The untold story of the 2011 election: Chapter 5

Years of quiet preparation in Quebec begin paying off for the NDP

 The orange wave rises

Photograph by Jenna Marie Wakani

Introduction: Politics turned over
How Harper got what he’s always wanted, Layton took centre stage, and Ignatieff and Duceppe were done in

Chapter 1: The first mistake
The seeds of Michael Ignatieff’s troubles were planted last fall, and by the Liberals themselves

Chapter 2: Not feeling the love
Harper was tightly controlled, Ignatieff loose and freewheeling. Layton? Just a guy most Canadians would rather have a beer with

Chapter 3: The velocity of indignation
The PM had problems: the auditor general kerfuffle, Bruce Carson, the folks kicked out of rallies. The Liberals railed, but the NDP stepped up.

Chapter 4: Turning up the heat
The leaders clashed predictably in the TV debates, but the election would soon turn unexpectedly on two key speeches: one by Ignatieff, one by Duceppe

Chapter 5: The orange wave rises
Years of quiet preparation in Quebec begin paying off for the NDP—Layton’s rivals wake up to a new reality

Chapter 6: The morning after, the years ahead
What do Harper and Layton have in common? An understanding of what works in Canadian politics in the Twitter age­—patience and determination.

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Chapter 5: The orange wave rises

“It’s whether we elect parliamentarians to bicker or build that will be the defining issue of our time,” Jack Layton said at the Toronto convention where he became NDP leader on Jan. 26, 2003. “And we say, let’s build.”

Kudos for prescience, then. (The same weekend, Layton also said, “Canadians must rise up.” Spooky.) But when the building finally paid off and the rising began, it was in Quebec. There are reasons for that. Neither the weakness of the Bloc Québécois nor the NDP’s ability to capitalize on it came out of nowhere. Indeed, the NDP’s attempt to reach out to Quebec francophones is as old as the party itself.

Since the 1930s, the party’s predecessor, the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, had support only among Quebec’s anglophone Montrealers. Francophones saw it as a creature of English Canada. The archbishop of Montreal warned Roman Catholics not to support this socialist menace. So at the NDP’s founding convention in 1961, organizers were so happy to see a few francophone nationalists show up that they basically let them write the party’s constitutional policy. The results included very Quebec-friendly language on “co-operative federalism, equality of rights for the French and English languages, the right of a province to opt out of joint federal-provincial programs within provincial jurisdiction without financial penalty, and the recognition of French Canada as a nation,’’ Michael Oliver and Charles Taylor wrote in a 1991 book, Our Canada. The party’s first president, associate president and vice-president were Quebec francophones.

But from the beginning the NDP was squeezed between extremes: the rising separatist movement and Pierre Trudeau’s hardline federalism. Tommy Douglas’s formidable Quebec lieutenant, Robert Cliche, lost narrowly to Eric Kierans, a former provincial health minister, in the 1968 election. Momentum basically went away for the party until 1984, when Trudeau retired, Brian Mulroney swept Quebec, and the Liberals were reduced to 40 seats. Ed Broadbent saw a chance to mow the Liberals’ lawn. He visited Quebec constantly. He and Lorne Nystrom and a few others asked questions in French as often as they could in the Commons. In 1988, the party won its highest ever share of the popular vote in Quebec, 14.4 per cent. Didn’t elect a single MP. Then Broadbent retired and the party was nearly swept away in the 1993 election.

Layton didn’t run for his party’s leadership as the candidate of a Quebec rapprochement—if anything, his target market was Toronto—but he had inherited a half-century of effort and he was content to keep it going. At first you’d need tweezers and a magnifying glass to measure the progress. In 2004, Layton nearly tripled the NDP’s vote share in Quebec—to 4.6 per cent. By 2008, it was at 12.2, almost back to where Ed Broadbent had brought the party 20 years earlier. Whee.

But even before that modest result, the seeds of longer-term Quebec growth had come along in the person of Thomas Mulcair, a whip-smart, hot-tempered Ottawa-born lawyer who had served as environment minister in the provincial government of Jean Charest. Mulcair has an ego. He quit Charest’s cabinet rather than get shuffled into a lesser portfolio. But he also has presence, and he managed to win a by-election in Outremont in 2007 when Stéphane Dion screwed up the selection of a nominee to oppose him. He held on to the riding in 2008. Mulcair became, with Vancouver’s Libby Davies, one of Layton’s two deputy leaders.

So Quebec was genuinely familiar territory for the NDP by the time Brad Lavigne felt comfortable enough, in the campaign’s closing innings, to gloat a bit. “Duceppe made a joke the other day: ‘He doesn’t have the ground game here in Quebec. He’s weak on the ground.’ I watched with some wonder about his ground game. He’s got 49 seats, he’s been there 20 years, he’s only got to defend his seats in Quebec, most of his money comes from the public financing—and I don’t begrudge him the public financing—­but then I’m watching his campaign. He’s with [Jacques] Parizeau in a campaign office with maybe 35 or 40 people there. Then he’s in a half-empty farmers’ market in the East End. And I say, instead of worrying about our ground game, you should worry about yours. Because we’re blowing the doors off.”

The doors that got most definitively blown off belonged to the Olympia Theatre, an ornate vaudeville house in Duceppe’s own riding of Laurier-Ste. Marie. About an hour before Layton arrived there on April 23, there was already a long lineup outside. Cédric Williams, a young researcher for the NDP in Ottawa, openly admitted the wave of popularity caught the party off guard. “We didn’t expect this. We’re not running full campaigns in all the ridings in Quebec. More and more people are calling to volunteer. The challenge is to organize it.”

The big screen behind the stage showed the NDP’s Quebec slogan: “Travaillons ensemble,” work together, precisely the message the Angus Reid dial groups sent during the debates. Marc-André Viau, an NDP media spokesman, echoed the concern about the speed of the party’s rise. “It’s a challenge to put resources on the ground in the ridings where we have the best chance,” Viau said.

When the crowd finally filed in—maybe 2,000 people in Duceppe’s own riding—Layton delivered a version of his stump speech with one solemn addition. “My friends,” he said, “I am ready to be your prime minister. And I fully understand what that means.”

Among those cheering was Stéphane Roy, 19, a Université du Québec à Montréal political science student. Roy called the NDP “the best choice on the left wing.”

“The Bloc is a federal party with a provincial interest,” Roy’s friend, Maxime Milot, also 19, said. “It makes no sense.”

‘Something is happening’

There had been early warnings of the Bloc’s weakness, as there had been of the NDP’s potential. In 2006, the Bloc lost a handful of seats around Quebec City to the Harper Conservatives; bewildered, Duceppe commissioned a report on the phenomenon from Hélène Alarie, who was then the party’s vice-president. The report she submitted acknowledged a “federalist vacuum” in Quebec after the Gomery report torpedoed the Liberals. This was especially true in the regions outside Montreal, because “the Bloc, its leader, its national organization, its program, the colour and odour they give off are too Montrealish.” Duceppe really didn’t like that report. Alarie resigned from her party post not long after.

The Alarie report heavily influenced the Conservatives’ campaign in Quebec, with its distinct slogan—“Our region in power”—and its goal of leveraging resentment of Montreal as a motivator in the rest of the province. It was an unusually subtle approach for Harper’s party, and it collapsed within days of the writ drop. The Bloc’s sag in the polls showed that the decay of Quebecers’ allegiance to the Bloc was real. The debates suggested the only attractive alternative was Layton. Duceppe’s born-again separatist shtick at the PQ convention drove Quebecers to the NDP. And that became a spark that spread across the country.

Here, too, the NDP had been preparing, unnoticed. When Lavigne became the party’s national director in 2009, the first thing he did was blow up a quaint old system by which the national party would contract out its election organization to provincial parties. Under that old system, “We’d go to Saskatchewan and say, ‘Federal election is coming up. We don’t have any organization staff. So I’m going to pay you a sum of money to organize, find candidates, get the E-day set up, get our volunteers coordinated and all that stuff. And we’ll pay you so you can expand your current operation.’ And meanwhile, the federal party could go and work on other aspects.”

All of that might have made sense when federal elections came four years apart and provincial elections came as a surprise. But in an era of constant federal election tension and fixed, and therefore longer, provincial campaigns, it was a recipe for divided energy and loyalty. “So I immediately cancelled all those contracts with people. I said, ‘I will take the money that we normally offer to our provincial cousins and I’ll build a federal infrastructure ourselves.’ ” This dramatically improved the coherence of the NDP’s national organization. No more genteel, endless negotiations among social-democratic allies. “They’re federal employees. They do their duties as assigned. They have a mandate letter signed by me and the organizer down the hall and they work for us, nobody else.”

So while the NDP’s growth in Quebec was little short of spectacular, it was soon pretty good everywhere else. Everywhere except Ontario. By the morning of April 25, according to the daily Nanos tracking polls, NDP support there was four points lower than in the Atlantic, seven points lower than in the Prairies, 10 points lower than in British Columbia, 13 points lower than in Quebec. This was looking less like a Quebec-led NDP wave than like a national wave from which Ontarians were opting out. Ontario was the only region of the country where NDP support was no higher than on the day of the English-language debate.

But that was Nanos in the morning. Then came Ekos in the afternoon. Frank Graves, the chairman of the rival polling firm, released the astonishing results of his own weekend survey. Ekos found the NDP finally picking up momentum in Ontario, while they raced ahead in Quebec. Now Layton’s party was only five points behind the Conservatives nationally—and four points ahead of Michael Ignatieff’s Liberals.

“These results, if they were to hold, would produce a profound transformation in the Canadian political firmament, tantamount and arguably more far-reaching than the Reform explosion in 1993,” Graves wrote. He projected as many as 100 seats for the NDP—and a combined Liberal-NDP seat count that would easily top the Conservatives. Harper had spent the campaign telling voters what that would mean: Jack Layton as prime minister.

That evening, in a school auditorium in Gatineau across the provincial border from Ottawa, Anne McGrath, Layton’s chief of staff, arrived a few minutes ahead of her boss for yet another raucous Quebec rally. A reporter asked her about the Ekos numbers. “I can’t breathe,” McGrath said, eyes wide. “Something is happening.”

The other other guy

Ignatieff felt it too. He soldiered on, sometimes sticking with the modest, constructive policy-wonk stuff that informed his “family pack” platform. At one point, he promised to convene a first ministers’ meeting on health care within 60 days of becoming prime minister. This may not be the match that would light his campaign on fire. In his remarks to reporters, however, Ignatieff insisted that everyone who didn’t like Harper still had to make their way to the red door.

“They really are coming to the crunch here,” he told Maclean’s. “Jack Layton will not be the prime minister of Canada on May 2. Elizabeth May will not be the prime minister of Canada on the May 2. Gilles Duceppe will not be the prime minister. It’ll either be me or the other guy.”

Increasingly, though, the other other guy was turning into the other guy’s other guy. Ignatieff refused to pay Layton much mind. “It’s just one foot in front of the other. And every one has to be good. I can’t let anybody down.”

Within days, though, the Liberals knew Layton was becoming a serious threat. They responded with one of their curiously Byzantine TV ads. This one featured a traffic light flashing NDP orange while zany circus music played. The ad criticized Layton for being a “career politician” and his candidates for being “ridiculously inexperienced.” Finally the orange light turned red. “Not so fast, Jack.”

The Conservatives paid Layton the compliment of a clear, hard-hitting ad. This one was about the 2008 coalition, and it reminded everyone of a detail in Brian Topp’s own book about that period: that Layton had begun discussing a coalition with Gilles Duceppe “before our votes were even counted.”

In person, Harper was insouciant. This reflected the honest opinion in the Conservative campaign that the shift from Liberal and Bloc support to the NDP was not a serious danger to Harper, except perhaps in British Columbia.

When the Conservatives finally hit trouble, it was self-inflicted. On April 27, every Sun paper in the country carried an article signed by Pierre Karl Péladeau, the company CEO. Sun Media had launched an upstart cable TV news and commentary network during the campaign’s second week. The company VP in charge was Kory Teneycke, Harper’s former communications director. One of its first “scoops” was a laughable account by reporter Brian Lilley asserting that Ignatieff had been a major planner of the Iraq war. The evidence was his presence at a 2002 conference in Washington. As Glen McGregor, a reporter for the rival Ottawa Citizen, pointed out within hours of Lilley’s report, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch attended the conference, too. So if Ignatieff planned the war, so did they.

But everyone gets to torque a story. What Péladeau now revealed was just weird. “Three weeks ago, our vice-president for Sun News, Kory Teneycke, was contacted by the former deputy chief of staff to Prime Minister Harper, Patrick Muttart. He claimed to be in possession of a report prepared by a ‘U.S. source,’ outlining the activities and whereabouts of Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff in the weeks and months leading to the American invasion of Iraq in 2003.” This was clearly the basis for Lilley’s story. But there had been more: “Muttart also provided a compelling electronic image of a man very closely resembling Michael Ignatieff in American military fatigues, brandishing a rifle in a picture purported to have been taken in Kuwait in December 2002.”

Goodness. But Teneycke “was properly skeptical and due diligence was conducted.” In dramatic terms, Péladeau said that after putting “a lot of pressure” on Muttart, Teneycke got a better copy of the photo and it turned out to be bunk. “But it is the ultimate source of this material that is profoundly troubling to me, my colleagues and, I think, should be of concern to all Canadians. It is my belief that this planted information was intended to first and foremost seriously damage Michael Ignatieff’s campaign, but in the process to damage the integrity and credibility of Sun Media and, more pointedly, that of our new television operation, Sun News. If any proof is needed to dispel the false yet still prevalent notion that Sun Media and the Sun News Network are the official organs of the Conservative Party of Canada, I offer this unfortunate episode as Exhibit A.”

So Sun News ran everything Muttart had given them except the bogus photo. They were not the official organs of the Conservative party, although four days later every Sun paper in the country (outside Toronto, where there was a wrestling match to cover) would carry Harper’s photo and the words, “HE’S OUR MAN.”

Be that as it may, on the morning Péladeau’s op-ed ran, members of the Conservative campaign team were told that Patrick Muttart, the architect of Harper’s 2006 victory and of everything the party had done to Stéphane Dion and Michael Ignatieff for four years, had been dumped from the campaign.

A very large number of Conservatives were furious. The decision, they were sure, was Guy Giorno’s and Jenni Byrne’s. Neither had ever really gotten along with Muttart. “The party took sides with a media organization over one of our own,” the Conservative war room staffer who has been with us throughout this report said after Muttart was canned. “If he can be thrown under the bus that quickly, any of us can be thrown under the bus. Loyalty has to be reciprocal”—by which the staffer meant that someone who has been as loyal to Harper as Muttart has deserved a little loyalty himself. “This is the kind of stuff that turns us against the government.”

The smears start

It’s possible to overstate this. Everyone who was upset over the Muttart dismissal was still working long days to crush Ignatieff and Layton. As was every other Conservative. Perhaps the least noticed but most effective weapon the Conservatives had was Jason Kenney. The immigration minister had been key to the Conservatives’ outreach to immigrants and ethnic minority groups for years. But in the 2006 and 2008 elections he had stayed in Ottawa to oversee war room communications. This time Kenney spent almost the entire campaign on the road, and almost all of that in the Toronto and Vancouver areas, where the biggest gains in ethnic vote could be logged.

“I just didn’t think me sitting around Ottawa, working with a bunch of 25-year-olds at the tactics meeting, was a great use of my time,” he told Maclean’s.

The campaign trail was a different matter. Kenney was doing a half-dozen events a day. “I did an editorial board meeting with Sing Tao Toronto. The editor said, ‘You’re getting more coverage in our papers than the three leaders. And you’re now getting to the point of overexposure.’ I think that week I had three separate Chinese media conferences alone doing policy announcements.” Kenney was already known as the “minister for curry in a hurry” because of his prominence at ethnic community events. But “I’m learning a lot on this campaign,” he said. “I’m kind of finding new frontiers here. Like Punjabi talk radio. Huge! People talk for days about what was said on the radio show a few days ago. They’ve got huge advertisers, cutthroat competition.”

The Conservatives were banking heavily on what Kenney once called “very ethnic” ridings for their seat gains. “I can tell you that in the polling we’ve done in Cantonese and Mandarin households that we are in the range of two-thirds of the decided vote,” he said. “I think what we’ve seen in this election is the initial erosion of the Liberal base amongst new Canadians going to complete erosion. And I think a huge amount of that has gone in our direction.”

Ignatieff kept campaigning as though none of this was happening. He showed up at a rally in Kitchener wearing red Converse high-tops. Signs in the crowd said, “Spring to May 2.” The riding had fallen to a Liberal-NDP split in 2008. “If you let it split again,” Rod McNeil, the former NDP candidate for Kitchener-Conestoga, said over wild applause, “Harper and his old boys’ club are going to come straight up the middle again.”

Reporters asked Ignatieff about the polls later. Reporters were asking Ignatieff and Harper about nothing but polls. “The polls,” the Liberal leader said, “don’t measure what matters.”

But reports on the ground, especially from Quebec, sounded a lot like the polls. A Liberal campaign volunteer in a long-time party bastion in Montreal privately admitted there weren’t many signs the party could hold the seat. “It’s that serene optimism that Michael Ignatieff keeps talking about,” the campaign staffer said. “That’s about all we got right now.” Organizationally, he said, the Liberals had a better ground game than in 2008. Pat Sorbara had seen to that much. Every riding organization had new software, LiberaList, that Sorbara had bought and adapted from the Obama campaign in the United States. It helped Liberals identify and track supporters down to unprecedented detail. “We know their history with the party, their vote, who the last person was to talk to them, and whether that was positive or negative. It might make a big difference in our ground game.”

They’d need it. The local New Democrat was all anyone was talking about, despite her ragtag organization. “I went to their office to see what it was like,” the Liberal said. “It was in the basement of a house on a residential street. There were two old ladies working the phones. I asked the candidate what legislation she personally would present after a private member’s lottery. She was like, ‘You mean if I win the election?’, and I had to explain to her that she would be able to present private member’s bills. ‘Oh, you’re teaching me things,’ she said.”

And yet this was who the Liberals were losing to in a lot of the country. In the campaign’s closing days, the only question was whether the NDP surge would stop or continue. And then on Friday night, April 29, with only three days until the election, Sun News journalists announced on Twitter that they were about to break into regular programming. If nothing else, this was worth announcing because very few people knew what Sun TV News regular programming looked like yet.

The story, when it broke, was a kind of blockbuster. In 1996, the network’s single anonymous former police source said, Jack Layton had been found naked in a massage parlour at which illegal activities had been going on. The story was served up in high Sun TV fashion, with Layton described as the “suspected John.”

The campaign put out an immediate statement from Olivia Chow, Layton’s wife, an incumbent NDP MP, calling the story “nothing more than a smear campaign.” Layton scrummed in B.C.: “Absolutely nothing wrong was done. There’s no wrongdoing here and yet the smears start,” he said Friday night. “This is why a lot of people get turned off politics and don’t even want to get involved.”

That the story was popping up on a network whose affiliated newspapers were about to call Harper OUR MAN made some observers wonder whether the Conservatives might be the story’s source. The Conservative war room staffer swore it wasn’t so. “I know the oppo we have on Layton,” the staffer said, using the term for potentially damaging “opposition research.” “That’s not the oppo we have. And Jack Layton’s not our enemy in Toronto. He’s our friend in Toronto. We want him to go up in Toronto.”

The Conservatives’ best hope for keeping their majority was for the New Democrats and Liberals to split the anti-Conservative vote in Ontario. Their second-best hope was to drive down the NDP vote in B.C. To that end, the Conservatives uncorked the largest ad buy of the campaign during the last five days before the Elections Canada ad blackout came into effect at midnight on Saturday, April 30. “This really is a massive buy,” the war room staffer said.

Unlike most campaign ads, these didn’t appear on the party’s website or on YouTube. The Conservatives never announced they were running these ads. In British Columbia, the ads accused Layton of wanting to impose a gas tax through his carbon cap and trade scheme; and of scheming with the Bloc separatists to form an usurping coalition. In Ontario, the ads were a hybrid of the Conservatives’ patriotic and anti-Ignatieff messages. They began with Harper standing tall while Canadian flags flapped and inspirational music played. Then they faded to the old TV footage of Ignatieff telling an American audience that the U.S. was “your country as much as it is mine.”

The ads were designed to push Liberal votes to the NDP. In the closing days of the campaign, the Conservatives were campaigning for Jack Layton in Ontario without admitting it. In the Conservative war room, staffers chipped in a few bucks for the traditional betting pool. The bulk of the betting action put the Conservatives between 151 and 165 seats. They would need 155 for a majority.

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