continue reading Remembering my friend Allan Blakeney

Canada celebrates Israel: Christian Zionism and the election

By Dennis Gruending

Stockwell DayOn day 12 of the federal election campaign Stephen Harper was in Markham, Ontario wooing immigrant voters. That same evening in Ottawa several hundred people gathered at a church called the Peace Tower on Bronson Avenue not far from Parliament Hill. There they pledged fealty to the state of Israel and praised Stephen Harper as that country’s Canadian benefactor. The event, called Canada Celebrates Israel, was one of four that occurred in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver within a few days in early April. The rallies featured three Israeli politicians who are members of the Israeli Knesset Christian Allies Caucus, as well as a cast of fundamentalist Christians from Canada. The four events received virtually no coverage in the mainstream media but an Ottawa-based student newspaper did a look-ahead piece in March. In that story one of the tour’s organizers said it was an outreach effort to Jewish and Christian communities to show support for Israel, but it certainly was not political.

Perhaps. But the Conservatives happened to be well represented. Jim Abbott brought greetings on behalf of the federal government. Abbott was the longtime Reform, Canadian Alliance and later Conservative MP for Kootenay-Columbia but has chosen not to run again in the 2011 election. Stockwell Day, the recently retired minister of the Treasury Board, had been billed as a guest speaker at the Ottawa event, but instead he provided a message on videotape. Day was available in person at the Canada Celebrates Israel event in Montreal on the previous evening. The Canadian Jewish News reported on it and described Day as giving “a strongly pro-Israel speech” which earned him a standing ovation. The newspaper described part of his speech as follows: “Day earned wide applause when he said Israel, as a Jewish state, has ‘an aboriginal right to exist’ and that the Hebrew scriptures, written as far back as 1,000 years BCE, provide historically accurate evidence of the Jewish presence in what is now Israel.” Continue reading Canada celebrates Israel: Christian Zionism and the election

Make climate change an election issue

By Dennis Gruending

'Politicians are not serious about about a carbon tax'I was in an Ottawa church basement along with about 80 other people a few days after the election call listening to three church leaders on a panel called Environment & Climate in Peril. The frustration was palpable. “Climate change is the key moral and ethical dilemma of our time and we have to engage it,” said Rev. Lillian Roberts from the United Church’s Ottawa presbytery. “We are facing a developing crisis and there is a need for an urgent response, but you won’t hear about it on the leaders’ debates,” said David Selzer, Executive Archdeacon, Anglican Diocese of Ottawa.

Sadly that is probably true. American economist William Nordhaus says that any politician who will not support placing a price on carbon is not really serious about slowing climate change. This pricing can come in the form of a carbon tax or a cap-and-trade system, which allows companies exceeding set carbon emission limits to buy credits from companies that create less carbon pollution.

In Canada, the whole issue was sidelined after the 2008 election when the Conservatives launched a devastating attack against Stephane Dion’s Green Shift plan to tax carbon polluters and use the money collected to reduce personal income and other taxes. The Conservative mantra was that no tax is a good tax and that Dion’s proposals would ruin the economy. The Harper government promised to introduce intensity-based pollution targets for industry but they are a joke. They might slow the rate of increase in greenhouse gas emissions somewhat but would still allow them to rise for many years to come. Continue reading Make climate change an election issue

Examines the relationship between religion and politics.