Mulcair so far: the outtakes

John Geddes on what didn’t make it into this week’s cover story on the controversial politician

This week’s Maclean’s features my profile of NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair.  For the story in the issue on newsstands today, Mulcair answered questions about his life over lunch in a back booth at a diner not far from his home just west of Montréal. The interview lasted nearly two hours, enough time for Mulcair to wash down his salad with two double-espressos.

Even in a fairly long article, though, not every telling reply from a conversation that expansive makes it into print—there’s not enough room. So here are three outtakes that, taken together, might offer a sense where Mulcair’s coming from, and a glimpse of the challenge he faces in getting where he wants to go.

The profile sketches Mulcair’s upbringing in a big, bilingual family. His mother is French-Canadian, his late father of Irish descent. (It’s a reminder of other major Quebec political figures who had one Anglophone and one Francophone parent—Louis St. Laurent, Pierre Trudeau and Jean Charest, to name three.) Mulcair polished his French as a young lawyer in Quebec City. But I asked about the languages in the air at home—something the Parti Québécois has lately made an issue—in the Laval suburb of his childhood, just north of Montréal. His answer:

Mostly English at home. We could all speak French. We grew up in an area where you learned to speak French in the street; but the French I was speaking was anything but elegant. My younger brothers and sisters went to French school, probably a reflection of the times. I started school in 1960, and at the time if you were in a mixed English/French household, chances were pretty strong you were sending your kids to English school. At some point my mother decided to send the [younger] kids to French school, and I remember my [older] sister and I holding council over this because we wouldn’t be able to help [our younger brothers and sisters] with their homework.

I was intrigued by how often Mulcair—in talking about his formative experiences as a Quebec public servant, then an English language rights advocate, and finally an elected politician—referred to his late mentor Claude Ryan, whose impact on Quebec’s public life, as a provincial Liberal leader and Le Devoir editor, was so great. Here’s what Mulcair said when I asked him to sum up what Ryan taught him:

Rigorous public administration. Enforcement of regulation in the public interest. Not backing down in the face of a challenge. Ryan was very tough; he was very Irish that way. But he also had a good Catholic streak in him; he was always devoted to social causes. That’s part of his upbringing as well. [Ryan’s family] were poor as church mice, but they were smart and they were hard-working. Their mom raised them alone in another era. The toughness that he exuded, but [also] the soft streak, the religiously inspired side, were always present.

Not surprisingly, New Democrats are solidly pro-Mulcair these days, although more than a few viewed him as a potentially divisive figure back when he was cruising to a win at last spring’s NDP leadership convention. Even so, one supportive senior party official said the party’s very Quebec-rooted leader needs to broaden and deepen his understanding of the rest of Canada. When I asked Mulcair if he considered that a fair point, he stressed how much he’d already learned while traveling the country during the leadership race, adding:

Before the leadership I would have said that… There’s no question that I have to develop soft hands when it comes to dealing with issues that are important to different regions. I don’t think that’s an unfair statement at all because it’s the challenge for anybody who comes out of provincial politics.

The profile tries to knit together the phases of Mulcair’s life. But these three outtakes hint at key stretches on his path so far. He starts out in a quintessentially Québécois milieu, emerges as a public figure under the guiding influence of an imposing mentor, and now faces the challenge of translating all that to Canada’s national political stage.

So there’s much more to explore here than the pugnacious side that has, so far, pretty much defined Mulcair’s politica persona. As we’ve discovered with Prime Minister Stephen Harper, toughness in a politician—too often equated with a sort of partisan simple-mindedness—can also be the surface manifestation of influences and instincts that run deep.

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