How the Communist Party changed Canadian elections forever

Miguel Figueroa, leader of the Communist Party of Canada

“Working people did not cause this crisis … and we won’t pay for it!”

These words were printed in bright red letters on a flyer recently published by the Communist Party of Canada as part of its effort to raise public awareness about the root causes of the global economic crisis. The flyer sat atop a pile of documents at the entrance to the Communist Party’s central office in Toronto, where, for 17 years, Miguel Figueroa has been busily engaged in resisting mass capitalism. The room isn’t big, but it is filled with desks, documents, books and other mementoes. The walls are lined with pictures of Lenin and other legendary communist leaders.

Not far from the CPC’s headquarters, I met a gregarious Figueroa at a Greek restaurant on Danforth Avenue in Greektown, just east of Toronto’s downtown. He’s stepped out for a few seconds when the waitress approaches me and asks if I want something. “No thanks, I’m just waiting for someone,” I reply.

She knows who I’m waiting for: “I think it’s Miguel, yes?” When he returns inside and sits down, another woman coming around to clean the tables recognizes him. “Hi Miguel! How are you?” she asks cheerfully. He’s a regular.

It’s not just his neighbourhood restaurant: Figueroa is also a regular in Canadian left-wing politics. He has been leader of the Communist party for 17 years. Since 1992, in fact—which makes him the longest-standing active federal party leader in Canada. None of the leaders for the four parties represented in Parliament even come close to that; Michael Ignatieff has been leading the Liberals since 2008, Stephen Harper the Conservatives since 2004, Jack Layton the NDP since 2003. Even Gilles Duceppe, who seems to have been at the helm of the Bloc Québécois for an eternity, has only been in charge since 1997. To put things in perspective, the Conservative party has had eight different leaders since 1992, and the Liberal party five.

Figueroa says he’s held on for all this time mostly because the hectic job requires it, and because, well, somebody has to do it. “We have many people in our party who are much more capable than I am, but who aren’t in a position to work for the party full-time,” he says.

His term as leader only represents the second half of Figueroa’s career as a member of the CPC. Before being elected head of the party, he spent some 15 years working for the Communists in various capacities at both ends of the country. He became a party organizer in Vancouver in 1978 and moved to Halifax in 1986, where he led the Atlantic branch of the party. In total, the 57-year-old Figueroa has devoted more than 30 years of his life to further build a party in which— despite public support for communism and socialism that is weak at the best of times—he still believes.

To put things in perspective, the Conservative Party has had eight different leaders since 1992, and the Liberal party five. Which makes Figueroa the longest-standing active federal party leader in Canada.

And he might have reason to. After all of the hardships his party has endured through the years, the Communist Party of Canada is still alive, which is an achievement in itself. It was formed in 1921 in a barn near Guelph, Ontario. It didn’t take long for the RCMP to target the party and start harassing it, even arresting its leaders in 1931. Nonetheless, several members of the CPC were elected to municipal and provincial offices in the following years. But in 1940, the party was banned because it opposed the country’s participation in the Second World War, and hundreds of its members were imprisoned.

Ironically, the subsequent years were those during which the Communists’ popularity peaked. The party resurfaced as the “Labour-Progressive Party” and, according to former party leader George Hewison, had about 25,000 members after the war. One of them, Fred Rose, was even elected to the House of Commons when he represented the party in the Montreal riding of Cartier in the 1943 federal by-election. But after Soviet Communist leader Nikita Khrushchev exposed the cruelty of Joseph Stalin and his regime in 1956 in the USSR, disenchanted communists around the world left their respective parties. The Communist party was no different, and its membership dwindled until the fall of communism in Eastern Europe between 1989 and 1991.

Then all hell broke loose.

It was December, 1992. Shortly after the collapse of the Soviet Union, the CPC held a watershed convention. The year before, the party had split along ideological lines: one group, led by General Secretary George Hewison, sought to shift the party’s philosophy from Marxism-Leninism to social democracy, while a faction led by Figueroa opposed the change. Eleven opponents were expelled from the party with Figueroa resigning in sympathy. Figueroa and his group subsequently threatened court action against Hewison and his colleagues to challenge the dismissal. The two sides reached an out-of-court settlement, and at the 1992 convention, a new central committee was elected, with Figueroa at the head of a fractured party in need of serious repair.

Figueroa’s political ascent was unlikely: The Montrealborn Figueroa was not a part of a political family such as the Trudeaus or Martins. He spent a few years in the United States as a child and, after his parents separated, he and his mother moved back to Quebec when he was beginning Grade 9. “We were on welfare,” he says. “The bailiffs actually came to our apartment. They broke down the door with a sledgehammer, came in and confiscated all of our belongings because my mother couldn’t pay some of the bills. They left us with our clothes, our books, and our beds. It was very humiliating for my mother, devastating for her.” This was in 1969 or 1970, he says, an era when an officer could simply show up at a nonpayer’s home and “clean up the house.” “It wasn’t as if it was a decision of the court or she was called to court and didn’t show up. It was draconian.” It was his political awakening.

The incident drove him to get involved in Montreal’s antipoverty movement, where he met lefties, went to meetings, and read the classics of Marxist literature and theory. After leaving Quebec, he joined the National Union of Students (now known as the Canadian Federation of Students) and became interested in the Communist Party. He liked its approach, the fact that it was trying to build unity, working with unions and community organizations, rather than just shouting slogans. But the CPC was also pro-Soviet at the time, a position that placed it in the political wilderness as American rhetoric about the “Evil Empire” was in the ascent. In American schools, says Figueroa, pupils were taught “in Russia, the KGB can come in at three in the morning and take your toys! And there’s nothing scarier to a kid than having their toys taken. It’s dramatic!” But he agreed with most of the party’s program and, defying the anti-communist fog, decided to take out a membership. He hasn’t looked back since.

Even those who once disagreed with Figueroa acknowledge he is an impressive organizer. George Hewison—once Figueroa’s courtroom opponent over the party split— tells me that Figueroa is “very talented, very intelligent.” Johan Boyden, General Secretary of the Young Communist League of Canada, says that Figueroa is “very dedicated.” I started to understand why Figueroa commands such respect when he elaborated on socialist theories and history. To most people, and even by its very nature, communism is associated with working-class struggle and the uprising of the proletariat. Although Figueroa was never an aristocrat, his political education didn’t exactly happen at the bottom of a coal mine: After completing his pre-university studies in arts and science at Dawson College in Montreal and taking courses in urban studies and economics at McGill and Concordia universities, he spent six months studying political economy at the Lenin Institute in Moscow in 1985-86, where Hewison was one of his classmates. Figueroa then returned to the classroom in the early 1990s to start his graduate studies in international development at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. He never completed his thesis though, because, among other things, he was elected Communist Party Leader.

The first order of business was whipping the party into shape for an election, and, in the process, Figueroa ended up reshaping Canadian elections themselves. The Communists were struggling to register the minimum of 50 candidates required under the Canada Elections Act to get official party status and participate in the 1993 federal election. This meant that the Communist Party would not be on the ballots, and that Elections Canada would also deregister the party and seize its assets. Figueroa challenged the provision on the basis it discriminated against smaller political parties. He pursued the suit for six years, and in 1999, Justice Anne Molloy of the Ontario Court ruled that the 50-candidate threshold was, according to official documents, “inconsistent with the right of each citizen to run for office” and ordered that it be reduced to two candidates.

The Attorney General’s office appealed the decision, and the Ontario Court of Appeal ruled that the threshold was indeed constitutional, although parties that could field at least 12 candidates for an election would be able to have their party’s name on the ballot next to the candidate’s name. Not content with the halfway measure, Figueroa appealed to the Supreme Court of Canada, claiming the rule violated Section 3 of the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms. The hearing started in November 2002, and in June 2003, the historic Figueroa v. Canada (Attorney General) decision determined that “the 50-candidate threshold is inconsistent with the right of each citizen to play a meaningful role in the electoral process.” Ten years after his party was deregistered, Figueroa had successfully forced Elections Canada to overturn its rule and the Communist Party of Canada was back on the ballot.

Being on the ballot is one thing; winning is another, and the Communist Party remains a distant also-ran when it comes to actually delivering votes. During the CPC’s decade of oblivion, Figueroa remained active on the political scene by running twice as an independent candidate in the Canadian federal election. In 1993, in the riding of Parkdale-High Park, he finished ninth out of 11 candidates; in 1997 in Toronto’s Davenport riding, he finished seventh out of eight.

Though it still barely registers on the electoral scale, the Communist Party’s Supreme Court fight remains a historic win, and not just for Figueroa and the party.

“It established new grounds in evaluating election law,” says Peter Rosenthal, the CPC’s lawyer at the time. Rosenthal has worked on a number of cases related to electoral law, but believes this one spawned several others and had positive consequences for small parties. Nelson Wiseman, associate professor with the department of political science at the University of Toronto, had originally predicted there would be a proliferation of parties following the Supreme Court’s decision. “But the government has tightened up the requirements for registering a party,” he says, noting the number of registered federal parties is not much higher today than it was in 2003: among other things, the number of members required for party registration was increased from 100 to 250, and each party must have three other officers in addition to its leader.

But while new parties haven’t exactly mushroomed since Figueroa v. Canada, some existing ones have been able to survive. “My hero!” exclaims Blair T. Longley upon hearing Figueroa’s name. The Marijuana Party of Canada leader, whose party has been decimated in recent years due to several of its members joining more prominent parties, admits “We wouldn’t exist without Miguel Figueroa and Peter Rosenthal’s work. None of the small parties would exist.” Indeed, several of those parties rallied behind Figueroa during the court challenge, and the case made for strange bedfellows: in addition to the Marijuana Party, the right-wing Christian Heritage Party—which couldn’t meet the 50-candidate threshold for the 2000 election—joined in. Pastors associated with the party even asked their congregations at Sunday church services to pray for Figueroa while the case was being debated.

“This is a landmark case in the status of small parties,” says Boyden. “It’s a great advancement for democracy in Canada because it recognized that there was a role for those parties…. The Green Party, which is now much larger than it was back then, was right there at the table in the Figueroa case,” he says.

In addition to his work as party leader, Figueroa is an editorial board member of the People’s Voice, the nationally distributed bi-monthly newspaper published by the CPC. But in spite of the party’s rebirth, publications and political involvement, Figueroa is still leading a small party that only represents half of the Communist left in Canada, the other being the similarly (perhaps confusingly) named, but ideologically different, Communist Party of Canada (Marxist-Leninist). Moreover, the Communist Party currently has approximately 500 members coast to coast. Nevertheless, Figueroa’s party is a bit like one of those inflatable bop bags that always get back up after being knocked down; it simply refuses to give up and go away. No matter how hard the government, the RCMP or Elections Canada has tried to kick it off the political scene, the Communists have always found a way to return. Figueroa is simply the architect of the latest rebuilding, which, even after 17 years, hardly threatens to overturn the decades-long status quo of Liberal or Conservative rule. But like its leader, the Communist Party of Canada is a regular, a fixture on the scene, not the flashiest customer but a reliable one. And like Figueroa, it intends to stay that way.