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After Jack

After Jack

Last May, Jack Layton led the NDP to the greatest victory in party history. Now that he's gone, will the party be able to maintain its momentum?

Illustration by Gérard DuBois.

Jack Layton’s death, on August 22, came at the peak of his political career. As the leader of the federal New Democratic Party since 2003, and as a Toronto city councillor in the eighties and nineties, his entire adult life had been consumed by politics; his final achievement—Canada’s first social-democratic Official Opposition—shocked everyone, even his own team. Following the NDP’s unprecedented success in last May’s federal election, Layton was expected to lead the party to even greater heights, and when he died, he was mourned as publicly as he had lived. But now that the official grieving period is over, the newly leaderless NDP is looking ahead at what comes next.

Once upon a time, the NDP’s story seemed predictable: its small band of MPs would be backed by a sizable—though never overwhelming—group of voters. The NDP didn’t represent a very wide range of interests, and few observers predicted that it would accomplish great things, or achieve the breakthrough in Quebec it badly needed. But this reading makes what happened on May 2, 2011, almost inexplicable. A party that, at its best, scored 14 percent support in Quebec suddenly tripled its share of the provincial vote. A party that had elected just two Quebec MPs in its forty-year history elected fifty-nine in a single night, crushing the Liberals and Bloc Québécois—the province’s usual victors. A party whose previous record was a forty-three-member federal caucus found itself with 103 people sitting around the same table.

As Ottawa grapples with the suddenly influential leftists on Parliament Hill, however, the NDP’s infectious excitement has given way to uncertainty. Considering everything that’s changed since the election—the death of Layton and the beginning of a hotly contested leadership race, which will end at the party’s convention this March—can the NDP ever hope to repeat last spring’s stunning feat?

The NDP’s history starts nearly three decades before the party was founded. It owes its raison d’être to its predecessor, the socialist Co-operative Commonwealth Federation, which started in Calgary in 1932. The CCF’s most significant victory was in Saskatchewan in 1944, when Tommy Douglas—a former Baptist minister often described as the father of Canada’s universal health-care system—and his team swept the province. They remained in power for nearly two decades. The party also contested seven federal elections, finding varying levels of success in Ontario, the Prairies and British Columbia. But the CCF never won a single seat in Quebec or the Atlantic provinces, where its share of the popular vote was negligible.

David Lewis—CCF chair and, later, the NDP’s leader in the 1970s—recognized the party’s modest ambitions in a speech at the 1956 CCF convention. “Even more important than becoming the government, even more important than the achievement of power, is the achievement of decent legislation for the Canadian people day by day, and week by week, on the road to power—and that achievement the CCF has to its credit in this country,” he said. In his memoir, Lewis admits that, taken literally, this statement was “nonsense.” But, he writes, it was effective as a “rejection of the notion that the only goal of a political party was the chase after power.”

But the CCF wasn’t content to remain a bit player in Parliament, and, in 1961, it united with the Canadian Labour Congress to form the New Democratic Party, with Douglas staying on as leader. Still, Canada’s social democrats were pigeonholed as the country’s conscience—a characterization first noted by historian Pierre Berton after the October Crisis of 1970, when the majority of the NDP’s federal caucus voted against implementing the draconian War Measures Act. This reputation was often framed as a compromise: the NDP couldn’t serve as conscience and government at the same time.

There’s no doubt that the CCF had always been a coalition: it brought together farmers, labour groups and socialists. But the newly formed NDP hoped to attract a more diverse base, including powerful trade unions, intellectuals and city-dwellers, among others. This would require winning urban and rural constituencies across the country—and the party had its sights set squarely on Quebec.

In his memoirs, Lewis reflects on the CCF’s darkest days in Quebec, before the 1960s Quiet Revolution scaled back the power of the Catholic Church and created the province’s modern welfare state. “Our organizers in the province faced an impossible task; they had to work in a barren, unfriendly desert, where every apparent oasis turned out to be a mirage,” he writes. In a 1986 issue of the Canadian Parliamentary Review, Quebecois historian and political scientist Michel Sarra-Bournet explains why the CCF fell flat in the province: the party didn’t include many francophones, some anglophone members were openly prejudiced against French Canadians, and the church condemned it as a band of socialists. “The origins of the party, its platform, its methods and its speeches all conspired to put French Canadians ill at ease,” Sarra-Bournet writes.

This lack of momentum clearly frustrated the CCF’s leaders, and the thirst for victory in Quebec played a key role in the formation of the NDP. “Many of us in the leadership of the CCF and the CLC saw the new-party idea as capable of opening doors in Quebec which had been, and would likely remain, closed to the CCF,” Lewis writes. “With labour as a base and French-speaking Quebecers participating from the start, there was hope for a breakthrough in that province and for truly national representation within the movement.”

The NDP’s founders believed the party needed to win Quebec to win Canada; decades later, Jack Layton would make the same argument. That goal was high on the party’s agenda throughout its growth. In the NDP’s earliest days, it recruited attractive Quebecois candidates and a popular provincial leader, Robert Cliche. Its Quebec wing gained more internal influence through the 1962, 1963 and 1965 federal elections, during which the NDP increased its share of the provincial popular vote from 4.4 percent to 12 percent. Over the course of those three elections, candidates like Cliche, philosopher Charles Taylor and future Parti Québécois cabinet minister Denis Lazure all came within a few points of winning their ridings. Sarra-Bournet writes that more and more soft nationalists—people who supported greater autonomy for the province, rather than outright sovereignty—joined the NDP. In 1967, its federal council officially embraced “the idea of special status for Quebec.” But by the time the 1968 election rolled around, the hugely popular Pierre Trudeau had become Liberal leader. His party swept Quebec and the rest of the country, winning 154 seats to the NDP’s twenty-two.

During the next two decades, under Ed Broadbent, the NDP made more bids for the elusive Quebec vote. Winning Quebecers’ approval and winning a federal election were considered “inextricably intertwined,” says Robin Sears, who was the NDP’s national director during the 1988 election campaign. “I got beaten up for putting so much money into Quebec in that election,” he remembers. “But I said to critics then, and I say it today: if you want to play in national politics, you have to play in Quebec.”

Derek Leebosh, a vice-president with Environics Research, writes about the NDP’s 1988 effort in the June 2011 issue of Policy Options. “The party was polling at high levels when the election was called and was taken very seriously by its opponents,” he writes. “Ed Broadbent in 1988, like Jack Layton in more recent times, seemed to be riding a wave of personal popularity in Quebec.” But Broadbent was foiled by the priorities of Quebec’s governing party. That year, incumbent Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney was pushing for free trade with the United States. Although despised by progressives across the country, free trade was popular with the usually left-wing Parti Québécois because it represented a chance for Quebec to lessen its economic dependence on Canada. The NDP’s opposition to the plan turned Quebec sovereigntists against the party. The PQ “even went from covertly cheering on the NDP to openly providing organizational support to Mulroney’s Tories,” Leebosh writes. The NDP’s 1988 efforts amounted to little. The party won 14 percent of the vote in Quebec, but not a single seat. Two years later, New Democrat Phil Edmonston won the party’s first seat in the province during a by-election in Chambly, east of Montreal, but the NDP lost the riding in 1993.

Nonetheless, the same Quebec team that had elected Edmonston stuck with the NDP for the next two decades. Chief among them was campaign manager Raymond Guardia. In 2007, Thomas Mulcair, a former provincial Liberal, won a federal by-election in Outremont under the NDP banner. Guardia managed that campaign; later, he spearheaded Mulcair’s 2008 re-election and the NDP’s 2011 push in Quebec.

Now, after decades of fruitless striving, the NDP has finally found success in the notoriously fickle province. It came so suddenly that even the most grizzled veterans were surprised—Sears, for one, says he was “thunderstruck” as returns rolled in on May 2. The victory was largely credited to Jack Layton’s charisma, and to the unprecedented collapse of the Liberals and Bloc Québécois. It took the NDP fifty years to win Quebec. Now, the party faces a new challenge: holding on to it.

Ottawa’s political class is a cynical bunch. So much has gone wrong for the NDP since May—Layton’s death, the middling performance of interim leader Nycole Turmel, the embarrassing revelations about some new MPs’ lack of experience—that some suspect it’s all downhill from here. But Derek Leebosh doesn’t buy it. “Jack Layton was the catalyst,” he says of the party’s gains in Quebec, “but now that it’s happened, nobody’s going to put the toothpaste back in the tube.” If the NDP doesn’t win the province next time, he asks, what other party will?

Many pundits and pollsters argue that the NDP naturally aligns with Quebecers’ social-democratic tendencies. “What’s amazing is that it took so long for the NDP to break through,” says Leebosh. He thinks that, short of a major coup for Quebec nationalists—if, say, the Parti Québécois wins a massive majority in the next provincial election—the Bloc isn’t a very likely rival. “It’s questionable whether they’ll even compete in 2015,” he adds. As far as the Liberals are concerned, Leebosh thinks the NDP would have to elect a unilingual anglophone leader, and the Liberals a Quebec-raised francophone, to tip the scales.

That leaves the Conservatives, whom Leebosh speculates could form the NDP’s chief opposition in Quebec. But it’s not clear whether the Tories pose a plausible threat: they won just five of the province’s seats in 2011 and ten in each of the previous two elections. With no real competition, the NDP could dominate Quebec for a generation—an idea that seems less far-fetched, Leebosh suggests, when you consider what happened for the Progressive Conservatives in the 1950s. “Up until 1958, the federal Conservatives were non-existent in western Canada. The Tories were a party based largely in Ontario,” he says. “Along came John Diefenbaker, who swept the west. He was turfed, but the west is still Conservative.” The same could now become true of the NDP in Quebec.

One of the beneficiaries of the party’s wave of Quebecois support is Charmaine Borg, who, in many ways, represents the uncertainty swirling around the NDP’s future. Twenty-one-year-old Borg is one of the so-called McGill Five, a group of students elected to the House of Commons as NDP MPs almost by accident. She’s from a small town in rural Ontario, but represents a Quebec riding. And she’s never held elected office.

What Borg’s critics probably don’t know is that French is her first language. She was raised in Keswick, on the shores of Lake Simcoe, but attended a French school in suburban Aurora, a lengthy commute to the south. It was the closest school where she could speak her mother tongue. Borg’s extended family has deep francophone roots: they live mostly in Quebec, Ottawa and Timmins—an Ontario town where French speakers make up about 40 percent of the population. That helps her understand the complexities of the linguistic debate in the province, and the riding she now represents: Terrebonne-Blainville, a suburb of Montreal. “I learned English, because you’re forced to, but my family’s French,” she says. “I can really understand what it feels like to be that language minority, and to have to fight to keep your French language. That’s the main reason I moved to Montreal for my studies.”

Borg’s presence in Ottawa, and that of her fifty-eight Quebec colleagues, marks a significant change from the days when everyone at the NDP’s caucus table spoke English—and when that table was much less crowded. The party’s opponents hope the language issue will undermine its efforts. But May’s election also ushered in an even broader transformation: the NDP’s reinvention as a truly “big-tent” party, a label traditionally applied only to the centrist Liberals.

Ian Capstick is a former aide and press secretary to Jack Layton—and, before that, Liberal Sheila Copps’ “right-hand man”—who now runs a communications company a few blocks from Parliament Hill. “I’m a pro-military, anti-war, fiscally conservative social democrat—verging toward libertarian, on occasion,” says Capstick, who still calls himself a devoted NDP supporter. “And I can get along with the hard-left Member of Parliament who loves Palestine.” With 103 MPs, the NDP has a lot of diverging interests to appease: it’s now home to both Peter Stoffer, a pro-military MP from Nova Scotia, and Alex Atamanenko, a veteran-turned-pacifist from interior BC. Winnipeg MP Pat Martin is open to merging with the Liberals, a proposal that infuriates many of his colleagues. Last year, Thomas Mulcair attacked Vancouver MP Libby Davies for her criticisms of the Israeli government. It’s obvious that the NDP’s sudden growth is already proving divisive. What leader could possibly unite this squabbling caucus?

The race to find that leader is well underway. In October, Thomas Mulcair, who argues that he is the party’s sole hope for keeping Quebec, presented himself as Layton’s successor. Mulcair sat in Quebec’s National Assembly for thirteen years, including a stint as Minister of Sustainable Development, Environment and Parks in Liberal premier Jean Charest’s cabinet. He joined the NDP after a falling-out with the Liberals; he had refused to sign a controversial order-in-council that would have sold off part of Mount Orford National Park, and he quit cabinet in 2006 when Charest offered him a different portfolio. Soon after, he announced he wouldn’t run in the next provincial election. Instead, he joined Jack Layton’s federal NDP, and won the Outremont by-election in September 2007.

The other leadership front-runner is Brian Topp, a bilingual union organizer from the South Shore of Montreal who’s spent most of his life in Saskatchewan and Ontario. His fingerprints are all over the Layton-era NDP. Until he stepped down to run for the leadership, Topp was the president of the party, and served as national campaign director during the 2006 and 2008 elections. He also played a significant role in the NDP’s coalition negotiations with the Liberals and Bloc in late 2008. Earlier in his career, Topp served as deputy chief of staff to then-Saskatchewan premier Roy Romanow, and helped orchestrate Phil Edmonston’s 1990 Chambly win. (Edmonston had been a client at Topp’s typesetting business in Montreal.) Raymond Guardia, who ran the first successful Quebec campaigns, surprised observers by agreeing to help Topp instead of Mulcair.

As soon as Topp declared his candidacy, narrative-hungry reporters pitted him against the Outremont MP, who stayed out of the race just long enough to make them impatient. Libby Davies, the unofficial leader of the party’s left wing, endorses Topp, while many of the party’s Quebec MPs back Mulcair. Meanwhile, five other candidates are in the race: Nathan Cullen, a Toronto-born BC MP who believes co-operating with the Liberals and Greens will help knock out the Conservatives; Ottawa MP Paul Dewar, the son of beloved former Ottawa mayor Marion Dewar; Nova Scotian entrepreneur Martin Singh, a Sikh reservist in the Canadian Forces who markets himself as pro-business; and Peggy Nash, a Toronto MP and labour official who was the only woman in the race—until twenty-nine-year-old Manitoba MP Niki Ashton announced her own candidacy in early November.

It’s not a contest that divides cleanly along traditional lines: francophone-anglophone, east-west, left-right. Some candidates, like Topp, have lived and worked all over Canada, while others, like Mulcair, are difficult to pinpoint on the political spectrum. Leebosh says the NDP has shifted its aims since the last election; no longer satisfied to act as Canada’s conscience, the party wants to win. “For the most part, members are trying to figure out who is a winner. It’s not regionally polarized,” he says. This focus is balanced by another new priority, Leebosh suggests: “The party can’t afford itself the luxury of a leader who’s not totally fluent in both languages.” Only some past leaders have been comfortable speaking French—including Layton, who grew up outside Montreal—but today, it’s a job requirement. Plus, the NDP has just started winning in places such as Alberta and Newfoundland and Labrador, which previously shunned the party even as neighbouring provinces embraced it. If the NDP hopes to make further gains in the next election, it can’t take any part of the country for granted—least of all Quebec.

The first time Brian Pollard met Jack Layton, the leader was sitting in the back of his cab. Pollard is a Prince Edward Island–based filmmaker who drives a taxi to pay the bills, and in 2006 and 2008, he ran as the NDP’s candidate in Charlottetown—a long-shot riding for the party, even in a good year. The day of Layton’s death, August 22, is one that NDP supporters will remember for years. “I was in Digby the morning the news came out that Jack had died,” Pollard says. “Now I associate Digby with sadness.” The loss has become a staple of any conversation with a New Democrat. But Pollard also vividly remembers his own encounters with Layton.

“I just happened to get the call to pick up Jack and his assistant at the airport. He was coming here for one of the provincial elections,” he recalls. “Later, I became his chauffeur whenever he came here. I’ve spent at least two or three days driving him around.” Pollard has a palpable fondness for the man. “Most politicians I can’t stand, and there are certain NDP MPs I’d rather not be with. But he just came across as being a real genuine guy.” Replacing that kind of personality will likely be the greatest challenge the party has ever faced. For the first time in the NDP’s history, getting elected was the easy part.

The print edition of this article, originally published in December 2011, reported that Robert Chisolm and Romeo Saganash were also candidates for the NDP leadership. Since then, both men have dropped out of the race.

See the rest of Issue 42 (Winter 2011).

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