MONTREAL—When Jack Layton addressed the Convention of the Federal NDP-Quebec section on Nov. 12 his remarks on Afghanistan were better than I expected.
He called for the withdrawal of Canadian troops, not differentiating between Kandahar and the rest of the country, nor between combat and other roles. He spoke of the suffering of the Afghan people under bombardment, not just the loss of Canadian soldiers.
I was able to buttonhole him afterwards in the corridor long enough to find out that by withdrawal he meant the 2700 troops in Kandahar, but he was prepared to make an exception for 50 soldiers in Kabul whose presence he claimed had been requested by Canadian aid agencies to provide security for their personnel. He did not specify a timetable for withdrawal in his speech, but favoured immediate, or a.s.a.p., for the 2700 in his remarks to me.
There was nothing in the speech about an on-going (non-military) Canadian role in reconstruction, development, and humanitarian aid (presumably under continued NATO occupation), nor in terms of “peace-building” in collaboration with “our NATO allies”, the Kharzai government, and other unnamed parties, as was specified in the NDP leaflet distributed at the Oct. 28 antiwar mobilizations.
The rest of the speech dealt mostly with environmental issues, which have been front row center for the NDP as it tries to shake down the Tories on this hot topic. The goal for the next election is “an NDP-led government”. NDP Quebec deputy Pierre Ducasse had earlier made explicit reference to NDP participation in a coalition government.
The convention of the Quebec section of the federal party was otherwise noteworthy for the defeat of a proposal to re-establish a provincial NDP—which would have pitted it against the new leftist party, Quebec Solidaire, in the provincial arena. Socialist Caucus delegates opposed this initiative, as did the party brass (for different reasons).
A resolution against the new federal Young Offenders Act was also passed rather handily without mentioning Layton’s previous tilt toward the law-and-order Tories on this issue. We tried but failed to get approval to introduce an emergency resolution holding Layton to the party policy of immediate withdrawal from Afghanistan adopted at the September federal NDP convention.
Much ballyhoo surrounded the adoption of the Sherbrooke Declaration, a position paper on Quebec and federalism that is touted as paving the way for an electoral breakthrough for the federal party in Quebec.
(It re-cycles the idea of ‘asymmetrical federalism’, in which Quebec would be able to opt out of federal government programmes and receive financial compensation, thus enhancing Quebec’s control of such spending. And in a partial reversal of NDP support for the federal Clarity Act, the Declaration states that the NDP would respect a future referendum vote for Quebec sovereignty if it attains a simple majority on a question approved by the Quebec National Assembly. At the same time, it acknowledges that the federal Parliament could take its own course on such an outcome. — B.W.)
There were officially 134 delegates to this convention, the largest in a long time. There were only about 60 at most sessions, but that is still a substantial improvement over past conventions. The NDP is running a Steelworkers Union rep in the Repentigny bye-election, which is a Bloc Quebecois stronghold.
In my view, Layton succeeded in refurbishing the NDP’s antiwar credentials amongst the assembled delegates for whom ending our combat mission sounds plausibly like the only significant goal. He was silent on other violations of Afghani sovereignty, and it would have been difficult to tackle the question of a non-military or at least non-combatant intervention for Canada in Afghanistan in the context of continued U.S.-NATO occupation and control.
The NDP ranks are still susceptible to appeals to the mythic Canadian peacemaker role and to missionary impulses as promoted by Ottawa with the able assistance of the business media.