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PowerShift activists debate a Green New Deal for the Canadian state

Panel discussion at PowerShift
Chantal Sundaram

February 18, 2019

PowerShift, a convergence for climate justice that began in the US 10 years ago, continued in Ottawa this year with a diverse and inspiring agenda centred on youth empowerment and skills-building. But three of its sessions were dedicated specifically to a project new to Canada that originated in the US: the Green New Deal.

In the first session, Avi Lewis asked the packed room: “How many of you have heard of the Green New Deal and think it’s a good idea?” The whole room put up their hands. “How many of you could explain exactly what it is, either in the US or potentially in Canada?” Very few hands went up. 

Most know about it because of the recent Sunrise Movement in the US that helped give courage to Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez to introduce a resolution that would transform the US economy in ways that would address both the climate crisis and economic and social justice.

Courage, a movement that emerged out of the Leap Manifesto, which raised the climate justice flag but failed to create a lasting movement within the NDP, produced a draft document for what a Green New Deal could look like in Canada, distributed at PowerShift. The first session tried to define the parameters of what a Green New Deal (GND) could look like, the second the political alignments and forces necessary to implement it, the third, necessary organizing strategy, particularly with the 2019 federal election in mind.

In the first session, Avi Lewis laid out an honest assessment of the original New Deal’s successes and failures, and what might allow for a different framing of it this time, which was then up for discussion and debate by a group of panellists and the audience.

What was the New Deal in the 1930s?

In the US, it was a massive state intervention to save capitalism in a time of depression but also massive social movements. It is an example of a government’s ability to transform the economy quickly on a scale we haven’t seen outside of wartime through planned intervention. But Avi Lewis and all the panellists all came back to one thing repeatedly:  this did not happen due to the good will of Roosevelt but because his hand was forced by the immense pressure of mass movements of workers, unemployed, and poor people, that made some kind of compromise necessary to stave off social upheaval and possibly revolution in the US.

Millions of jobs were created, there was massive electrification and creation of public power, some workers’ rights were established, the welfare state was expanded, banks were regulated, the arts were funded.

Nevertheless, this compromise to avoid social revolution also sought to re-entrench capitalism, and left a dark legacy as well: mega power projects that appropriated Indigenous land; greater racial segregation through racist housing policies that created white suburbs and “redlining” in city centres, mass deportations of Mexicans and others.

From the US to Canada: the Green New Deal today

This history has provided a reference point more recently for a proposal for the US to intervene on a similarly mass scale to stop climate chaos, in the form of the resolution introduced by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The US Green New Deal sets goals for a national mobilization over the next ten years to achieve net-zero GHG emissions while creating millions of high-wage green jobs, and prioritizing economic and climate justice for frontline and vulnerable communities, with a commitment that this New Deal, unlike the original, would leave no one behind. It proposes a national job guarantee for all, with a wage and benefit guarantee for workers affected by the transition, stronger organizing rights, prioritizing frontline leadership and prior informed consent, especially as concerns Indigenous communities. It is inspired by movements like Sunrise, but social movements in the US today are not nearly as large or as strong as they were in the 1930s.

What the panellists emphasized was the need for any similar initiative in Canada to have a movement-building agenda. Clayton Thomas-Mueller of said a GND in Canada, with a federal job guarantee for a complete transition away from fossil fuels “would take a social movement army led by youth” and emphasized the youth demographic of Indigenous communities in Canada, and that a GND is inextricably linked to reconciliation.

Mike Palacek of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers talked about the fact that their last round of negotiations put climate change on the bargaining table through the introduction of public postal banking to finance green projects and transitioning Canada’s largest truck fleet to electric - which would involve retrofitting plants like GM in Oshawa instead of closing them. But he also talked about how they used this beyond the bargaining table, as a tool to reach out to the community in a campaign called “Delivering Community Power” that involved going door to door with a pamphlet on how we could become carbon-neutral.

Hassan Syed of Migrant Workers for Change talked about the need to challenge divisiveness, racism, and xenophobia in developing a method for waging collective struggle and a process for determining what a GND should be. Similarly, Karen Cocq of the Fight for Fifteen and Fairness talked about the need to counter the right-wing populism represented by the Canadian “yellow vests” truck convoy to Ottawa, which is the result of a fundamental failure of capitalism, leaving many behind: “if we don’t organize them, someone else will.”

The representative of the Canadian Labour Congress said a GND would hold promise for union and non-union workers alike because it ties climate action explicitly to good jobs and a just transition. “People are legitimately worried about trading in good union jobs for precarious low-paid jobs,” and a GND could take on this disparity. In fact, the outline proposed by Courage includes making prosperous the jobs with the smallest climate footprints – support workers, service workers, and care workers – by expanding the scope of this work and paying those who do it a decent wage.  

Alignments, organizing, and action for a GND

While the first session saw some debate about the whole conception – whether the GND would be a policy document that was also a wish-list for a decent life, or whether it could also be a way or method to organize struggle; whether it would be principally linked to electoral strategy in the lead-up to the federal election or whether it is more about finding the “choke-points” of capitalism through more collective action than elections – the next two sessions got more into the details of both of these conceptions in turn.

The People’ Alignment session talked about the goal of making a Green New Deal a vehicle to  get people into a movement that also fights racial, social and economic inequality. The facilitators talked about the need to tell a story that resonates with white working-class people more than yellow vests, but at the same time represents an emerging left that includes racialized people. They were working with a definition of “political alignment” as an array of social and political forces that align around a shared agenda but which are not monolithic. The argument was that we need a “new left” that becomes the new dominant alignment for a GND to work. Participants were asked to brainstorm in small groups about what a people’s alignment for a GND could look like: the diagrams included the range of existing social movements but also target communities.

The third GND session was on organizing and taking action for a GND, during the 2019 election and beyond. Here the facilitators argued that because the dominant neo-liberal alignment is on the decline we need mass public support for a new left alignment, and the federal election will be a strategic opportunity for a GND in Canada, especially for young people. It was the electoral cycle in the US, along with movements like Sunrise, that provided a strategic opportunity there. Here, it was argued that the election provides the potential to move the window of ideas accepted in public discourse to include a GND.

The strategy put forward was “momentum-based” organizing that is face-to-face, high visibility, inspires people to vote “with the movement”, persuades others based on where they are at, engages people to act independently in their own field (law, faith-based, art, education, etc), and focuses on getting the youth vote. The activist calendar between now and the election also emphasized: the March 15 student strike for the planet in Quebec, the March 21 National Day to Eliminate Racism, a tentative national climate mobilization in late April, and the official start of the federal election campaign in September.

Challenging the logic of capitalism

In all of this, there was an attempt to present the GND broadly, not just in the name of Courage, though they are one of the major organized promoters at the moment and perhaps the only one currently proposing what it might look like more concretely. While it was only one topic at PowerShift it clearly was a priority for many of the youth activists there. If it starts to get interest from sections of the labour movement, that could be a powerful combination.

And if the federal election is used as a tactical moment to grab some broad public attention for a GND, while still keeping a focus on its social implications beyond elections (many of which could pose a potentially fundamental challenge to the logic of capitalism) this could be not only a proposal for a just transition from fossil fuels, but a set of transitional demands that give ordinary people more confidence to challenge the very logic of a system that has brought us to the brink of environmental destruction.

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