What does change in Nova Scotia mean?

Jun 20th, 2009 | By | Category: Canadian Provinces

SATURDAY, JUNE 20, 2009. On a day when politically obsessed people around the world are haunted by the latest tense reports about Fierce clashes on streets of Tehran, it may seem a bit quaint to pay brief homage to yesterday’s installation of Darrell Dexter’s first New Democratic government in the Canadian province of Nova Scotia. But then again why not? From one not entirely hyperbolic view, the people of Nova Scotia have just decided to turn a corner not altogether unlike the corner trying to be navigated by the people of Iran (or at least some of them – and not every Nova Scotian voted NDP either).

Premier Dexter symbolizes the intriguing new political fact that one of the most traditional provinces of the present Canadian confederation is about to move in new directions. In some respects these directions are obvious enough, and have grander analogues in neighbouring places. (Note the first African-Nova Scotian Lieutenant Governor Mayann Francis, who administered Premier Dexter’s oath of office on June 19, and his African-Nova Scotian cabinet minister, Percy Paris too.)  In other ways just what the new conservative progressivism of the Nova Scotia New Democrats really means – for Nova Scotia, Canada, and the NDP at large – remains quite obscure. And its future is almost fascinating (especially if you drink a lot of Alexander Keith’s India Pale Ale).

A new majority government … quick review of the main numbers …

As in Canada federally, Nova Scotia provincial politics have a recent history of minority government. Nova Scotians have elected minority governments in 1998 (also the year of the regional NDP’s breakthrough from its historic third-party status), 2003 and 2006.

In 1998 the New Democrats actually tied the then governing Liberals’ 19 seats. (There are now and were then 52 seats all told in the Nova Scotia Legislative Assembly.) But the Liberals under Russell MacLellan had won a slightly greater share of the popular vote and formed a minority government with intermittent support from 14 Progressive Conservative MLAs. This arrangement did not last long. In 1999 John Hamm’s Progressive Conservatives managed to win a majority government with 30 seats.  (A bare working majority is 27 seats.)

Even John Hamm, however, could only win a PC  minority government in 2003 (25 seats). And the same fate befell his successor as PC leader Rodney MacDonald in 2006 (23). Some pundits thought another minority government was the most Darrell Dexter’s conservative progressive New Democrats could expect in 2009. But Mr. Dexter and his party wound up with a comfortable majority government of 31 out of 52 seats. This time the NDP took 45.3% of the province-wide popular vote, compared to 27.2% for the Liberals and 24.5% for Rodney MacDonald’s Progressive Conservatives. (And this is the largest percentage of the popular vote any party has taken, since the 50.6% won by John Buchanan’s PCs in 1984.)

If there is any strictly small-d democratic bad news in this otherwise historic and in some ways buoyant Nova Scotia election, it’s about the province-wide voter turnout. According to The Canadian Press: “Voter turnout may have hit a record low in the Nova Scotia election Tuesday [June 9, 2009] … Elections Nova Scotia says unofficial numbers indicate 58.8 per cent of eligible voters cast a ballot. This is down one per cent from the 2006 provincial election ….

“The previous provincial elections had turnouts of 66 per cent in 2003 and 68 per cent in 1999. Lori Turnbull, a political scientist at Dalhousie University, expected higher numbers because people often like being part of an election that represents change. She thought the prospect of electing Nova Scotia’s first ever NDP government would inspire voters … Turnbull wasn’t certain why the numbers were low.”

On a still longer view, the Elections Nova Scotia website laments: “In the 1960 general election in Nova Scotia, the outcome was not much in doubt, but more than 82 per cent of eligible voters went to the polls. In 2006, in an election close enough to produce a minority government, voter turnout in Nova Scotia dipped below 60 per cent for the first time.”

What does it mean for Nova Scotia?

To give a serious answer to this question you would have to actually live in Nova Scotia. A few second-hand observations from an Ontario resident with several relatives and in-laws in Nova Scotia may have some slight interest.

Nova Scotia (New Scotland in Latin) is the only one of Atlantic Canada’s four provinces where the New Democrats have serious strength. If it is realistic to talk about an emerging Atlantic Canadian regional metropolis (which it probably is not?), Nova Scotia’s capital city of Halifax, once a staunch bastion of the British Royal Navy, is the only place that comes close to qualifying. And the Halifax city region is the heartland of the New Democratic Party in Nova Scotia today. (Premier Dexter’s own riding is the Halifax region seat of Cole Harbour.)

At the same time, Darrell Dexter has roots in both urban and rural Nova Scotia – and his authentically folksy style has apparently been crucial in spreading NDP support well beyond the Halifax metropolis. (For the difference this has made on the ground, compare the CBC maps of the political geography in the 2006 and 2009 elections.)

Beyond these brief reflections, I’ve found four local press articles especially interesting. One is Kevin Ward`s “Nova Scotia’s everyman NDP leader makes history …   Mr. Ward points out that Darrell Dexter grew up in north-end Halifax – a working-class neighbourhood – and the tiny community of Milton on the province’s south shore … He spent his summers in the country and went to school in the city, an upbringing that he spoke of frequently on the campaign trail … Dexter was the first member of his family to go to university. He also served in the navy … He led the [New Democratic] party in his first provincewide election in 2003, increasing the NDP’s seat total to 15. Three years later, he finished a close second to the minority Progressive Conservatives, winning 20 seats … Dexter, 51, has been credited with bringing a less doctrinaire, more personable approach to the party leadership.”

Then there’s Marilla Stephenson’s “Move to middle vaults NDP to top … It took years of patience and persistence, but ultimately it was Darrell Dexter’s softening of the New Democratic Party’s sharp socialist edges that boosted him into the premier’s office … The glaring orange faded to a soft blue on party brochures, even as the NDP focus shifted to a soft-core approach with a big focus on making life better for Nova Scotia families’ … The political fortunes of the party included carefully crafted language that avoided the longtime links to organized labour that surely made some voters hesitate in past elections. Dexter was the first provincial leader to figure out that he would have to move the NDP toward a more salable central position if they were to win government, then follow through with a change in direction.”

Roger Taylor makes similar arguments in “Business leaders worried about NDP government … While socialist in origin, the Nova Scotia branch of the New Democratic Party may not be as anti-business as one might suspect. Premier-designate Darrell Dexter chooses to describe himself as a conservative progressive’ rather than a radical lefty.”

Finally,”So why doesn’t it feel like history?” by Laurent Le Pierres (whose name reminds us that very long ago the British New Scotland began as the French Acadia) has a few compelling observations: “An NDP majority in Nova Scotia is indeed a historic’ break with the past … But by the time it finally happened, it didn’t feel historic. It felt more like the natural course of things … it all brought to mind something Joe Clark once said: We will not take this nation by storm, by stealth or by surprise. We will win it by work’ …  Rene Levesque certainly took Quebec by storm in 1976 … And Bob Rae took Ontario by stealth and surprise in 1990 … But Darrell Dexter won Nova Scotia by work in 2009.”

Two very last thoughts: First, Darrell Dexter’s NDP might not have done so well if its traditional Progressive Conservative and Liberal opponents had enjoyed more inspired leaders. PC leader and former Premier Rodney MacDonald in particular was a still quite young good old boy, of some very old school, who may have ultimately convinced many Nova Scotians that it really was time to catch up with the new face of history in the global village today. Second, and in any case, at least some 45% of the active sovereign people of Nova Scotia do seem to want things in the province to somehow change. Or, as Marilla Stephenson has said: “the electorate … – more than any time in the past – was determined to throw out the old ways of doing business in Nova Scotia with a leap of faith into unknown territory.”

What does it mean for Canada?

Nova Scotia, with a current population of some 940,000 (or not quite 1 million yet), is the most populous province in Atlantic Canada, but only the seventh-most-populous province in Canada at large. It joined the confederation of 1867 with some reluctance. Canada in those days mostly meant what are now Ontario and Quebec. And as the late 19th century British expatriate historian in Toronto, Goldwin Smith, once proclaimed: “No resident of Nova Scotia or New Brunswick calls himself a Canadian.” (Similarly, the present Atlantic Canadian province of Prince Edward Island waited until 1873 to join the new confederation – and Newfoundland did not even join reluctantly until 1949, in living memory of all too many of us today.)

Nova Scotia was somewhat more comfortable in the once somewhat wider universe of British North America – at least after it was surrendered by the French monarchy to the British monarchy in 1713 (excluding present-day Cape Breton Island, which was not officially British until 1763). Despite the Scottish name, and flag, the province’s early anglophone settlement also owed a lot to the so-called neutral Yankees of Nova Scotia. And the province has played a largely uncelebrated pioneering role in the oh-so-gradual growth of the present free and democratic Canada of the Charter of Rights and the Constitution Act 1982.  Its first representative assembly arrived in 1758 – more than a generation before there was such a thing as the old anglophone Upper Canada that is now called Ontario. And Nova Scotia won so-called responsible self-government within the British empire in 1848, about a month before the old Canada West that is now called Ontario and the old Canada East now called Quebec.

There probably remain patches of Nova Scotia today that see Canada in terms of an old Upper Canada which is still a vaguely foreign place. (Quite a few years ago now, a Southern Ontario next-door neighbour of mine from Nova Scotia said to me “when I moved to Canada … I mean Ontario, etc, etc.”) But in the 2001 Census of Canada, the only part of the country with a greater percentage of people actually claiming Canadian ethnic origins than Atlantic Canada generally was Quebec! All told, in the somewhat misleading total response classification for the 2001 census, about 47% of Nova Scotians reported Canadian ethnic origins, compared with about 24% in British Columbia, 28% in Alberta, 30% in Ontario, and 69% in Quebec.

My very wild guess is that there is some vague correlation between Nova Scotians who reported their ethnic origins as Canadian in the 2001 Census and Nova Scotians who voted for the New Democrats in their provincial election of 2009. (About 47% reported their ethnic origins as Canadian in 2001, and about 45% voted NDP in 2009. This is an almost entirely rhetorical and superficial argument: but the similarity in the numbers could actually mean something!)

To elaborate (very quickly) on declaring your ethnic origin as Canadian in the decennial census, it is only recently that Canadian census rules would even accept Canadian as a possible ethnic origin. And this is or at least was part of the old British North American colonialism of Canada, that still haunts so much of the country outside Quebec even today. Canada could not be a place of ethnic origin, because it was still essentially a British colony. Ethnic origins were all about the old worlds we have all come from – except for the aboriginal peoples of Canada. And in a reverse colonialism of sorts there are still those now who think that the only people who call themselves Canadians are white anglo protestants (or white franco catholics, etc, etc).

My own sense is that people who say their ethnic origin is Canadian are saying that your old world ethnic origin does not matter. So the African-Nova Scotian Lieutenant Governor Mayann Francis and the new African-Nova Scotian minister of economic development (and various other things), Percy Paris, are clearly Canadians – descendants of the black community that came with the neutral Yankees of long ago and has lived in Nova Scotia for centuries now.

And any recent migrants to Nova Scotia from other parts of the world who have become Canadian citizens are Canadians too – and certainly entitled to declare their ethnic origins as Canadian in the census of Canada. All people who do this, from this angle, are looking to the future more than they look to the past.

And by some parallel set of deductions,  it finally seems to me that it is a good sign for Canada that its now rather ancient and quite traditional province of Nova Scotia has voted a  majority New Democrat government into office. There will be some aggressively right-wing Canadians who will not agree. But (just to my way of thinking of course) they are also still too stuck in a past that we now need to grow beyond, to survive and prosper in the 21st century.

What does it mean for the New Democratic Party?

From one point of view, Darrell Dexter’s first New Democrat provincial government in Nova Scotia ought to be – and probably still is – unambiguous good news for New Democrats all across Canada. Along with Quebec and Alberta, Atlantic Canada had been the great bastion of provincial resistance to the NDP message. And in the more recent past the Canada-wide party has sometimes looked as if its future is rather bleak. Now a new historical front has opened!

The perception of a bleak NDP future may be considerably stronger in Ontario (see above) than in other parts of the country. In the first half of the 1990s, the unhappy first Ontario New Democratic government of Bob Rae (who has now become a federal Liberal) knocked a great deal of wind out of the grand old cause in Canada`s most populous province. And in Ontario provincially – and federally – the party still hasn’t seriously recovered. The Liberals remain the main party of progress in Canada’s most populous province – as they did in Nova Scotia until about a decade ago too.

In Western Canada, where the NDP’s historic Co-operative Commonwealth ancestor first began, back in the 1930s, New Democrats remain much more competitive with Liberals, who have been unpopular in the West since at least the elsewhere palmy days of Pierre Elliott Trudeau. Gary Doer’s current New Democrat provincial government in Manitoba was first elected in 1999 – and Edward Schreyer (1969-1977) and Howard Pawley (1981-1988) ran two quite successful Manitoba NDP governments before Gary Doer.

On the other hand, New Democrats did not manage to unseat Gordon Campbell’s vaguely progressive British Columbia Liberal government only a short while ago this year. And New Democrats are no longer the undeniably dominant governing party in Saskatchewan – where they once counted as North America’s first socialist government, and the pioneers of Canada’s current public health care system. The old prairie agrarian radicalism that once helped fuel the Canadian left is nowadays doing much more to energize the right.

In the midst of all this, however you exactly score the various regional trends at the moment, it is hard to see how the fresh triumph of Darrell Dexter’s new NDP majority government in Nova Scotia can be anything but a welcome shot in the arm of New Democrats everywhere else. Except, of course, that there are many New Democrats elsewhere who are still reluctant to absorb the message about how Premier Dexter’s conservative progressivism finally helped him conquer the old tradition-bound Nova Scotia, down east.

Some will ask how is this different from traditional Canadian Liberalism? But Nova Scotia New Democrats could reasonably say, well, ask the Nova Scotia Liberals – who in the broad sweep of Nova Scotia history have formed provincial governments more often than any other party. Others might urge that conservative progressivism is proving to be a not too bad description of what the still marvelous Barack Obama is doing – or at least trying to do –  in the United States. And is that really what we need in Canada now?

Probably the ultimate question is can Premier Dexter’s new less doctrinaire, more personable approach to the party leadership finally help bring about some serious change in Nova Scotia – change that really does move the province ahead in the challenging new 21st century, in a way that benefits ordinary Nova Scotia families?

We will just have to wait and see over the next few years. But if the Nova Scotia conservative progressive NDP philosophy does seem to be actually working down the road a bit, there will almost certainly be more than a few from Mr. Dexter’s party in other parts of the country drawing some fresh conclusions, about what they should be trying to do next.



3 comments
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  1. Well written piece. I moved to NS in 2001 from Manitoba. Beautiful place to live, but politically a very backward place. People here have low expectations of government, and governments tend to oblige by doing as little as possible, without making waves. Very sad lack of vision and no drive to modernize. Folks here are vaguely socialist, but don’t realize it. They want government the way a child wants his parents to look after him. Gasoline regulation very popular here, as an example. NDP (a la Gary Doer style) will work well here.

    Dexter will likely be another mediocre leader, like all the other ones I’ve seen so far. No energy or vision in this guy. What we need here is a leader from “away.”

  2. Having the benefit of hindsight, I find that Dexter has made excellent decisions so far. There’s pretty much nothing he has done that I disagree with. Nova Scotia, like every province, suffers from voter apathy and ignorance. I will begrudgingly admit that Nova Scotia most likely has more political corruption than most provinces, but Dexter is carefully bettering the situation (much to the dismay of the Liberal and Progressive Conservative parties!). I just hope the NDP are given a few terms to improve the provincial economy before another Liberal or PC party comes into office and sells out all the gains we have made with Dexter.

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