About 3,000 people gathered in Toronto’s Nathan Phillips Square last Saturday to support the parliamentary coalition formed last week between the Liberals, the Canadian ruling class’ traditional party of government, and the social democrats of the New Democratic Party (NDP) in an effort to unseat the minority government of Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
The Toronto rally was one of several organized in cities across Canada in recent days by Liberal, NDP, and Green Party supporters and by the trade union bureaucracy. In Montreal, at a rally Saturday that was attended by about one thousand, these were joined by supporters of the regionally-based, pro-Quebec independence Bloc Quebecois.
The rallies occurred after a tumultuous week in Canadian politics, culminating with Harper, whose government faced imminent defeat on a non-confidence vote sparked by its parsimonious economic and fiscal update, prevailing upon Governor-General Michaëlle Jean to close parliament for seven weeks in order to buy his government more time to drive a wedge between the coalition partners. Never before had parliament been prorogued (suspended) so as to prevent MPs from voting out a government.
Supporters of the Socialist Equality Party (SEP) distributed a statement at the rallies titled “Canada’s constitutional coup: A warning to the working class.” (See: Canada’s constitutional coup: A warning to the working class.)
The statement explained that “the suspension of parliament and of the MPs’ right to defeat and replace the sitting government strikes at the most fundamental democratic right—the right of the people to choose their own government.” While calling on workers to oppose this constitutional coup, the SEP statement added that workers should give no political support to the “progressive coalition”—the alternate government to be formed by the Liberals and NDP and supported from the “outside” by the Bloc Quebecois.
Noting that the leaders of the three opposition parties had failed to denounce Governor-General Jean’s proroguing of parliament as an attack on democratic rights, the statement declared, “The class character of the coalition—its subservience to big business—is underscored by its tepid reaction to [the Dec. 4] constitutional coup.”
At neither rally Saturday did opposition leaders denounce last week’s coup and the archaic, anti-democratic institution that made it possible, the office of the governor-general.
At the Toronto rally, contingents from the NDP and the trade unions mixed with well-heeled supporters of the big business Liberal Party, flag waving nationalists and supporters of various middle class radical tendencies. There was a large group of officials from the Canadian Auto Workers (CAW) union, who had been meeting at the nearby Sheraton Hotel where they were preparing a campaign to convince auto workers that further contract concessions will be required to secure a government “bailout” of the Detroit-based Big Three.
The CAW bureaucracy is one of the biggest backers of the proposed Liberal-NDP coalition, calculating that this formation will be more amenable to a coordinated and structured down-sizing of the auto industry than Harper’s Tories. It is an open secret that many within Harper’s Conservative caucus, especially from western Canada, favour allowing one or more of the automakers to go bankrupt, viewing this as the best way to reduce auto workers’ wages, benefits, and working conditions and press for like concessions from workers in other industries.
Both Liberal leader Stéphane Dion and NDP chief, Jack Layton, addressed the gathering. But even as Dion was denouncing Harper for creating “an economic, parliamentary and national unity crisis all in the same week,” members of his own party were actively conspiring to relieve him of his position. John Manley, a former deputy prime minister under Jean Chrétien, that very morning had used the pages of the Globe and Mail to undermine Dion and the coalition. “As a Liberal, I believe the first step for my party,” stated Manley, “is to replace Stéphane Dion as leader with someone whose first job is to rebuild the Liberal Party, rather than leading a coalition with the NDP.”
At the rally itself, supporters of Bob Rae, a contender for the Liberal leadership, were actively organizing in the crowd to ensure that their man would be well-placed should Dion be forced from his position prior to his announced May 2009 departure date. Rae, who as the NDP premier of Ontario in the early 1990s imposed massive public spending cuts, a wage- and job-cutting “social contract” and onerous tax hikes, is the most vocal proponent of the coalition within the Liberal Party. He is currently fighting a rearguard action to prevent fellow Liberal and coalition sceptic Michael Ignatieff from seizing the reins of power from Dion as early as this week. Rae, who represents a central Toronto constituency, was conspicuously absent from the rally, choosing instead to attend a pro-coalition event in Winnipeg two nights before.
Dion, flanked by grim-faced Toronto Liberal MPs and erstwhile supporters Ken Dryden and Gerard Kennedy, took less than ten minutes to address the crowd. Taking extreme care not to mention, even for a moment, the grave constitutional questions raised by Governor-General Jean’s acquiescence to Harper’s padlocking of the Canadian parliament, Dion restricted his speech to a series of political attacks on Harper combined with extremely vague proposals for more government spending to address the economic crisis. After all, there have already been open disputes within his Liberal caucus over how large any economic stimulus package should be.
It was left up to NDP leader Jack Layton to pick up Dion’s slack. Clearly pressing his advantage against Dion, the lame-duck coalition leader, Layton spoke energetically for over twenty minutes. But he also took care not to criticize the governor-general’s decision to prorogue parliament.
Layton did go to some length in spelling out the type of spending proposals he would expect the coalition to pursue, highlighting, for instance, the timid suggestion that the two-week waiting period before laid off workers receive employment insurance payments be waived. Layton, who up until last month, had stuck doggedly to his election promise not to allow a budget deficit, was unable to produce any dollar figure for his spending proposals.
A World Socialist Web Site reporter also visited the pro-Harper “Rally for Canada” demonstration held at Queen’s Park in Toronto almost simultaneously with the pro-coalition protest. The pro-Conservative rally promoted the anti-democratic claim that the opposition parties do not have the legal and constitutional right to form an alternate government. It was attended by no more than four hundred flag-waving people and was addressed by a Conservative member of the Ontario legislature and a teenage Facebook organizer for the Tories. Clearly, the Conservative Party machine considered any further rallies unnecessary after the governor-general had ceded to their demand that parliament be prorogued so that the opposition could not vote non-confidence in the government.
Saturday’s pro-coalition demonstration in Montreal was dominated by Quebec’s three major labor federations—the Fédération des travailleurs du Québec (FTQ), the Centrale des syndicats nationaux (CSN), and the Centrale des syndicats du Québec (CSQ)—and their affiliates. There were also delegations from the Quebec Women’s Federation, l’Union des artistes, Greenpeace, and one of the province-wide student federations, the Fédération étudiante universitaire du Québec (FEUQ).
Québec Solidaire, the self-proclaimed left, Quebec sovereignist party, did not send an official delegation, but numerous of its partisans and candidates in the December 8 Quebec election were present. Following in the wake of the Bloc Québécois (BQ) and its sister party at the provincial level, the Parti Québécois, Québec Solidaire has officially lent its support to a Liberal-led coalition government.
In Quebec, support for the monarchy and the “Queen’s representative,” the governor-general, is even less than elsewhere in Canada. But none of the three official representatives who addressed the rally—the Liberal Denis Coderre, Thomas Mulcair of the NDP, or BQ leader Gilles Duceppe—condemned the governor-general’s actions, let alone the institution.
The nationalist character of the demonstration was most clearly expressed in Duceppe’s speech. The BQ leader made much of the attempt of Harper and the Conservatives to whip up anti-Quebec sentiment—which, to be sure, was utterly reactionary and in keeping with the Conservative government’s attack on democracy. Duceppe concluded his speech by calling for Quebec independence.