13 Oct 2011

Part One of Three Part Series:
What progressive groups must do
to defeat, or stymie, the Harper regime

Canada’s progressive community needs to make some significant changes if it hopes to slow down the assault being carried out on the country by Stephen Harper’s Conservatives and their right-wing allies.   

The observations and suggestions I will make in this three-part series are based on what I was able to learn during 16 years working with public interest organizations in many parts of the world, helping develop strategies and carrying out high-pressure campaigns to make dictatorial governments adopt free expression and human rights laws. 

Here in Canada, it is time that the progressive community received a little tough love!

Our Canadian progressive movement is not strategically organized to be able to take on Harper’s majority right-wing government. Many individual groups are using outdated, ineffective strategies. Unfortunately, most progressive groups seem more concerned about meeting their own goals instead of developing community-wide strategies that could result in gains for millions of Canadians.  

Articles over the next three weeks will explore: 
  1. The reluctance of a handful of groups to form a voluntary cooperative network to win the maximum advantage for Canadians from the robo-calling scandal; 
  2. Problems that the community needs to be overcome, and how a new, powerful force could take shape; and
  3.  A case study of how a cooperative network could use a mix of tactics to win major victories.
-- Nick

PART I: Robo-calling scandal requires cooperative approach 

Last month the robo-calling scandal struck like a lightning bolt. All of a sudden, Stephen Harper’s gang was on shaky ground. By-elections might be called and seats lost. Conservative members or workers somewhere in the chain of command might be fined or even be sent to jail.

The scandal presented a huge opportunity for the progressive community to try to propel itself into a position where it could actually make Harper back down on some of his slash and burn programs. A large number of organizations with different skill sets could have come together to make sure that the opportunity was seized upon to the fullest.

But no broad, collective effort has so far been organized.

Concerned that a great opportunity was slipping away, I prepared a three-page e-mail on March 6 2012 and sent it to five groups:
  • The Council of Canadians (CoC), the country’s largest citizens’ organization. It had issued a statement asking people who had been misled during the campaign to send the council the details; 
  • Leadnow, a largely Internet-based advocacy group that, along with the CoC, was sending out appeals to the public;
  • Democracy Watch, an Ottawa-based public interest group that promotes democracy and polices governments and corporations; 
  • Fire the Liars, a new Internet-based organization aiming to make the federal government accountable for its actions;  and
  • Fair Vote Canada, a non-partisan citizens’ campaign for voting reform. 
I thought that perhaps these groups would be open to the idea of creating an informal cooperative network that would monitor and report on the scandal, as well as make sure that Elections Canada and the RCMP would not fall down on the job.

The outcome of the scandal could result in significant gains for progressive minded Canadians who oppose the Harper agenda.

I pointed out in my e-mail that the robo-calling story was quickly shifting to the inside pages of right-wing newspapers.  “Some of you are trying to keep the story before the public but, frankly, individually you don’t have the power to demand that the mainstream media carry ‘the other side’ of the story. . . . . Are you losing a huge opportunity?”

Interestingly, not one of the five organizations responded to the main point of the e-mail: Did they see the need for, and would they take part in, some form of co-operative effort to do a more effective job of obtaining maximum gain for the progressive movement from the robo-calling scandal?

Both Fair Vote and Democracy Watch pointed out that they are independent organizations that do not get involved in partisan politics – I could accept Fair Vote’s position, but Democracy Watch, which regularly questions the integrity of  Elections Canada and is deeply involved in following the robo-calling story, could be a key partner in a large monitoring campaign.

So, four of the groups – Democracy Watch, the CoC, Leadnow and Fire the Liars – likely want to “do their own thing” instead of getting involved with a number of other progressive groups. But with Harper bringing Canada down around our ears, this is not the time for groups to be inward looking in their approach to their work.

The robo-calling affair and its criminal element should be kept in the public eye. The progressive community needs to keep the pressure on so that Elections Canada and the RCMP will do their job to the fullest – and not be influenced by any interference from the Conservatives.

In addition, none of the five groups responded to my question about whether they were working – officially or otherwise – with either or both the NDP or Liberals to develop the strongest possible case concerning the violations.  If it would advance their understanding of the scandal and eliminate any duplication of effort, it was my belief that they should be sharing information with the political parties and should not be ashamed they are doing so.

Right-wing community has become very powerful
There is no getting around the fact that, collectively, Canada’s progressive community is having a very difficult time fighting back against the Harper regime and its right-wing supporters. The Conservative’s right-wing allies in business and finance are very powerful. They control all the key levers of power – access to billions of dollars to promote their beliefs, control over our federal government, and ownership of the mainstream media.

I sympathize with the hundreds of groups that work so hard to help build a better Canada. They rank among the best in the world. Unfortunately, the rules of the game have been changed by the Conservatives, but practically all of our progressive groups are still playing by the old, let’s-be-nice rules and they’re being left behind.

Groups campaigning on their own, or even working collectively in a single sector such as health care or income reform, pretty much lack enough punch and public influence to win many victories against a determined and brutal government that has a majority in Parliament.

Therefore, it is difficult to understand why the progressive community has not developed different ways of trying to at least slow down the Conservatives

The progressive/liberal community has the potential to become an extremely powerful force.  There are more than 20,000 public interest groups, including branch offices, in Canada. More than 4.2 million people belong to unions, and most of them support public interest causes.

If a major campaign were launched against the Conservatives regarding their handling of a particular issue, it is possible that as many as 5,000 public interest groups, unions with 2-million members, and as many as 5-million citizens could be involved in one way or another. Groups and unions include hundreds of highly-skilled campaigners who could create excellent anti-Harper activities. Moreover, such a network could easily raise millions of dollars in campaign funds.

Last summer, in the wake of the Conservatives’ majority win, it was disappointing that progressive groups did not recognize the need to become stronger, more active and smarter in taking on the right-wing through some sort of cooperative venture.

By fall, convinced that a huge, cooperative progressive movement was needed, I wrote two articles ('Focus and determination required' and 'Taking back the media') appealing to progressive leaders to become more strategically oriented. While the articles were well received by many subscribers, organization executives showed little interest in the idea.

Organizations that are struggling to take on Harper need to wake up and realize that their current, traditional campaigning approaches are falling short. Because of the immoral, unprincipled techniques being used by the Conservatives, we need to develop new and tougher and more aggressive strategies.

It makes no sense to try to influence the Harperites with well-thought-out logical proposals. They could care less. Their main goal is to replace our normal liberalism with extreme right-wing neo-liberal policies and programs.  Harper and his crowd are not honourable people.

Because the Harper Conservatives are a gang of lawless, undemocratic disrespectful liars, the progressive community needs to scrap its present “business as usual” mind-set and become more courageous. We must fight Harper in just about any way that is legal.

Groups that receive financial support from the Harper government will understandably not be prepared to jeopardise their funding by getting involved in aggressive campaigning. Some organizations may not want to adopt some of the “no-holds-barred” strategies to be discussed in Part 3.

But there still are literally thousands of other groups and unions that should care more about the future of the country than they are worried about threats and a backlash from the Conservatives!

It is time for the progressive movement to begin confronting power with power.

Next week: Problems that need to be overcome, and how a new, powerful public interest force could take shape in Canada. 

If you haven't already done so, please subscribe. Thanks! 


  1. The Left is continually divided by internal politics,The generally higher level of intellect amongst the left sometimes leads to theoretical discussions that tend to replace simple co-operative effort.

    1. agree, not enough action, too much talk

    2. We're forked!

    3. That's for sure! That and the egos that waste so much energy that we need for the real enemy!

  2. Powerful. I've been saying the same thing, albeit less articulately, but nobody seems to be listening. Perhaps the progressive mentality is one of individualism unlike the Conservative team building that unites them so well. Without a media or financial backing, progressives have to unite and fight any way it can to reclaim Canada. We don't have to fight dirty but we do have to fight with savage indifference to manners and illusions that we're above some of the tactics we must use to counteract the unethical and amoral Cons. It's a pity we're such a disparate group. The NDP and the Liberals fight each other rather than coming together and using our collective strengths to reach Canadians. I'm not optimistic at the moment that we can do anything. We are not just up against a considerable force in the Conservatives but we have to deal with our own apathy and aversion to fighting for our rights.

  3. How about the "moratorium" model? Invite all progressive groups and individuals to carry out one creative act of resistance on the same day once a month? Act from our own locations at the level of risk we can handle. Maybe use Gene Sharpe's long list of non-violent actions as inspiration? Build every month.

  4. They are talking about eliminating 30,000 jobs from the public service in the budget. It boggles the mind. I question having many expectations from LeadNow and Fire the Liars only because they are new groups in Canada, very new. What about groups like the Canadian Environment Network - although they've had all their core funding stopped - Greenpeace, Amnesty, Canadian Civil Liberties Association (or whatever they're called) The Canadian Bar Association, Canadian Labour Congress....could we organize a campaign asking people to write letters to the groups you have listed, along with some others, to encourage them to join together in coalition as you propose? I agree with your analysis, and am baffled at the silence by all these groups. My theory has been that people are feeling overwhelmed.

    1. Hi Stephanie . . . . I agree with your comment about those two groups. I approached them only because they have shown an interest in the robo-calling scandal. Yes, the other groups you mention are the kinds of groups that would have to be the backbone of some sort of co-operative formation. I think this is a huge issue and I am prepared to take some time to work on it, and I hope I will be joined by others. I am open to suggestions -- and am thinking about appealing to perhaps 20 or 30 groups as my 3-part series comes to an end. Perhaps we should form a lobbying group?

    2. Greenpeace has not had its funding cut. Greenpeace does not solicit nor accept government or corporate money. 95% of Greenpeace's funding comes from individual donors, less than 5% from other sources including foundations so Harper's threat to cut off "foreign funding" has more value in its smear effect than financial impact.

    3. Bruce - if you read Stephanie's comment carefully, you will see that she made her comment only about the Canadian Environmental Network - not Greenpeace.

    4. I think your suggestion to form a lobby group is a good one. Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives is another good group. I might be interested in helping out a bit.

    5. Hi Stephanie, I don't think I have your email. If you are interested in helping, please email me at fillmore0274@rogers.com But you won't hear from me for at least three weeks as I am in St. Lucia working with journalists.

    6. Hi again Stephanie . . . I'm pleased to let you know that the little campaign I started it being formalized -- a group has been formed called Campaign to build One Big Campaign. We will be putting up a Facebook page on Thursday. If you have any free time we would like to welcome you to our so-far little group? Please email me at fillmore0274@rogers.com

  5. Thanks, Nick, for all you do.

    I've seen similar responses to anyone/any group who tries to encourage the coalescing of various progressive causes and political parties. The rationale from organizations is always very polite but typically liver-lilied: "So sorry, but our group must remain non-partisan" -- presumably because they receive some form of government funding. Ditto for political parties/leaders who have the hubris to think that only THEY and THEY ALONE have all the answers, and therefore, the sole right to power, without cooperating with anyone else.

    It's a patently self-serving, and myopic agenda, of course, and I'm convinced that most logical and thinking Canadians are increasingly discouraged to think that there will ever be European-style cooperation between progressive factions until things are soup-line dire. Perhaps that's why Nathan Cullen, despite the fact that he might not be a strong as some of the more seasoned contenders, has had such an unexpected and tremendous response to his campaign for ND leader.

    The axiom, "United we stand, divided we fall" hasn't lasted in the history lexicon for centuries for nothing, yet these arrogant Canadian groups and leaders continue to ignore it, at their (and our) peril. On behalf of many causes -- first and foremost that of aboriginal children living in appalling, third-world living standards in this country that is SO full of false pride -- I say shame on those groups and leaders, all.

  6. it makes me wonder... like soros was said to be behind the occupy wall street movement. I wonder if those 5 groups that you contacted are also "engineered by TPTB" to appear to be incompetent opposition to the government?

  7. This is one issue on which Progressives (true left) opponents of the neo-fascist Cons should openly co-operate with the NON progressives (Liberals) opponents of the cons to keep the robo-calls at front and centre.

    Any anti democracy tactics when well exposed usually and rightfully backfire on the perpetrators; keep exposing same

    1. I agree. This is why I support Nathan Cullen's approach for the next election.

  8. Conscious revolution14 March 2012 at 08:32

    A pattern I have noticed about the Harper party is that when called on the carpet their initial reaction is to throw someone under the bus if they cry out as Helena Guergis did they kept denying her so she had to cry harder and finally called her a crazy person and dismissed her. Or, they then hired them back as soon as the dust settled, certainly to keep their mouths shut. It will be interesting to see how Sona is treated.

    The Vicileaks and this robocall incident however had them acting like the crazy people. Did anyone notice that? Dean del maestro and Vic Toews were and are coming across as insane and he's certainly using the talking points to sound that way so it is possible to throw the Harper party off their game plan.

    Fighting fire with fire in the Harper party case will not work. It will only create more crazy people and I don't think that is advantageous for the changes we want made. I really like LeadNow's approach. It is sane, quiet, and persistent. We need critical mass and the best way to get that is to utilize LeadNow to get that. People that support COC or Democracy Watch etc… can also support LeadNow on a personal level and not have to drag their organizations into the picture. It is individuals that will give us critical mass and the funding needed to get what we need. Giving LeadNow suggestions on campaigns to follow through on will help to build that organization. Just by signing the petition regarding the Robocall investigation has put their name in more than one MSM article and has the Harper supporters concerned about their influence. (They are starting to say that George Soros is behind them?)

    I also do think that the Harper party does react to mass emailing and I think that whenever you do email your MP you need to cc Harper, all the other party leaders, the GG, Senator Marjorie LeBreton and the MSM. I always include my email to Letters to the editors at the National, Globe and Mail, Toronto Star and CTV to let them know what we are writing our politicians about and what we are concerned about.

  9. I fear that Canada's NGO sector is for the most part politically neutered by their traditional financial dependence on either government grants, or their tax status as registered charities with Revenue Canada.

    Personally, I expect the upcoming Harper budget to include lots more tax write-offs for billionaires and corporations "partnering" with NGOs, which in essence will will complete the takeover of the voluntary sector by the corporate sector.

    Which is to say that I agree that Canada's progressive majority is in deep, terrible trouble. It isn't clear to me how this can be reversed, but I agree with the article that non-sectarian collaboration is the only viable avenue out of this mess. That and electoral cooperation between the NDP and the LIBs and Greens to defeat conservatives.

    Other than that, I fear we are done, and that the takeover of Canada by the oil industry and the right wing will continue, and the prospects for rebuilding a progressive Canada will be gone for at least a generation.

    1. Dear Peter -- a belated thanks for your excellent comments. A group of us -- some of us involved with Catch 22 Harper Conservatives last yrear -- have decided to set up a formal campaign. On Thursday we will launch a Facebook page -- Campaign to build One Big Campaign. Several other activities will also be takren up, and we have actually -- very un-Canadian-like -- developed a strategy! You seem to me like a person who could make a fine contribution to our group. If you are interested, please email me at: fillmore0274@rogers.com

  10. Nic

    Read your piece. I am not a card carrying Conservative. I will be honest and say that voting Conservative in Western Canada has more to do with regional protectionism. 70-75% in Alberta voted conservative. I certainly hope you are not implying that people who vote Con are undemocratic, lawless abiding citizens. That just adds to the mis-information and dissent. Jack Layton flew his campaign plane over the oilsands on Day 1 of the second last federal campaign. He was fighting Stephane Dion for official opposition or perhaps going for it all. His flyover the oil sands insulted many westerners. Poor politics and leadership. This is what I meant about federal regional politics. This is here to stay for a while. The booming economy here in Alberta, Sask and BC cannot be overlooked by any of the parties, any longer. Nobody in these provinces wants to become a have not again. For that reason they will vote for whomever the Conservative leader is, including Stephen Harper. My bread and butter is working with big oil. The fearmongering has gone on too long for most out here to trust anyone like Jack Layton, Stephan Dion or Michael Ignatieff. If the area collapses financially than the voters in the area will look elsewhere. The census just reported that Canada is larger in population west of Manitoba Ont border. I personally am not pleased with the conduct and behavior of the conservatives. Unfortunately, I am not pleased with the current leadership of the other parties although I think Elizabeth May is the one I could trust more out of all of them. Not sure why just gut instinct. Bottom line IMHO is that regional politics plays into this well. Harper one a few extra seats in Sask by turning down the sale of potash Corp to BHP. He knows how to play inside and outside the sandbox better than his opponents. But should politics be a competition or vocation, in which committees work together regardless if majority. I am learning now that committees should gave an equal amount of representation and a bill be developed, that brought to the house and senate for vote.

    Rob Rheaume

    1. Bob,
      Just to clarify the stats you suggest, I believe the report on Canada's population stated something like 'Ontario west has more than half the population', not west of the Ont/Mn border. Nice try though. FWIW, from Manitoba to B.C. is 30.7% of the pop., Que & Atlantic Canada is 30.5% (PQ alonew is 23.6%). Ontario is a whopping 38.4%.
      As you'll note, Ontario east is about 69% of the population.
      You can get the actual count at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Canadian_provinces_and_territories_by_population

    2. The same percentage of the popular support for the NDP existed in Quebec and Saskatchewan in the last election, and yet those SK voters wishes were not realized in seats. Our electoral system is broken and as a SK voter, I am sick of the "we out west" voted conservative. Many many voters in SK and Manitoba did not vote conservative. And Harper didn't pick up any new seats in Saskatchewan, he kept the ones he had. BTW getting 50% of Saskatchewan votes got him 90% of the seats. How is that democratic?

    3. Rob: Good post and to the point. Regional protectionism is a reality in the West. All Canadians need to be educated to this fact.
      I'm from BC. At the moment, the Enbridge Pipeline is a major factor and BC is gearing up to oppose its construction. I believe Harper and his cohorts have no idea of the storm they have created here and the undercurrent of increased anger toward this project.

  11. After reading your piece, a thought was to take a leaf from organizations that group like interest organisations, such as association. To carry it off requires a known personality, e.g. Lloyd Axworthy, Stephen Lewis, Mike Harcourt, etc. to be the face of a emerging collective by approaching the leaders of the organization mention. In other words a respected Canadian would some public appeal with a reputation of working for the well being of Canada and someone who's name would be hard to ignore when he/she comes knocking. The heads of these organizations could become the board of directors, working out the details relative to collective action / working for a common cause.


  12. It’s would indeed be a good start to get some cohesion amongst progressives, Nick. If there ends up being an ex-Liberal as the leader of the NDP, and an ex-NDP continue on as leader of the Liberals, there might be a chance of some sort of cohesive approach from the partisans’ point-of-view.
    (Hopefully Nathan Cullen’s idea is taken up by the NDippers, at the very least.) Meanwhile, as you clearly state, some other action is needed on the ground among the NGOs and all.

    I do have concerns about your comment, "progressive groups are still playing by the old, let’s-be-nice rules and they’re being left behind". Although I agree in essence, I think approaching the problem with a 'fight-fire-with-fire' approach, or 'an-eye-for-an-eye' or any such 'tit for tat' strategy will draw us all much further into the abyss. Smart, focused, direct & unequivocal action is needed, to be sure, but I believe we can't allow an attitude of "the end justifies the means" to drive strategy, or else we will simply be behaving like the Harper regime's regressive goons.

    I also agree with your "need to develop new and tougher and more aggressive strategies". What's been happening to date has not met the challenge, but then again, it's pretty difficult to win with fair tactics when the other guys are still cheating every chance they get. I expect that when the cheaters in the regressive Conservatives are exposed, even their own will disavow them.

    Looking forward to your next two offerings. We definitely need a new strategy. As Einstein noted, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”

  13. Even if the left starts working together, nearly every media outlet in the country and their corporate backers will set to work trying to destroy it. We're completely outgunned, and surrounded by Canadians so stupid and apathetic they'll never figure out what's happening.

    There's no hope, give up and move north so you can watch the fireworks in peace. There's no shame in that, it's practical.

  14. Nick

    I really like your first article on collaborating to defeat Harper. Our group, which you did not mention, has been in existence for almost three years, and our major goal is to elect a truly democratic government in 2015.

    We have worked with Leadnow on some campaigns and we are aware of the other groups you mention, but it is hard to get them to collaborate because each one thinks that they are, in fact, doing that. You didn’t list Voices/Voix, although it has also been around for some time trying to collect people together in opposition to this government.

    In any case, I am looking forward to your next two articles.

    Clare Henderson, Steering Committee
    Reclaim Our Democratic Canada

  15. The NDP won handily in Danforth-Toronto with more than 60% electorial support from the 43% turnout.

    Three non issue/policy factors were present:

    1) Nostalgic fond memories of Bon Jack. No need to expound on this easily understood phenomenum.

    2) The Cons-LIBERAL COALITION. Hatchet man Harper himself said this riding "Was the Liberals to lose". Did this GANG-UP of REACTIONARIES against PROGRESSIVES cause a backlash from those who see coalitions as stifling the "choice"options??

    3) Robo calls: this undoubtably had an effect; these are much more blantant than the OLD parties working together to thwart progress. (as usual)

    It would be just good common sense for anyone interested in future governance of this country to analyse these results. Also of interest is the turnout; is 43% high or low for a by-election? Could it have been made higher?

  16. Having lived in Ontario, Alberta,and BC (and in the USA and five other countries) I can understand the frustration and iritation felt by Westerners at the well demonstrated ignorance displayed in Ontario of anything in the (wilderness) West. Surprise! Quebec is less so!!

    Yes, the West thinks/votes DIFFERENTLY! A difference that produced Tommy Douglas as well as John Diefenbaker. Note however that REGIONAL economic interests such as crow rates and insurance premiums sucking scare capital from West to East and NOT (a lack of) progressive thinking cause voting for what are justly conceived as REGIONAL interests! As Joe Clark and Allison Redford will attest, this was mostly Conservative, though anybody save the HYPOCRITCAL Liberals was some times an alternative.

    Of course the TORONTO BOY HARPER (born and raised there) and other Eastern Fascists often emigrate to Alberta or BC; no way to stop that.

    Calgary can be justly proud of Naheed Nenshi (straight not narrow!) Particularly when compared to Rob Ford.

    Stephanie will you respond? Add anything?

  17. The biggest problem Progressives have in Canada is that they are split politically. Many NDPers forget that many Liberals share their core values. And many are not impressed with the way unions are way too slow to creatively face current economic realities and change outdated assumptions and language that no longer resonates. The Conservatives know this and use it against us all. I'd venture that most Canadians, even the 60% who did not vote Conservative, are concerned first of all about the Canadian economy and the shrinking middle class they belong to. The Harper Conservatives are sending messages that they know what they are doing - belt tightening. People get that. Progressives of all stripes need to take on that conversation not with the tired responses everyone has heard before - but with compelling visionionary co-operation and leadership (action) and language that addresses realities.

  18. I saw your post in one of the FB groups I belong to. I've been trying to find ways I could help with my limited resources. I have already contacted my MP, the new leader of the Opposition, the leader of the Liberal Party and Elizabeth May. I've signed petitions sent from the Liberal party and the NDP against Harper's outrageous behaviour and the increasing pace of Canada's destruction.

    Yours is the best idea I've seen in a long time. I will be contacting all the groups you've contacted and a few more.

    Further, today I sent a message to my former Union Local President. He and I are both retired. I'm hoping he could facilitate something with the Union National and also CLC, which he belonged to, and other groups he worked with. I just sent the email and hope to hear back from him soon.

    Harper MUST be stopped!