Neoliberalism is destroying Canada: Former NDP leader

Ed Finn, Newfoundland’s first NDP leader, sat down with The Independent to discuss the biggest challenge facing Canada today — the one nobody’s talking about in the lead-up to the federal election.

Newfoundland and Labrador’s first NDP leader says the conversation that should be unfolding in the lead-up to the federal election isn’t happening.

Ed Finn told The Independent in a recent interview that Canadians should be discussing the fundamental failures of Canada’s democratic institutions and the economic system that has led to the global economic, environmental and climate crises.

Corporate influence on federal politics, the country’s flawed electoral system, and the staunch pursuit of a political and economic ideology since the 1980s that has threatened some of Canada’s greatest political achievements, like universal health care, while exacerbating inequality and eroding the state of Canada’s democracy, he said, are all topics that should be on the table at leaders’ debates and in public discourse if Canada is to begin moving toward a brighter future.

“Canada has been in decline as a nation socially, environmentally and politically since the 1980s; that’s when both Conservative and Liberal parties dumped the Keynesian system based on governing in the public interest [and] replaced it with a neoliberal system of governing in the interest of wealthy and big business elites — a system that unfortunately has prevailed ever since,” the 89-year-old veteran journalist told The Independent during an interview at the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives’ head office in Ottawa, where he recently retired as editor of the non-profit think tank’s monthly magazine, the CCPA Monitor.

He praised the NDP, Liberals and Greens for pledging to do away with Canada’s flawed first-past-the-post electoral system if they form government, but he is less optimistic the corporate influence on politicians, parties and public policy will be dealt with to adequately address the environmental and climate crises in the near future.

He said if Canada is to reverse its role as an antagonist to global cooperation on climate change and reinstate the environmental protections the Harper Government has done away with in recent years, money and politics must be separated and the economic system needs to be overhauled.

Referencing Canadian author and journalist Naomi Klein’s book on the relationship between climate change and capitalism, This Changes Everything, Finn said “the biggest barrier facing any kind of concerted effort to deal with climate change and environmental protection is coming from the big corporations, from the moguls of capitalism,” and that “it’s difficult to conceive how you can start making real progress as long as that [economic] system remains in place.”

 Canada has been in decline as a nation socially, environmentally and politically since the 1980s; that’s when both Conservative and Liberal parties dumped the Keynesian system based on governing in the public interest [and] replaced it with a neoliberal system of governing in the interest of wealthy and big business elites — a system that unfortunately has prevailed ever since. — Ed Finn

He blamed successive Canadian governments since the early 1980s for having steered the country down a path of economic, social and environmental ruin in pursuit of the perceived benefits of neoliberalism, which he described as “an ideology that assesses the value of everything on the basis of the profits that it can generate, and [which] judges individuals on the basis of how successful they can be in competing for jobs. And it’s of course an offshoot from the global economic system we have now, capitalism, which is a system that forces people to compete — it’s not a collaborative system.”

Neoliberal capitalism—often referred to as ‘free-market’ capitalism—is a system that “can only exist, can only persist, as long as there’s economic growth,” he continued, outlining a basic premise of the economic system that dominates most Western democracies. “But infinite economic growth on a finite planet is clearly not sustainable. So we have in effect, on the planet…the worst possible economic system we could have given the environmental crisis that we’re facing.”

Finn said while much of the current focus among Canadian voters is on Stephen Harper, it’s important to note that “Harper’s offence is not that he initiated the regressive policies that set Canada on a downward course 30 years ago, but that during his decade in power he greatly expanded and intensified them.”

If things are to change, it’s not simply a matter of voting Harper out of office, but assessing the big picture and voting for politicians and parties that offer socially and economically progressive alternatives, he said.

The urgency of the ecological and climate crises prompted Finn to lead off his latest work, an anthology of essays by prominent thinkers called Canada After Harper, with a section on the environment, featuring articles by David Suzuki, Maude Barlow, Joyce Nelson and Peter Robinson.

Finn said he was inspired to put the collection together after hearing a lecture delivered by political activist and former U.S. presidential candidate Ralph Nader to the Canada-U.S. Institute at the University of Western Ontario four years ago.

The lecture, which Nader modified to serve as the introduction to Finn’s anthology, addresses the ways in which neoliberalism has eroded democracy and social conditions in the U.S., Finn said, sharing his own prepared speech with The Independent in advance of the Toronto book launch of Canada After Harper last month.

“In his speech Ralph was concerned that recent federal governments have been pursuing closer integration with his country, and our political and corporate peers have adopted the same neoliberal policies — and they are bringing Canada down too,” he said.

It wasn’t always this way, though, Finn explained. There has been an obvious and deliberate buy-in to a political and economic ideology with identifiable characteristics, corresponding policies, and consequences that, after more than 30 years of experimentation, are now irrefutable.

Joey Smallwood’s “one-man rule” and the birth of the Newfoundland Democratic Party

Born in 1926 in the fishing outport Spaniard’s Bay, and through careers as a journalist, labour unionist, politician and public intellectual, Finn has lived long and attentively enough to recognize important political, social and economic trends in Canada — in particular, as he details in his 2013 memoir Ed Finn: A Journalists’s Life on the Left, the gradual corporatization and neoliberalization of provincial and federal politics and the economy.

Finn first witnessed the power and influence of the corporate lobby on politics and the economy during the 1958-59 loggers’ strike in Central Newfoundland. As editor-in-chief of Corner Brook daily newspaper the Western Star, he insisted on having a reporter on the ground in Grand Falls to ensure the striking loggers’ side of the story was told and their struggle for fairer pay and adequate living conditions in the camps was brought to readers throughout the province.

However, following then-Premier Joey Smallwood’s legislated eviction of the International Woodworkers of America union that represented the loggers—an “act of brutal anti-unionism unparalleled in Canadian history, then and since,” Finn wrote in his memoir—and after the March 1959 incident in Badger during which a police officer was killed following a confrontation with the striking workers, which then-Evening Telegram and Western Star owner Steve Herder prohibited Finn from publishing both a Toronto Star reporter’s eyewitness account of as well as any quotes from union sources, Finn and three of his reporters were forced to leave their jobs at the paper in order to not “violate our own journalistic principles,” he recalled during the interview.

Impressed by the newspaper editor’s moral conviction in the face of corporate and government cooperation to exploit Newfoundland workers, a few months after Finn left the Western Star the Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) offered him a job to help them and the Newfoundland Federation of Labour “restore the image of the labour movement in Newfoundland,” Finn wrote in the memoir, quoting then-CLC representative for Western Newfoundland, Baxter Fudge.

But before they could embark on that project, in late July Smallwood called a snap election to be held three weeks later in order to give Newfoundlanders an “opportunity to reward him with a vote of confidence for his handling of the loggers’ strike,” Finn recounted in his book. 

This message from the Newfoundland Democratic Party was published in the St. John's Evening Telegram on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 1959, during that year's provincial election. Image: Ed Finn: A Journalist's Life on the Left.
This message from the Newfoundland Democratic Party was published in the St. John’s Evening Telegram on Wednesday, Aug. 12, 1959, during that year’s provincial election. Image: Ed Finn: A Journalist’s Life on the Left.

A small meeting was promptly organized by a handful of union leaders and representatives, who met in a room at Corner Brook’s Glynmill Inn and, knowing the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation was joining with the CLC to form a new national party tentatively called the New Democratic Party, the men exclaimed they could call the province’s new social democratic party the “Newfoundland Democratic Party” in the interim and make Finn “the first NDP leader in Canada!” his memoir recounts.

“Well, Newfoundland has been ahead of the other provinces in almost everything else since Confederation,” Finn quotes CLC representative Cyril Strong as saying, in the memoir. “So it’s appropriate that we also be the first to launch this new party.”

In under three weeks the Newfoundland Democratic Party was formed, ran candidates in 18 of the province’s 36 districts, and garnered 7.2 per cent of the popular vote in the 1959 election, but failed to win any seats while the Smallwood Liberals swept 31 ridings. Still, motivated by what they accomplished in such a short time, and after the federal NDP formed in 1961, the Newfoundland Democratic Party changed its name to the Newfoundland New Democratic Party and vied again in the 1962 election with Finn as leader.

In the NDP’s second election the party failed again to win any seats, with Finn losing his riding of Humber West by 240 votes. But the party has reportedly run a full slate of candidates in every provincial election since that time and in 1985 won its first seat in the House of Assembly.

During his four-year stint as NDP leader though, Finn became good friends with Saskatchewan NDP Leader Tommy Douglas, fondly known to Canadians as the “Father of Medicare”.

Finn recalled Douglas’ first visit to Newfoundland. The two toured the province together, speaking in Church basements, schools, and wherever else they could gather a crowd to hear about the need for a social democratic party in the province and country — one that would usher in an era of universal publicly-funded health care for all Canadians.

After Douglas introduced the country’s first proposed public health care legislation in Saskatchewan he moved on to Ottawa to serve as the federal party leader. But after his successor in Saskatchewan, Woodrow Lloyd, took on the task of having the Medicare legislation passed, in 1962, the backlash from opposition parties and the medical industry, including doctors themselves, intensified.

“There was uproar [from] the opposition, from the medical profession, from the media, from the other parties—it was just overwhelming,” Finn recalled. “So Tommy asked me to go out to Saskatchewan after the legislation was passed to help the federation of labour there to defend the legislation and to make sure that as many people as possible were given the real story, the real details as to how much it would help the average person.”

Finn spent a few months in Saskatchewan and “played a small part in helping the pro-Medicare forces out there,” he recalled modestly.

“The forces who were opposed to it, they had the media behind them, they had the businesses behind them, and we managed to start up a little tabloid of our own—Public Voice or something—and we had thousands distributed around the province, so people at least got a rebuttal to all the anti-Medicare propaganda that was floating around. And eventually [the Medicare legislation] was passed.

“There were some compromises made that were unfortunate, but they weren’t major ones,” he continued, explaining how Saskatchewan “set an example that obviously turned out to be so popular that the pressure came on very quickly for the other provinces and federal government to follow suit.”

The result of Douglas, Lloyd, Finn and the Saskatchewan NDP’s efforts resulted in the national Medical Care Act of 1966, which gave Canadians the legal right to health care regardless of whether or not they could afford it. In 2004 a nation-wide, viewer-supported survey by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation named Douglas the “Greatest Canadian” for his achievement. 

Finn downplayed his role in the socially progressive events and movements that unfolded in Newfoundland and Saskatchewan in the early ‘60s, but the legacy of the New Democratic Party had far-reaching implications into the future. In the ensuing years, as Finn continued his life as a journalist, author and public intellectual, he kept his finger on the pulse of Canadian politics, which makes him one of the most adept individuals in Canada to speak to the state of affairs in this country as it navigates the democratic, ecological and climate crises.

Neoliberalism and climate change

After praising Klein’s work This Changes Everything for detailing the relationship between capitalism and climate change, Finn said he firmly agrees that in order to bring about the greater political and social change in Canada and the world, the economy needs changing first.

It’s not only capitalism versus the climate, he said, “it’s also capitalism against equality, against the eradication of poverty, against income equality. That’s what we’re confronting—Canada as a nation, but also the entire world. So we have to keep that foremost in our minds, that the problems we’re having—the environmental crisis, global warming—are a direct outcome of the economic system.

“And of course that’s a momentous challenge, to people and groups who want to stop this march to oblivion while there’s still time to do it.”

The issue of climate change was raised during the first federal leaders’ debate in early August, but none of the parties supported the decommissioning of Alberta’s oil sands, despite the fact climate scientists have warned against their expansion.

While none of the three main party leaders categorically opposed the construction of pipelines to move unprocessed bitumen out of the country, even Green Party leader Elizabeth May, who opposed pipelines on the grounds they ship Canadian jobs out of the country, argued that tar sands oil be processed in Canada. 

Asked if—in light of the apparent lack of political will on the matter—it’s possible that no political party in Canada is prepared to represent the country at the global climate negotiations in Paris this December by cooperating with other countries to develop an adequate strategy to meet scientifically-backed greenhouse gas emission reduction targets, Finn said climate change isn’t important enough a policy issue to the majority of Canadians, so party leaders aren’t likely to to bring it into the election race.

“Canada should be a leader in environmental protection and fighting climate change,” he said. “Instead it’s been one of the worst laggers among developed nations, and during an election campaign you’re not going to get any party leader taking a position that’s in any way controversial, that in any way could jeopardize their chances of winning.”

He again pointed to the fundamentally flawed democratic and political processes in Canada, arguing the race to address enormous problems like climate change cannot be won “when we have a government that is either controlled or intimidated by powerful corporations who obviously don’t want any environmental changes or improvements that are going to threaten their profits, [and] as long as we have a government that cannot in any way be called a democracy, an electoral system where a party can gain a majority government on the basis of less than 40 per cent of votes.”

Canada After Harper. Edited by Ed Finn.
Canada After Harper. Edited by Ed Finn.

Finn referred back to Nader’s essay, in which Nader claims both major political parties in the U.S.—the Democrats and Republicans—“have come under complete control of the big corporations”, which has put that country “on the brink of fascism…the definition of which is corporate control of the political system,” Finn recounted. “And [Nader’s] concern is that Canada seems to be moving in the same regressive direction.”

He said corporate control of Canadian politics is “not as extensive” as in the U.S., but Finn also doesn’t think a Conservative or Liberal government in recent times “would have enacted legislation or pursued policies that would deeply antagonize the big corporations.

But “if you go back 30, 40 years, it wasn’t very common at all for [corporations] to be able to transfer their business, move their factories and production and jobs to a low-wage country,” he continued, explaining a tactic used by corporations to pressure governments to bend policies in favour of the corporations’ abilities to optimize profit potential. “Now, with these free trade deals…they can intimidate governments [with] what’s been called a ‘capital strike’ — that they will stop investing, they will move as much of their business as possible out of the country. And that’s a threat that really frightens governments in Canada, and it certainly looms as a major obstacle, not only to any effective action on climate change but also any effective action against poverty and inequality, and even the preservation of our health care and child care and other social programs.”

Finn said the corporate control over Canadian politics and the economy is evidenced by the blows the health care system has endured by successive Liberal and Conservative governments.

“Privatization has been instituted across the country with these private clinics that are popping up all over the place, so there’s been some erosion of the principles of Medicare as Tommy [had brought in],” he said. “And of course what’s happened is that with the wholesale adoption of neoliberalism as an ideological form of government—where government was almost portrayed as an enemy of the people, as something that was unfairly taxing people and making a mess of the economy—that set the stage for the ultra-conservative governments like Harper’s, and previously the Liberal government under Chretien and Martin as well, to incur deficits by giving huge billion-dollar tax breaks to corporations and the ultra-wealthy.

“And that was a calculated strategy on their part, to deplete the treasury in order to give an excuse for then cutting social programs, including Medicare,” he continued. “So, as a result Medicare has been under-funded, it’s been under-staffed, and privatized. And they haven’t got as far as they would like to—the neoconservatives—because Medicare is so popular. So they’ve had to do it stuffily, in bits and pieces — death of a thousands cuts kind of program. But it has worked, so now we have long waiting lists and long lines, and quite a lot of defects in the actual care of people. And of course the biggest problem has been the failure to continue Tommy Douglas’ plan to later incorporate pharmaceutical and dental and eye care into the program, as is the case in most European countries who have public health care; they cover drugs and dental care and eye care. But that hasn’t happened in Canada, and it leaves a big gap in the overall health care service.”

Mulcair and the NDP’s movement to the “centre-right”

While the Grits and Tories have swapped responsibilities for neoliberalizing Canada’s economy over the past few decades—through privatization, committing the country to free trade deals, and lowering corporate tax rates, among other things—many voters are now looking to the NDP for a more socially and economically progressive agenda.

The party garnered more votes than any time in its history and was elected official opposition in the 2011 election, due in large part to the party’s support in Quebec, where it won 58 of 75 seats. But now that the party has a legitimate chance of forming government, leader Tom Mulcair is veering it away from the principles it was founded on in an effort to gain votes, said Finn.

“I think they’ve become excessively concerned about saying or doing or adopting any policy that they think might lose them votes. And so I think, unfortunately, under Mulcair the federal party has moved to the centre-right to the point where it’s not much more distinguishable from the Liberal Party,” he continued, saying it’s not clear whether Mulcair will move the party leftward after the election or keep his word on certain policies.

 I’m sure Tommy Douglas and Stanley Knowles and some of the founders of the CCF and the early NDP would be quite shocked if they were still alive to see this development. — Ed Finn

Finn said the idea that the NDP would balance the federal budget in the party’s first year as government in the midst of an economic recession “goes against some of the basic principles of the NDP, which is that you go into deficit during a recession to compensate for the lack of investment and employment by the private sector.

“And I see even Justin Trudeau is making a point of this — this whole idea of balancing a budget,” he continued, calling Mulcair’s pledge an “ultra-conservative idea that has been promoted and adopted by very right-wing governments, including Harper’s.

“So as a long-time NDP supporter I’m certainly disturbed by this movement, and even though some may excuse it as a tactical move, rather than an ideological one, still it makes it very difficult if they do win an election for the party then to disavow what they were saying during the campaign and then come in with a more progressive agenda.”

Yet despite the fact Mulcair has “put long-time NDP voters in a quandary,” Finn said, “I think the main preoccupation is getting the Harper Government out of power.

“So some NDP supporters will blow their noses and vote in a riding where the NDP has the best chance, but they might [also] switch to the Liberals,” he continued, adding he supports the various efforts that encourage strategic voting.

Finn said that in his riding of Ottawa South, Liberal incumbent David McGuinty has a 4,000-5,000 vote margin, so he “might vote Green again in this riding where I know the Liberals are bound to get in.”

But Finn said he’s disappointed in the NDP’s shift to the centre-right, as he put it, “because I’m sure Tommy Douglas and Stanley Knowles and some of the founders of the CCF and the early NDP would be quite shocked if they were still alive to see this development. And as I say, it comes from a conviction by Mulcair and his main associates that this is the only way that they can have a chance of forming government — and whether they’re going to deviate from that centre-right and become centre-left after the election, I guess we’ll wait and see if indeed they do form government.”

The N.L. NDP and the provincial election

Asked if he thought Newfoundland and Labrador would ever elect an NDP government, almost a half century after he co-founded the Newfoundland Democratic Party, Finn said he “can’t envisage an orange sweep,” like the ones that occurred in Quebec in the last federal election and in Alberta earlier this year in the provincial election, “but you can never tell.

“I think a lot depends on the quality of the candidates. When I was there that was one of the problems we had; most of the well-educated professionals didn’t want to run for a party that they thought didn’t have any chance of winning.”

Finn said he returned to Newfoundland regularly to visit his sister until she passed away a few years ago, so he hasn’t been following provincial politics closely.

But he did note an interesting observation he made decades ago that he still feels is the case.

“Newfoundlanders are much less ideologically committed to a party than anywhere else in Canada,” he said. “They will switch parties without any feeling of disloyalty or consistency, and I think one of the consequences of that lack of any strong ideological commitment is that the parties that have been elected, whether Conservative or Liberal, can be surprisingly progressive…so that may have lessened the appeal of the NDP because I guess it wasn’t seen as being all that much different from the other two parties.”

He estimates that upward of 70 per cent of Canadian voters are eager to get Harper out of power this election, a scenario that hasn’t yet unfolded in Newfoundland and Labrador.

“I don’t think [it] has occurred in Newfoundland—not to my knowledge—that a government was so ultra-conservative, so committed to neoliberal policies, that it antagonized large numbers of voters,” he said.

The federal election will be held on Monday, Oct. 19, and Newfoundland and Labrador’s provincial election is set for Nov. 30.

For those interested in learning what a more socially progressive Canada might look like, and how we can get there, Finn said his new anthology offers “not just a graphic vision of the better and brighter country Canada could become, but in effect a detailed map — a guide of how to get there.” Below is a video of Finn reading a speech he prepared for the Toronto launch of Canada After Harper.

Ed Finn’s memoir “Ed Finn: A Journalist’s Life on the Left” was published in 2013, and “Canada After Harper: His ideology-fuelled attack on Canadian society and values, and how we can resist and create the country we want” was published last month by Lorimer.

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