What went down at the 2016 Progress Summit

Progressives from Canada and beyond descended on Ottawa to talk policy and the future of the left last week. Here’s what you missed.

By: /
April 4, 2016

Over three days late last week, around 1,000 people gathered in Ottawa to attend the Progress Summit – the country’s largest annual conference on progressive policy.

The Delta Hotel in the heart of the city was swarming with activists, international organizers, politicians and thought leaders. The event, put on by the Broadbent Institute – a nonpartisan think tank based in the national capital – hosted panels on topics ranging from climate policy to electoral reform, and featured speeches by notable figures such as feminist icon Gloria Steinem, alternative media voice Judy Rebick, U.S. economist James Galbraith and Guardian columnist Owen Jones.

Here are 10 highlights not to miss.

1. Gloria Steinem headlined.

On Friday, the iconic feminist activist and author spoke about her legacy, how the women’s movement has evolved, and the need to recognize the interconnectivity between social movements. Steinem is widely known as a spokesperson of the women’s movement in America during the ‘60s and ‘70s. Her speech primarily focused on the interconnection of sexism and racism and how efforts to combat these oppressive tools are inherently linked. She concluded her speech with praise for the Black Lives Matter movement and said she is “proud” of the three Black women who founded it: Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi and Patrisse Cullors. 

2. There was much praise for Black Lives Matter TO.

Many keynote speakers and panellists came out in support of the Black Lives Matter – Toronto Coalition, which set up camp in protest in front of police headquarters in Toronto on March 20. Steinem, journalist Michele Landsberg, New Republic’s Jeet Heer, Jagmeet Singh of the Ontario NDP, Jones and Rebick each praised the efforts of the Canadian chapter of the Black Lives Matter movement as they fight against police violence and justice for the death of Andrew Loku, who was fatally shot by police last July.

3. Everyone was #FeelingTheBern.

It became clear early on that the conference halls were filled with Bernie Sanders supporters–even though most attendees were Canadian. Sanders’ name seemed to be on the tip of everyone’s tongue, which may not be all that surprising given the summit’s left-wing tilt. From Ed Broadbent to Galbraith, many speakers offered an analysis of Sanders’ presidential campaign in the United States. A Friday night panel was dedicated to the topic, titled “What the Bernie-Hillary Race Means for Progressive Politics,” in which panellist and CNN political commentator Sally Kohn said Obama was once a candidate masquerading as a movement, while Sanders is a movement masquerading as a candidate.

4. Up for discussion: What is the future of the NDP?

Members of the New Democratic Party (NDP) showed up in full form. Leader Tom Mulcair happily shook hands with many attendees, while Andrea Horwath, leader of the Ontario NDP, gave a short presentation supporting a $15 minimum wage. After teasing the crowd with an April Fool’s joke about running for the NDP leadership, Ed Broadbent, founder of the Broadbent Institute and former NDP leader, said the party needs to “re-establish itself as the driver of political debate in federal politics.” While Broadbent refrained from commenting on the fate of Mulcair's leadership, his message was clear: the NDP needs a strong leader to reunite the left in the wake of electoral disappointment. 

5. There was tough talk on climate change.

A panel bringing together three women from three different levels of government, discussed what transitioning to a low-carbon economy looks like. Catherine McKenna, Federal Minister of the Environment and Climate Change, Shannon Phillips, Alberta Minister of Environment and Parks, and Andrea Reimer, a Vancouver city councillor, all weighed in on the plausibility of Canada being able to meet the goals outlined in the Paris Agreement. They also spoke of the jurisdictional challenges that come with the plan to establishment a pan-Canadian framework for combatting climate change. 

6. Many Canadians are still calling for proportional representation.

The issue of electoral reform often took centre stage. The conference kicked off Thursday night with a presentation by Toronto-based community organizer Dave Meslin on alternative voting practices and how proportional representation (PR) voting works, followed by a lively debate Saturday afternoon on whether Canada needs PR.

7. Indigenous reconciliation and rights are key to progressive discussion.

From the outset, issues pertaining to Indigenous communities in Canada were placed at the forefront of the conference. Before any formal presentation got underway, Algonquin chiefs Kirby Whiteduck and Jean-Guy Whiteduck welcomed everyone to the conference and spoke about reconciliation with Indigenous communities and the long road ahead. Cindy Blackstock, an activist for child welfare and executive director of the First Nations Child and Family Caring Society of Canada, delivered a powerful speech on the Canadian Human Rights Commission report that revealed that First Nations children have been systematically underfunded and how the new Liberal government can start to mend relations with Canada’s Indigenous population.

8. Owen Jones rallied for a united left.

It was a speech that garnered two standing ovations and provoked hooting and hollering from an otherwise tame crowd. While pacing back and forth, Owen Jones, British author and Guardian columnist, discussed the many challenges facing progressive movements from all corners of the globe, but left the audience with a rallying cry for unity and hope for the future of leftist politics. 

9. Christiane Taubira critiqued the left and warned of the extreme right.

Christiane Taubira resigned as the Justice Minister of France in January over what she has called a “major political disagreement.” While in Ottawa, she addressed her opposition to the French government’s plans to enshrine emergency security measures into the constitution after the attacks in Paris, which would allow the state to revoke the citizenship of those who commit acts of terrorism or acts against the interest of the nation. Taubira also spoke of the need for a strong left-wing base to counter the rise of extreme right-wing ideology in Europe and around the world.

10. And, there was even time to mark a birthday —Ed Broadbent’s eightieth, no less.

Even at his age, Broadbent knows how to command a crowd and throw a great conference. What a way to celebrate!