Remember that one time the youth tried to make the NDP rad? Team Advantage is joined by Mount Royal University’s Roberta Lexier to discuss the Waffle, the 1969 Waffle Manifesto, James Laxer, Mel Watkins, economic nationalism, and much more.
Intro: There are two strategic areas where, if you don’t talk about nationalisation, this document becomes a waffle document. This is still waffling because all you’re saying is key industries, and I don’t think it’s any less of a waffle, if you want to put it that way, than what is here already.
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Kate: The Alberta Advantage is a bi-monthly political commentary podcast that offers analysis on Calagarian and Albertan politics from a left-wing perspective.
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Kate: Hello everyone, and welcome to The Alberta Advantage. Get out your maple syrup, ‘cause we’re here to talk about the Waffle. Joining Team Advantage today are special guests Roberta Lexier, associate professor at Mount Royal University –
Roberta: Hi! Thanks for having me!
Kate: – thank you so much for being here – as well as our Edmonton correspondent, Trevor.
Kate: Around the table, we also have:
Kate: And myself, your host, Kate Jacobson. So let’s start with the basics with the Waffle. What was the Waffle? When was it active? Who was involved?
Roberta: So the Waffle was founded in 1969, and, really, it came out of a manifesto that was drafted called “For An Independent Socialist Canada,” and the point of the manifesto was to try and raise some important issues within the NDP specifically around – Americanization of the Canadian economy was the key issue, but also issues around Quebec nationalism and some other issues emerged later. In 1969, they reformed – they take the resolution, or the manifesto, to the federal convention that year – in Winnipeg, I think the convention was – where it’s responded to by the establishment of the NDP with what became referred to as the Marshmallow Resolution. It does accept some of the points of the Waffle Manifesto, but really leaves behind a lot of the more radical points of the manifesto. After the manifesto was rejected by the federal convention, the Waffle goes back and decides to start submitting resolutions to federal and provincial conventions of the NDP, trying to push the NDP in various directions, primarily to the left, and some of those were accepted, most of those were rejected. In 1971, one of the leaders of the Waffle, James Laxer, who recently sadly passed away, ran for the federal leadership against David Lewis. Almost won – it came down to fourth ballot, it was pretty shocking. And after that, the NDP got very concerned about the Waffle and decided to basically boot them from the party. They continued to organize – some of them, anyway, some stay within the NDP – into another organization called “A Movement For An Independent Socialist Canada,” and then basically disappear off the map by 1973, 1974, around there.
Kate: So, yeah, pretty short-lived.
Roberta: Yes, about five years at the maximum point.
Kate: So the name “The Waffle.” I love it. I don’t know how popular that opinion is around the table – Amir, I don’t think you’re a huge fan of the name “The Waffle”?
Amir: Oh, I’m actually a great fan. I was just disappointed it was not a reference to a breakfast food, but more something about waffling in the Left?
Kate: Yeah, so future NDP leader Ed Broadbend said, “If they had to choose between waffling to the left and waffling to the right, they waffled to the left.” The Waffle was an attempt to introduce these ideas of the 1960s New Left into the NDP and push the party to the left. And they were really big into this idea of left economic nationalism.
Roberta: I think one of the interesting things about that is the Waffle leadership, at least Jim Laxer and some others, had been really involved in the Canadian student movement in the 1960s. And they raised a lot of concerns – Jim Laxer in particular – about the American dominance within the student movement, that all the issues they were raising were American: the war in Vietnam, civil rights, other sorts of issues, and that the tactics they were using were all taken from the United States. And so he was pushing much earlier than this for a nationalization of the student movement saying, “We’re Canadian, we need to deal with Canadian issues. We need to deal with Quebec, we need to deal with First Nations, we need to deal with this federation that we have, and, most importantly, we need to deal with the dominance of the American empire in Canada itself.” And so I think, for me, when I look at the history of the Waffle, that interesting transition from that nationalization push in the student movement into the, kind of, looking for other opportunities for nationalization, and seeing the NDP as a potential ally, I suppose, or a potential location for nationalization to happen. And then they really start to push on the economic side, which I think comes a lot from Mel Watkins, who was an economist.
Amir: One of the things that, well, that I found interesting was that – so in the New Left in the 60s, you have all these anti-colonial and anti-imperialist troubles, a lot of it was based on the tension of, you know, the colonies versus the empires, and it’s almost like the Waffle, in order to be able to fit to that trendy discourse, they kind of create this whole concept of Canada being basically the same side as Vietnam or something. I don’t know – I find it a little ham-fisted, but this is my first impression.
Kate: No, I definitely think that’s a real concern with left economic nationalism and, particularly, left political economics as applied to Canada, is there is a tendency to see Canada as a periphery state because, I don’t know, we have a lumber industry, or there’s resource extraction here, but I definitely think – there’s a lot of critiques of this. It’s very important to see Canada as a country in the global North, as a core economy, as a capitalist state.
Roberta: Canada is a colonizer and a northern country, a global power. But it’s also a former colony. And it’s always had that tension between being a colony and being a colonizer, and I think we’re only now starting to talk about the colonizer part, in terms of First Nations and mining interests in Central America, all those sorts of things. And I think, at the time, there really was this sense that Canada was acting as a colony, in particular to this really dominant empire to the south, which was the American empire. And we have to remember this is the Cold War, so there’s two empires – there’s the American empire and the Soviet empire – and Canada was kind of a peripheral nation within that two-state system, or two-empire system. And so there was that sense that it was a colony. But I think at the same time what they were saying is that Canada has its own problems, and we have to start looking at Canada’s problems and solve Canada’s problems, and stop just adopting the US models and the US issues. With civil rights, there was an interesting article that came out early in the 60s about students demonstrating about civil rights – it was after the Selma march in Alabama, there was a big protest in Toronto at the US consulate, people saying, “Civil rights! Civil rights! The African-American struggle is super important!” And this article came out in the Globe & Mail and said, “Yeah, okay, but we have our own civil rights issues in Canada that we’re totally ignoring; there’s poverty on reserves, and there’s other sorts of issues.” So I think they were trying to balance that conflict that Canada holds a really weird position, especially in the late 1960s. And I think we do have to acknowledge the importance of that American empire, that they really were dominant. One of the issues that comes up in the Waffle is around the labour movement, for instance. This is one of the reasons that the NDP wanted to boot the Waffle from the party is that most of the trade unions at that time were international unions. Now, international worker solidarity is a thing labour unions often talk about, but those unions were actually American unions – they were headquartered in the United States. And Canadian unions, or people fighting for independent Canadian unions, were saying, “They don’t know our issues, they don’t understand our economy, they don’t understand our political system. We need independent Canadian unions.”
Kate: The union issue is also a historic one. So, especially in the Prairies, that’s how the One Big Union really managed to get inroads into the Prairies provinces, is they appealed to Canadian workers’ sense that their union dues were going to these conservative, ineffectual unions in the States, they would never approve strike funds, things like that. And that’s how the One Big Union really got its start in Western Canada in particular. So there’s definitely a big history in Canada of that.
Trevor: There’s a fun Alberta context to that. There was a video recorded to highlight the 50-year anniversary of the formation of the NDP in Alberta, and they were interviewing activists who were involved with the CCF at the time. And Alberta was a bit of a laggard in jumping on board with the new party, and one of the reasons one of the members voiced in that is they were worried about the right-wing influence of the labour movement on the party.
Roberta: Yeah, I think it’s important at this time to, again – I’m a historian, so I have to put everything in historical context – that the NDP was only formed in 1961, so when the Waffle came around, that’s only 8 years after the formation of the new party. And the new party is formed as a way to bring the labour unions onside to the party. Before that, the CCF had been a federation of a large number of different groups, mostly farmers, co-ops, religious social gospelers, other sorts of people with some union involvement. But there was an attempt to try and bring the unions in in a much more official way and make the party a labour party along the lines of the British Labour Party and others; that was really the main influence. And so the unions had been brought onside in 1961 as part of this movement, and were given a lot of power within the party – they get a certain number of seats on the federal council, they get a certain number of block votes, they get all sorts of special considerations as being labour unions. And there was a thought at the time that unions were radical Left organizations, that they were the workers who would overthrow capitalism and the proletariat would rise. As we know, labour unions really aren’t that, oftentimes; they tend to focus on collective bargaining and getting the best deals for their workers, and that often isn’t about changing governments, it’s often not about radical solutions to economics.
Kate: We’ve sort of covered labour unions quite well, I think. I would love to move on to the Waffle Manifesto itself, so: who wrote it, what its components looked like, and how it really differed from existing NDP policies. So this manifesto was sort of the expression of the Waffle movement, and they believed that the NDP could function as the parliamentary wing of what they called a movement dedicated to fundamental social change.
Karen: Yeah, I mean, I think we can start with the starting point, it’s just, “Our aim as democratic socialists is to build an independent socialist Canada. Our aim as supporters of the New Democratic Party is to make it a truly socialist party.” So those are pretty strong words that you don’t hear that straightforward these days.
Amir: So I guess because I’m not well-acquainted with 60s political climate of the NDP, I’m wondering what part of this was actually controversial to the mainstream, that they didn’t like this, you know.
Karen: Well, the first word is socialist, you know.
Karen: I think the entire of the NDP – less so the CCF, but probably most of that’s history as well – is just that having a problem saying the world “socialist”, or going onto the doors of regular voters and Canadians and saying, “Yes, we’re socialists,” ‘cause it’s always social democrat, social democracy inspired by socialism, but it’s not very straightforward, most of the time.
Bodie: And having the courage to at least recognize that American empire is the biggest obstacle to worldwide socialism. I mean, that’s–
Kate: Yeah, and I do think some of my favourite analysis of this is this idea that Canadian governments have functioned in the interest of international capitalism and, particularly, American capitalism. And I think that’s quite insightful analysis of the role that the Canadian government has played in international capitalism. We see, for the most part of Canadian history, we’re pretty much a willing kind of lacky to American empire. There are, of course, a couple notable exceptions, but I think for a large part that’s quite correct.
Roberta: I don’t think being anti-American would actually have been shocking to anybody at that point. There was a lot of anti-Americanism. Even the Guess Who’s “American Woman” is an anti-American song, even though now it’s used as a patriotic song down there – I don’t understand that, but that’s a whole other issue. But anti-Americanism was rampant during that time period, and Canada was actively supporting the American empire in lots of ways: sending arms to Vietnam, you know, acting as a proxy for the Americans in lots of different cases. So I think there was a fair case for the colonial mentality or argument there. I think there were two shocking things about the manifesto that I’ve tried to sort of highlight in the work that I do. One is the socialism side that I think you highlighted, that the NDP – going back, the CCF was very proud of its socialism – always democratic socialism, that has to be clear. But by the 1950s, 1956, there’s a book that’s released that starts moving away from that term. They start kind of seeing themselves as more of a middle left, a center-left organization. And then, ‘61, when they form the new party, the socialism part is very timid by that point. It becomes even more timid as we go on past this. So I think stating right in the first line that socialism has to be the future is really controversial at the time, and the NDP doesn’t want to go there. And the second thing – actually, there’s three things. So the second thing is the Quebec issue. They say very overtly in the manifesto that the way to create a unified Canadian state is through socialism. And we have to remember this is 1969 – the FLQ crisis is the next year. There’s a lot of stuff going on in Quebec around separatism and a desire to change up the federation that’s Canada. And so they’re trying to figure out a way to unify the country – what’s that way to bring the French back onside, the Quebecois back onside – and they argue socialism is that way. And then the third piece I think that’s super controversial, to the NDP anyway, is around the labour unions. This – I mean, we already talked about it a little bit, but this really is the key issue for most NDPers, this criticism of who they have just brought in as their major partner in this new party, and it becomes really controversial on that point. So I think there’s those three things, that the socialism’s key, but there’s also other things going on in the manifesto.
Patrick: Just to keep the setting in mind, this is the middle of the Cold War. This is the time where, if you say the word “socialism,” it’s very, very easy for your opponents to conflate that with communism, and that sets you back a few notches at the very beginning of a conversation.
Bodie: Regarding the Quebec issue; in the manifesto, they talk about two nations, one struggle, so the one struggle is socialism, obviously. But, I mean, two nations, one struggle; I think they’re forgetting that there are tens and tens of other nations that we’re forgetting here.
Patrick: This part’s actually very interesting to me because the outlook of this manifesto is almost internationalist within Canada, but is very much nationalist as far as Canada itself is concerned, and it seems kind of incoherent that way, because if you’re going to admit that, okay, all of these different societies should be working together toward socialism, why do you stop that initiative at your borders, right? Why do you stop that initiative without including First Nations people? So it’s pretty much a piece that is incoherent at its time.
Amir: To me it’s not even coherence or not; it makes perfect sense at the time, again. So there were all these anti-imperialist, anti-colonial left nationalist movements that just kind of had these – basically, it was about getting independence from, let’s say, the American empire, or the French empire, and asserting national autonomy. And then there were always these superficial calls to international solidarity or whatever because internationalism, but at the end of the day there were left nationalist projects, and what it seems to me the Waffle is doing is taking this constellation of concepts that already existed in the New Left and already had a history of being applied to anti-colonial movements, and they’re just fitting Canada into that mould because that was the constellation of concepts that existed at that time.
Roberta: Absolutely, and I think that’s really important thinking about this international vs national, and that they’re trying to take an international movement that’s happening and apply it to the Canadian setting. I also think we live in a context where we don’t even flinch at the term “two nations”, but in 1969, that was an incredibly controversial thing to say, that there were two nations that made up this country. We now talk about three nations that make up this country – maybe more than that, however we define that – but in 1969, “two nations” is actually the controversial part of that statement. It’s not the socialism part, it’s that we acknowledge that Quebec is its own nation and that we have to find a way to make those two nations work together into something. And maybe that’s where some of that internationalization comes from, that we’re taking two nations and pulling them together, doing it under a socialist economy and a socialist framework. But that was the controversial part of that, it’s only about two decades later that people start acknowledging that Quebec’s its own nation in official party platforms and other sorts of things. One of my problems that I have with the way the Manifesto is now understood is that it’s understood as a document written by two people – Jim Laxer and Mel Watkins – and while those two were key players in the drafting of this, and that Jim Laxer wrote a draft, Mel Watkins wrote a draft, then they came together, it also ignores a lot of the other people who were involved in writing this. Ed Broadbent, for instance, was very involved at the very beginning of the Waffle; very quickly left it after he saw the Manifesto, he said, “Hm, maybe this isn’t for me,” but at the very beginning he was involved. But more importantly it overlooks the role of many of the women that were involved in this movement. And I did mention earlier that gender is a key issue for the Waffle after the Manifesto’s released; it’s not mentioned in the Manifesto, but very soon afterwards the women’s liberation movement becomes a key issue for the Waffle. And a large reason for that is that many of the people involved in drafting the Manifesto, and originally involved in the organization, were very strong and powerful women who had been very active in the women’s liberation movement at various university campuses and elsewhere. And they are largely overlooked by the historical record, and it’s very difficult because we don’t have their names in a lot of places, we don’t have the ability to talk to them. But I think it’s really important to acknowledge that these women were involved. So one, for instance, is Krista Mäeots, who was married to Jim Laxer. She committed suicide not long after the Waffle experience, so we haven’t been able to get her on the record, of course, and she is acknowledged by many of the people involved in the Waffle as the key force behind this organization. So this is the problem with these as historical documents, how they get interpreted and then who gets left out of the story.
Kate: One of my favourite parts of the Waffle Manifesto as it relates to socialism is this idea that we have to go beyond the welfare state. I think that’s very interesting because of the time; this is sort of the glory days of the welfare state, right? It’s after World War II, the welfare state is expanding, it seems like this is the new normal, the new state of affairs that is going to last forever. We know it doesn’t because of the neoliberal turn, but the Waffle Manifesto has this idea that a socialist society is not necessarily expanding the welfare state, but rather extending democratic control to all institutions that have a major effect on people’s lives. And I love this idea of basically democratizing the commanding heights of the economy. It’s very good to me.
Trevor: This is an analysis so radical that our comrade Kevin Taft, from the Liberal Party, has remarked that the NDP may be in government here in Alberta, but the oil industry is still in power. And so the buildup of the welfare can make important differences in people’s lives, but you’re still leaving a lot of control over economic decision-making in the hands of some very powerful people who can flex that power and limit of the ability of ostensibly social democratic governments to do what they need to do.
Roberta: Absolutely, and the welfare state was created as a way to limit the power of socialists by liberals and conservatives who were more than happy to implement social policies because it tempers, a little bit, some of the problems of capitalism, especially after the Depression when people were worried about these things. So they implement these programs, but in no way was it ever intended to challenge the control or power of capitalism, it was a way to temper some of the issues that had emerged, and a way to prevent socialists from actually gaining any power. So it was never meant to be revolutionary in any way.
Kate: So, the Waffle Manifesto is authored in 1969. We’ve talked a little bit about the content of this manifesto and the ideas contained in it. What happens when these ideas get to the NDP convention floor? Roberta gave us a little bit of a sneak peek earlier, but what’s the process by which the Waffle Manifesto is defeated?
Roberta: They actually allowed the Waffle Manifesto to be debated on the floor, but the establishment of the party – in particular the credit, I guess, is given to David Lewis, though I imagine there were others as well – drafted what was known as the Marshmallow Resolution, and you were all talking before about why it was called the Marshmallow Resolution; anybody want to talk about that?
Kate: Because it’s soft and it has no substance.
Trevor: And because we should light it on fire and devour it.
Roberta: So, in the meantime, the Waffle brings resolutions to every convention that they go to, provincial and federal conferences. So it kind of looks like there’s a gap, that they do this manifesto, it gets defeated, the Marshmallow Resolution gets approved by the membership, and then it looks like there’s a two-year gap where the Waffle’s not really doing anything, but they have massive resolution booklets that they put together and submitted to the federal conventions, provincial conventions, suggesting all sorts of pretty radical changes in terms of nationalization of the economy, in terms of women’s liberation – they were the first ones to push for gender parity within the party, for instance – around Quebec issues and sovereignty, self-determination; massive, massive resolution booklets. So they continue to try and push for a lot of these issues using a different format or a different framework than they had in the past.
Amir: What was the acceptable part of the Waffle Manifesto that ended up in this Marshmallow Resolution?
Roberta: The Marshmallow Resolution is sort of a tempered version of the Waffle Manifesto. It talks about the importance of a national planning strategy for the economy, that nationalization is important but only in certain industries, that was sort of their clarification there. This is the point where the NDP has adopted a mixed economy approach, that they figure, “We can’t nationalize everything, so we’ll just nationalize some key things.” The Waffle wanted to nationalize all of it, or at least the big key industries, so they say, the Marshmallow Resolution says, “Well, we support nationalization in certain key areas of the economy.” They also say, “Yes, we need to deal with the issue of Quebec, and maybe this is one way to ally ourselves with Quebec.” The NDP always struggled with Quebec, and so the establishment was trying to find ways to connect to Quebec. So maybe a two-nations approach could work, but we don’t want to talk about socialism. So it was kind of taking all the pieces of the Manifest, but pulling them back just enough to make them acceptable to the membership.
Trevor: And I think there’s an interesting look at what seems to be, on a policy level, some serious influence from members of the Waffle and some of the ideas that they’re putting forward. But obviously the party resisting their influence in messaging, and certainly the extent to which they’re willing to take some of them, but the serious challenges and defeats of the Waffle seems to come when they actually tried to seek power in the party.
Kate: This introduction and defeat of the Waffle Manifesto happens in 1969, and the next time the Waffle really seriously challenges for power is in 1971 when the Waffle runs James Laxer for the leadership against the establishment candidate of David Lewis. This leadership election was sparked by Tommy Douglas’ retirement, and, basically, the future direction of the party was at stake. James Laxer comes pretty close; it comes to a fourth ballot, which is not bad at all for a movement that was, what, 2000 out of 90,000 members? They really had a big impact on that level.
Roberta: Absolutely, and Jim Laxer – when I talked to him a few years ago – justified his leadership campaign largely around the War Measures Act and issues related to the FLQ crisis in Quebec. So by 1971, the October Crisis had happened in Quebec and the federal government had invoked the War Measures Act as a way to suppress the FLQ and, really, separatists in Quebec in a broader sense, and there was a lot of debate and discussion within the NDP about its response to the War Measures Act. The party eventually does come out opposed to the War Measures Act, but it was very controversial within the caucus that was elected at the time, and a big discussion point at the convention in 1970, and then again in 1971. And Jim Laxer decides he wants to run largely around this issue in Quebec and around Quebec separatism, around self-determination and the right of Quebecers to choose for themselves whether they stay or leave in Canada, and then, really, around the War Measures Act. And he said he had no expectations of winning; this was never the plan, he didn’t actually want to be the leader of the NDP in some ways, but he and other Wafflers had decided that they needed to step it up and really push the establishment to start adopting some of these positions and perspectives, and so maybe one way of doing that was to run for the leadership. At the time, Wafflers were also running for other positions within the NDP; so, vice presidencies and secretaries and treasures and presidents of ridings associations, and trying to get into the bottom levels, but they decided they should run at this convention, but without any intention of ever winning. And pushing it to a fourth ballot was shocking to all of them as well.
Amir: What’s the position of the Waffle in NDP self-mythology? Do they consider them these cranks, or an interesting tidbit of history, or?…
Roberta: I find the reaction to the Waffle fascinating. 1969 was almost 50 years ago, and still people talk all the time about the Waffle and the problems the Waffle created and how awful the Waffle was, and when people were debating the Leap Manifesto, for instance, when it came up at the convention in Edmonton in 2016, people talked about it as if it was another manifestation of the Waffle. “This is just the Waffle all over again!” The Waffle were 50 years ago! Understand why people would hold onto some of that history, but the Waffle does have this really fascinating place in the history and the mythology of the NDP that I don’t think will disappear for quite some time. It’s fascinating.
Amir: I don’t know; if you’re cringing over fifty, sixty years later about the Waffle, you’re, I don’t know, a super square.
Trevor: But maybe there’s a different context here in Alberta, where, as the provincial sections were sort of discouraging and actively ridding themselves of the Waffle, they weren’t able to do that because the Waffle, by and large, were the majority. There were figures, like Grant Notley and Neil Reimer, who definitely wrinkled their nose at them, but we were running Waffle campaigns in places like Edmonton-Beverly and Edmonton Strathcona; in 1971, Barrie Chivers was running in Edmonton-Beverly there, and he eventually became an MLA with the NDP in Strathcona, and is a well-respected labour lawyer, now retired. So my interaction with some of these former Wafflers has never been in a disparaging way, it’s been “Yeah, that’s who we are in Alberta.”
Roberta: The Waffle in Saskatchewan was also incredibly powerful and very large. It was interesting in Saskatchewan because, there, they’d had a long-term history of social democratic parties in power – the CCF, of course, elected in 1944, and then they get replaced in the ‘60s for a little while – but they’re pushing for nationalization in a place that was largely supportive of nationalization. They’d nationalized the potash corporation, they had a ton of Crown corporations that they were very supportive of, largely to be able to get services out to rural areas. And so the Waffle is really interesting in Saskatchewan, I think, because they’re pushing for similar sorts of issues, but the party itself was pushing for those issues in the province, and so there wasn’t nearly as much tension in that province as there was in other places. It’s not to say the Waffle took over the party or anything like that, but there was a space for that kind of discussion, I think, in Saskatchewan.
Trevor: I think on a policy/ideological level, there was some space for it, and shout out to Dave Mitchell for turning me on to some resources on some of this stuff. What was unique and interesting about Saskatchewan is you had the leader and former premier, Woodrow Wilson, sign on to the Waffle Manifesto. And then what had been a reasonably democratic tradition in Saskatchewan through the CCF and Tommy Douglas, Woodrow Lloyd was trying to open that up to further democratization, and to keep those Left traditions alive. When we talk about the Prairies, we can acknowledge the former premier’s signing of the Manifesto in Saskatchewan, but we should also be clear about Manitoba, where the Manitoba cabinet ministers who attended the convention for the Waffle Manifesto voted against it. There was a single MLA elected who was part of the Waffle, and that was Cy Gonick in Winnipeg, and he was seen as a little bit of a crank and an outlier, and he didn’t run again for the party; he thought that they were too right-wing, as did the youth wing of the party there. So you have these different situations across the Prairie provinces.
Roberta: I think there’s some interesting Prairie history that I think is weird for those of us living in the Prairies these days, where Saskatchewan is a very conservative province, for instance. But we have to remember that there’s a very strong rural tradition in these provinces that very much favoured the cooperative tradition; the formation of the United Farmers of Alberta who formed government in this province, and then, later, the CCF in Saskatchewan, where you see this sense of farmers in particular believing that they had to work together to accomplish some sort of success and some sort of goal. Now most of them, I think, see themselves as small business owners, or there’s industrial farming that’s taken over some of that cooperative mentality. But in those days, there was a very strong social democratic history in Saskatchewan and in Alberta that we tend to overlook and not discuss. The first meeting of the CCF was in Calgary at the Legion downtown in 1932. This place had a social democratic history. And I think the Waffle, for a few reasons, had an opportunity in these provinces. There was that long history of a radical tradition that accepted and encouraged discussion and debate within them. I think in Alberta there was less of a sense that they’d ever form government, and so, sure, we can chat about these things, we’re just going to be one or two people in the legislature. In Saskatchewan, I think it’s a bit different because they did have a sense that they would again form a government, and did, not long afterwards. But, again, they’d had this radical tradition where they were willing to try different kinds of strategies and economic structures that would challenge the dominance of industrial capitalism, resource exploitation, those kinds of things.
Kate: So, the Waffle is basically doing all these things all over Canada. Their Manifesto is defeated in 1969. Laxer is defeated for the leadership in 1971. So what happens to the Waffle after all of these setbacks? Do their demands really get accommodated in the party at all? Or – leading question here – does the Waffle come to a bit more of a dramatic end?
Roberta: I’d have to answer that question – yes to both, in fact. I have spent a lot of time arguing that the principles and ideas that the Waffle put forward actually, much later, become normalized within the party. So, in particular, I would say gender parity was originally proposed by the Waffle in 1970, approximately, and eventually, I think 1984, the NDP officially adopts a gender parity approach for all of its leadership positions. It takes a very long time, and it’s not just the Waffle that leads to that, but they were the first to propose it, and I would argue made it part of the discussion that was happening at NDP conventions and other areas. And then Quebec self-determination, I think, is the other one that they really did push the NDP to think about a different perspective on Quebec and how to deal with this issue, that what the NDP eventually came to around Quebec was that they should support self-determination, that Quebec should be encouraged to stay in Canada, but that, if it chose, by electoral means, to separate from the country, that the NDP would support that. And that eventually becomes their policy. So I think, in those two ways, the Waffle have a long-term trajectory where they did influence what happened in the party. I think the leading question is that, in the very short term, they were officially purged from the party.
And I’ve said a few times how difficult it is to actually purge a group from the NDP. They try to maintain a democratic structure; if you have a membership card in the party, you can attend functions, you can run for positions. It’s very difficult to purge an organization from the party. And so they had to come up with some interesting justifications for that. The official justification is that the Waffle was acting as a party within a party, and this is completely unacceptable to the NDP. So what they mean by that is that the Waffle had its own membership lists, it had its own mailing lists, they had their own meetings; they were doing things that a party does, but within the NDP. And you can’t maintain your own membership lists, you can’t charge fees for your own members, other sorts of things within the party.
Now, there are a lot of unofficial reasons why the Waffle was purged from the party, the number one reason probably being that the labour unions in Ontario were very upset about what the Waffle was arguing, and the real persistence of this nationalization push within the unions, and the unions approached some of the leaders – David Lewis, Stephen Lewis, and others – and said, “You’ve gotta get these guys out of here, we can’t deal with this, this is not what this party was founded to deal with.” And eventually the Lewises caved to that. But the one that you hear quite often, that I think resonates to the present and your question about long-term effect of the Waffle, is that people call them arrogant and condescending and frustrating to deal with, and that there were a lot of personal attacks, and that they weren’t acting like the NDP was a family, quote-unquote. And the NDP tried to act like a family, that we’re all part of the socialist, or whatever term they wanted to use, family, and so we should all treat each other with respect and we should all care about each other. And the leadership, the establishment, argued that the Waffle was not doing this, they were very controversial and confrontational. So I think all of those reasons led to the eventual purge of the Ontario wing of the party – that’s the only one that was officially purged – and the rest sort of dissipate not long after that.
Kate: So on June 24th, 1972, Stephen Lewis steers a motion through a council meeting ordering the Waffle to disband or face expulsion from the Ontario NDP. Unions back the motion, and it passes 217 to 86. James Laxer and other accept the motion, they quit the NDP, they form a new party under the Waffle’s official name, they run a candidate in one federal election, they run a couple candidates in civic elections, but, eventually, their defeats in these cause a crisis within the Waffle. The Trots – Trotskyists, literally – take over the Waffle in 1974, key figures start leaving, the Trots rename the Waffle to the International Socialists of Canada, align it with the American organization of the same name, and the Waffle is formally dead about five years after it was founded. So it has a huge impact for something that was so short-lived, and has, I must admit, quite an inglorious end. Being taken over by Trots; what a way to go.
Karen: It’s very common.
Roberta: Well, apparently there was a discussion before that meeting which was held in Orillia, about how they should deal with this, how they should get the Waffle out. And there was a debate about whether they should purge the members themselves or purge the Waffle as an organization, and it was decided, because the NDP is about being a family and bringing in and allowing all people on the left to be part of the party, that they would not pull people’s membership, and that they could stay within the NDP, but the Waffle as an organization had to go. And so many people did stay – I mean, you said they move on and create this new party, but many of them stayed within the NDP, and still are within the NDP today, and were involved in things like the New Politics Initiative, or involved in Courage, which is a new form of that, all sorts of different attempts to move the party left. I think this continues on today.
Kate: Yeah, so since you mentioned Courage, Roberta, Courage is basically a group, I would say tangential in aim to the Waffle that aims to pull the NDP left from within the party. [Editor’s note: Courage describes itself as a movement, not a party, with members both within and outside of the NDP.] And the Waffle Manifesto says that the NDP should be seen as the parliamentary wing of a movement dedicated to fundamental social change. It must be radicalized from within, and it must be radicalized from without. However, considering that the Waffle ultimately failed, is it possible for the NDP to be transformed like this? And how does the current NDP establishment to react to a similar project like Courage?
Patrick: My answer is definitely nope. I mean, we’ve seen so many examples of this over time, unfortunately. We saw the Waffle, we saw the Regina Manifesto previously, we saw the New Politics Initiative, we now see Courage, we’ve also seen Leap; we’ve seen all these initiatives try to enter the NDP and nudge it a little bit further to the left, and basically all of them have failed miserably. And I think there’s lessons to be drawn from that about culture gets built in an organization and becomes very resistant to change once it’s established. And I understand the rationale – the NDP is this giant magnet for anyone of leftist persuasion in the entire country, it’s where you go by default with the notion that you might be able to accomplish something real there, but I think that too many generations of activists have just died on this hill, and I’m very skeptical that we’ll actually be able to change anything, unfortunately.
Amir: There’s a lot of questions in here. Firstly, the one of electoralism; how far you can go with electoralism because, as Roberta mentioned, an electoral machine wants to get votes, and sometimes, when you want to get votes, you have to moderate some lines. But there’s actually – I think there’s also a more nuanced line. To me, it’s not even about electoralism, but these sort of structurally-technocratic parties that are mainstream nowadays in the sense that it’s not even about the wider things of society, but even these parties themselves, they are designed to bounce out radicals, you know? Because in order to structurally change the parties so that the center of it doesn’t have that much power, you will actually have to revise, for example, the institution of the party. There has to be a lot of structural changes that can only happen if you get a lot of people, somehow you convince them you are not pushed to the fringe enough so that you can still talk to enough people to change the party structurally –
Kate: I think that the NDP can be changed. And maybe this is because I’m young and foolish. The infrastructure of the party can be a limit, but it can also be useful to you. And if you have that critical mass of people, you can push social democrat parties further left than they ever would’ve gone on their own. And that was the aim of the Waffle; they wanted the NDP to waffle to the left. And they weren’t successful, but I don’t believe that’s a project that is completely without merit. But on the other hand, maybe I just need someone to beat me over the head with a stick that says “Build movements, not elections” every time I start thinking like this.
Roberta: I think this is such an interesting, difficult question about how far or how possible it is to push the NDP to the left, and I study this issue; this is what my project is on right now, about the connections between social movements and political parties, and whether parties can actually adjust to these things. I think your points about critical mass are really important; I think parties have shown, in the past, on all parts of the political spectrum, that, if you get a mass of people within them, they can change those parties. But I think one of the questions I have that I want to throw out there is – you keep talking about a social democractic party, and I’m not actually sure that the NDP is a social democratic party. I think the CCF, when it was founded, was very much a social democratic party. They had the goal to achieve democratic socialism in Canada, and it was clear, and it was overt, and they struggled for that all the way through ‘til at least the mid 1950s, if not longer. The NDP, I think, is formed in 1961 with a very different mentality and a very different focus, and a historian of the left in Canada, Ian McKay, has argued that the NDP is inherently a liberal organization. And by that, he means part of the liberal order that is there to reinforce and support the existing structures in Canada. And I’m not sure that he’s wrong. I think the NDP, as an organization, is not actually a social democratic party. It could become that, and maybe it used to be that, I’m not sure, but I don’t think he’s necessarily wrong. And seeing all these examples of people trying to push the party to the left and being pushed out, and being marginalized, and finding all sorts of ways to undercut their positions, I think, reinforces that argument.
Trevor: So, I’m gonna fight with Patrick a little bit. I don’t think the jury’s entirely out on Courage. I think they had some impressive victories at the federal convention in Ottawa, getting free tuition passed, almost getting a really strong resolution on supporting Palestinians passed with – I don’t know, was it eleven votes shy, and largely because of staffers packing the room? And I think that one of the reasons we can’t rule it out entirely is because of the success of momentum. But I also think when Courage – if and when it becomes very successful will be when it is not just about resolutions and party conventions, but it’s about organizing people who are already in the NDP, but it’s about bringing people in who are engaged with different struggles in the trade union movement, in the student movement, in human rights movements, into the party, who don’t care about the success of these elected people and these bureaucrats and the party and stuff like that, and are just using it to drive their agenda forward and a working people’s agenda forward.
Bodie: The Waffle Manifesto talks about Canada’s place within a capitalist world system dominated by the United States. However, it often places Canada in the role of a colony of the US with its independence threatened. Is this an accurate analysis of Canada’s international standing? Has this ever been the case? Should Canada be seen, instead, as a junior partner in imperialism and a settler-colonial state in its own right?
Bodie: Yes. [laughs] Indigeneous dispossession is not even mentioned in the Waffle Manifesto.
Kate: How can it be reconciled with our national origin as a settler-colonial project? I think, for me, in terms of the analysis of the Waffle Manifesto, I think they get it about half right. So their analysis is that there is a strong American capital empire and that the Canadian government is often in service of that. I think that is absolutely correct. I think where they err is the suggestion that Canada does not have a strong national capitalist class. And Canada absolutely has a strong national capitalist class. I mean, we live in Calgary, we’re recording this episode in Calgary – all you have to do is go downtown and look at all those office buildings for evidence that we have a very strong national capitalist class who does a lot of tar sands extraction, who want to build pipeline, who are mining in periphery economies –
Roberta: But are not most of those international corporations? I mean, they have headquarters here, sure, but the argument at the time – I’m not saying you’re wrong, necessarily, but the argument at the time was that that was true, also. I mean, we had headquarters for lots of these American corporations, but they’re still run by American capital, that all these oil companies that you mentioned, or the mining corporations, they’re not necessarily Canadian. They are often multinationals who send their profits, and have interests, elsewhere. I don’t think you’re necessarily wrong, but just to throw that out there – do we actually have a national capitalist class aside from, maybe, the financial institutions?
Kate: I think, for me, it’s the frame of it, because when you get into this idea that the problem is that it’s American capital, I think it’s really easy to take that discursive frame and say, “Okay, it should be Canadian capital. It should be Canadian companies.” So I think by allowing this frame of left economic nationalism to exist, we basically give an opportunity to our enemies to turn it around and say, “Okay, this is all fine as long as it’s Canadian.” And tar sands extraction is bad not because it’s American, but because it’s cooking the planet and violently dispossessing Indigeneous people, right? So it’s not so much a question of whether it’s Canadian or whether it’s American, I think that discursive framework can have problems.
Amir: It’s not about whether there’s Canadian capitalists vs American ones, it’s whether the Canadian benefits from a partnership with American capitalism and American imperialism. First glance, Canada is a global north, rich country that runs a tighter ship than most countries in the world, so it doesn’t seem too shabby compared to the other countries in the world in terms of standing in the global pecking order.
Roberta: And I think, at the time – you mentioned Indigeneous people; yes, totally a blind spot for the Waffle. And, clearly, problematic that it was a blind spot. I think if you’d ask them about it, they would say that this is a big issue for them and that they would have eventually adopted that as a key issue for them, just like they did with women’s liberation. But I think they would have struggled with that colony/colonizer argument. But I think it’s important to say this economic nationalism is about replacing the capitalist system, writ large, with a socialist system. Canadian, American, that’s not really the point in some ways; it’s about socialism versus capitalism.
Trevor: And also, one thing Winston Gereluk wanted to impress upon some of this discussion about the Waffle in Alberta, or at least in Edmonton, is that a lot of these ideas and discussions were already there, and it wouldn’t be doing the people justice to look at it as only this five-year period where this was happening. The ideas existed before and after, and the Waffle just gave a name to it, I think, in Alberta for a certain period of time.
Kate: Yeah, and on behalf of the folks here at The Alberta Advantage, I would like to extend a very warm thank you to Roberta Lexier for joining us and sharing your expertise on the Waffle with us.
Roberta: My pleasure, thanks for having me.
Kate: And also, thank you to our Edmonton correspondent, Trevor, for joining us all the way down from Edmonton!
Trevor: And, despite being from Edmonton, I really like the jingle.
Kate: Don’t worry, I’ll edit that out. No one must ever know. So thank you so much for listening to our episode on the Waffle. Goodbye, everyone!
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Kate: Hello, folks. Did you know the Alberta Advantage is on Patreon? I know, I know. We just wanted to give a shout out to everyone who’s contributed to this project so far, and to let you know that we’ve added goals and rewards. We want to cover our recording costs, record mini-episodes, get into capital-S Serious capital-J Journalism, and invest in some downtown real estate. For our Patreon supporters, we’ve got some fun goals and rewards up there. Check it out at Patreon.com/albertaadvantage. Thank you so much for your support.
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