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Over the past weekend, nearly 900 people descended on the national capital to participate in this year’s installment of the Broadbent Institute’s Progress Summit, now the largest progressive politics conference in the country.  Demand for tickets was astonishing, with the event selling out nearly two weeks early and the hotel full to bursting.

As delighted as I was about the poutine on offer at the opening night’s reception (really, what else would a proudly Canadian think tank serve?) I’m not sure it is an adequate explanation of the excitement surrounding the event.  So what’s going on?  Why did hundreds of people from right across the country sign up to spend the weekend in a fluorescently lit hotel ballroom. As I listened to the keynote and panel speakers, and spoke to delegates in the hallways and over meals, a few reasons became evident.

First: Progressives are extremely motivated to get rid of Stephen Harper this election year.  As compared to the somewhat dispirited Manning Centre conference in Ottawa a few weeks prior, the energy in the crowd was palpable.  After nine years of failed conservative ideas, progressives are raring to go.

Second, a certain refreshing humbleness and hunger to learn was voiced by many people.  It is inarguable that—in many important respects – the conservative movement has out-foxed the left over the past decade. A vast enabling architecture of right wing think tanks – a veritable Greek chorus of austerity – has driven the right’s focused and misguided agenda for many years.  Progressives acknowledge this, and are eagerly tuning up their own campaigning chops.

Which brings me to my final reflection:  progressives are increasingly clear that they have not one job to do this election year, but two. As the Institute’s Chair Ed Broadbent reminded the crowd in his welcoming remarks, yes it’s important to defeat bad conservative ideas, but replacing them with truly progressive ones is also a necessity.

It’s not good enough just to stop things from getting worse. Progress Summit-eers were excited to flesh out a new progressive agenda to move Canada forward.  An agenda that draws more people into the democratic process, ensures Canada’s prosperity is more broadly shared with the middle class and working families, and reconciles environmental and economic priorities in a new and modern way.

If the two great political narratives are hope and fear, it’s very clear what’s on offer from whom this election year.  Rather than talk about the economy (which isn’t working that well for most people), the Harper government wants to talk about terrorism, global dangers around every corner and security threats under every bed.

And here’s an interesting etymological development that really hit me over this past Progress Summit weekend: the increasing use of the term “progressive” by the Canadian left has corresponded with a marked decline in its identification with the Canadian right.  After a 50-year run, the federal Progressive Conservative Party dropped the modifying adjective in its name in 2003 and various provincial conservative parties have similarly turned their back on the word “progressive.”

It’s increasingly hard to remember that it was the Progressive Conservatives that brought us expanded public schools (under Bill Davis), the Bill of Rights (under Diefenbaker) and the Convention on Biological Diversity (under Mulroney).

Even in provinces where the venerable “PC” label persists, keen observers will have detected accumulating evidence that there isn’t much “progressive” about Canadian Tories any longer. In Ontario, PC Party leadership candidates have variously opposed the new provincial sex-ed curriculum and staked out vehement opposition to a carbon pricing regime that hasn’t even been announced yet. Recently, one caucus member let it be known that he doesn’t believe in evolution.

It’s hard to be a progressive in today’s day and age if your attitudes haven’t moved beyond the 19th century.

The Canadian Oxford Dictionary defines “progress” as “development towards an improved or more advanced condition.”  As Canada’s Conservatives officially give up on this ambition, and shed any vestige of their “progressive” past, it is Canada’s left that is aiming to make 2015 the year we start building an improved Canada for us all.

 

Rick Smith is the Executive Director of the Broadbent Institute (www.BroadbentInstitute.ca).

 

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