The global order built around free trade, and the unity of the world’s richest countries, took a serious blow at the recent G7 meeting in La Malbaie, Que.
It wrapped up Saturday with threats by the U.S. of slapping further tariffs on Canada and cutting trade ties with its other allies around the table.
But the leftist activists who have spent years protesting what they call the neo-liberal system took no pleasure in this turn of events.
Several hundred of them gathered in Quebec City for a series of demonstrations against the G7 summit.
And whatever their reservations about free-trade agreements, they are no fans of the principal agent of their destruction, U.S. President Donald Trump and the politics he represents — including those tariff threats.
The G7 meeting in La Malbaie, Que., ended Saturday amid threats by the U.S. of slapping further tariffs on Canada and cutting trade ties with its other allies.(Justin Tang/Canadian Press)
“It was something completely spontaneous. We need more thought about this issue,” said Claude Vaillancourt, who heads ATTAC-Quebec, a left-leaning group that opposes free-trade agreements which encourage tax competition.
“You get the impression there are only two positions: free trade or protectionism. But that’s not true.”
But to see the future of free trade rattled by a Republican president is only the latest upheaval in our long-running understandings of who stands for what.
And the left, in particular, finds itself at a critical juncture as it watches the populist right usurp issues and constituencies it once could take for granted.
A fractured left?
At a conference held by progressive groups before an anti-G7 march on Saturday, a trade campaigner with the Council of Canadians noted Doug Ford swept large parts of Ontario’s de-industrialized southwest in his election win Thursday.
“It’s a populism that is a reaction to globalization,” Sujata Dey said of Ford’s victory.
“We [the left] were the first to speak about the negative effects of globalization. But our discourse has been taken over by the right. And they are adding misogynistic and xenophobic elements to it.”
Within parts of the Canadian left, there is a frustration that its institutional representatives, including unions and the NDP, have often preferred a non-confrontational approach to class politics.(Jonathan Montpetit/CBC)
The smaller than hoped for turnout at the anti-G7 demonstrations, however, did little to alleviate fears the progressive cause in Quebec, and the rest of Canada, is too fractured to wield much influence at the moment.
“When the issues are there, yes, we are able to unite ourselves,” Dominique Daigneault, a representative of the Confédération des syndicats nationaux (CSN), one of Quebec’s main labour federations and an co-organizer of Saturday’s demonstration.
“Do I wish we did that more often? Of course.”
Within parts of the Canadian left, though, there is a frustration that its institutional representatives, including unions and the NDP, have often preferred a non-confrontational approach to class politics.
“The labour unions did almost nothing to help organize this thing,” Joel Bergman, an activist with the Marxist group Fightback, said surveying the small crowd that had gathered Saturday outside Quebec’s legislature building.
Bergman also criticized the leadership of the NDP for abandoning its socialist roots and buying into the notion that “they’re too radical and have to moderate their discourse.”
Many anti-G7 activists in Quebec City pointed to British Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn and U.S. Democratic Senator Bernie Sanders as examples of the kind of leadership the Canadian left needs at the moment.
Many anti-G7 activists in Quebec City pointed to British Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn as an example of the kind of leadership the Canadian left needs. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)
Both Corbyn and Sanders are avowed socialists whose popularity comes from rejecting the Third Way approach pioneered by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton.
As leftist parties opt for the middle ground, according to this line of thought, they distance themselves from the needs of the poor and working class, whose votes are then ready to be scooped up by their conservative rivals.
There is at least some evidence that sticking left, as opposed to turning toward the centre, could be an electorally winning strategy.
After analyzing the results from Ontario’s provincial election, pollster Darrell Bricker made the following observation:
NDP learned big lesson in Ontario. Tacking to middle and allowing yourself to be out-flanked by Libs doesn’t work as well for attracting progressive coalition as going left. Creates very interesting showdown for progressive vote in next federal election.
Bowling with the people
Quebec’s fall election, though, will be the next contest where this theory will be tested.
As it stands, the right-leaning Coalition Avenir Québec — promising lower taxes and tighter immigration controls — is polling well ahead of the social democratic alternatives on the ballot, the Parti Québécois and Québec Solidaire.
Asked recently what Quebec’s left could do to turn around its fortunes, Donald Cuccioletta — a long-time Montreal activist — grabbed the lapels of this reporter’s jacket to make his point.
“Dammit, the CAQ goes bowling with the people. I haven’t gone bowling with the people,” said Cuccioletta, who is co-president of the social justice group Alternatives.
“That’s a lesson, for me, that the left has to learn.”