The Commons: Introducing Brian Topp

'No one can replace Jack, but we can honour him by making sure his dream of social justice will never die'

He sat down and declared that he was here today with Françoise Boivin, the woman at his right, to announce their endorsement of Ed Broadbent, seated to his left, as the next leader of the NDP.

This was a joke. It is always good to lead with a joke. Jokes—and the ability to both tell and appreciate jokes—are what separate us from the apes and the terrorists. And as long as we have jokes, we can be defeated by neither.

So, at the outset, there was a certain amount of chuckling. And on this note, Brian Topp proceeded to announce himself as a candidate to be the next Prime Minister of Canada.

By way of introduction, he spoke for ten minutes en français, then switched to English to repeat himself.

“New Democrats lost our hero last month. And Canadians lost a great leader. Jack Layton was unique. He was an activist who became a great political leader. He was a politician who joined the ranks of Canadian statesmen. New Democrats and the millions of Canadians who rallied to his cause will miss Jack Layton’s smile, his grace and his courage. And I’m going to miss my friend.”

He might’ve wavered here just slightly (and also understandably). But with the present now made to sound as daunting as possible, he pivoted to the future and to the reason he’d called this little gathering together. “No one can replace Jack,” he said, “but we can honour him by making sure his dream of social justice will never die. We can carry on his work. That’s my pledge today. I’m seeking the leadership of the New Democratic Party of Canada.”

He had picked out a nice dark suit and his hair was freshly cut. His tie was somehow both orange and red at the same time. The woman to his right was a prominent Francophone MP. The man to his left was one of the NDP’s patron saints. He made reference to all the right causes: poverty, the environment, health care, even the plight of artists. He made mention of all the right legends: Layton, Broadbent, Romanow, Blakeney, Calvert and Douglas. He sketched his life (as the son of a Francophone-Anglophone marriage, who has lived in Montreal, Toronto, Regina and Vancouver) and his career (as a backstage advisor and strategist at various levels of the New Democrat apparatus) and his patriotism (“It is in my genes to be an optimist about Canada”).

He was matter-of-fact and straightforward and calm and artfully self-deprecating. He smiled slightly and cracked a couple more jokes. He made a go of pumping his fist a few times. He seemed a mild-mannered partisan operator: of approximately the same public temperament and tone of the mild-mannered partisan operator who presently occupies 24 Sussex.

For sure, it is the spectre of both Stephen Harper and Jack Layton that will haunt this race to replace the latter. “Following Jack’s tragic death, we New Democrats are about to choose a new leader. And for the first time, we will be doing so fully conscious that he or she could be Canada’s next prime minister,” explained Mr. Broadbent after Mr. Topp had finished.

So who is Brian Topp? This will now be the operative question, not least because it would stump the vast majority of the population.

Mr. Broadbent reminded everyone of how he had once thrown his support behind another man with no public profile on the national scene. That man—Jack Layton—had seemed to do okay. On the question of political experience, Mr. Topp has plenty to say in his own defence. On his lack of name recognition, he has at least the fact that he is only slightly more unknown than the rest of this country’s federal politicians. (In a recent poll, 73% of Canadians said they knew nothing of Brian Topp. Thomas Mulcair, for the sake of comparison, was a mystery to a mere 63%.)

After the introductions and endorsements had been made, the floor was turned over to questions and the CBC’s Terry Milewski started right in: what should the government do about the economy and should Canada vote for UN-recognition of a Palestinian state? There were some unnecessary uhs and ums here, but the answers were spat out in short order: consider extending funding for infrastructure programs and yes.

He foreswore a merger with the Liberals, but left open the possibility of a coalition. What, someone asked later, about Conservative legislation to allow for new seats in the House? More seats for British Columbia and Alberta and Ontario, Mr. Topp concurred, but also some consideration for Quebec. On that problematic bit he noted the Prime Minister’s own motion establishing the Québécois as a nation—”This is an occasion to think about what that resolution means”—which seemed a potentially neat trick of positioning.

After some discussion of hypotheticals and the empty seat in Toronto-Danforth, he was asked, quite simply, to explain why he hadn’t bothered to stand for office before now. Here Mr. Topp was, luckily enough, presented with an opportunity to outline his commitments to his wife and his children. There was “soul-searching,” he said. And, indeed, even “butterflies” about what this would mean for his family.

“It was certainly not in my mind to be doing this now … But this is the tragedy that happened and one of the things that Jack Layton asked us to do is he said, ‘Yes, mourn me, remember my work and then carry on my work.’ And so we all face the same tough choice, which is how shall we do that. And I was encouraged by many of my friends, including a couple who are sitting here with me today, to think about this. I have thought about it and the members will make the choice and then we will all continue to work.”

So there.

Shortly thereafter his first news conference as a candidate for high public office was done. From the look on his face, Mr. Topp seemed mostly pleased with how it had gone.

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