I WAS IN THE HOUSE WHEN THE HOUSE BURNED DOWN
by Jamie Mason
An (ex-)insider's view of how Canada's socialist left imploded in a welter of incompetence & identity politics
"I may be old and I may be bent
but I had the money till it all got spent
I had the money till they made me pay
then I had the sense to be on my way
I had to stay in the underground
I was in the house when the house burned down"
- Warren Zevon
2011 was the high water-mark for Canada's New Democrats. Jack Layton, with his Dabney Coleman good looks, neatly-trimmed mustache and Chinese wife was the embodiment of sane progressivism. Under his guidance, the youngest of Canada's major political parties rose from back-bench obscurity to Official Opposition in 5 short years. It was a bravura performance, and a hopeful moment for those of us who, like myself, had joined back in 1982. Back then the NDP's solid but turgid Ed Broadbent provided the only alternative to Prime Minister Joe Clark's laughably incompetent Conservative government and a newly reminted Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Freshly divorced from his hippie wife and returned from a sojourn with pal Fidel in Havana, Trudeau (Mark-1) was riding to Canada's rescue on the strength of nostalgia, smarmy charm and his hair-gel'd, beaver-pelt locks. Having saddled his political heirs with a collosal national debt and a moronic dual official language policy, the time was ripe to reignite Trudeaumania. Vive le Quebec! (Er, I mean Canada.)
Outsiders view Canada as a placid, inconsequential and slightly boring place - the international equivalent of flock wallpaper. But our politics is (to knowledgable observers) entertaining (albeit more Three Stooges than West Wing). Canuck politicans are nothing if not politic. If only their administrative competence matched their tone-deaf charm! The entire history of Canadian government is one of kicking the national can down the road, proposing inept solutions to problems which in turn create even greater problems that become the job of the next guy to fix. Parliament, the PM and the Supreme Court endlessly orbit the vacuous black-hole of national purpose and policy. Having failed to define itself as standing for much in its 150 year history, Canada's leaders have house-broken Canadians to value style over substance every time. In a banana republic suspended in an Arctic vacuum, what else is there?
Trudeau had the best patter (and the best hair), so won that election. Joe Clark crawled back under whatever rock is home to disgraced Conservatives. And the NDP, for all intents and purpose, ceased to exist. It's that way here in the Great White North. In a land where neighbors specialize in kicking down one another's houses before they're even built, the capacity for re-invention is boundless.
But the NDP even failed at that. Turgid Ed Broadbent (he of the orange blazer) stepped down in 1988 and was replaced by Audrey McLaughlin who, in addition to being the first woman to lead a major Canadian political party, succesfully drove the NDP into a series of debilitating alliances and, eventually, into the ground. Her successor Alexa McDonough continued this fine tradition, leading the party to an embarrasing 13 seats in the 2000 election - barely enough to retain official party status.
All we could do was hang our heads and mutter about how it wasn't about winning or losing but how you played the game. From the bleachers.
Jack Layton was different. A former Toronto city councillor, Jack had the backbone and bravura of a brass knuckles ward-boss with a charm-school education. Canadian political heroes come along perhaps once every forty years or so and Layton (despite being a Trekkie) was one. He had a sense of purpose - a novlety in our political biosphere that puzzled Canadians. In the 2004 election, Jack added just six seats to McDonough's nadir of 13. Turned out most NDPers had voted Liberal just to keep the Conservatives out of power. Jack took the lesson. Canadian national politics wasn't so much a race to the top as a cut-throat game of musical chairs waged by Alzheimer's patients, the Canadian body politic being as forgetful as it is fickle. So in the next election, Jack decided the right thing for a democratic socialist to do was alienate the Canadian Auto Workers Union - not entirely unexpected, given the Party's tendency to align itself, regardless of principles, with whatever minority government happened to be in power. When Stephen Harper's turn came, Layton's cunning forged an alliance that would enable him to hold Prime Minister Bland-and-Boring's legislation hostage at will. This arrangement led to a non-confidence vote and, in the 2011 election, the NDP rose to Official Opposition status for the first time in its history with 103 seats.
Immediately afterward, Layton did the unexpected. He up and died. It was a uniquely Canadian, Lucy-and-the-football moment. We muttered, shook out heads and side-eyed the bearded wildman from Outremont that succeeded him.
Thomas Mulcair will go down in history as the NDP's greatest failure as a national leader. Brusque, loud and unfailingly tweedy (he was a former high-school teacher), Mulcair badgered opponents in parliament and tried hard to make himself likeable to anyone outside the party. It was hopeless. Banking on his roots to fend off the Damoclean sword of Quebec separatism, the party failed to reckon with Mulcair's spectacular lack of popularity in his own province. (He had this awful habit of suddenly raising his hands like a piano player whenever lapsing into his fluent but ear-splitting French.) By the 2015 election, the sheen had dulled on the NDP in Quebec. The political landscape had changed and the NDP was again in the wilderness.
Add to that the arrival of the prodigal son. Fresh from a stint of a non-career teaching drama and snowboarding, Justin Trudeau's handlers outflanked a Mulcair who was desperately tacking to center by succesfully tapping the wells of immigrant alienation, feminist rage and white liberal PC guilt. The election was a crushing blow. The NDP lost sixty seats. And Canada got its second female Prime Minister. By the time Trudeau answered the question of why the cabinet was half-female with a simpering "because it's 2015" most NDP'ers were ready to move to Paraguay. Or hang ourselves.
We chose the latter.
In 2017, Canada's New Democrats elected Jagmeet Singh, a Brampton politican whose defining moment was introducing a private members bill in the Ontario legislature allowing turban-wearing Sikhs to flout the law and ride motorcycles without helmets. In all fairness, Sikhs represent a sufficient constituency in Canadian politics to have already wrung similar concessions from their host society, such as allowing public open-carry of their ceremonial daggers and forcing RCMP to adjust their centuries-old dress-code to accommodate turbans as well as the force's signature stiff-brimmed stetson. The prospect of Sikh road-kill, however, was too big a step even for Ontario and Jagmeet's bill went down in flames. But road-kill would prove an apt metaphor for his overall political trajectory.
The floundering NDP grabbed Jagmeet the way a drowning swimmer grabs an anvil. And why not? The handsome, eligible Sikh bachelor was a marketable political commodity. Personable, reasonably articulate, ethnic and athletic, he was the perfect aesthetic for a re-imagined New Democratic Party of Canada (hip, multi-cultural and brown). And he was a Sikh's Sikh: where most Canadian Sikhs are content with the standard wrap-around turban, Jagmeet favors the stove-pipe variety, swapping colors liberally to suit the occasion, such as the bright pink one he donned for a recent Toronto Pride Parade. Among any gaggle of his co-religionists, Jagmeet is guaranteed to stand out. A cursory glance at Jagmeet's policy positions gives one a good sense of the NDP's plans for its next political shipwreck. And it's not pretty.
Jagmeet's favorite legislative preoccupation seems to be ham-stringing police. In addition to opposing a 2014 Ontario government motion to reduce fraud, he sponsored a 2015 bill complicating the ability of the OPP to request ID from suspects. Such a high-profile move in a political fishbowl like Ontario sends a strong message to an already-quarrelsome public: it's okay to argue with a cop asking to see your driver's license. The bill passed. And the image of cops, already embattled, took another blow in Ontario. The message was clear: rule of law where it comes to equality of turbans and daggers, but fuck da police.
This theme has carried through to Jagmeet's career at the national level. He maintains the RCMP requires something called "LGBTQI2S+ competency training" - extra tutoring in not stigmatizing or traumatizing individuals in their custody who are lesbian, gay, bi, trans-gender (and whatever-the-fuck else the rest of those letters mean). Given that the RCMP has a record of dealing equitably with individuals of all ethnic and religious backgrounds, one must wonder why Jagmeet feels the need to single them out for this particular charge of incompetence. But a glance at his record confirms: it's, yeah, fuck da police.
Jagmeet also hasn't been shy about wading into the sticky swamp of trans politics. Despite the normally staid views of most Sikhs on such issues, Jagmeet supports self-declaration of gender on federal IDs. (Canadians can anticipate a lemming-like proliferation of pronouns, and raft of alphabet soup appended to that already-cumbersome acronym.) His position is that Health Canada should invest millions in assessing the "healthcare needs and experiences" of LGBT(QRSTUVLMNOP+?) Canadians. One wonders if this includes experiences with police (to say nothing of motorcycle helmets or ceremonial daggers). He also advocates for policy that allows Canadians to self-declare their gender. As if things weren't already confusing enough around that particular issue. More alphabet soup, anyone?
But Jagmeet's major departure from reality comes in his support for legalization of all drugs. Such issues, he maintains, should be treated as medical and not criminal. Putting aside the utter impracticability of such a step (Canada isn't Portugal), its implementation would effectively turn the blighted downtowns of cities like Toronto and Vancouver, already cracking under the weight of crime and fentanyl, into charnel houses. Legalizing all drugs in Canada would have the added side-effect of likely cratering the national healthcare system. (Plus, oh yeah, fuck da police.)
If the NDP is committed to self-extinction, they could not have chosen a better figurehead. When the laughably outdated policy book on their website gets updated, we can expect it to reflect Jagmeet's vision. After all, he's the hip poster boy for leftie nihilism. Having already left the party - and the Left - three years ago, I can assure you it will be exactly the low-comedy denoument the NDP deserves. They've fallen a long way in seven years. There's no getting back up.
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