Category Archives: Stephen Lewis

What Is the Left in Canada?

A claim to righteousness in international affairs is fundamental to Canadian exceptionalism, the idea that this country is morally superior to other nations.

— Yves Engler1

In early August of this year, the Canadian minister of foreign affairs, Chrystia Freeland, tweeted for Saudi Arabia to release human rights activists. This greatly angered the Sauds who issued a series of sanctions that included selling off Saudi assets in Canada, ceasing purchases of Canadian wheat and barley, expelling Canada’s ambassador, suspending all Saudi Arabian Airlines flights to and from Toronto, and ordering Saudi students to leave Canadian schools.

So far Canadian government officials have not responded other than to state Canada will continue to speak out on human rights abuses. That Canada speaks about human rights abuses comes across as rank hypocrisy to some Canadians. Given that Canada exists through a genocide against its Original Peoples; given that Canada is a partner in US imperialist wars; given that Canadian corporations, especially mining corporations, have been exploiting the third world whereby do Canadian officials living in their government greenhouse deign to cast rocks at other houses?

Canada touts itself as a multicultural land that embraces diversity. Canada tends to align itself more so with the Scandinavian welfare-state model rather than the rugged individualism of its neighboring United States. And Canada has a politically represented Left, or what purports to be a Left, in the New Democratic Party (NDP) — even a Communist Party and Marxist-Leninist Party, although neither are electorally successful.

Yves Engler has written Left, Right: Marching to the Beat of Imperial Canada (Black Rose Books, 2018) which examines the Left in Canada. I tend to use the term progressivism because it refers to a grouping “that encompasses a wide spectrum of social movements that include environmentalism, labor, agrarianism, anti-poverty, peace, anti-racism, civil rights, women’s rights, animal rights, social justice and political ideologies such as anarchism, communism, socialism, social democracy, and liberalism.” The term the Left points to a bipolar split rather than a spectrum. Nonetheless, progressivism and the Left are referring toward a similar orientation.

In Left, Right Engler examines the NDP (and its earlier incarceration as the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation or CCF), the labor movement, leftist institutions, and leftist personalities (and other actors) for just how leftist or left-leaning they actually are. If one self-identifies as Left, then its seems perfectly reasonable that one should adhere to leftist principles. Actions will define a social/political orientation with greater clarity than words (which are also important). To belong to a party deemed leftist which then pursues right-wing policies presents a contradiction — and in the worst case, exposes one to criticism for hypocrisy.

Engler critiques the CCF/NDP for its militarist support, lack of compassion for foreign workers, and moral corruption of its leaders. For instance, NDP stalwart “Stephen Lewis was stridently anti-Palestinian,” writes Engler. (p 31) Ex-federal NDP leader Tom Mulcair was a front-and-center Zionist. Engler notes that another ex-federal NDP leader Jack Layton was passionate about the role of Canada’s military in Afghanistan. (p 35)

Engler asks,

Has the desire of some in the NDP to replace the Liberals as the slightly leftist alternative to the Conservatives caused the party to move so far to the right that it agrees with Canada being a partner in enforcing imperialism? If so, what sort of home does it offer to those who oppose US Empire and all forms of imperialism? (p 48)

This reviewer does not consider any major Canadian party to be Left. The Conservatives are staunchly neoliberal. Ditto for the Liberals (just a bite less to the Right than the Conservatives). The NDP also are a Right of Center party. Their lack of internationalism, support for militarism, racism among leaders, etc locate them at a great distance from leftist principles. At best the NDP are faux-Left.

The labor movement has also seen jingoism, militarism, racism among labor leaders, anti-communism, and a lack of solidarity (a sine qua non for the dignity of labor).

Engler writes that the Right has caught the ear of many labor leaders. (p 86-94)

Even “left-wing” think tanks bend to the Right, as do “leftist” critics. Engler notes that the Rideau Institute’s support for “peace-keeping” plays into mythologizing Canada as a peaceful kingdom while aligning with military objectives. (p 99)

As far as I can tell, major Canadian peacekeeping missions have always received support from Washington. Ignoring the power politics often driving peacekeeping missions has resulted in (unwitting) support for western imperialism. (p 100)

The author dispels the obfuscation of corporate/state media and its purveyors to cut through disinformation that has captured some of the “leftist” imagination. Engler shreds the role of a good Canada historically and more contemporaneously, among others, in supporting Zionism, the US-France-Canada orchestrated coup in Haiti, as well as the lauded (nauseatingly by corporate/state media) Canadian general Roméo Dallaire who twisted the genocide in Rwanda. Dallaire is a strong proponent of the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, a cover for western imperialism. (p 176)

Even among Original Peoples — traditionally considered, in at least a societal sense as leftist2 — have seen their “leaders” support militarism, colonialism, imperialism, corporate plunder, and environmental degradation. Engler says an online search will reveal the Assembly of First Nations insouciance about how Canadian policy impacts on rest of the world. (p 179) The Assembly of First Nations is, however, problematic insofar being viewed as a legitimate representative of Original Peoples. (p 192)3

The Left treads a slippery slope when it agrees with or takes up right-wing causes such as militarism, acquiescing when environmental destruction is at stake, and failure to support solidarity networks outside Canada. Engler broaches the antidote which is genius in its simplicity and obviousness: the Do No Harm principle backed by the Golden Rule.

Yet contrariwise Engler opines, “Canadian soldiers have only fought in one morally justifiable war: World War II.” (p 52) No explanation is proffered by the author for this opinion. One wonders how the Do No Harm principle was satisfied by Canadians fighting overseas? Also Engler’s contention of a morally justifiable4 war is challengeable, and it is challenged by history professor Jacques Pauwels in his book The Myth of the Good War.5

Engler writes in a very readable style, and his work is solidly backed by sourcing. Most saliently, his work has a moral core. Left, Right is important and valuable in that it does not only illustrate and lament the corruption of leftist principles, but it also provides solutions about how leftist principles can be upheld; pushing the Left leftwards.

Read Left, Right and find out about how the NDP can be made relevant on the Left, about how to increase public awareness, and about how to grow the leftist movement.

  1. Left, Right: Marching to the Beat of Imperial Canada (Black Rose Books, 2018): 151.
  2. This was anathema for colonialism and its capitalist ideology. “The communal–they [colonialists who decided that “the Indians were to be individualized and completely Americanized” (p 3)] called them ‘communistic’–patterns of the Indians were an affront to their sensibilities. Unless the Indian could be trained to be selfish, they felt there was little hope of civilizing and assimilating them.” In Francis Paul Prucha (ed), Americanizing the American Indians (Harvard University Press, 1973): 8.
  3. Something pointed out by Indigenous warrior Splitting the Sky: “The Assembly of First Nations is a neo-colonial elected system and their Chiefs are dependent on federal funds, therefore they are considered as collaborators of a foreign power.” In Splitting the Sky with She Keeps the Door, From Attica to Gustafsen Lake (Chase, BC: John Boncore Hill, 2001): 84. Review.
  4. The language is slippery here because Engler does not state that WWII was morally justified, just indicating that moral justifications could be made. But is that not true for almost any war? And do not the war-initiating nations invariably purport some sort of moral rationale to justify aggression?
  5. E.g., US motivations during WWII were based on corporate interests: “… the US power elite is motivated first and foremost by economic interests, by business interests… (p 240; see also p 29-41); not on fighting fascism as GIs “first became acquainted with fascist (or at least quasi-fascist) practices, in the form of petty mistreatments and humiliations…. The American soldiers had not wanted this war, and they did not fight for the beautiful ideas of freedom, justice, and democracy; they fought to survive, to win the war in order to end it, in order to be able to leave the army, in order to be able to go home.” (p 22) In Jacques R. Pauwels, The Myth of the Good War (Toronto: Lorimer, 2015).

Canada’s New Democratic Party’s Anti-Palestinian History

The NDP leadership’s naked suppression of debate on the “Palestine Resolution” is rooted in a long pro-Israeli nationalism history.

At last month’s convention the party machine blocked any debate of the Palestine Resolution, which mostly restated official Canadian policy, except that it called for “banning settlement products from Canadian markets, and using other forms of diplomatic and economic pressure to end the occupation.”

As I detailed previously, the Palestine Resolution was confusingly renamed, deprioritized and then blocked from being debated on the convention floor. The suppression of a resolution unanimously endorsed by the NDP youth convention, many outside groups and over 25 riding associations was the latest in a long line of leadership anti-Palestinian actions.

However, the first leader of Canada’s original social democratic party actually took a sensible humanist position, criticizing the colonialist/nationalist movement’s impact on the indigenous population. In 1938 CCF (the NDP’s predecessor) leader J. S. Woodsworth said, “it was easy for Canadians, Americans and the British to agree to a Jewish colony, as long as it was somewhere else. Why ‘pick on the Arabs’ other than for ‘strategic’ and ‘imperialistic’ consideration.”

After Woodsworth’s 1940 death the party’s stance shifted and by the end of World War II the CCF officially supported Zionism. Future CCF leader and premier of Saskatchewan Tommy Douglas and long-time federal MP Stanley Knowles were members of the Canadian Palestine Committee, a group of prominent non-Jewish Zionists formed in 1943 (future external minister Paul Martin Sr. and Alberta premier Ernest C. Manning were also members). In 1944 the Canadian Palestine Committee wrote Prime Minister Mackenzie King that it “looks forward to the day when Palestine shall ultimately become a Jewish commonwealth, and member of the British Commonwealth of Nations under the British Crown.”

Not long after 750,000 Palestinians were ethnically cleansed from their homeland. In 1947/48 CCF officials said the refugees should not be allowed to return. CCF MP Alistair Stewart said that taking in anything more than a small proportion of the refugees might destroy Israel and would be “asking more than any modern state would be prepared to accede to.”

Despite general misgivings towards arms sales, the CCF backed Canada selling 24 F-86 Sabre jets to Israel in the lead-up to its 1956 invasion of Egypt. The party justified Israel’s invasion alongside declining Middle East colonial powers Britain and France. Party leader M.J. Coldwell said:

Israel had ample provocation for her action in marching into Sinai… Egypt’s insistence that Israel be made to obey United Nations resolutions [while it had] hampered Israel’s shipping without lawful excuse. Egypt’s insistence that Israel be made to obey United Nations resolution sounds no less than cynical coming as it does from a government which for years ignored and flouted the Security Council and United Nations when they ordered free passage for Israel’s ships through Suez.

The NDP also took up Israel’s justification for invading its neighbors in 1967. They criticized Egypt’s blockade of Israeli shipping while ignoring that country’s strategic objectives, which the CIA concluded were the: (1) “Destruction of the center of power of the radical Arab Socialist movement, i.e. the Nasser regime.” (2) “Destruction of the arms of the radical Arabs.” (3) “Destruction of both Syria and Jordan as modern states.”

Despite Ottawa’s strong pro-Israel alignment, NDP leader Tommy Douglas criticized Prime Minister Lester Pearson for not backing Israel more forthrightly in the 1967 war. Describing the NDP convention shortly after the Six-Day War Toronto Star reporter John Goddard wrote, “the delegates were solidly behind Israel. I remember David Lewis leading the discussion at the Royal York Hotel, the look of steely resolve on his face, and the sense of relief in the room over the defeat of the Arab armies.”

After Israel conquered East Jerusalem in 1967 the party came out in favor of a “united Jerusalem”. “The division of Jerusalem,” said David Lewis, a significant figure in the party for four decades, “did not make economic or social sense. As a united city under Israel’s aegis, Jerusalem would be a much more progressive and fruitful capital of the various religions.”

As Israel occupied the West Bank, Gaza, Golan Heights and Egypt’s Sinai, Lewis made “impassioned warnings that Israel was in danger.” During his time as federal leader from 1971 to 1975 Lewis spoke to at least one Israel Bonds fundraiser, which raised money for that state.

Just after stepping down as federal leader Lewis was the “speaker of the year” at a B’nai B’rith breakfast. In the hilariously titled “NDP’s David Lewis urges care for disadvantaged”, the Canadian Jewish News reported that Lewis “attacked the UN for having admitted the PLO” and said “a Middle East peace would require ‘some recognition of the Palestinians in some way.’ He remarked that the creation of a Palestinian state might be necessary but refused to pinpoint its location. The Israelis must make that decision, he said, without interference from Diaspora Jewry.”

After a trip to that country Tommy Douglas said “Israel was like a light set upon a hill – the light of democracy in a night of darkness – and the main criticism of Israel has not been a desire for land. The main enmity against Israel is that she has been an affront to those nations who do not treat their people and their workers as well as Israel has treated hers.” (Douglas’ 1975 comment was made after Israel had driven out its indigenous population and repeatedly invaded its neighbours.)

The NDP labelled the Palestinian Liberation Organization, which was created in 1964, a danger and vociferously opposed the UN granting it observer status in 1974. Federal party leader Ed Broadbent called the PLO “terrorists and murderers whose aim is the destruction of the state of Israel.” (Apparently, multiple players within the NDP-aligned Broadbent Institute voted against allowing the full convention to debate the Palestine Resolution at an early morning session prior to the main plenary.) In the late 1970s the NDP called on the federal government to intervene to block Canadian companies from adhering to Arab countries’ boycott of Israel, which was designed to pressure that country to return land captured in the 1967 war.

Ontario NDP leader from 1970 to 1978, Stephen Lewis was stridently anti-Palestinian. He demanded the federal government cancel a major UN conference scheduled to be held in Toronto in 1975 because the PLO was granted observer status at the UN the previous year and their representatives might attend. In a 1977 speech to pro-Israel fundraiser United Jewish Appeal, which the Canadian Jewish News titled “Lewis praises [Conservative premier Bill] Davis for Stand on Israel”, Stephen Lewis denounced the UN’s “wantonly anti-social attitude to Israel.” He told the pro-Israel audience that “the anti-Semitism that lurks underneath the surface is diabolical. The only thing to rely on is Jew helping Jew.” (Stephen Lewis’ sister, Janet Solberg, was maybe the loudest anti-Palestinian at the NDP’s recent convention. Former president of the Ontario NDP and federal council member, Solberg was a long time backroom organizer for her brother and works at the Stephen Lewis Foundation.)

In the 1989 book The Domestic Battleground: Canada and the Arab-Israeli Conflict Irving Abella and John Sigler write, “historically, the New Democratic Party (NDP) has been the most supportive of the Israeli cause, largely because of its close relationship to Israel’s Labour party, and to the Histadrut, the Israeli trade union movement.”

Excluding non-Jewish workers for much of its history, the Histadrut was a key part of the Zionist movement. Former Prime Minister Golda Meir remarked: “Then [1928] I was put on the Histadrut Executive Committee at a time when this big labor union wasn’t just a trade union organization. It was a great colonizing agency.” For its part, Israel’s Labor party (and predecessor Mapai) was largely responsible for the 1947/48 ethnic cleansing of Palestine, 1956 invasion of Egypt and post 1967 settlement construction in the West Bank.

Relations with Israel’s Labor party continue. Labor Knesset Member Michal Biran was photographed with NDP leader Jagmeet Singh at the recent convention. In the lead-up to that event Biran wrote:

Western progressives must not buy into the simplistic notion that peace is Israel’s gift to bestow upon the Palestinians… Palestinians must make peace with Israel as much as the converse. Here again, recognition [of a Palestinian state] achieves nothing: it will not cause Hamas to halt its missile attacks; it will not encourage the PA to cease payments to terrorists to incentivise murders of Israeli civilians; it will not convince Mahmoud Abbas to cease his antisemitic screeds and Holocaust revisionism. Unilateral recognition offers a free diplomatic gift whilst demanding no Palestinian concessions essential to peace.

When proponents of the Palestine Resolution tried to reprioritize their resolution so the convention could debate it, Singh mobilized his family and community to block it. Two dozen Sikh delegates, including members of Singh’s family, voted as a block against allowing the full convention to debate the Palestine Resolution, which failed 200 to 189. A Facebook meme by Aminah Mahmood captured the sentiment: “When they USE Brown people to vote down the Palestine Resolution.” (Later in the evening I asked Jagmeet Singh’s brother if he voted against the Palestine Resolution, but he refused to answer.)

The suppression of the Palestine Resolution should stir internationalist minded party members to finally confront the NDP’s anti-Palestinian legacy. A first step in breaking from this odious history could be ending all ties with the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs, Israeli Labor Party, Canada–Israel Parliamentary Group and other Israel lobby organizations/forums. If the party believes in justice this is the least it should do.