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 choose to move forward in our own direction.

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.

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.

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Actually, it was less the New Deal and more World War II that saved the American economy and ushered in the prosperity of the postwar years. And that provides a better model. Under wartime conditions, the US government simply told car manufacturers, for example, that they would no longer be manufacturing cars but tanks and bombers. This is the level of government intervention we need now. No more SUVs but windmills.

A fine piece, Andrea. Two comments. First, "Canada came together under Confederation to protect our interests from our American neighbours." Not true. Ontario and Quebec wanted Confederation; the Atlantic region did not, but it was bullied and tricked into it. PEI and Newfoundland simply didn't join in 1867; New Brunswick's initial reaction was to elect a violently anti-Confederation government; and Nova Scotia (which was the wealthiest of the provinces at Confederation) didn't get to vote on it till September, 1867. At that point Nova Scotians overwhelming rejected it, 18 seats out of 19 -- but by then it was a fait accompli. Still, Nova Scotian separatism burned well into the 20th century, and smoulders to this day. Maritimers thought Confederation would marginalize and impoverish them, and they were absolutely correct. There's an essay on this in my recently-reissued book, Sterling Silver.
Second, if there's a Canadian parallel to the New Deal, it was Lester Pearson's two minority governments in the 1960s, which-- aided and pressed by the NDP under Tommy Douglas -- brought in universal health care, the Canada Pension Plan, Canada Student Loans, the Canada-US Auto Pact, the 40-hour work week, two weeks paid vacation, a new minimum wage and the Maple Leaf flag. Pearson's governments kept us out of the Vietnam war and unified the armed forces; they established the Royal Commission on the Status of Women and also the Royal Commission on Bilingualism, which led to the establishment of French as an official language. Pearson implemented the world's first race-free immigration system, and oversaw the centennial celebrations and Expo 67.
Political parties hate minority parliaments, because they restrict the government's power. But if citizens really understood where their bread was buttered, they'd be looking for ways to elect minority governments every time. 2019 is a good time to remember that.

Brilliant, Donald! Proportional representation would accomplish the minority government situations a bit more equitably but in the meantime, people should feel free to vote for the party and person they WANT rather than against some party. That might well give us some good minority governments that get more done for the people and the big issues at hand.

Interesting how many versions of history there can be. My version of the Canadian move to universal health care, vacation pay, the eight hour day, universal no fault auto insurance, etc. etc., begins in Saskatchewan, under the government of Tommy Douglas. During the fight for medical care, it was in fact the Saskatchewan Liberals, aided by money from the American Medical Association, that did everything in its power to scare Saskatchewan's citizens about the horrors of 'socialized medicine'.

I was a high school student during those years........later a recipient of the Government scholarships the CCF awarded in those years to make University more affordable of all kids...and I remember the lies broadcast on the black and white tvs of the time.

It was only later, once Saskatchewan had what American's still pine for, that the Federal Liberals changed their minds and took the plan national. And good for Pearson for doing it.

But re-writing history so that programs pioneered in Saskatchewan under the CCF-NDP become Liberal achievements is wearing a bit thin for me.

I'd rather talk about the fascistic tendencies we see currently in our Liberal establishment, vis a vis the lies coming out of Venezuela, as we prepare to back an American regime change that would have made Justin's father cringe, and Tommy Douglas filibuster in the house.

Ignoring our social democratic third party has perhaps taken us further down the 'made in America " road, than we might imagine.

Not many people were displaced just for the railroad itself; railroads are very, very thin. The displacement was done by the people who came out on that railroad, building farms. Also, some 65 million buffalo were shot, almost all by Americans, depriving the whole continent's plains peoples of food - long before the railroad came.

Redressing their grievances is an important project, but it does not compare to a "new deal" size of program. The "New Deal" distributed economic value across a whole huge class of people, stimulating the economy through their (public and private) spending on necessities. The number of people affected by indigenous programs cannot be much more than the very few percent of Canadians that are indigenous, and their economic improvements will not affect the rest of the economy very much.

I don't think it's a great part of the GND that they propose to create literally millions of jobs with their "jobs guarantee", but if it did work, the effect on the wider economy would be very significant. A Canadian indigenous-redress program would not be, and should not be compared.

Thank you for this interesting article. I wonder if folks who use the term "New Green Deal" here in Canada do have the American framework in mind, or if they use the phrase as a synonym for "ambitious agenda." But it is good to be reminded where we could and should start our own narrative. I was also under the (perhaps false) impression that our Charter, while a clear break from our British political roots, drew deeply from the worldview of our neighbours to the south by elevating the concept of "rights." Not necessarily a bad thing, of course, but still, a borrowing with many downstream impacts.