Election Day in Alberta – and Beyond

Alberta NDP leader Rachel Notley. Photo: Flickr/Dave Cournoyer

With the NDP poised to break through in Alberta tomorrow (where Texas-style Conservatives have been in power for 43 years straight!), I’m reflecting on the complexities of navigating electoral politics and the necessity of building outside it.

On May 5, I’d encourage everyone in driving distance to get to Calgary or other key areas and help get out the vote. An NDP victory would be a huge gain, and could help shift the political landscape in the whole country. Lots of awesome progressive people would be making laws in the place that has more impact on the fate of the planet than any other part of Canada.

On May 6, I hope that all those same people (and many more) would leave the NDP, or gain enough distance to be able to put serious pressure on those making the decisions. This is strictly practical. Once in power (still a huge if in this case), parties that campaign on even vaguely progressive platforms come under massive pressure to further moderate their measures. The more the balance of social power is tilted in a progressive direction, the more space progressive voices within the party will have to do decent stuff.

As a rule, parties hew to a path of less, if not least, resistance.

I certainly wouldn’t mind if the NDP were as aggressively progressive and proactive about building a base of support for good policies as the Conservatives are for their anti-women, pro-rich, pillage-the-environment, xenophobic, warmongering agenda. But that doesn’t seem like a real possibility. That’s because the rich, powerful, and media-owning class doesn’t mind the Conservatives’ agenda, but won’t tolerate wealth redistribution or environmental sanity.

Parties are made up of human beings who have to get up in the morning and go to work. In the case of the NDP, they’re getting attacked by conservatives, the media, and powerful lobbyists on a daily basis. They generally don’t take very well to people building concerted pressure from the left or around environmental concerns, for the human reason that it makes their jobs harder and more stressful.

Rachel Notley and the NDP have vowed not only to continue tarsands development but to build more refineries in Alberta. Photo: 4th Annual Tar Sands Healing Walk/Healing Walk

But everywhere in the world that governments have been able to go against the multi-decade trend toward economic inequality and extractivism, it’s because there are powerful social movements insisting that they do just that. Not voting and waiting, but fighting for it every day.

The trouble with all this is that it’s not easy. How do you whip people into enough of a frenzy to go vote in huge numbers, and then not only convince them not to retreat to passivity, but to turn that enthusiasm on a dime and use it to put pressure on the same candidates you were just glorifying?

The seeming impossibility of turning on that dime is, I think, why so many people who see the bigger issues shun electoral politics altogether. But until voter abstention doesn’t result in another decade-long Conservative onslaught, we’re going to need to learn to walk and chew gum at the same time.

A lot of people have said it before, but that means long-term movement infrastructure that can actively move and educate people, not just reflect their existing opinions. Not parties, not NGOs, but a type of peoples’ organization that barely exists in Canada. Organizations that can collectively build a different and evolving vision of society and strategically move toward it.

So my suggestion is: look around and see who is working toward that, or talking about it. Give them some encouragement, ask them how you can help, and if appropriate, please chip in.

Dru Oja Jay is a writer and organizer living in Montreal. He is a co-founder of the Media Co-op and the co-author, with Nikolas Barry-Shaw, of Paved with Good Intentions: Canada’s development NGOs from idealism to imperialism.