Jack Layton on building the NDP's Quebec campaign surprise

Why success in Quebec is the product of carefully laid foundations, not some quirk of this particular race

Photograph by Jessica Darmanin

With polls showing the NDP surging in Quebec, one of the big questions going into the election campaign’s stretch run is whether that spike in the party’s support is for real, or one of those fleeting campaign developments that have a way of evaporating by voting day.

Not surprisingly, Jack Layton told the Maclean’s editorial board Thursday morning that his party’s Quebec success is the product of carefully laid foundations, not some quirk of this particular race.  The NDP leader— who represents a Toronto riding, but grew up in Hudson, Que.—reminisced his own family’s deep roots in Montréal.

But beyond his own Quebec background, he spoke of how the NDP platform’s focus on hiring and training more family doctors, creating jobs and improving retirement security resonate in the province.

Layton even suggested that making progress on those sorts of issues might be the first step towards getting Quebec to sign the Constitution. “If we could be addressing those issues,” he said, “then we might find ourselves creating the conditions where we could come to that discussion about how to bring Quebec fully into the Canadian family.”

Beyond his core platform on economic and social policy, he defended the NDP’s proposal to extend French-language rights in Quebec to federally regulated industries. The NDP has drafted a bill that would amend the Canada Labour Code, which applies to sectors like interprovincial transportation, banking and telecommunications, to guarantee the right to work in French in those industries.

But Layton denied that would mean Ottawa effectively legislating against the use of English, the other official language.  “That’s not what it’s about,” he said, describing the proposed law’s aim as “ensuring the rights of a French-speaking person to be able to work in that language.”

His perspective on Quebec is bound to get a lot more scrutiny in the coming days if the polls in the province continue trending dramatically in his direction.

The latest, a CROP survey published in the Montréal newspaper La Presse today, pegged NDP support 36 per cent, a startling five points better than the Bloc Québécois at 31 per cent, and far outstripping the Conservatives at 17 per cent and the Liberals at 13 per cent.

Clearly relishing the attention that comes from that sort of polling result, Layton held forth at some length on how he got there. “My goal as leader,” he said, “is to build our support all over the country and move beyond little islands that are strong out with some pretty great gaps, the biggest gap of course has always been Quebec.”

He continued: “I think this is probably one of the reasons why people took a chance and voted for me for leader, because I was born there, maybe the first leader we had that was. Maybe he’ll understand what we have to do. I always likened it to building a house. You know, you start with a foundation. People kept saying to me, ‘Why aren’t you making any progress, Jack?’

“The first thing you do is dig a hole, that’s not very interesting, then the next thing you do is lay footing, that’s an ugly piece of concrete, and then you start building the foundation wall, and the problem is that for our party we never built one quarter of the foundation, and then we started building the house and then the wind came along and down it went. And I said, ‘We’re going to take our time here, we’re going to do this right, and we’re going to build that foundation.’ And we’ve done that now.”

The test of Layton’s workmanship in Quebec will be seeing if he maintain and build his current support from now until May 2. When the House broke for the election, he had just one Quebec MP, Thomas Mulcair, the key architect of that NDP language proposal for ensuring French is spoken inside Quebec in industries regulated by Ottawa.

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