Remembering Ed Broadbent, 1936–2024

A note from editor Jennifer Smith

It was a privilege to spend the past two years working with Ed and his co-authors, Frances Abele, Jonathan Sas, and Luke Savage, on Seeking Social Democracy. At 87, Ed remained sharp as a tack. I recall him taking a question at the Ottawa book launch, from a teacher who asked about Saskatchewan's invocation of the notwithstanding clause. As close to angry as I ever saw him, (not that close at all, really), Ed called out that province's government for misusing the clause and denying basic human rights to children of that province. He still had it.

There were times during the publishing process when Ed jokingly asked if we could speed up publication — reminding me that he was not as young as he once was. We published on the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, 2023, and I was honoured when he asked that I (of all people) introduce him at the launch. Lucky are those who saw and heard Ed in Ottawa that night thanks to the Ottawa International Writers Festival, and then in Toronto at the Toronto Public Library, where he was introduced by Mayor Olivia Chow, and later in Vancouver at Vancouver Public Library. I never dreamt there would be so little time for him to enjoy the experience that publishing this book afforded him.

Ed led the NDP at a time when politics allowed parties and their leaders to work together, across party lines, for the common good. Our Charter enshrines the rights of Indigenous people, Labour, and women in large part thanks to his efforts.

Canada is a much better country for Ed Broadbent's work and leadership. He will be truly missed. And my colleagues who are fortunate to work in publishing know that days like these remind us that, quite often, it is not work at all. It's a gift. 

“The Good Society,” Excerpt from Seeking Social Democracy

As I write, the great challenges that were revealed throughout the twentieth century have reappeared and threaten to further erode the social and economic rights that serve as the bedrock of freedom.

As global inequality remains largely untouched by Western governments, its social consequences are becoming more violent. In our market-dominated society, severe inequality has increasingly come to be accepted as ineluctable and even necessary — and the resulting discontent is compounded by a sense that decision-makers are unable or unwilling to do anything about it.

Whether we look at Canada or abroad, the various sources of insecurity are similar: the rising cost of living for ordinary people and extreme concentration of wealth at the top; the breakneck pace of technological change and damage to the global environment on an industrial scale; racist attacks on the principle of multicultural pluralism and the related demonization of immigration as the source of societal ills.

In countries as radically different as the United States and Sweden, elements of the majority white population — spurred by far-right politicians and media — have come to see themselves as threatened by “minorities.” Racism and nativism have consequently become a strong current in the politics of the U.S., UK, France, Poland, Brazil, India, and Hungary, among others. In Canada, the convoy of trucks that descended on and remained in Ottawa included people belonging to radical rightwing movements committed to violence. It also included many people simply fed up with what they perceived as the condescending arrogance of the government led by Justin Trudeau — one out of touch with their day-to-day struggles. Pierre Poilievre, the newly elected leader of the Conservative Party, explicitly endorsed the convoy and has played footsie with white nationalists. It is difficult to know how durable the rise of this largely white right-wing extremism will be in Canada, where official multiculturalism and the plain need to expand the labour force through immigration have historically moderated these impulses. But there are worrying signs — particularly given the power of social media to spread lies and hatred across borders — that this is a growing movement with the goal of securing political power.

The political right is gaining momentum by seizing upon the insecurity felt among many Canadians. They have fertile ground: citizens today feel their world undergoing destabilizing changes that they have neither created nor been able to situate themselves within. The great exception to this trend, at home and abroad, is the top 5 percent of the population. As in the 1920s, their wealth continues to grow and their lifestyle of conspicuous consumption is radically different from that of their fellow citizens. As was the case in the decade before my birth, many in this elite see their location as the simple result of innate talent and initiative rather than as a consequence of the sweeping economic changes that have accompanied the neoliberal model of capitalism.

The global pandemic laid bare the gaps in both our social supports and our social fabric and demonstrated yet again that the health and well-being of the individual is fundamentally connected to the health and well-being of all. Crucial innovations of the welfare state, alongside important public health measures, are giving way to fiscal restraint. Canada’s healthcare system, care for the elderly, and its wider commitment to social and economic rights have been successively undermined by a starvation of resources and continued expansion of for-profit models and services.

Further, despite some progress in the relationship over the last generation, Indigenous peoples continue to fight the stubborn denial of their rights by Canadian governments. Recognized in Section 35 of the constitution, and enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, these rights must now be implemented without equivocation. Some hard choices lie ahead, as questions of institutional reform and Indigenous land rights must be resolved. These obligations intersect with the many consequences of the global climate crisis, which is driving the search for rare earth minerals on Indigenous lands and accelerating the destruction caused by fire, storms, droughts, and floods in Canada and abroad.

So, what is to be done? Are we going to sit back and watch conservative politicians capitalize on economic insecurity to erode the potential of the social democratic state and reimpose their new, hollow model of “freedom”? They see starving the state as the solution to our problems. Take away the power and money of the state, they claim, and humanity will be set free. I reject this blinkered vision. Generations of Canadians, notably after the Second World War, demonstrated that the opposite is the case. It was the establishment of social rights like healthcare, unemployment insurance, and national pensions that enabled millions of Canadians to feel free for the first time in their lives. Having been undermined by successive governments, the remarkable achievements of the democratic age are now at risk of full-blown collapse. Now more than ever, we require prompt and effective state action to respond to the new, destabilizing threats to people’s livelihoods and preserve a sustainable life on this planet.

A key theme of this book has been that ordinary people themselves — through social movements, unions, political parties, and civil society — wield the tools to make our institutions more just and our collective life more abundant. By working within the social circumstances of their lives, ordinary people have always been able to find concrete answers to their problems. I see important flickers of this countermovement today: workers organizing unions in sectors dominated by multinational behemoths like Amazon and Starbucks; child care advocates in Canada seeing five decades of struggle culminate in the creation of an affordable, universal national child care program; climate activists on both sides of the border campaigning for a green industrial strategy.

There is no magic guidebook to consult, and there are no perfect solutions. Each generation must find answers to the challenges they face, although we may all learn from the past. In the wake of the Great Depression and two world wars, it became clear to people across the globe that the best instrument for countering the immense forces of global capitalism and achieving freedom was the social democratic state. In following their example, however, a new generation of Canadians will be able to achieve not the perfect society but the good society. Taking inspiration from the best of the social democratic tradition, I believe great things can still be done.

To be humane, societies must be democratic — and, to be democratic, every person must be afforded the economic and social rights necessary for their individual flourishing. On their own, political and civil freedoms are insufficient in the realization of that goal. I believed in 1968, and I believe today, that political democracy is not enough. In the twenty-first century, the rebuilding of social democracy must be our task. Social democracy alone offers the foundation upon which the lives of people everywhere can be made dignified, just, and exciting.

It is perhaps the appropriate moment to end this story with a reference to Willy Brandt. He, after all, illustrates the possibility of individual impact in history. His life, from fighting Nazism to bringing greater equality to West Germany and abroad, was one of political struggle. Like Brandt, activists today can overcome the impact of the right-wing forces of our time. We can build an alternative democratic agenda, creating more equality and decommodifying more of our lives. We don’t need perfection as a goal. We require simply compassion and thoughtful engagement. There is no guarantee that social democracy will triumph. But it is by far our best alternative, very much worth our political energy.

A black and white photograph of Ed Broadbent holding a tobacco pipe to his temple and writing on a stack of papers with his other hand.

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