Resisting the Pallister Attacks

James Wilt

Photo of a round dance in front of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights
A round dance during Idle More in Winnipeg (photo credit: slm / Flickr)

Public services in Manitoba are under serious assault.

The majority Progressive Conservative government, elected in April 2016 following many years of milquetoast social democratic rule from the NDP, predictably promised to maintain frontline jobs and improve services for Manitobans. Hints were made of impending spars with public sector unions and plans to cut tax rates.

But little prepared Manitobans for what was to come in the government’s second budgetthat was released in early April.

It wasn’t an overt slash-and-burn budget out of the Ralph Klein or Mike Harris playbook. Many leftists in the province initially sighed relief, concluding it wasn’t nearly as bad as it could have been. 

Then the province started to see the fallout.

Catastrophic Cuts

The list is far too long to recite in full here. 

Here are a few of the most egregious consequences of the province under Premier Pallister, who resides in a $2-million mansion, vacations in Costa Rica about as often as U.S. President Donald Trump golfs, and recently suggested that Indigenous people are inciting a “race war” by exercising their treaty rights to hunt at night.

Over $80 million and 15 per cent of management positions were ordered cut by the Winnipeg Health Authority, which oversees health care in the province’s only major city.

That has resulted in the closure of half of Winnipeg’s emergency rooms, leaving only three hospitals in the city with ERs. Five of the six QuickCare clinics — providing longer hours for minor health issues to take some of the burden off of hospitals — are also being shuttered.

Privatizations will unfold in physiotherapy, occupational therapy and audiologist services. Funding for new personal care homes has been cancelled, despite an already monumental shortage and doubling of people between the ages of 75 and 84 in the next quarter decade. 

Eighteen rural ambulance services have been shuttered. Winnipeg’s Mature Women’s Health Clinic is being closed. Lactation consultation positions are being cut. The airfare subsidy for travel companions of mostly Indigenous patients travelling from Northern communities was abolished.

And that’s only on the health care front. 

The province’s main program for migrants to become permanent residents has been overhauled, resulting in a $500 fee for successful applicants that many local migrants’ rights organizers have dubbed a “head tax” akin to Canada’s Chinese head tax that was introduced in 1885. 

Over $50 million in post-secondary tax credits has been cut. The tuition cap for post-secondary students has also been removed. 

The list of cuts goes on: Rent Assist, the Enhanced English Skills for Employment program, a key restorative justice program, the Manitoba farm building code that helps prevent brutal animal deaths, the agency responsible for environmental protections. 

The premier has completely abdicated responsibility in addressing the catastrophic flooding of a rail line to the northern port town of Churchill, leaving it without access to affordable food, fuel or tourism. Same goes for the five deaths in the Winnipeg Remand Centre in 2016.

Waiting for the NDP

But Manitoba’s Left largely has no idea how to respond. Almost two decades of NDP reign has turned the aspirations of many local activists to mush, resulting in incantations that Manitobans simply must mobilize — in the form of very occasional and very ineffectual rallies, petitions and  postering — for the next provincial election, in order to get the NDP elected again in 2020.

That’s it. That’s the gameplan: the sole form of “resistance” to vicious austerity measures.

Unfortunately, the dead-end approach isn’t just in Manitoba. This is an organizational virus that’s infected much of Canada.

The NDP has been an embarrassment almost every time that it’s formed government at the provincial level.

The last time the party at a shot in a federal election, party leader Thomas Mulcair shot himself in the foot by committing to balancing the budget, not increasing income taxes on the rich and booting candidates who expressed pro-Palestinian sentiments. 

That effectively allowed for total dominance by the ultra-neoliberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who has since approved new tarsands pipelines, exploring the privatization of public infrastructure for decades to come, challenging a court ruling to match funding for on-reserve First Nations children, and breaking electoral promise after electoral promise.

The moral collapse of the NDP follows precedents set by the Ontario NDP of the early 1990s (implementing a so-called “Social Contract” to freeze and slash wages for public sector workers), the Manitoba NDP of the 1990s (heavily leaning in to prison expansion and colonial hydro projects) and Alberta NDP of recent years (shilling for massive tarsands expansion and failing to increase taxes on the rich and corporations).

In short, provincial NDP governments have merely maintained the neoliberal agenda without seriously challenging capital accumulation and influence.

Activists across the country are convinced that it can be transformed to create a Bernie Sanders or Jeremy Corbyn figure. But as previously noted by Wilfrid Laurier University political science professor and author of “Imperialist Canada,” Todd Gordon: “A Jeremy Corbyn–like figure in the NDP would get shut down by the Party’s leadership and kicked out of caucus for voting against the party line — long before the upstart had an opportunity to become a genuine threat.”

The likes of federal NDP leadership candidates like Niki Ashton could pose a conceptual threat to capital in Canada. But we’ve already seen the ways in which provincial parties can and will be disciplined into obedience. 

The unlikely figure of a radical NDP premier or prime minister may linger on the horizon for many a Canadian activist, but it’s a naive hope that will almost certainly result in capitulation and mere maintenance of the status-quo.

Indigenous Nations Rising

Luckily, we’ve already been provided examples of alternatives.

Mostly by Indigenous peoples in Canada, actually. We obviously can’t draw immediate parallels, with struggles by First Nations, Métis, Inuit and non-status Indians representing a unique sociopolitical struggle grounded in distinct cultural, spiritual and legal relationships with lands and waters.

But the tactics born out of that are certainly worth exploring.

It wouldn’t seem it from all the glowing profiles about Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, but the territory known as Canada is ablaze with resistance and resurgence from Indigenous peoples and communities.

In the lead-up to “Canada 150,” or the celebration of a century-and-a-half since the country’s founding, Indigenous land defenders erected a tipi on the grounds of Parliament Hill. Ten people were arrested for the act. The occupation followed many similar Indigenous blockades across the country, including widespread opposition to Labrador’s Muskrat Falls hydro project that has included the arrest of many Inuk and Innu elders and land defenders.

Most recently, a blockade against deforestation of forests on contested Métis territory in Winnipeg has mobilized many local organizers, resulting in a sizable encampment, seizure of expensive mulching equipment and frequent confrontations with contractors hired by private developers. Support for the blockade continues to grow.

Again, we can’t directly translate Indigenous struggles to other arenas. But the creative and obstructionist tactics have undoubtedly caused a scene, attracting media attention and helping to draw attention to the broader issues at play.

Non-Indigenous people can surely learn from these approaches, applying the strategy of sit-ins, blockades and “disruptive” protest to local community struggles.

We Must Win

Leftists in Manitoba and Canada cannot depend on the NDP for serious change.

Corbyn obviously represents a massive opportunity for some socialist progress in the UK. But that’s also a fairly unique situation, with looser discipline on MPs in the Labour Party allowing him to survive as a rebel of sorts.

The only answer for Leftists in the era of austerity, surveillance and xenophobia is the same as ever: building mass social movements via direct actions including blockades, occupations, sit-ins and boycotts. 

Indigenous peoples in Canada have clearly demonstrated the power of such approaches. Same goes with the simple power of the strike, although labour power is clearly weakened.

The proclamations of a provincial or federal NDP candidate may serve as a salve for the shock of the austerity onslaught. But waiting for the election of the next candidate is a boring proposition. After all, there are so many more tactics available to community members, promoting greater democracy, equality and militancy. 

Premier Pallister and his aggressively racist and anti-poor agenda can be beaten with a ground game that helps turn the tide on the government’s popularity.

Emergency rooms, QuickCare clinics and lactation consultation positions can be restored, and greatly expanded. The same applies for any one of the aforementioned topics: Indigenous nationhood, migrants’ rights, tuition costs and remand centre conditions.

But it won’t be led via the electoral process, almost instantly subject to corporate lobbying, fundraising and propaganda. Rather, it will be the result of bringing together rank-and-file workers, migrants, Indigenous land defenders and disaffected NDP members into a loose anti-austerity coalition of sorts, recognizing common struggles and creatively pressuring whatever party is in power to respond to specific and broader community demands.

Maybe that will give the NDP a boost for the 2020 election. Maybe it won’t. That shouldn’t change the focus of the movement: to build grassroots power that confronts austerity measures in all forms.

And it will be messy. Unlike the party process — which by its nature, specializes in homogenizing experiences — whatever unfolds in Manitoba and Canada won’t necessitate any of the members or communities to sacrifice autonomy or direction.

But it will be strong. It will win. It has to. Lives are literally on the line, and the only real response is building enough community power to ensure this kind of threat never rears its head again.

If organizing and thinking about these broad questions is something you are interested in, please, get in touch with us at and see how you can get involved.

Written by James Wilt. Member of Solidarity Winnipeg.

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