How Jack Layton won Quebec’s heart

Jack Layton had just become leader of the NDP when our French-language sister publication (and occasional sparring partner) L’actualité turned its gaze toward English Canada’s newly minted social-democrat-in-chief. The year was 2003 and the late Michel Vastel, not usually given to romanticizing federalist anglophones, came away impressed:

That’s the Layton method: be seen with all the social activist groups, even the smallest ones, even in Quebec. And present yourself as one of the gang.

Born in 1950 in Hudson, just west of the island of Montreal, Jack Layton grew up among the city’s bourgeois anglophones. His father, an engineer, bought a house on elegant Birch Hill street. Like his friends, he belonged to a yacht club with a pool, a golf club, a tennis club. All of them places where English was spoken exclusively.

Young French Canadians, on the other hand, would swim in the lake at Deux Montagnes, and the only time Layton interacted with them was on the street, to play hockey. At the age of 16, when he managed the youth group at the Hudson Yacht Club, he organized an evening to admire the northern lights. Naturally, he invited his francophone friends. The next day, the board of directors criticized him for having invited “strangers” to a club reserved for the city’s English bourgeoisie.

“That’s where I understood discrimination,” Layton says, “and I knew it wasn’t right…. Wrong!” he says, insisting forcefully on the word.

While the Layton of today is decidedly less likely to meet-and-greet every activist group under the sun than the one described by Vastel, the passage above, and especially the following one, go a long way to illustrating Layton’s slow, methodical approach to gaining Quebecers’ trust:

On a lot of issues, Jack Layton’s stances are often more categorical than those of Gilles Duceppe: on pacifism, of course, but also on the Kyoto Protocol and climate change, $5 a day day care. His appetite for change, as much in Ottawa as in Quebec City, is also greater. He is correct to claim he is “in phase with Quebec.”

With the NDP, however, there is always a ‘but’ in Quebec, a big ‘but’: the national question. Layton led a parliamentary group that supported the Clarity Act; that didn’t go unnoticed among left-leaning groups close to the Bloc and the Parti Québécois. He speaks openly about “asymetrical federalism.” And in discussions about a new federal affordable housing program in 2002, he was already saying Ottawa must respect the differences that are inherent to Quebec.

His Quebec lieutenant, Pierre Ducasse, doesn’t hesitate to openly support the Parti Québécois for its social democratic platform. “We will need people who work with other progressive parties,” Layton says carefully. “In the case of those who promote sovereignty, we’ll have to see, but I don’t hold it against them.”

Activist groups in Quebec will also need to clarify their relationship with the Bloc Québécois. “Gilles Duceppe comes from our circle of people,” says [housing activist] François Saillant. But he also admits that “the Bloc has done as much as it can do; if the left wants to participate on the federal scene, perhaps the NDP could do the trick…”

So there you have it—Layton’s four-pronged approach to winning Quebec’s heart, all laid out as long as eight years ago:

(1) Sell Quebecers on his bona fides as a native son with an intrinsic understanding of language and class and—when it comes to Quebec—why they’re the same thing;

(2) Shore up his credentials as an unyielding social democrat with a nose for the issues the Bloc is leery of supporting for fear of alienating conservative nationalists;

(3) Explicitly welcome Quebec’s many, many left-leaning nationalists into the NDP fold, regardless of how they voted in 1995;

(4) Use all of the above to hive off a substantial part of the Bloc sizable left flank.

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