Newly minted Conservative leader Erin O’Toole’s Labour Day message should worry Canada’s mainstream left.

The video starts with O’Toole stating, “I was raised in a General Motors family. My dad worked there for over 30 years. I represent a riding of auto workers — one that depends on manufacturing for its prosperity. And I have to say, things are not OK.” 

He blames “big government” for Canada’s economic problems, but then, surprisingly, also blames the corporate world: “Part of the problem is big business; corporate and financial power brokers who care more about their shareholders than their employees. They love trade deals with China that allow them to access cheap labour.”

Racism and economic policy have always gone hand in hand. From the earliest days of capitalist industry on this land, racism has been a way to justify lower wages and poor working conditions, or to compel consumers to buy this or that. What’s new is that the economic reality wrought by three decades of neoliberalism is now exacerbated by a pandemic.

O’Toole knows that Canadians are hungry to hear a made-in-Canada economic policy. Canada’s reliance on free trade has been a disaster for local jobs and wages, and has been part of a global race to the bottom where profits are maximized at the expense of the lives of the workers who generated those profits. 

Climate change requires us to rethink our global supply chains and repatriate many of the industries we’ve outsourced to reduce how much carbon is required to move stock along a supply chain. Similarly, we need to stop exporting our garbage to other countries.

The pandemic has also made it clear that we need a manufacturing base to ensure Canadians have access to things such as personal protective equipment in a crisis.  

But making these arguments must be done in concert with an overall prosperity plan that builds local economic capacity and doesn’t foster the sort of xenophobic and racist sentiment usually accompanying the “my country first” cry. The modern Left hasn’t figured out how to get this done. 

Too often, during negotiations in manufacturing, unions employ ‘Canada First’ language as a rallying cry, with Mexico as the usual target: ‘Don’t move our jobs to Mexico!’ When labour relies on this messaging, they normalize it, and make it possible for conservatives to successfully employ the same rhetoric. And free trade, once intensely opposed by the left, has become something many mainstream progressive organizations support, to some extent.

There’s no mainstream, left-wing national vision for what Canadian economic policy should look like, which is a problem for progressives concerned Conservatives will be successful appealing to working people. 

What does an economy look like that is local, has good wages, is based on energy transition, supports rural and remote parts of Canada, and also creates livable suburbs and affordable downtowns? What can we create when racialized, working class people are at the centre of this imagining? What happens to the Amazons, the transportation, meat packing and other industries that are our front line against COVID-19? 

This isn’t magic thinking: it simply requires a plan. O’Toole thinks he can capture this ground because for decades, progressives in Canada, whether through the NDP or labour, haven’t offered a coherent plan. 

The benefit of having a plan allows for other policies to then be worked into the same project. Politicians can defend it, and labour activists can use it to build their memberships’ confidence and capacity. A plan offers the opportunity for widespread education, and allows journalists to see something different. 

Many will see O’Toole’s video and respond by fact checking his record, correctly identifying that his party has been as pro-free trade as the Liberals. Instead, we must view O’Toole’s video as a product of their predictions on what sort of rhetoric can win elections.

It is, of course, outrageous for O’Toole to say, “The goal of economic policy should be more than just wealth creation. It should be solidarity, and the wellness of families, and includes higher wages,” while leading a party that is hostile to corporate regulation that reduces profits, including higher minimum wages. But it doesn’t matter. United States President Donald Trump’s lies have made him more popular. The only way to confront his lies is by offering a different vision to help improve the lives of average people. The same is true of O’Toole. 

The NDP, the Canadian Labour Congress and Canada’s union leadership need to see the writing on the wall in the background of this video: The Conservatives are coming for their members, and accordingly, their dues and donations, job protections, and industries. It isn’t possible to adequately confront the Conservatives through rhetorical campaigns or threats, because the real battle for members’ hearts and minds is on the shop floor. 

Nothing has been made more clear by COVID-19 than this: There’s no time left to lose. We need a radical vision of a left-wing economy that is anti-racist and anti-capitalist, to offer working people a better path forward that doesn’t lead them into a Conservative or Liberal den of snakes. 

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