Canada’s Left Needs to Reclaim its Role as a Champion of Civic Nationalism

Nationalism is considered a dirty word with Canada’s left. While ethnic nationalism is problematic, civic nationalism is what built Canada. The idea of a country coming together to create nation building projects, be it the railroad or universal healthcare, begins with a shared sense of belonging. And that’s what’s disturbing and counter-productive of the left’s retreat from sphere of nationalism. By abandoning this historic territory in our politics, Canada’s emerging alt-right has a wide open field to grow. Further, the left increasingly becomes a coalition of grievances which will never attain the position to actually implement ideas. At best, the left with remain in perpetual opposition.

It wasn’t that long ago that civic nationalism was a staple of the left’s ideology. Much of the innovative social, economic, and cultural progress of Canada, came out of the wave of nationalism in the 1970s: Petro-Canada, a publicly owned oil company (Millennials, look it up), Canadian content rules on television and radio, the national energy program whose aim was to ensure 50% Canadian ownership of the oil sector, rules that stopped American magazines from flooding the Canadian market and undercutting domestic publications, and the foreign investment review agency. These were all initiatives of the Canadian nationalists and were strongly opposed by the right.

The great Free Trade debates in the 1980s again pitted leftist Canadian nationalists with the right and their allies in the world of global commerce. The Council of Canadians was founded during this time and one of their main objectives was protecting Canada’s sovereignty and warning about the threat of trade deals and globalization to Canadian jobs and prosperity.

Flash forward to today and the left has retreated and surrendered the language of nationalism to the likes of Kellie Leitch. To be clear, she and her minions of Canada’s alt-right can have ethnic nationalism, but she should NOT be allowed to claim the mantle of civic nationalism and talk about a national “shared sense of values”. This is dangerous territory not only because is raises the issue of whose values are we talking about, but because Canada needs a real, robust, and enduring dialogue about our national civic aspirations in order to survive as a country. Without it we risk becoming, in the words of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, “a confederation of shopping centres.”

There are those who suggest that Canada being some kind of post-national country given our multi-culturalism. That is both an ill-informed view of our history and a lazy approach to our future. Multi-culturalism is not the end of Canadian nationalism and culture – it’s our foundation. The First Nations, the French, English, and the successive waves of immigrations all built Canada. But it’s never set in stone. Nation building is hard work, requiring the commitment of hammering out a national approach to realizing our shared aspirations as a people living within our borders….and yes we still have borders and they matter (perhaps even more so with Trump’s America). Our democracy, our vote, allows us to have a say in that national dialogue. And we like to have that dialogue and share collective experiences. Witness the huge ratings for the final Tragically Hip concert this past summer AND the fact that Gord Downie used the occasion to talk about a national disgrace and challenge to our collective abilities to make things right as a country. I’d even argue that the election of Justin Trudeau was, in part, an example of the enduring support civic nationalism has in Canada. We want to feel a sense of collective aspiration and Trudeau, perhaps channeling his father, was an effective vessel for that. Alas, Justin has proved to not be as advertised.

This leaves the NDP with a real opportunity to pick up the mantle of civic nationalism in Canada and, through a new leader, articulate a new national sense of self in a turbulent world. This can speak to issues of economic insecurity, social progress, environmental sustainability not as platitudes to consolidate a bunch of interest groups, but to form the very basis of a plan moving forward. The Leap Manifesto is one approach to this. However, one glaring omission of the manifesto is the idea of building a shared sense of culture, let alone a movement of civic nationalism, that would be necessary to make the manifesto take root. Coincidentally, one could argue that the response to the manifesto, it’s diminishment without even a fair hearing, is a symptom our current lack of ability to have a talk about our national aspirations.

Canada’s left needs to reassert its historic role as a champion of civic nationalism. Whichever NDP leadership candidate takes up this mantle, will likely find a well-spring of support in the grassroots population, making it a winning political strategy as well.