The Commons: The NDP convenes with its past and its future

A weekend in Montreal with Mulcair and his brothers and sisters

<p>NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair waves after addressing delegates following a confidence vote during the party&#8217;s weekend convention Saturday, April 13, 2013 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson</p>

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair waves after addressing delegates following a confidence vote during the party’s weekend convention Saturday, April 13, 2013 in Montreal. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Paul Chiasson/CP

Within the Palais des congres de Montreal, a complex series of boxes, decorated with brightly coloured glass and perched above the freeway, where Stephane Dion once became Liberal leader and where, if memory serves, Michael Ignatieff blew kisses from an escalator to supporters below, the president of the NDP called the meeting to order. And with that there was a complaint. It was in the opinion of a man referred to as Barry, apparently a fellow from the socialist caucus, that the 30 minutes set aside on Saturday afternoon to hear from an organizer of the Obama campaign be allotted, instead, for policy discussion. Barry seemed rather unimpressed with policies of President Obama’s administration.

“We don’t need Jeremy Bird to lecture NDPers on the virtues of the American bipartisan political system,” he ventured. “Labour and the NDP aren’t here to take instruction from political operatives of the White House. But we do have some good advice for our American sisters and brothers, for our fellow workers in the United States. Follow the example of the NDP, form an independent political party based on your unions, break with the Democratic party.”

Joe Cressy, a Toronto organizer who has worked for Olivia Chow and Paul Dewar, stepped forward to speak against Barry’s proposed amendment. “Friends, we have had a great start to this convention already and let’s keep this positive energy going,” he said. “We must build on our momentum by maintaining a packed agenda that has everything from learning how to organize and fundraise better to hearing from our leader, Tom Mulcair, to, yes, learning from the Obama team on how to mobilize those who…”

His final words were drowned out in applause.

A young woman was recognized at microphone #2. “I would like to speak against the amendment,” she said, “I’d like to speak against the amendment because when Joe Stiglitz”—the renowned economist who had unofficially opened the convention moments earlier—”came out and he opened with saying, you are going to form government, we are not going to do that by simply debating. We are going to do that by actually teaching our activists who are here, how to run winning campaigns.”

There was a point of order then as someone suggested that another individual in favour of the amendment might be heard from now and then a point of order from a woman who suggested the rules of decorum should be reviewed because she had just been “pretty much shoved aside” by another delegate in pursuit of a microphone and then Barry received some support.

“Sisters and brothers,” said a man from Toronto. “We need to support this amendment because the NDP is North America’s only mass labour party. Canada’s labour party should not be having a representative of the Democratic party, the party of Wall Street in the United States, speaking to our delegates. We’re in the middle of the worst recession since the 1930s. We need to be building militancy, more working class consciousness, not supporting the Democrats. So I urge you to support this amendment, sisters and brothers. We’ve got a long way to go in our fight against austerity and this party needs to set a precedent.”

On that note, the president of the party called for a vote. Several dozen hands went up in favour. Several hundreds hands went up in opposition. And so the New Democratic Party resolved that they were very much interested in making a point of trying to win a significant number of seats in the next election.


In February 2011, the NDP averaged a poll result of 16.1%. It trailed the Liberals by more than ten points and was 21.4 points back of the Conservatives. It sat two points below the party’s 2008 election result.

Three days into March 2011, Jack Layton had hip surgery. Less than three weeks after that, Mr. Layton announced that his caucus of 37 would not be supporting the Conservative government’s budget. Six weeks after that, the New Democrats won 30.6% of the popular vote and 103 ridings.

In February 2013, the NDP averaged a poll result of 27.5%—four points behind the Conservatives, just two points ahead of the Liberals. A month and a half later, the NDP is possibly doomed. Justin Trudeau is ascendent. A poll released on Friday put the New Democrats at a mere 23.6%. It is at least a testament to how far the NDP has come that 23.6% in a poll constitutes bad news.

Near the end of Thomas Mulcair’s town hall on Friday night there seemed the slightest acknowledgements of all this.

“The next election, by the way, just in case, listening to the media, you had the impression that the next election was two days away,” Mr. Mulcair said, a tangent from his assurance that the New Democrats would run 338 candidates in 2015, “the next election is not two days away, it’s not two weeks away, it’s not two months away, it’s two and a half years away. But that’s two and half years of hard work. Together. That’s what we’re going to do.”

So everyone just relax. Everything’s going to be fine. Probably. Supposedly.

“Canadians want change,” Mr. Mulcair ventured. “And Canadians are starting to understand, the only way to get the change they want, when they vote, is to vote NDP.”


On Saturday morning, they sent out the Australian: Bill Shorten, a Labour MP who has the benefit of being both a progressive with the standing of a government minister and a man who speaks in a charming accent.

“We have a saying, from one of our great Australian Labour prime ministers. He said, ‘Only the impotent are pure.’ ”

There was not immediately applause for this sentiment.

“When the late prime minister Whitlam said that only the impotent are pure, it was, would you believe, to a hostile party in 1967 because, at that time, my party had been in opposition and out of power for a generation. Sometimes we were divided. Sometimes we were more interested in arguing with ourselves than with anyone else. Some elements of our party were happier to lose and remain pure than to win and accomplish reform … Sometimes it is easier in a race to say we would rather not win if it involves compromise. Sometimes, in our fervour, we’re willing to settle for nothing rather than power. The problem is, for millions of working Australians, for a generation, that’s what they had. They had nothing.”

Now there was applause.


Thomas Mulcair is a considerable man—in size and stature and facial hair and apparent intellect and political ability and willingness to argue and verbiage, in the sheer amount of words and in the speed with which he often delivers them.

He was introduced to the stage Saturday afternoon with the driving guitars and drums of Broken Social Scene’s instrumental Meet Me In The Basement. On the lectern he stood behind and on the screen above him and on the orange signs that the brothers and sisters held aloft before him were emblazoned two words: “Leadership” and “Experience.” (A two-word response to Mr. Trudeau it seemed and the two qualities Mr. Mulcair’s minders surely how voters to intuit from the new story they are hoping to tell about their leader.)

“Our journey together didn’t begin on May 2, 2011,” he reminded the assembled. “It began out West almost a century earlier, with a group of farmers and labourers who struggled through the Great Depression and envisioned a better Canada… for everyone.”

Here then was the necessary invoking of Saint Tommy.

“Our journey… our journey took us through Weyburn, Saskatchewan, where a Baptist preacher named Tommy Douglas resolved that every Canadian should have access to health care, regardless of their ability to pay.”

Here were nods to tougher times.

“It took us through the Yukon and Halifax, where Audrey McLaughlin and Alexa McDonough showed us that gender should never be a barrier to helping shape this great country of ours.”

And here was the invoking of Saint Jack.

“And… it took us through Hudson, Quebec… where Jack Layton taught us that with love, hope and optimism, we can change the world.”

Or at least, maybe, the previously recognized limit on the NDP’s potential appeal.

“Let me tell you, we may come from humble beginnings those many decades ago… but in a few short years, our journey and our work together will take us to new heights, to the first ever New Democratic government in Canadian history.”

The crowd stood and cheered.

For those purposes and that particular pursuit, it has been an interesting year for the seventh leader of the NDP. He perhaps should not have used the phrase “Dutch Disease.” His trip to Washington might have gone smoother. His visit with Gary Freeman was the weirdest or craziest or most principled move by a political leader in recent memory.

Two sword-lengths across from the Prime Minister, he is a more formidable leader of the opposition than his two immediate predecessors. But he has not quite come into his own. Or he has not quite come to own that stage. Perhaps mindful of taunts about a temper, perhaps wanting to look like a man to be taken seriously, he has used a small wooden lectern and generally kept close to the text he places upon it each afternoon. There is something to be said for the written word—for all the praise that is heaped on Bob Rae’s lack of notes, the interim Liberal leader regularly fails to finish his question before the Speaker is compelled to call time—but Mr. Mulcair might benefit from loosening up and looking up.

On this stage—lit all in orange—he stood alone. Black suit, white shirt, black and yellow-striped tie, slightly crooked grin peaking out from underneath that beard. He pumped his fist and jabbed his finger. He was typically tight in the shoulders.

He spoke of income inequality and middle-class struggle. He accused the Conservatives of gutting the institutions of health care, employment insurance and old age security. He identified the “defining element” of the Harper government as the idea that “we just have to accept less.”

Here was something Conservatives might actually agree with. Regardless, here was the defining, if only quietly asked, question of this era of governance—of what size, shape, cost, form and ambition should we expect our government to be?

“Well, I’m here today to tell you, we can do better,” Mr. Mulcair quite literally growled.

He expanded on this and then returned to his point. “We know we can do better. We will do better, ” he said. “And we will fight to put shared hope and a generous vision back at the heart of Canadian politics.”

He is not quite an orator. He does not sing. He is not yet a perfect executor of applause lines—not knowing how to build to  them and then too quickly moving on to the next sentence. He is sturdy and there is little nonsense to him. He exists somewhere between the man he succeeded a year ago and the man he hopes to succeed two years from now.

He recalled the 2011 election. He raised the vanquished doubters. He adopted something of an American accent—something like George Washington or some other wigged figure of that vintage—to impersonate Michael Ignatieff’s line about the red door and the blue door. The crowd erupted when he observed that New Democrats had shown such arrogants the door.

“It’s time to rise above the cynicism that Mr. Harper relies on and it’s time to get our country working again. To make Canada a beacon of economic, environmental and social justice,” he said. “And to build, and to build, lasting prosperity, not just for a few of us, but each and every one of us.”

He is fighting Stephen Harper. He is fighting Justin Trudeau. He is fighting an idea of the NDP, the lingering feeling that it is not for governing. He is fighting the fear of split votes and a Conservative government through 2019. And he is fighting the sense that everything will eventually go back to normal (at least as we defined normal before May 2, 2011). He needs luck and timing and a few things to go right for him and a few things to go wrong for his opponents. (Political success, for all the punditry and analysis, depends on basically just those things.)

“In the next election, we’re going to present Canadians with a clear choice … Between a government that tells Canadians they have to settle for less and a government that knows we can strive for more, he explained. “We don’t have to accept less. We can strive for more.”

Now the metaphors.

“The choice before us is in our hands, if we want it. Our future is in our hands, if we work for it,” he declared, somewhat incongruously. “Every step of our great journey over the past 50 years, every hope of every Canadian who longs for a better future for their children, has led us to this day.”

And now the crescendo.

“Now it’s up to us. My friends, this is our moment. To work together and build bridges. To show Canadians that they can vote for the change they want and actually get it.”

The crowd erupted once more. Only there was another sentence left on the text. And Mr. Mulcair didn’t realize his chance to talk over the cheers and finish triumphantly.

“This is our moment to build the Canada of our dreams—not just for today, but for generations to come,” he finally added, now almost as an afterthought. “Travaillons ensemble. On continue.”

With that he was done and then, rather quickly, he was gone.


On Saturday evening, there was a celebration of the party’s success in Quebec—from mockable beginnings to 59 of 75 ridings marked with orange on the night of May 2, 2011.

There on the screen was a young Karl Belanger, a candidate in 1993 in Jonquiere, winner of 410 votes in a riding where the New Democrats received 23,000 in 2011 and bested a cabinet minister (only to see the victorious New Democrat, Claude Patry, defect to the Bloc Quebecois a year and a half later). Here was Karl Belanger now, older and balder, former press secretary to Jack Layton and now principal secretary to Thomas Mulcair.

“New Democrats know that we can’t count on the corporate media elites to help us out. They are too busy predicting doooom and gloooom for the NDP,” he mocked from the stage. “But someone you knew well said it best: Don’t let them tell you it can’t be done. It can be done! It will be done! It! Must! Be! Done!”


“Judging from the number of people at the microphones,” the moderator quipped, “this is the moment we’ve all been waiting for.”

Over two days, the brothers and sisters had officially resolved themselves to pursue matters of pay equity and proportional representation and VIA Rail and environmental regulation, but all that was prelude to the preamble. Here now, the soul of the NDP would be subject to official consideration and a binding vote. Or, put another way, the foreword of the party’s constitution would be subject to possible amendment for the purposes of seeming slightly less beholden to the church of socialism.

It was a spirited, if brief, debate. Bill Blaikie, the bear-sized former MP from Manitoba, endorsed the proposed text and declared that this was not a party in any danger of losing its identity. What complaints there were came from the youngest brothers and sisters—the young biologically predisposed to oppose moderation.

Carlos from Winnipeg called for the question and after several hundred points of order were registered, a show of hands seemed to confirm the new text.

Seemed to.

On Saturday morning, the socialist caucus had been denied in its desire to wave an anti-drone banner on the floor of the convention hall in the face of the fellow from the Obama campaign. And when the fellow from the Obama campaign had then been jeered upon arriving on stage, the credentials of the chair of the socialist caucus had been briefly revoked.

Now though, Barry the Socialist would have his revenge. It seemed, Barry protested, that amid the procedural wrangling, the moderator had lost track of on what the convention was supposed to be voting. A vote to call the vote, or perhaps a vote to vote to call the vote had been missed. The moderator was obliged to agree with Barry. And so it was all done all over again. First, a show of hands. Then, a recorded vote. And finally, by a score of 960 to 188, the new text, including a paragraph taken from Jack Layton’s last letter to Canadians, was enshrined.

Onward then, under the guidance of Saint Tommy and Saint Jack, for Barry and Tom and Karl and Carlos and the brothers and the sisters and the NDP.


Shortly after 1pm, with the preamble rewritten,Thomas Mulcair arrived in the shadowy backstage area to meet the press. After a few introductory words and a half dozen questions, Mr. Mulcair was presented with the interpretation of a woman from the national wire service.

“But Mr. Mulcair, what you’re saying is, essentially, is to win in the next election, there will be no Liberal party. To win, you’re going to take the space of progressive politics in this country. How realistic is that? I mean, they have never gone below 20%, even in their worst days, even without leader, with an interim leader.”

“I don’t think you’ve looked at the results from 2011 because they were, in fact, below that number.”

A point for Mr. Mulcair. He tried then to move on to the next questioner, but the reporter came back.

“But don’t you run the risk of just splitting the vote once again in the next election. I mean, you’re suggesting that Mr. Trudeau is just going to completely tank by the next election.”

“Those are your words, not mine.”

Another reporter jumped in. “But wouldn’t he have to? That’s a fair question.”

“The NDP is going to form government in 2015,” Mr. Mulcair explained. “The way we’re going to do it is to reach out beyond our traditional base, talk to progressives across the country and make them realize that only one result is possible if you want to get rid of Stephen Harper. That the only party that can replace him is the NDP. Our policies, such as those discussed this weekend, connect with Canadians who share our goals, they share our visions. And that’s the purpose of all of this, is to make sure people understand that there is no other option in the next election. We’re going to run in all 338 ridings. And that’s the way we’re going to form government. We’re the only ones who have ever stood up to Stephen Harper. We’re the only ones who can replace him.”

Of course, they are not. Even if they could. Even if they might. But here they are—here the NDP is—apparently emboldened sufficiently to say so.