New era of politics in store for B.C.

British Columbian politics will see much change in 2013. Barring a major reversal of public opinion, the B.C. Liberal government that has ruled for a dozen years will be tossed out of office. All the polls point to a convincing win for the B.C. NDP in the provincial election scheduled for May 14.

The Liberals’ time in power has seen serious rollbacks of workers’ rights; this is par-for-the-course, historically, as the Liberals are just the latest name for the coalition of big business interests that has effectively governed British Columbia for most of its history.

On the few occasions that the NDP has won elections, the media and business elite of the province have worked hard to both limit what change they implement and, ultimately, to use their power to restore a more corporate-friendly government to power. To understand how this dynamic has played out, read Daniel Gawthrop’s book, Highwire Act, about the Harcourt NDP government in the 1990s, or the recently released book The Art of the Impossible, by Rod Mickleburgh and Geoff Meggs, about the Dave Barrett government of the 1970s.

One of the lessons you’ll pick up from reading about this province’s history is that getting rid of the Liberals this year may be the easy part. Making real change can’t and won’t happen just at the ballot box; it can only happen with powerful movements of people getting organized at all levels to run society differently.

Compared to almost any government before or since in Canada, the Barrett government had an ambitious, progressive agenda, implementing wide-ranging measures. Nevertheless, they alienated some key allies on the left and in the labour movement; after just three years, they were defeated by a reorganized big business coalition and their media outlets.

The whole political terrain has shifted since the Barrett years, because of the dominance of neoliberalism, and so it comes as no surprise that today’s NDP government-in-waiting is promising only a very limited vision of change. There is not much talk from the party of undoing all the damage done by the Liberals, let alone going further and proposing systemic change.

Outside of official party politics, however, powerful forces are stirring, shaking the neoliberal consensus and beginning to outline a bolder, more ambitious vision.

The power of people’s movements to drive change and alter the political terrain has never been more evident in Canada than in the past month’s resurgence of Indigenous peoples known as “Idle No More.” Since early December, this grassroots-led movement has mobilized and inspired people right across Canada – even drawing support and media attention worldwide.

Idle No More’s flash mobs, round dances and other protests, combined with the hunger strike of Attawapiskat Chief Theresa Spence, have even caused Stephen Harper to blink. The Prime Minister had stubbornly ignored Chief Spence’s action and the wider Idle No More movement for weeks. But with the global spotlight growing, he was forced to change direction, agreeing to meet with some representatives of the Assembly of First Nations, to be held on Friday, January 11.

The Idle No More movement is keeping up the heat, however, planning a global day of solidarity to add massive pressure from the outside while the politicians meet. Harper’s initial stubborn and arrogant response may have in fact made Idle No More that much more powerful.

B.C. politicians should not discount the ability of Idle No More and related movements to impact the year ahead in provincial politics. After all, the opposition to the Enbridge pipeline – perhaps the single most polarizing and high profile issue in B.C. – has been in many ways driven by Indigenous activists and leaders. Then there is the fact that B.C. is mostly unceded Indigenous land, no treaties having ever been signed. First Nations communities, including the urban aboriginal population, suffer some of the worst poverty and marginalization in the province.

In Gordon Campbell’s first term in office, his B.C. Liberals chose a confrontational approach to Indigenous communities by holding a province-wide referendum on Native rights. Campbell is long gone and that disrespectful, borderline racist approach is no longer an option for anyone hoping to govern B.C.

Idle no more protesters in Vancouver | Photo by Caelie Frampton

Christy Clark will likely also be gone by mid-2013. How much a new B.C. government results in new politics is not just up to the NDP and its leader Adrian Dix.

I can only contemplate this new year for B.C., which promises the B.C. Liberals no more, by thinking about the phenomenon of Idle No More and how we might emulate its creativity and determination to alter the balance of political forces.

In this pivotal year for B.C., we can and must rise to the occasion, undo the damage done by the B.C. Liberals, and start the long, hard journey towards a society based around ecological values and social justice. Let us all resolve to be Idle No More in 2013.