Return of the New Democrats: Canada’s Socialists Re-invent Themselves

Return of the New Democrats: Canada’s Socialists Re-invent Themselves

When Canada’s New Democratic Party (NDP) leader Jack Layton died of prostate cancer at age sixty-one in August, the outpouring of grief was extraordinary. Thousands attended his funeral and lined the streets, wearing the orange colors of the social democratic party he led. Layton was granted a state funeral, his body lying in state for two days in Toronto. Such ceremonies are reserved for prime ministers, governor generals, and active members of the cabinet, not opposition leaders. Conservative prime minister Stephen Harper offered Layton’s family the honor, however, sensing the public mood. Harper is nothing if not a shrewd politician, and he knew much of the country felt it had suffered a great loss.

The thousands who attended Layton’s funeral were grieving for a man who passed away only four months after leading his party to unprecedented electoral success. The NDP had just thirteen seats when Layton took over as party leader in 2003, and when he died that figure stood at a hundred and three, the best in the party’s history. But Layton’s death eliminated the party’s greatest asset. The future success of the New Democratic Party, both in the near and longterm, is now very much in doubt.

The modern NDP resulted from a merger of the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) and the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) in 1961. A populist, agrarian party based in Western Canada, the CCF was the first socialist party to govern in North America, when it took power in the province of Saskatchewan in 1944. The era’s optimism about leftist economics was epitomized in the CCF’s founding convention, in 1932, which declared that “No CCF Government will rest content until it has eradicated capitalism and put into operation the full programme of socialized planning which will lead to the establishment in Canada of the Co-operative Commonwealth.”

The CCF premier of Saskatchewan and the first leader of the NDP is one of the few historical figures still known to today’s Canadians. In a 2004 Canadian Broadcasting Corporation poll, Tommy Douglas was voted the greatest Canadian ever. His reputation derives from his role in pioneering the country’s (indeed, the continent’s) first universal health care program. Implemented in 1962 despite a ferocious strike by Saskatchewan doctors, Medicare was adopted countrywide within a decade.
Douglas embodied the best of postwar social democracy. He had sterling antifascist credentials, having volunteered in Canada’s army during the Second World War. At the same time, Douglas was hostile to communist doctrine. He and the CCF won five straight majorities in Saskatchewan from 1944 to 1960.

The CLC brought together the two major Canadian labor groups, the Trades and Labour Congress of Canada (TLC) and the Canadian Congress of Labour (CCL). The TLC was nonpartisan, but the CCL included many communist militants. In the late 1940s, however, the CCL expelled its communist...

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