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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 19, Number 4, January/February 2007

Historical perspectives
The Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives

by Ken Novakowski

Many of you will be aware of the work done by the BC office of the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA). The office is run by a young staff of researchers and others with communications and administrative skills, all under the leadership of its director, Seth Klein. The BC Office is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year. The history of its origin and the role of the BCTF in its establishment is a good way to acknowledge its contribution to the progressive side of public policy debates in this province over the past decade.

The Ottawa office of the CCPA has been in existence for 25 years operating as a national think tank and research centre with support from the Canadian Labour Congress, unions, and other national progressive organizations. The BCTF was a member of the CCPA many years before the BC office was conceived. The BCTF also played a key role in trying to get an alternative research centre established in BC.

In the 1980s, progressive forces, including the BCTF, came together to form the Pacific Institute for Policy Research. This research coalition was intended to be an antidote to the increasingly influential and ultra-conservative Fraser Institute. Larry Kuehn, the current director of the BCTF’s Research and Technology Division, was BCTF president during the early 1980s, and worked hard to keep the Pacific Institute going as a viable voice and clearing house for progressive analysis and research on public policy issues. But without a sustainable and reliable financial base, the Pacific Institute floundered.

As BCTF president from 1989 to 1992, I recognized and supported the need for a think tank alternative to the Fraser Institute. The Solidarity Coalition that had emerged from the mobilization of broad opposition to the government’s legislative attack on social programs and workers’ rights, including significant reductions to funding allocations for public schools, had disintegrated.

The BCTF initiated a series of sessions called "Economic Alternative Seminars" and invited other trade-union leaders and academics to participate in discussions about how the broader progressive forces in this province could begin to articulate a positive, well-grounded alternative to the emerging neo-conservative agenda. Through that process we got to know Marjorie Cohen, a professor at Simon Fraser University. Cohen’s extensive academic background included women’s studies, political science, and economics. Gideon Rosenbluth, professor emeritus in Economics from UBC, also proved to be an invaluable resource.

Several years later, with the full support of the Executive Committee of the day, and particularly the president, Alice McQuade, we launched a series of seminars involving speakers from across the country speaking out on social and economic policy issues, including a number of speakers from the CCPA.

In 1995, again with the support of the Federation leadership, we organized a series of meetings at the BCTF building with other trade unions and progressive community groups to again try to get a BC-based research centre started. The BCTF and CUPE had both committed start-up funds to help but there was no consensus amongst the broad range of groups about the next steps to take to launch this organization.

That’s when, in mid-1996, Duncan Cameron, then president of the Ottawa-based CCPA, came up with the plan that would see it happen. Working with Marjorie Cohen, a member of the CCPA national board, Cameron initiated a meeting to secure BCTF and CUPE support for establishing a branch of the CCPA here in Vancouver. We all agreed and the BC office of the CCPA was launched. At the instigation of Cohen and Cameron, Seth Klein was hired as the BC director of the centre. We haven’t looked back.

The CCPA soon became a credible and sought after voice for comment on public policy issues in BC. Today, the CCPA continues to hold an annual social event that draws the entire progressive community in this province together every February.

The organizational memberships grew and after a significant initial financial boost from VanCity Savings Credit Union, the remaining key public-sector unions and the BC Federation of Labour joined. Individual memberships soared and after a few years of producing solid, credible research, the CCPA financial base expanded to allow for a current staff of nine. In addition to a full-time economist, the BC office also runs a public-sector desk, a resource- and environmental-policy desk, and supports a team of research associates with strong academic backgrounds in virtually every field of social and economic policy.

The media go to the CCPA for comment on a regular basis and the CCPA release of a new research study always manages to capture public attention. The CCPA office in BC has become a success and since then offices have been established in Manitoba, Saskatchewan, and Nova Scotia. Seth Klein and the dedicated staff of the BC office, continue to challenge the privatization and anti-progressive moves of the provincial government. At the same time, the centre maintains a non-partisan approach to its public positioning, working with forces in society committed to building a democratic society with strong social programs, equitable treatment of all citizens, and publicly funded public institutions.

Congratulations to the CCPA–BC office on 10 great years.

Ken Novakowski is the BCTF’s executive director.

If you are interested in joining as an individual member or want further information, go to the web site: www.policyalternatives.ca.

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