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Canada’s Chance for a Green New Deal

The New Democratic Party has finally proposed a strong climate plan for Canada that opposes new pipelines. But the party needs to be honest about a key fact necessary to save the planet: Canada must euthanize its oil industry.

Miles of unused pipe, prepared for the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, which would run through Canada and the United States, sit in a lot outside Gascoyne, North Dakota in 2014. Andrew Burton / Getty Images

After years of activist pressure, Canada’s federal New Democratic Party (NDP) has finally formulated their own Green New Deal–inspired climate plan entitled Power to Change: A New Deal for Climate Action and Good Jobs. The announcement comes ahead of an October federal election — and as Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s luster is wearing off, with polls showing him vulnerable. On May 6, the NDP lost a seat in a federal by-election on Vancouver Island to the Green Party, which has also recently released their own climate plan.

These circumstances have forced the NDP to finally stake out firm positions the party had previously avoided. While the NDP was opposed to building the TransCanada pipeline, they gave qualified support to British Columbia’s NDP government’s plan to build liquefied natural gas (LNG) pipelines and terminals. The Green Party is against LNG development, which helped them win the by-election.

Federal NDP leader Jagmeet Singh finally came out against LNG development this past May, much to the consternation of the British Columbia NDP government and unions in the province, who are expecting increased provincial government revenues and new jobs from the project.

Singh has waffled on pipeline projects before, supporting some while opposing others (as have his predecessors in the party leadership). Singh deserves credit for not only clearly opposing these projects, but doing so in the face of support by some building and engineering trade unions and an NDP provincial government.

On June 16, the NDP also released its full platform for the upcoming federal election. In addition to its climate plan, the NDP is stressing Indigenous reconciliation, postal banking, stronger welcoming of refugees, criminal justice reform, increased taxes on the wealthy and corporations, improved workers’ rights, a plan to eventually make higher education free, and adding drug and dental coverage to Medicare.

While not perfect, the NDP’s climate plan and its whole platform is a much-needed leftward shift by the party and opens up space for bold policies to tackle global warming.

The Good

In Power to Change, the party is promising a climate action plan that is implemented in accordance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, and that respects Indigenous lands and traditional knowledge. This means instead of mere consultation over development projects, there will be free, prior, and informed consent for Indigenous nations, which should be compared to the undemocratic process of LNG pipeline approval that has led to the Unist’ot’en Camp protest.

The promise of a just transition for workers, in which workers in sectors like fossil fuels are not left behind as the economy is transformed, is very much front and center in the plan.

The NDP is also linking its just transition promise in its climate change plan to another issue affecting millions of people: housing affordability. Toronto and Vancouver are among the most expensive cities in North America, and Montreal, which for many years was known for its affordable rent, is now becoming more expensive.

Power to Change includes a plan for an extensive retrofit of existing social housing and the construction of new units as part of its promise to create good jobs outside of the fossil fuel industry. The NDP wants to build a framework for achieving free public transportation across the country, which activists have long been organizing for.

And in an ambitious goal, the NDP wants net-carbon-free electricity for Canada by 2030.

The Bad

But Power to Change isn’t perfect. The plan promises, “Where oil and gas will continue to form a part of Canada’s energy mix in the immediate future, we will continue to prioritize domestic upgrading and refining instead of shipping our raw resources and jobs to other countries.”

Thinking this is a smart or even achievable plan to create new jobs is a chimera. New refineries are expensive and take five to ten years to build. Given that the NDP is setting many of its climate goals for 2030, expecting high levels of oil extraction to continue at a level that requires more refining capacity is actually undermining the climate plan.

But what the NDP is lacking in its climate plan is what goes unmentioned in it — the power of the oil industry in Canada. Any serious plan to deal with climate change in Canada is going to have to neutralize what is arguably the most powerful industry in the entire country.

That is no easy task. The Canadian oil lobby spends a lot of money to sway public opinion on the need for more extraction and pipelines. Its most favored talking points are the jobs and economic growth that the industry brings, and the fact that since Canada is a liberal democracy, it is more ethical to extract oil from there than, say, the Persian Gulf monarchies or any other authoritarian oil-exporting countries.

Facing down the oil industry will take a lot of public support and pressure. The NDP’s relations with social movements have historically been strained, particularly in the neoliberal era. This has often led to NDP provincial governments being unable to deliver their more progressive promises and cowering when business demands fiscal discipline.

Getting an NDP government at the federal level is going to be hard enough — something that has never been accomplished in Canadian history. Carrying out the party’s minimum platform will only be accomplished through a serious push from social movements, labor, and the Left, on a scale that Canada has not seen in decades.

And successfully carrying out its platform is also going to take presenting the truth of the scale of economic transformation to the public. Though the NDP is very clear that it will eliminate the billions of dollars in subsidies that the fossil fuel industry receives, there is only a vague nod toward the idea that perhaps at some point, the oil industry in Canada will cease to exist. Power to Change says that oil will remain part of Canada’s energy structure for the “immediate future.”

While there is a debate about whether a managed decline of Canada’s oil industry should take place in the hands of the private sector or under a nationalized system, there is no debating that continued (or increased) extraction from Alberta’s oil sands will lead to a climate disaster that will affect not just Canada’s emission reduction targets, but the whole planet’s.

That is why the NDP needs to be honest about the fact that Canada needs to euthanize the oil industry, and come up with a plan to counter the inevitable pushback.

To do this, the NDP will need to resist some of the Third Way, neoliberal thinking that has afflicted it in recent decades. In Singh’s introduction to Power to Change, he declares that this plan is “setting Canada up to be globally competitive in the low carbon businesses of the future.” Later in the platform, a “Low Carbon Industrial Strategy” is necessary not just for green industry and the economy but “to secure our industry’s competitiveness, and to market Canadian industry internationally.”

Maintaining international competitiveness while making signals toward social justice is a hallmark of the Third Way, and it has come to sting the NDP before. During the NDP’s only time as the governing party of Ontario from 1990 to 1995, it tried to make the case for a “progressive competitiveness” in a vain attempt to protect the province’s manufacturing industry in the wake of NAFTA and the early 1990s recession. This plan failed, and the NDP was pushed from power in Ontario after one term, leading to an even more savage assault on the working class from an explicitly right-wing provincial government.

Giving competitiveness a left-wing sheen still ultimately attempts to integrate the working class to neoliberalism. As Sam Gindin and Leo Panitch once noted, for social democrats to become obsessed with competitiveness, “even qualified as ‘progressive competitiveness,’ is to give up on the socialist project before you begin.”

Moving Forward

After a long period of frustration from the Left, the NDP is finally making moves in the right direction. It has proposed an extensive climate change plan, and its overall platform is as left-wing as it has been in decades. Gone are the days when the party made fighting ATM fees a big part of their platform, or arguing that increasing top marginal tax rates will drive doctors out of some provinces and rejecting wealth taxes in general. While not promising the eradication of capitalism, serious economic restructuring is back on the agenda. Whether that restructuring can open further socialist possibilities isn’t clear yet.

Many activists, labor, and social movements have long proposed key policies that the NDP has finally taken up. But given past compromises and sellouts by the party’s leadership and bureaucracy, some leftists will no doubt be skeptical of the NDP’s new leftward movement.

And the NDP will face stiff resistance from not only capital but entrenched interests within the party. Many construction and engineering unions are already critical of the party’s new opposition to all pipelines. There is the British Columbia NDP government, but there are also the Alberta and Saskatchewan NDP, who are pro-pipeline. The recent opposition to these constituencies from the federal party is unprecedented.

Thus, the NDP’s move to the left is indicative of a reinvigorated Left around the world. Singh recently tweeted that he had a productive phone conversation with Jeremy Corbyn about shared priorities like climate change, the international rise of the far right, and global inequality.

Because the NDP has not seen a movement like the one that made Jeremy Corbyn leader of the British Labour Party, there is little immediate pressure to restructure and democratize the party. And unlike Labour in the UK, the NDP has always been a third party at the federal level. The fear of vote splitting with the Liberals (and now the Greens), allowing the Conservatives to win, has always been a problem.

But the Left in Canada is going to have to devise a strategy to pressure the country’s social-democratic party to fight for a serious climate plan in the face of overwhelming opposition from capital, and even fear from sections of the working class that feel that their livelihoods would be threatened. Combined with the NDP’s third-party status, that is no easy task. But given the size of Canada’s carbon footprint, it is essential for the country’s — and the planet’s — future.