The Waffle

This is about a Canadian political movement. For other uses, please see Waffle (disambiguation).

The Waffle (also known as the Movement for an Independent Socialist Canada) was a radical wing of Canada's New Democratic Party (NDP) in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It later transformed into an independent political party, with little electoral success before it permanently disbanded in the mid-1970s. It was generally a New Left youth movement, that espoused Canadian nationalism, and solidarity with Quebec's sovereignty movement.



The group formed in 1969, a product of campus radicalism, feminism, Canadian nationalism and left-wing nationalism in general. Its leaders were university professors Mel Watkins, James Laxer and Robert Laxer. It issued a Manifesto for an Independent Socialist Canada and with support in the NDP caucus and membership worked to try to push the party leftward. The Waffle supported the nationalization of Canadian industries to take them out of the hands of American interests. The group was endorsed by the New Democratic Youth.

Origins of the Waffle name

The name was meant ironically; one story, quoted in historian Desmond Morton's book The New Democrats, has the name originating during the drafting of the group's manifesto when, at one point, Ed Broadbent said "that if they had to choose between waffling to the left and waffling to the right, they waffle to the left."[1] "The Waffle Manifesto" was the published headline of Jean Howarth's editorial piece in Canada's The Globe and Mail on September 6, 1969.[2] Howarth heard about the waffle line from Hugh Winsor, who also worked at The Globe and Mail, and was also a co-signer of the manifesto.[3] When Laxer and other members of the group read the headline, they adopted it.[3]

Apparently, another possible origin for the name comes from a film-clip excerpt from a CBC documentary on the NDP, taken during a meeting of the group some months prior to the October 1969 NDP Winnipeg convention.[4] According to the film excerpt, the Waffle term appears to have originated with Jim Laxer when he stated, "in terms of the proposed manifesto, that if it doesn't talk about nationalization of key industries, it becomes a 'waffle document.'"[4] The term "waffle" was picked up by subsequent speakers in the discussion.[4] However, Broadbent still likely mentioned the term first, prior to the filmed sequence, and this section of the debate could just as easily be a response to that. The scholarly histories of the party — from writers such as McLeod, Morton, and Smith — indicate that it was Broadbent, not Laxer that came up with the name.

1971 Ottawa leadership convention

The 1971 NDP leadership convention was a battleground between the party establishment and the Waffle. About 2000, out of the NDP's approximately 90,000 membership, were members of the Waffle in 1971.[5] The Waffle tried to get as many of their supporters on to the party's governing bodies, but were rebuked by the large block of union voters at the convention.[6] Carol Gudmundson — of the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan Waffle — ran unsuccessfully for the party presidency.[6] She was up against former Ontario NDP leader, Donald C. MacDonald and lost to him during the April 23, 1971 vote.[6] University of Toronto professor, Mel Watkins, lost his vice-president position, but managed to get elected to the party's federal council.[6] The campaign for leader of the NDP pitted David Lewis against James Laxer. Through the strong support of the labour unions Lewis succeeded in defeating Laxer on the fourth ballot on April 24,1971.[7] Laxer did surprisingly well, by getting approximately 37 percent of the final ballot vote, and established that the Waffle had some strength in the party and were no longer a small fringe group.[7]

The Waffle's demise in Ontario

Even during the leadership convention, the Waffle was being described in the press as a "party within a party."[7] One of the last hurrah's for the Waffle came during the October 1971 Ontario provincial election. The Waffle's Ontario chairman, Steve Penner, managed to get nominated in the Dovercourt riding as the Ontario NDP's candidate.[8] Despite the public infighting between him and Stephen Lewis, Penner managed to come within 55 votes of winning the seat.[9] The Waffle considered this a success, because in the 1967 election, the previous NDP candidate lost by over 1400 votes.[9]

The next year Ontario NDP leader Stephen Lewis, David's son, accused the Waffle of being "an encumbrance around my neck".[10] On June 24, 1972, at the party's Provincial Council held in Orillia, Lewis was able to successfully shepherd a resolution ordering the Waffle to either disband or leave the NDP.[10] Debate on the motion lasted for three hours, with labour leaders leading the charge to expel the Waffle.[10] Finally, the council approved the motion to disband the Waffle with a 217 to 86 vote, thereby ending months of public feuding.[10]

Independent party: end of the road

Some members of the Waffle remained New Democrats but Laxer, Watkins and the bulk of members quit the NDP in 1972 and continued the Waffle under the official name, the Movement for an Independent Socialist Canada, but still commonly referred to as the Waffle. The group existed until the 1974 federal election when it unsuccessfully ran candidates for Parliament in the federal election. Laxer ran in the Toronto riding of York West — placing fourth in a field of seven with 673 votes and only 1.26 percent of the popular vote. In the aftermath of its electoral failure, the group went into a deep crisis. A left-wing group, based at York University, argued that during the election, the campaign for "Independence and socialism" had been reduced to the narrow nationalism of just a campaign for "independence." At an acrimonious meeting, this group won the most votes, but several key figures — including Laxer — walked out.

Effect on NDP youth movement

The dispute over the Waffle led to the disbanding of the Ontario NDP's youth wing in 1972, which was not revived until 1988. The federal NDP also disbanded the New Brunswick NDP for a period in late 1971 after a local Waffle group gained control of it. Mel Watkins and even Elie Martel have argued that the NDP lost a generation of volunteers and members due to the way the Waffle was handled.


The Waffle also had its own leftist wing the Red Circle, which was composed of Marxists and Trotskyists, and these groups became the inheritors of what was left of the Waffle. They relaunched themselves as the Independent Socialists in 1975, and then one year later, renamed the organization the International Socialists. Other key participants, grouped around Leo Panitch, formed an Ottawa based group called the Ottawa Committee for Labour Action.

The Waffle was also the progenitor of the NDP Socialist Caucus and the New Politics Initiative (NPI). The NPI were seen as a major force in the federal NDP during the period after the 2000 federal election. Like the Waffle, they too wanted the party to move left, and were aiming to do this by closing down the NDP and forming a new party. The NPI's attempts at reforming the party were crushed, similar to the Waffle, at the 2001 Winnipeg convention. However, it seems that the party did learn a lesson from how it dealt with the Waffle, because there was not the kind of acrimony that occurred after the 1971 federal leadership convention. Unlike the Waffle, the NPI was not seen as a party within the party, and the establishment did not try to disband it. Many of the NPI supporters ended up in Jack Layton's 2003 leadership campaign, though they were outnumbered by the forces that opposed the NPI, like NDProgress, which was a moderate reform group comparable to the Waffle's old foe: NDPNow. After he won the leadership, Layton was able to unite the many factions within party, and that facilitated the NPI choosing to dissolve itself in 2004, again without any of the same bitterness that infused the Waffle's dissolution.

The Waffle can be seen as the NDP's first reform movement, that ultimately did produce changes, such as: gender equality in its governance and the selection of federal candidates for the House of Commons. Although many of these changes occurred after the Waffle was ejected from the NDP, it can lay claim to proposing and attempting to get these policies entrenched in the party's internal policies. Many of its leaders eventually came back into the party and held important positions within it, which also shaped many of the NDP's policies in the 1980s through to the early 21st century.

References and notes

  1. ^ Morton, Desmond (1986). The New Democrats: 1961-1986 (3 ed.). Toronto: Copp Clark Pitman Ltd. pp. 92. ISBN 0-7730-4618-6. 
  2. ^ Howarth, Jean (1969-09-06). "The Waffle Manifesto". The Globe and Mail (Toronto: CTVglobemedia): pp. 6. 
  3. ^ a b Smith, Cameron (1989). Unfinished Journey: The Lewis Family. Toronto: Summerhill Press. pp. 579. ISBN 0-929091-04-3. 
  4. ^ a b c "Waffle meeting 1969" (video). CBC News. YouTube. 1969. Retrieved 2009-12-05. 
  5. ^ Avakumovic, pp. 231, 237
  6. ^ a b c d Goldblatt, Murray (1971-04-24). "Block of union delegates aids establishment to fend off Waffle drive for party offices". The Globe and Mail (Toronto: CTVglobemedia): pp. 10. 
  7. ^ a b c Bain, George (1971-04-26). "A tough row to hoe". The Globe and Mail (Toronto: CTVglobemedia): pp. 6. 
  8. ^ Toronto Bureau (1971-10-19). "121 candidates trying for 35 Metro and area jobs". The Toronto Star (Toronto: Torstar): pp. 10. 
  9. ^ a b Toronto Bureau (1971-10-22). "Radical Waffler fails by just 55 votes". The Toronto Star (Toronto: Torstar): pp. 13. 
  10. ^ a b c d Hoy, Claire (1972-06-26). "Waffle decides to defy NDP order to disband". The Toronto Star (Toronto: Torstar): pp. 01, 03. 


  • Avakumovic, Ivan (1978). Socialism in Canada : a study of the CCF-NDP in federal and provincial politics. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart. ISBN 077100978X pbk. 
  • Smith, Cameron (1989). Unfinished Journey: The Lewis Family. Toronto: Summerhill Press. pp. 579. ISBN 0-929091-04-3. 

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