Is Canada’s Left Still Viable In Today’s Climate?

canadaclimateIn May of this year, over 100 people gathered to discuss the fate of an organization that to many has represented an exceptional moment in the history of the Canadian Left, and in the Winnipeg activist community’s contribution to that history.

From one quarter there was contention that CHO!CES, a coalition for social justice, had been a moribund shadow of itself for some time. The Friday Morning Group, the direct-action-oriented heart of Cho!ces, ceased to meet some time ago. Others insisted that there still are a few viral things that Cho!ces can do like no other structure can. From all parties, a great deal of emotional investment was at stake in the controversy. Its result, for now, was that Cho!ces would carry on with three projects — Alternative Budgets, a support network for Project Loophole, the lawsuit raking on a large Canadian trust fund for tax evasion, and an annual Youth Activist Retreat.

Despite this outcome, we can fairly say that what remains is not Cho!ces as it was once was. For what made Cho!ces potent and unique was a level of fervour and activity that has — none too recently — passed.

Cho!ces was born a decade ago. In response to years of Tory cuts and the looming prospect of at least one more term of PC provincial government, some Winnipeg community and labour activists met to see what could be done.

Nobody likely suspected that what would emerge was to last as long as it did. Instead of a single-issue initiative, the group saw the growth of something with a life of its own, nurtured by the political climate, availability of people with time, energy and creativity, and strong political feeling demanding expression. Between a growing desire to change things and the current recession, a loose movement took shape: The net effect was a confluence of circumstances of the sort that frequently inspire coalition efforts, but rarely sustain them very long. Jim Silver was co-chair of Cho!ces from 1992 to 1995, and recalls, “It was really quite remarkable that in the beginning and through the late nineties there was this group of really skilled political people who were willing to put the bulk of their energy into this one organization. I think the question that ought to be asked is how in heaven’s name it lasted as long as it did. Because normally such initiatives last six months, or a year. Sometimes an organizat ion emerges and it does one thing, does it well and considers that to be an enormous achievement. We did hundreds of things over a decade.”

Many of those who were at the founding were veterans of other coalition or partisan efforts, armed with lessons learned in those that helped Cho!ces realize itself. A few things set Cho!ces apart from the garden-variety coalition. There were, for example, the tacit “rules” of the Friday Morning Group, for years the soul and body of the organization, that ensured people attending would be active and creative. The only ideas entertained would be those brought forward by someone with the will to carry them out.

Richard Orlandini was an active member in those years, and relished how these rules kept up the pace: “[It was] not good enough to say, ‘well, I’ve got an idea and I’d like Cho!ces to do it.’ You come up with the idea and you say, ‘okay, this is what I’m going to do, now who else can help me?””

Another rule was that an individual got three “free” meetings, and then was expected to get involved hands-on. Best of all for encouraging prompt practical response to the discussion was an ambience of autonomy; people attending were not there as delegates, but as individuals with power and responsibility of their own. Instead of reporting back to other organizations, they could take action coming out of the meeting, with all the enthusiasm and bravery that entails. They were informed by other affiliations they might have, but restricted by neither.

The crew that collected each Friday was ready, sometimes it seems champing at the bit, to act. Says Orlandini, “It was a disappointment to us if we walked out of a Friday morning meeting and we didn’t have a hit lined up.” As such, the meetings were designed to lead straight into the street, and indeed there was almost always at least one action that emerged each week, whether a formal presentation to policy bodies, or street theatre, public demonstration or anything public and expressive.

Says Silver, “[S]ometimes we called ourselves a coalition — but it wasn’t really a coalition at all. We came to the table as individuals and decisions were made right there [at the FMG]. The key structural part of Cho!ces was the Friday morning meetings…. Those were totally amazing sessions, where you would have 30 or 40 people, most of whom were really actively involved in the community. So for one thing it became a place where you really felt as if you had your hand on the pulse of what was going on in the community.”

That air of excitement propelled the organization for years with consistently high spirits. In fact, the other ingredient, to which many credit the duration of Cho!ces’ heyday, was a sense of humour — a loose and whimsical openness to any kind of new tactic in their struggle that kept things fun for the activists and infuriating for their targets. Though their methods were highly effective most of the time, surely it was often the fun that made it worthwhile. As various people I talked with recounted their favourites, they vary in detail and particulars, but all are accompanied by a proud grin or chuckle.

Orlandini remembers, “Some of them worked; some of them were catastrophes. I put together hits that were national embarrassments.”

“Not all of the hits worked, but you know, we did better than a baseball club; we were batting seven, eight hundred….We’d put ten hits together and eight of them would be spectacular and one of them would be a wipeout.” Of course it wasn’t long before this sort of active profile attracted more budding activists, another key to Cho!ces’ longevity and its legacy. When young people wanted to get active, Cho!ces was sure to feed their passions.

Will Seymour is a good example of someone who found what he was looking for. Majoring in political sciences at University of Winnipeg, and struggling with a world order largely deferent to Mulroney, Reagan and Thatcher, he ended up in Jim Silver’s Varieties of Socialism course, “thinking ‘this stuff is making a lot of sense.’ But at the same time, as the course went on I started feeling a little bit depressed, because it was all theory.'” So Seymour approached Silver after class one day looking for advice: “All he said to me was, ‘Okay, what are you doing Friday morning at 7:30?'”

Harold Schuster also learned to complement political awareness with action at the Friday morning meetings: “I used to thrive on those. I would go through withdrawal if I missed a meeting. [It was] a great training ground for a lot of people, young activists who had political ideas but didn’t know where they were coming from, how to channel some of that energy.

Several people who benefited from the informal training of Cho!ces’ heyday are still in the thick of Manitoba activism, or elsewhere. The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives is doing an Alternative Provincial Budget with Cho!ces. Todd Scarth of the Centre was attracted to Cho!ces in 1993. “Cho!ces had this amazing mentoring effect … I was politically aware but not politically active. It was a great way to learn real activism skills from people who had spent years earning those skills the hard way. I think for that reason the legacy of Cho!ces is in part people like me who learned quickly.”

Of course, excitement alone could not account for the sustained effectiveness of what Cho!ces did. Scarth as well emphasizes the sophistication of the minds involved, and their broad experience. “[C]oalition work is enormously complicated. Politically, it requires that you know the community very well. So, one of the things I got from Cho!ces was a sensitivity to the kind of knowledge of the broad left community you have to have to do things well…. Now that I look back on it my appreciation of how complicated that was, and how well it was handled, increases.”

With this came an ability to balance and integrate action and analysis, and involve people at more than one level. According to Jim Silver, “the legacy of Cho!ces is that we pioneered this notion of doing both direct action and hard-headed analysis. And I think the combination of the two made us very effective. The direct action was never just a demonstration on the steps of the Leg. It always had a sort of flair to it.”

It may have been a shift in this balance that led Cho!ces to become what it is now. For with the increase in recognition and demand for Cho!ces’ analysis work, it became clear that the resources were finite after all. As Orlandini explains, “One of the more important things that we did was the Alternative Budget. Chokes has reason to be proud of that. On the other hand it used up so much of our person-power that we ended up just doing budgets and we weren’t doing the hits any more, we weren’t doing the stuff that kept the government honest, except on the budgetary level.”

Harold Schuster agrees. “I put down the beginning of the end of Cho!ces to when we started doing the alternative budgets. That moved it from being — you know, 7:30 you come together, you come up with an idea, 9:00 you do it — to being something else. Now we got involved in these sort of longer projects and it took away some of the energy.”

Actually, Cho!ces got involved with alternative budgets almost from the beginning. The idea came from John Loxley, an economist, long-time activist and first Cho!ces co-chair. At first it was strictly a provincial alternative budget and it fitted nearly into Cho!ces activities, especially with its largely successful effort to get community groups involved in the construction of the budget. The project was so successful that Loxley began thinking it could be done federally. A workshop held in 1994 attracted several key Canadian Labour Congress staff from Ottawa, and they were quickly sold on the idea. The CLC agreed to fund an Alternative Federal Budget to be jointly coordinated by Cho!ces and the Ottawa-based Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, with substantial input from union economists.

It was this development that was to upset the balance Chokes had achieved between action and analysis. By now it simply did not have the energy to sustain its hyper-activism along with the prolonged kind of committee work that necessarily comprises this sort of project. In fact, the decision to move into federal budgets was very controversial, with several members voicing concern that it would distract Cho!ces from local politics. There were trade-offs, to be sure. CLC funding allowed Cho!ces to carry out many other projects as well. And, aside from Loxley, who for several years acted as coordinator of the AFE, Cho!ces’ special role in the AEB exercise was popular education with Cho!ces’ teams traveling across the country holding workshops training local groups to do their own alternative budgets.

Shirley Lord who recently entered a well-earned retirement, sees that things have changed in several ways: “In the early nineties around Cho!ces, it was the height of the recession, there was high unemployment, there was all this energy and creativity. Most of the people who were doing the really active stuff around Cho!ces were either unemployed or marginally employed. Now they’re not. The whole thing changed in the last couple of years. These people built a whole lot of skills that people valued.” Including, among others, she might have added, the new NDP government.

In other ways, too, the change in Manitoba’s government is relevant to Cho!ces. After years keeping the Tories from catching their breath, some say the organization doesn’t have the impetus or the passion to take on the provincial NDP. Certainly it would cease getting labour-movement funding.

Jim Silver insists that things aren’t that simple. He says one of the valid reasons for keeping the name of Cho!ces active is to avoid confirming Tory allegations that it was an NDP front all along. The installation of Manitoba’s NDP may have helped draw some minds and energy away from Cho!ces, but to be fair, their street-action heyday was already over, due to more complicated and natural facts of nature.

Recollections of the May meeting are tinged with sadness and conflict, but not regret.

Harold Schuster was there: “I think there was a sense from people and I agree that there is still a need for something like Cho!ces. I don’t know if it will be Cho!ces, but there is a need for a grassroots direct-action group. Cho!ces came out of concerns over where our country and province and city were heading. I think they made some inroads and some changes, but I don’t think anybody is completely comfortable yet in the Left community with the way things are going.”

Jim Silver’s verdict: “If you compare what Cho!ces is doing today with other organizations, it looks pretty good, but, if you compare it with what it was in the nineties, it doesn’t look good at all.”

And Richard Orlandini’s eulogy: “What did Cho!cers accomplish? It really set a direction for all coalitions across the country. It set a standard to measure up to.”

George Harris reminds us of the looseness that allowed it all, rise, fall, and whatever legacy may be: “One thing that I’ve always appreciated about Cho!ces is that Cho!ces has never said that everything has to happen under Cho!ces. There have been initiatives that spun off from Cho!ces. That’s one thing that I feel really positively about.”

Todd Scarrh sees its legacy both in his current work on the alternative budget and in the community he works with: “[I]t’s a really important thing for a healthy progressive community to have some sort of process … not FMG, particularly, but a process by which new people who haven’t been active can learn those skills. There aren’t a lot of other ways to learn those skills.”

Ultimately, I’m sure any circumstances as unpredictable and organic as those that made Cho!ces what it once was are beyond encapsulation. Cho!ces clearly filled, and left, a certain void in the community. It provides a model for effective coalition organizing. The sad news is that there is no formula that can be replicated. Cho!ces was born from a nexus of factors, it was special and ineffable, and an era has surely passed.