American progressive circles are abuzz right now with the Green New Deal, and the excitement has started to filter over the border into calls for Canadian progressives to push for a "Canadian Green New Deal." But it’s hard to understand what that means for Canada without understanding what the old New Deal meant for America, its country of birth... and why Canadian progressives shouldn’t adopt a plan rooted in America’s past.
The original New Deal was brought in by Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was first elected president in 1932 after Americans had been hammered by four long and brutal years of the Great Depression. The Great Depression would have been a hardship under any circumstances, but for the Americans it was a particular blow after the roaring 1920s had seemingly stabilized the economy and social structures after the stormy decades of civil war, the failure of Reconstruction, and the First World War.
The New Deal focused on relief for the millions of unemployed, recovery of the economy and reform of key aspects of the financial system. The program wasn’t perfect, but it did spur recovery—and the 7.7 per cent economic growth per year from 1933-1941 eventually created benefits across economic classes. Financial institutions were better regulated and many of the back-to-work programs created during the New Deal developed into public institutions that have endured to modern times.
The even deeper legacy was the political realignment the New Deal created. A liberal coalition of interests aligned to give the Democrats a sustained hold on presidential power for the first time in U.S. history. FDR was elected four consecutive times, making him the longest-serving president in American history (and the reason presidential term limits were created). The Democrats subsequently went on to win all but two presidential elections, until Nixon finally broke the New Deal political coalition in the mid-1960s.
Why has the Green New Deal has become so powerful for progressive voters in America looking for hope in this moment? It's the arc it creates to a past that they view as a golden age of American prosperity, when progressive policies provided supports for the aspirations they had for themselves and their children. If Google Translate had political languages, “Green New Deal” would be the Democrat version of “Make America Great Again.” It’s fundamentally a story about a country trying to restore its glory, even if it’s a different thrust in that effort than we’ve heard coming over the border these past few years.
While Canada has often survived its challenging periods by stepping into the slipstream of American momentum, Canada’s moments of greatness have always been when we turned our back to empires and chose to move forward in our own direction. The hallmarks of progressive modern Canadian society—universal health care, multiculturalism, bilingualism, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms—were all conscientious breaks away from U.S. and British political norms of the day.
While Canada has often survived its challenging periods by stepping into the slipstream of American momentum, Canada’s moments of greatness have always been when we turned our back to empires and choose to move forward in our own direction.
Connecting an arc to these moments presents a problem. The New Deal was such a significant event in the American psyche that its been flattened in the English language into a synonym for ‘ambitious agenda for transformative policy change.’ We have no corollary, or at least we don’t collectively carry the story of our transformative moments. While writing this article I had to google the date Tommy Douglas brought in universal health care. We need to be better at telling the stories we already have, and our inability to do that underlines how important it is to hold our own pen on the next chapter of Canada’s story as we stare down enormous modern challenges.
Canada came together under Confederation to protect our interests from our American neighbours. Confederation answered constitutional questions about Canada’s organization and governance, but it was primarily an economic strategy with a military and diplomatic face. Our most hailed act of nation-building—the Canadian Pacific Railway—opened up settlement to western Canada, opened new markets, tied regions together, and created demand for resources and technology. It also cemented the violent displacement of Indigenous peoples from their homelands; meanwhile, tens of thousands of indentured workers, mostly Chinese, were brought to Canada to work in dangerous and humiliating conditions to build the railway on these stolen lands.
A “made in Canada” version of the Green New Deal built on our own history is an opportunity to redress the shortcomings and harms created by the building of the CPR, to address those who were forgotten or deliberately erased from Confederation, and to put values front and centre in our government.
We do share some things with Americans including an urgent need for transformative action on climate change. Like them, we also need to support traditionally resource-based communities through economic transition, find pathways out of poverty for people suffering in our communities, stop the trauma and injustice that creates new poverty, and take resolute action to address the skyrocketing pressures on the middle class.
But how we address these problems needs to start at Canada’s beginning—the violent displacement of Indigenous peoples from the land—and build out from there. It’s much harder work than adopting an exciting and pre-packaged American agenda, but we aren’t going to meet modern challenges, and through that give ourselves a shot at a future, if we keep repeating the mistake of focusing on someone else’s past.