The Vision Thing: What Liberals can learn from Idle No More and other Aboriginal Movements

“Our whole approach as a political party was to talk not so much negatively, but we wanted to talk about the future of the province and we wanted to talk positively.”

  • Peter Lougheed (July 26, 1928 – September 13, 2012); former Premier of Alberta (1971 to 1985)

Since 2006, the Liberal Party of Canada has been struggling with our identity. Some have argued that we need to be more inclusive. As a result, we turned to the supporter system. Some have argued that we need to be less policy driven. Therefore, like the Conservative Party in 2006, those critics have argued that the Liberal Party needs to adopt five or six points. Those points are what we should argue for. Be simplistic, they argue. Dumb it down, they say.

Others have argued that the Liberal Party has a brand management problem. Federally, we should merge with the NDP or the Greens.

Yet, all of those critics have missed the point: our most difficult problem is a vision one. For, we don’t have one. We don’t have an understanding of what it means to be Liberal. This becomes obvious when one looks at the “Idle No More” Movement. Without a leader, Aboriginal Groups have moved their agenda to the top of the Canadian Agenda. Without a single MP, Aboriginal Groups have gotten meetings with the Prime Minister, the Leader of the Opposition, the Third Party and other MPs. The only thing that Aboriginal Groups had was a vision. They had an idea of who they were.

This is something I would argue that Martin, Dion and Ignatieff did not have. This is something that our Party has not been able to do since we published the Red Book in 1993. Yet, this is something that a bunch of disparate Aboriginal Groups have. They understand where they want to be and where they need to be.

If you don’t believe me, let us look at the evidence. In November of 2005, the Kelowna Accord was signed at a First Ministers’ Meeting in Kelowna, British Columbia. It was the result of 18 months’ worth of roundtable consultations that included Prime Ministers, Premiers and the major native representative groups. The meeting was described in a paper released at the end of the meeting entitled “First Ministers and National Aboriginal Leaders Strengthening Relationships and Closing the Gap” and a separate press release, issued by the Prime Minister’s Office at the close of the Kelowna meetings. While, Quebec aboriginals were not included in this final accord, it was still a momentous movement forward.

If implemented, it would have begun to change relationship between Aboriginal Canadians and the Country. However, Mr. Harper never did move forward on the Accord. It is not as if he did not get pressure to do so. Before Mr. Harper become Prime Minister, the previous Martin Government laid the ground work for its implementation. Furthermore, on March 21, 2007, the bill was passed the House of Commons with support from Liberal, Bloc Québécois and New Democratic Party MP. However, since the Bill was a spending bill and it did not have the support of the Government or the Governor General, the bill failed to become the law of the land. Or put differently, sections 54 and 55 of the Constitution Act, 1867 prevents a private member’s bill from becoming law, if it is going to spend public funds without the permission of the Government or the Governor General. With all of that being said, Mr. Harper ignored the pressure.

However, Aboriginal Canadians did not stop. They worked slowly toward their vision of self-governance. The “Idle No More” Movement, as an example, is two months old. In those two months, Aboriginal Communities and their allies have participated in a number of events. They have included rallies, teach-ins, and social media. “Idle No More” rallies have closed down highways and closed border crossings. All of this happened without MPs or much structure. “Idle No More” redefined the political agenda without any Electoral District Associations or Policy Conventions. In fact, if one listened to the confusion that surrounded the January 11th meeting, one could easily see that Aboriginal Organizations are not untied on the policy front. The AFN and Quebec Chief are arguing with Manitoba and Ontario Chiefs. Yet, with all of that being said, the Prime Minister and his staff desperately negotiated on Thursday to ensure that Friday’s meeting would occur. For, the agenda had been set because Aboriginal Canadians had a Vision that they were striving to implement and non-Aboriginal Canadians about into that Vision.

It is a Vision of Independent Communities with some form of self-Government. This might meant that the Constitution might change and a Third Order might be added. Or it might mean that some form of “special municipality” status might be granted. While, the Policy Approach is cloudy, Aboriginals have a vision and, therefore, a jumping off point. While, we can argue about the success of the meeting, it is hard to say that Aboriginal Canadians Liberals have not pushed themselves back onto the agenda.

The question is: “why can’t Liberals do the same”? My argument is simple: we don’t have a simple vision of what it means to be Liberal. Paul Martin, from 2004 to 2006, was desperate to keep his government afloat. One could say that because he was putting out fires, he had no time to come up with a grand vision. While, others might say that he could not create a vision because he was bargaining with MPs and Opposition Parties to hold onto Power. Either way, he did not present one.

From, there we ended up with Mr. Dion. While a Great Man, Mr. Dion could not tie his policies to a greater vision. Given that Ignatieff had many of the same problems, one can see that our parties’ greatest failing has been its inability to describe the society we wish to have or the country we want to lead. This is unlike past leaders. Trudeau called his vision a “Just Society”, while Progressive Conservative Joe Clark talked about a “Community of Communities”. The question is what does the Liberal Party in 2013 want.

To date, our answers have been vague. If one looks at our website, our Principles are to ensure that: “
…a federal Liberal government is dedicated to the protection and enhancement of the lives of all Canadians and is committed to democratic governance, federalism and the rule of law.” Furthermore, “we are compassionate and responsible fiscal stewards, committed to providing a good and fair balance between the economy and social justice.” The words are hollow and meaningless because they could describe the goals of any political party. Those words describe the actions of Trudeau, Clark, Mulroney or Harper. The words on our website do not give a direction or place. This would be unlike the NDP or Conservatives’ websites. This is, in a nutshell, is our dilemma: our Party cannot paint a picture of itself, it ideals, its goals and/or its values. Consequently, at this time, the Liberal Party is rudderless.

Therefore, like Idle No More, our party must understand what it is trying to accomplish. Given that our Party is not ideological, we have a greater task than most. We don’t have simple catch phrases or ideas to fall back on. However, we do have a history. My reading of that history leads me to a belief. In my mind, our vision should be finding the policies that provide the greatest good to the greatest number – recognizing the limits that come from respecting minority interests.

However, this is not the only view of Liberalism. Akaash Maharaj argues that our party is not one that stands mid-way between the NDP or the Conservative Parties. On CBC’s the Current, he said that his personal view is that “Liberals fundamentally believe that Liberty is the highest political good and that the first duty of government is to pursue greatest liberty for the individual that is compatible with Liberty for all.” He went on to argue that unlike the NDP – who seeks equality of outcome – Liberals pursue an equality of opportunity. Furthermore, Mr. Maharaj argues, Liberals believe that every Right has a corresponding responsibility.

In both of our cases, we make a simple argument: Government has a relationship to society and the individual: a relationship where the government acts. If the “highest political good” is to have cheaper telecommunication costs Governments act recognizing the interests of customers, employees, incumbent players and new entrants. If the “greatest good to the greatest number” means taxing sugary and salty food products to reduce rates of diabetes and high blood pressure, then a Liberal Government would move towards that action. The words of Mr. Maharaj and I mean more than just “providing a good and fair balance between the economy and social justice.” Our words mean more than just being committed to “democratic governance, federalism and the rule of law.” The words of Akaash lead to action. My words lead to reform of existing institutions.

These words are a start to a true value ladened philosophy and vision: Something that our Party sorely lacks. My question is simple: Will one of the leadership candidates take up this challenge? Will they begin to talk about a value ladened vision? Will the executive or party brass talk about such a vision? For, we need to talk about it. We need to create a vision that many Liberals can rally around. For from there we can jump off and create policy. From there we can take on the NDP and the Conservatives with ideas and passion. Through a vision, we can build a platform and rebuild our brand. From there it all begins. Therefore, the question is simple: “are we going to be brave enough to get to square one?” Are we going to be brave enough to call forth a vision?

One thought on “The Vision Thing: What Liberals can learn from Idle No More and other Aboriginal Movements

  1. I dunno, I’d say it’s unfair to lump Dion in with Ignetief. Dion had a clear vision, seems to me: be the Green Party before the Green Party carves %10 out of our base… as theyve bascially been on track to do, at least in the West. Sure, the execution was a bit muddled (but to be fair CTV snowed him pretty good), but holding the Torries to a minority was impressive. The party was in complete denial about the reality of ‘Liberal Fatigue’ out there; they were long past the 10-year itch and a solid 6-10 years of wilderness was completely inevitable.

    I think your Akash quote lays out a pretty succinct long term foundation for Vision; lay down some Green and Pirate-inspired tailored-to-the-moment policy and be ready for when the Torries hit a 10-year itch of their own (as they are nowish).

    The biggest change Liberals must make is to understand there is no such thing as a *Natural Governing Party* – period. It’s a junk theory of our political history: the wins of the 20th century came from some very crafty politics, not some systemic innevitability. Canadian politics is fiercly competitive, and always has been, and no doubt will continue to be. Healthy democracies change governments: deal with it. A Tory government is an annoyance, even a hazard – it’s NOT a crisis. Act like it is, and the voters will take us for fools – no matter how much publicity or attention, or even support our policy agenda attracts. Voters vote character, not policy. Policy takes time; people are busy. Character is obvious.

    Believe your philosophy, believe your vision, but never, never believe your own hype.


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