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Canada’s Liberals train Britain’s Tories – Look out for ‘days of action’

This was drafted in August, 2009, before the 2010 defeat of Britain’s Labour government and the election of the “ConDems.” Given events since, it has some facts that are still relevant in 2011. (Part of a series of articles, “Reflections on 2010”)” • Two former leading Liberal government figures from Canada – former top bureaucrat Jocelyne Bourgon and former cabinet minister Marcel Massé – earlier this summer met with leading British Tories including Philip Hammond, the shadow chief secretary to the Treasury.[1] If Britain’s Tories intend to follow in the footsteps of Canada’s Liberals, then there is trouble ahead for workers and the poor in Britain.

The Canadian Liberals took office in 1993, reducing the Tories to just two seats. The Tories had earned the justifiable anger of the electorate by presiding over an early 1990’s recession that pushed unemployment into double digits. The recession had sent budget deficits to record levels – $40 billion for the federal government, more than $60 billion if the provincial government deficits were added in.[2] The Liberals announced that this had to end, and they ruthlessly set about to do so.

Then finance minister Paul Martin – working with the same Bourgon and Massé who are now advising Britain’s Tories – began a process of cutbacks that devastated health education and social assistance across the country. In a very short time, federal government spending had been slashed by 20 per cent. Close to 50,000 public sector workers, employed by Ottawa, were let go.[3]

And that was just the tip of the iceberg. The principle mechanism used by the Liberals to slash spending was to change the rules by which tax money was shipped out to the provinces. The effect was to reduce by billions of dollars the amount of money given to the provinces – and this was critical, because it is the provinces in Canada that fund health care, education and social assistance.

The Liberal cuts created an environment that brought the most vicious right-wing Tories to the forefront. In Ontario, Canada’s biggest province, a hard right-wing Tory named Mike Harris took office in 1995. He was only too happy to see money from Ottawa drying up. He was a real Thatcherite – and was eager to cut as deeply as he could. He wasted little time.

  • Social assistance was cut by over 20 per cent with one blow – suddenly, Canada’s largest city, Toronto, was a place where visible panhandling became the order of the day and where food bank use soared;
  • Education budgets were slashed, leading to crowded classrooms and fewer education assistants – high school students eventually saw one year of schooling eliminated entirely;
  • Health care budgets were slashed, leading to horror stories of crowded emergency rooms, lack of beds, and patients stashed in hospital corridors;
  • All of this took place in an atmosphere of racism and scapegoating, culminating in the 1997 shooting death, by police, of young First Nations’ activist, Dudley George.[4]

The labour movement leaders had no idea how to respond. The recession in Ontario had been presided over by a government led by Canada’s labour party – the New Democratic Party (NDP) – that had paved the way for the Harris cuts. The tightening of social assistance, cuts to education and cuts to health care – all of these had started under the NDP. Union leaders closely tied to the NDP were frozen, uncertain how to respond.

But a response did come. A series of small community coalitions sprang up, hounding the Tories at every turn. September 27, 1995 – the opening day of the fall session – between 5,000 and 10,000 marched on Queen’s Park, in a demonstration organized by the Labour Council of Metro Toronto and York Region and the Embarrass Harris Campaign. The crowd included 17 busloads of protesters from Ottawa, Peterborough, Sudbury and St. Catharines and members of the Canadian Autoworkers, United Food and Commercial Works, United Steelworkers of America, Canadian Union of Postal workers, Canadian Union of Public Employees and the Ontario Public Service Employees Union – as well as hundreds marching with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty.[5]

The environment of resistance was reflected a few weeks later, when the Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) met in session. The 2,000 delegates – much closer to the anger of the rank and file than the deflated and demoralized central union leadership – voted to launch a series of one-day, one-city general strikes to oppose the Liberal/Tory cuts.[6]

These “Days of Action” were magnificent. The first, in December 1995, shut down the industrial city of London, Ontario in the middle of winter. Workers by the thousands illegally walked off the job, some of them carrying signs “London, Paris,” inspired by the great wave of strikes breaking out in France that year. The February, 1996 strike in Hamilton Ontario saw a massive crowd of 100,000 take to the streets. Without a doubt, the high point was the magnificent Toronto strike. October 25, 1996. That day, one million people stayed away from work. The next day, 350,000 marched past the frightened Tories, separated from the massive crowd by hundreds of police outside the city’s convention centre.[7]

Tragically the union leadership threw away this anger from below. Again and again, they used the days of action as safety valves, letting workers blow off steam, but refusing to mobilize effective action. In the fall of 1997 the best chance to take such action occurred, when tens of thousands of Ontario teachers walked out in a two-week illegal strike. Had the call gone out for a sympathy general strike, the Tories could have been stopped. It didn’t happen, and the Days of Action petered to an end.

The lessons for Britain’s workers are clear. If the Tories (or Labour) copy Canada’s Liberals and Tories, then deep cuts are in order. If Britain’s union leaders copy Canada’s union leaders, the fight against these cuts will be stymied.

But if movements can be built which focus the rage and anger that ordinary folk will feel faced with the devastation of social services, if the anger in communities can be linked up with the anger in the workplace, then there is a chance that Britain’s workers will copy the best part of Canada in the mid-1990s – the militant tradition of rank and file opposition which opposed the cuts even when union leaders refused to fight.

© 2011 Paul Kellogg


[1] Jonathan Oliver, “Whitehall lines up ‘doomsday’ cutbacks,” TimesOnline, July 5, 2009; and Michael White, “Taking an axe to public spending the Canadian way,”, July 8, 2009.
[2] Statistics Canada, “Table 45: Actual, cyclically adjusted and primary-cyclically adjusted budget balances (millions of dollars), National Economic and Financial Accounts,” accessed August 7, 2009.
[3] Oliver and White.
[4] For an overview, see Robert MacDermid and Greg Albo, “Divided Province, Growing Protests: Ontario Moves Right,” in Keith Brownsey and Michael Howlett, eds. The Provincial State in Canada: Politics in the Provinces and Territories (Peterborough: Broadview Press, 2001), pp. 163-202.
[5] Laurie Monsrebraaten. “Protesters, police clash at Queen’s Park,” Toronto Star, Sept. 28, 1995, p. A.16; Paul Kellogg, “Ontario – strike action can stop the Tories,” October 30, 1995; and “Solidarity can stop the cuts,” October 2, 1995 in PolEconJournal II, 1995-1998 (Toronto: author’s collection).
[6] James Rusk, “Ontario unions target London for shutdown,” The Globe and Mail, Nov. 14, 1995, p. A.3; Kellogg, “Dec. 11 – Shut London Down,” PolEconJournal II, 1995-1998, December 4, 1995.
[7] Kellogg, “The face of the new year,” January 8, 1996; “Hamilton Days of Action,” March 4, 1996; “Toronto general strike: A taste of our power,” October 30, 1996; in PolEconJournal II, 1995-1998.

Published in 2010 Reflections Britain Liberals Ontario Days of Action Tories


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