The Interview: NDP Leader Tom Mulcair

Thomas Mulcair on his new book, family and faith, Quebec secession—and why Canada may finally be ready for an NDP government

MAC30_INTERVIEW_POSTThree months away from an election that might result in him becoming prime minister, NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair soon joins his rivals in the ranks of published authors. Following Stephen Harper (A Great Game, about the early days of professional hockey), Justin Trudeau (Common Ground) and Elizabeth May (most recently, Who We Are), Mulcair has written Strength of Conviction, his own account of how the second-oldest of Henry and Jeanne’s 10 children came to be the leader of the Opposition in Ottawa. In it, Mulcair explains his formative years, his inspirations, his turn to the NDP and his vision for an NDP government.

Related: Read an exclusive excerpt from Mulcair’s memoir

Q: About your father, you write, “On the subject of politics, my father could be ferocious,” and that he was “a big, imposing man who often shouted to be heard in our noisy household.” He also loved to discuss and debate. How much did you take after your father?

A: I would dare say, and most people who know them would say, that I probably got equal measure from both of my parents, because, like my dad, I would never back down from a fight, especially one based on principle. But my mom is also someone who has an incredible ability to care. I just had lunch with her today. She lives in the country and she’s just always been that caring person.

So I guess I’ve always felt that the principle side has taught me to want to fight to do the right thing—whether it was when I was young, with Father Cox, learning to do the right thing—or in my professional work as a regulator, fighting to make sure we put the public interest first, [such as] when I had that big issue with the College of Physicians and Surgeons here in Quebec and, later on, at Environment. I’ve always stood for principle, but I’ve done more than just talk about it.

Q: Do you get your enjoyment for debate from your father, though?

A: I think it’s a family thing. My mum’s family, of course, has a lot of politicians, but I think that the Irish tradition of lively debate is one that I inherited in full measure.

Q: You write about going to six o’clock mass and saying the rosary together as a family before going to bed at night. Are you still religious? Does faith inform your politics?

A: Faith informs my values and, therefore, my politics, and that upbringing is what’s given me a shining light to follow, but I don’t practise very much anymore.

Q: You talk about, I think it was 1969, when you decided you wanted to get into politics. Did you have a clear idea at that point what that future in politics looked like?

A: My actual decision to study law was the result of a conversation with a guidance counsellor. I said, “How do you get into politics?” and he said—and I guess at the time there was a large number of lawyers; today there are far fewer—the best thing to do is study law. I always had it in the back of my mind that I wanted to be in government, that I wanted to be in politics. When I finished law school, I didn’t start applying to major law firms; I went straight to a government job in Quebec City that opened up, because that was what attracted me. The strong magnet was Quebec City, a big social project going on, a new government [the Parti Québécois], working within the justice ministry in the legislative-drafting branch, where you got to see the pointy edge of the lance of this whole social vision that that government had. It was a fascinating time to be there, and I just drank it up. I absolutely loved that experience.

Q: When did it occur to you that you might want to be prime minister?

A: I remember I’d been in government for quite a few years. It was toward the end of my mandate at the Office des professions du Québec, and I remember sitting there with the vice-president—I was the president of the office—and we were going over a complex issue involving midwives, and we were trying to move that dossier forward, and I remember feeling a certain degree of frustration. I was dealing with a minister, who was a fine gentleman, but I remember just saying to myself, “I want this guy’s job,” because I knew that he was the one making the decisions. Soon after, within the year, I was running in provincial politics. So I guess it’s a gradual thing. I don’t think anybody wakes up in the morning saying, “I want to be prime minister,” but, as you go through it, you say, “Well, I think I can do this, I think I could be good at that,” and trying your best to apply what you’ve learned to the next step.

New Democratic Party (NDP) candidate Thomas Mulcair greets people at a community fair while campaigning in his riding of Outremont in Montreal, September 16, 2007. Quebec voters will go to the polls in three federal by-elections on September 17. (Shaun Best/Reuters)

New Democratic Party (NDP) candidate Thomas Mulcair greets people at a community fair while campaigning in his riding of Outremont in Montreal, September 16, 2007. Quebec voters will go to the polls in three federal by-elections on September 17. (Shaun Best/Reuters)

Q: You spend a chapter on the Quebec referendum in 1980, and a part of that is explaining the NDP’s position on secession, specifically, that the bar for negotiating secession shouldn’t be any higher than a majority vote of 50 per cent plus one. Why should voters see that as anything other than a position that would make it easier to break up the country?

A: Well, don’t forget, I fought extraordinarily hard in both of those referendums in ’80 and in ’95 [against secession], and you have to be clear and you have to be honest and you have to be straight-up. You can’t play elusive politics with this. It has to be clear that yes means yes, and that’s an extraordinarily important signal to send. The rise of separatism in 1980 and in 1995 was under Liberal governments, so the Liberal party seems to have given up on the majority of Quebecers, and the majority of Quebecers want to be part of Canada. That was the beauty of [former NDP leader] Jack [Layton]’s understanding of Quebec in Canada.

The [NDP’s] Sherbrooke Declaration deals with real issues that have always been a problem for Quebec. I know that Quebecers, progressives in Quebec, want to work with progressives in the rest of Canada to give ourselves a better place in the world. We respect Quebecers. I’m not going to try to buy them with sponsorship scandals or Senate appointments. I’m going to be straight-up about this.

The Supreme Court says it has to be qualitative and quantitative clarity, right? So qualitative goes to things like the clarity of the question; it has to be agreed upon and argued.

As you know, we’ve taken the trouble to put this into what we call the Unity Bill, and this is the same approach that was taken by the mother of all Parliaments. In Great Britain, they said, “We’re going to sit down with the Scots, we’re going to draft a question that we can agree upon,” and they did that and they got their clear result. We’re going to do the same thing if that ever arises, but the No. 1 thing that I’m going to do to make sure it doesn’t come up again is I’m going to make sure that Quebecers know that, with an NDP government, they can have a respected and respectful place within Canada.

Q: At the same time, you write that a vote of just over 50 per cent would be a “very weak mandate” for secession. Weak in what way? Would just over 50 per cent be enough to make a country or not?

A: That’s the way we’ve always talked about it, and everybody else has. What we’re talking about here is the notion of negotiating, and someone who comes in with a very weak mandate is in a very weak position to negotiate. So it’s not a question of UDI [Unilateral Declaration of Independence]; that’s never been on the table, as far as we’re concerned.

But we do want to make sure that the majority of Quebecers who do believe in Canada—because the majority of Quebecers do believe in Canada—have a voice. The discordant voice over the years has always been the Liberal party. As I say, they’ve always managed to foment separatism. They nearly lost the country in ’95. We’re offering an optimistic, positive choice that resonates with Quebecers on a level of values and principles and saying, “Here’s a way forward that doesn’t bring us back into those quarrels of the past,” that divisiveness, that fear that’s always been used as a weapon on both sides. I won’t be lectured by anybody on Canadian unity. I’ve fought, I was in the front trenches, I fought in the National Assembly. I’ve been there. I’ve been there every step of the way. I don’t take a back seat to anyone, when it comes to defending Canada.

Q: At one point, you note the famous motto of “peace, order, and good government,” and you write, “Foremost among these is peace, the fundamental value that, until recently, had come to define us to others and that we promoted in other countries everywhere in the world.” How would you apply that principle to a threat like Islamic State? You and your party obviously oppose the government’s decision to join that military campaign against it, but can Islamic State be defeated without firing a shot or dropping a bomb?

A: I do believe that peace is first among those values, and that’s probably why it’s first in order, as well. Everything that’s playing out on our TV screens—and don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to understate the horror of what we’re seeing—but all of that is a direct result of another wrong-headed decision made in 2003 [to invade Iraq]. [Prime Minister Stephen] Harper wrote in the American newspapers that he thought it was wrong for Canada to stay out of that fight. He told the Americans that he disagreed with his own country on that. I think Canada did the right thing to stay out of that war in 2003, and I think the proof that we were right is precisely what’s taking place before our eyes. Mr. Harper has tried to define this as the greatest threat we’ve ever faced. If that was the case, you’d think we’d have more than a few dozen soldiers there. I think Mr. Harper is using this, as he often does, as a wedge in politics to try to say, “See, the other ones don’t care about your security.” It is, of course, incumbent upon any government to make every effort, and to put resources in place, to protect Canadians from terrorist threats. But what we’re saying is that it’s not more bombs into that horrible situation in those countries that’s going to get us closer to peace. This is not our fight, and we’ve been very clear about that since Day 1.

It should be borne in mind that what’s happening now in Iraq is not a UN mission, it’s not a NATO mission and, indeed, one of our NATO allies, Turkey, is right on the border there, and they are not involved in this fight. So I think that if Canada wants to be able to play a positive role in getting us to peace, we should continue to do what we’ve been able to do in the past. Mr. Harper’s view has been to get involved in as many [conflicts] as he can. That’s not the same approach as us.

Q: Do you think a mission has to be mandated by the UN?

A: I think a mission that is mandated by the UN, like the one to protect people in Libya, was one where Canada could get involved. I think a UN mandate or a NATO mandate is the best starting point. That doesn’t mean there will never be a case outside those two, but if our closest allies, and NATO really is our closest allies, have stayed away from declaring this to be a NATO mission, I think we should understand that there are a lot of people who also agree with me, and who are going to agree that this is not Canada’s fight.

Q: Does the NDP’s success in Quebec, then in Alberta, and now your party’s own polling numbers, suggest the country has moved to the left?

A: I think the country has moved forward. I think Canadians want progress. They want something other than Mr. Harper’s approach, which has killed off 400,000 manufacturing jobs and replaced them with part-time, precarious work. Canadians don’t want rip-and-ship with regards to our natural resources; they want to create value-added jobs here in Canada. That’s something [Alberta Premier] Rachel Notley and I agree on fully, and I think most Canadians want that. It’s been hundreds of years that, in our country, we were cutting down trees and shipping them off raw and somebody else would manufacture something and send it back to us. We’re blessed. We’ve got natural resources that other countries can only dream of, whether they’re in energy or in mining or in other areas, but we’ve got to learn that the responsible way to develop those resources is to create the jobs here, and that calls for a change of mentality.

We think Canadians deserve a government that’s involved in playing a positive role to get us into markets like the technologies of green, renewable energies. That’s going to be $5 trillion around the world over the next 15 years. Canada’s not even a minor player. Other countries have gotten that, and they’ve managed to get themselves in the game. We think we should be working to create the next generation of well-paid jobs.

Q: Does that suggest the country has moved to the left, or possibly that the NDP has moved closer to the centre?

A: I think it means Canadians are looking at the NDP differently. You asked me before about wanting to be PM. Don’t forget that, back in 2008, when Jack [Layton] announced that he wanted to be prime minister, he said to me that he knew that would be surprising, even for our own base, to say nothing of the journalists and others who analyze Canadian politics. But he said, “I’ve got to start saying it so that people will start to see that it’s real.” But he also knew that becoming official Opposition was a necessary way station for us to get there. I think that’s what we started doing seven or eight years ago, with Jack talking to Canadians that we were serious about forming the government. That was an essential stepping stone in this whole process. There were still people in our party who often felt that the movement part of the party should be its only motivation factor. But now, NDPers across the country have had meetings everywhere, from Toronto to Surrey, from Victoria to Winnipeg; we’ve had these massive, massive meetings where we’ve brought in 1,200, 1,500 people, and people are just reacting so positively, so no one has to ask that question anymore: whether the NDP is serious about forming the government. We are, and that’s why they’re going to be paying close attention to us.

Looking for more?

Get the Best of Maclean's sent straight to your inbox. Sign up for news, commentary and analysis.
  • By signing up, you agree to our terms of use and privacy policy. You may unsubscribe at any time.