Note to pundits: the NDP leadership race matters

NDP leadership contender Guy Caron (left) at Ottawa event in August 2017. Dennis Gruending photo.

Soon, members of the New Democratic Party will begin electronic and mail-in voting to select their new leader. The race features four competent and principled candidates in MPs Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton and Guy Caron, as well Ontario MPP Jagmeet Singh, and it has become increasingly interesting. But the wider question is whether the NDP will be relevant in Canada’s political future? I contend that it will be. In the interests of transparency, I should mention that I served as an NDP MP in the late 1990s. Continue reading Note to pundits: the NDP leadership race matters

RCMP spied on Tommy Douglas

RCMP spied on Tommy Douglas
RCMP spied on Tommy Douglas

The RCMP security service spied on Tommy Douglas, the former Saskatchewan premier and federal NDP leader, from the 1930s until shortly before his death the 1980s. We know this only because Jim Bronskill, an Ottawa-based Canadian Press journalist, has waged a long battle with the federal government and its agencies beginning in 2005 to make public the files on Douglas which are being held in the vaults at Library and Archives Canada.

Bronskill used Access to Information requests and subsequent court cases to pry loose much of the 1,147 page file that the RCMP accumulated. A good portion of the material released has portions of the pages blacked out and it has also come to light that some material was destroyed. The federal government and the Canadian Security Intelligence Service (CSIS), which inherited the files from the RCMP, fought Bronskill every step of the way. They argued that the files must remain secret to protect the names of sources and the RCMP’s methods of spying. This seems rather odd because Douglas died in 1986. The police last spied on him about 30 years ago and much of the material in the files goes back as far as 80 years. Continue reading RCMP spied on Tommy Douglas

The Blaikie report on faith and politics

Rev. Bill Blaikie
The Blaikie Report

Rev. Bill Blaikie stands tall in the annals of Canadian parliamentarians and it is not only his imposing physical presence that sets him apart. Few MPs have served with equal distinction or for as long in the House of Commons (1979-2008) as the United Church minister from Winnipeg Transcona. And no one among contemporary MPs has been as staunch an advocate for the social gospel – a belief that religious faith can inspire progressive politics. It frustrates Blaikie when many people believe that religious faith, when taken to the public square, is inherently right wing in its political connotations. Even some members of the NDP (whose predecessor, the CCF, was forged in part as a religious movement), believe that religion should not be political and that it is an inherently right wing force. Continue reading The Blaikie report on faith and politics

Remembering Father Bob Ogle

Father Bob Ogle, NDP photo

I was thinking over the Easter weekend of Father Bob Ogle, my late friend and political mentor. It was in April 1998 that he died at age 69 after more than a decade of serious illness.  I wrote a brief piece about him for the Lives Lived section of the Globe and Mail and the article appeared in the newspaper on May 25, 1998. I am reproducing it here.

Lives Lived

Father Bob Ogle. Priest, missionary, author, Member of Parliament. Born on Dec. 24, 1928 in Rosetown, Sask. Died of cancer in Saskatoon, April 1, 1998, aged 69.

Father Bob, as he was commonly called, was a renaissance man, if one may so describe a Catholic priest. He was raised on a poor farm during the Great Depression in a devout Irish Catholic family. He studied for the priesthood in London, Ontario, then returned to Saskatoon where he became an energetic parish priest and seminary rector. Continue reading Remembering Father Bob Ogle

NDP leadership hopeful Paul Dewar, “faith is political”


Paul Dewar, the Member of Parliament for Ottawa Centre, has entered the race to become leader of the New Democratic Party. Dewar was raised in a political home in Ottawa and his parents were staunch Roman Catholics. Two years ago, I invited him to talk to a class that I was teaching about faith and public life and he was candid with those attending. I posted the following piece on my blog in early 2009. Now, with his intention to run for party leader, Dewar’s remarks about the relationship between religious faith and public life take on an even greater relevance. I am reposting that piece here. 

Jack Layton’s legacy to the NDP

Jack Layton received a fond public farewell from Canadians genuinely saddened by his untimely death. Now, the focus has, inevitably, begun to shift as members of his party contemplate next steps and the NDP’s opponents ponder with trepidation what the flood of public affection toward Layton might mean for them. Some NDP MPs and others in the movement are pondering a run at the leadership, an essential move now that Layton is gone. On the political right, some of the nasty people who write columns for newspapers such as the National Post, along with the more churlish of their readers, have now come out of hiding to ask what all the fuss was about anyway, to say that Layton was overrated, or to denounce Stephen Lewis for saying in Layton’s eulogy that his deathbed letter was a clarion call for social democracy.

Behind all of this flux is the reality that something extraordinary has happened. The NDP, and the CCF before it – so often the repository of hard work but dashed hopes – has been chosen by Canadian voters to be the official opposition in parliament. The party won 103 seats (59 of them Quebec) and 30.6 per cent of the popular vote on the May 2 election. The party came second in another 121 ridings and has, temporarily at least, supplanted the Liberals as the government-in-waiting.

Less than four months after that May election Jack Layton received a state funeral – it was a noble gesture by Prime Minister Harper. Members of the RCMP dressed in their ceremonial red tunics carried Layton’s casket to and from the halls of parliament. Here is the great irony. Those who have led the CCF-NDP have long been the recipients of affection and respect from individual Canadians but they and their party have been feared and loathed by the establishment.

Spying and dirty tricks

Canadian Press reporter Jim Bronskill has discovered that predecessors of those same red-coated men who carried Layton’s casket spied on CCF-NDP leader Tommy Douglas from the late 1930s until shortly before his death in 1986. They listened in on his private conversations, examined his links to the peace movement and probed his every public remark. During that time, Douglas a Baptist minister, served as premier of Saskatchewan and later as leader of the federal NDP. The RCMP (almost certainly with the knowledge of various solicitors-general) decided that Douglas was a threat to Canada, but it was he who was later chosen, posthumously, as the “greatest Canadian” by those voting in a contest sponsored by CBC TV in 2004.

In the 80 years since the CCF founding convention in Calgary, social democratic values emphasizing economic and social equality have taken root among many Canadians, but those values have remained anathema to the business, political and media elite. The party was increasingly popular in the post war 1940s, when it won power in Saskatchewan, became the official opposition in Ontario and at one point topped a national opinion poll, but then it fell back.

John Boyko writes in his book Into the Hurricane, that the growing popularity of the CCF in the 1940s prompted a Who’s Who among Canadian business to initiate a well-financed front group called Responsible Enterprise to discredit the party. There was a deliberate campaign to associate the CCF with communism, even though the party and its leaders, including J.S. Woodsworth, Tommy Douglas, David Lewis and others were committed democrats. These tactics were effective during an era dominated by the Cold War and the party fell on hard times in the 1950s. To be sure, the CCF also suffered from its own shortcomings and inconsistencies but the red-scare tactics organized by its opponents played a significant role limiting its success.

When the CCF joined with organized labour to create the New Democratic Party in 1961, Tommy Douglas (still under RCMP surveillance) became its first leader. By that time the party had shed its utopian desire to replace capitalism and had assumed the more pragmatic role of using politics to regulate and humanize the market. The constant refrain since the creation of the NDP has been that the party is the creature of a labour movement whose interests are contrary to those of most Canadians. That criticism remains incessant even today in Canadian newspapers, right wing talk radio programs and among television commentators such as Kevin O’Leary on CBC TV.

Nation builders

The rise of neo-conservatism, personified in leaders such as Ronald Regan, Margaret Thatcher and Brian Mulroney led to a decade or more of market triumphalism, in which any contrary ideas were treated with contempt. The Globe and Mail newspaper was prepared to name Ed Broadbent as its Nation Builder of the Year in 2005, and Stephen Lewis was in the running for the same award in 2008 – yet the newspaper would never have considered supporting their party. The NDP was seen as antiquated and irrelevant. It was accepted, at times, as the conscience of the nation, nice people to have around, but never to be trusted with power.

But a string of recessions, the bursting of the dot com bubble in 1999 and 2000, not to mention the most recent financial meltdown that began in late 2008, have shaken Canadians’ confidence in business and politics as usual. Jobs have disappeared, salaries have stagnated and pensions have evaporated. People appear to be open to some alternatives.

Layton’s legacy

Jack Layton arrived in federal politics in 2003 after Alexa McDonough had brought the NDP back to party status. Layton, who had long experience in Toronto civic politics, had superb organizational, strategic and inter-personal skills. He refused to write off Quebec as some previous NDP leaders had been forced to do and his persistence paid off in the May 2 election. And yes, he showed remarkable courage and stamina in the face of a daunting illness during and after the 2011 election. People who a year earlier had been calling him Taliban Jack and a publicity hound were forced to consider how he had become a politician for the ages.

Many in the media point to difficulties ahead for the NDP in maintaining discipline and focus in a new caucus with (for the first time) more than half of its members from Quebec – without their charismatic leader. That is one way of seeing it. But after decades in the wilderness, this is the greatest opportunity that social democrats have ever had in Canada. We’ll see what they can make of it.

Election 2011, political and religious polarization

By Dennis Gruending

Jason Kenney and Msgr. Patrick PowersStephen Harper won his long-coveted majority government in the 2011 federal election, receiving just under 40 per cent of the votes cast by the approximately 60 per cent of eligible Canadians who bothered to show up. An exit poll of 36,000 voters conducted by the Ipsos Reid company on May 2 yielded some predictable results based upon the religious affiliation of voters, but it also served up some surprises. One thing to note is that 55 per cent of Protestants voted for the Conservatives, a number far higher than the number of Protestants who supported other parties. This is not a surprise because evangelical Protestants in particular have provided strong support to the Conservatives in a string of elections.

Secondly, the NDP did well among Catholics, winning 39 per cent of their vote, compared to the 30 per cent of Catholics who voted Conservative and 16 per cent who voted Liberal. The NDP vote rose dramatically in Quebec where a large percentage of people identify as Catholics even if they seldom attend religious services. It is highly likely that those people were voting primarily as Quebecois who were not impressed by what they saw in the Conservative, Liberal or Bloc Quebecois parties. It is unlikely in this case that they were voting based on strongly held religious preferences.

Continue reading Election 2011, political and religious polarization

Remembering my friend Allan Blakeney

By Dennis Gruending

Dennis Gruending with Allan BlakeneyMy friend Allan Blakeney, the former premier of Saskatchewan, died recently at age 85. I describe him as a friend and he was, although I am aware that he had many friends of longer duration and also many admirers. I was an adolescent when he was involved as a young cabinet minister in giving us medicare in 1962. By 1971, when he became premier, I was a newspaper reporter and my specialty at the time was in covering agriculture, not politics. Later on I became a CBC Radio host and interviewed him on numerous occasions but did not know him well. His closer relationships with journalists were with some of the veteran political reporters. He played small chip poker regularly with a number of them over a period of years and he almost always left with the loot in his pocket.

He was a remarkably good premier even though the hand-pumping side of politics did not come easily to him. Although he liked people and was genial and quick witted in private, his public persona was one of someone buttoned up and cautious. He told me in an interview after he left politics that when he was premier he kept in mind the image of a giant reel-to-reel tape that was always recording. He did not want to commit any embarrassing bloopers that would threaten his government and its social democratic projects. Continue reading Remembering my friend Allan Blakeney