Af­ter dispir­it­ing losses un­der Tom Mul­cair, Canada’s party of the left seeks a leader to recre­ate the eu­pho­ria of Jack Lay­ton


The NDP lead­er­ship race has been an ex­er­cise in how to heal the hurt of 2015 and recre­ate the eu­pho­ria of Jack Lay­ton’s suc­cess.

OT­TAWA— Shortly be­fore Christ­mas last year, Guy Caron trav­elled to Toronto and met Jag­meet Singh for break­fast. The race for the lead­er­ship of the New Demo­cratic Party was barely a whis­per in the na­tional con­scious­ness, but it was front of mind for these men.

Caron, a friendly 49-year-old MP from Ri­mouski, Que., had heard sto­ries of the stylish, bike-rid­ing Sikh politi­cian who was deputy leader of the NDP at Queen’s Park. Though nei­ther had yet com­mit­ted to run­ning for fed­eral leader, both Caron and Singh were mulling it over.

They had more to chew on that day than just break­fast.

“I wanted to get the mea­sure of the man, the per­son he is,” Caron re­called months later, speak­ing by phone as he boarded a bus from Cal­gary to Ed­mon­ton in the cam­paign’s fi­nal days.

Dur­ing their meet­ing, Caron said they spoke of the many chal­lenges fac­ing the party, es­pe­cially in the wake of its de­flat­ing 2015 elec­tion loss and Tom Mul­cair’s ouster as leader in a con­ven­tion the fol­low­ing year — 52 per cent of mem­bers voted him out — that left Caron “stunned.”

They spoke of Que­bec, too, Caron said — his home prov­ince, where the party un­der Jack Lay­ton achieved its pre­vi­ously un­think­able break­through in 2011, only to see so much crum­ble un­der Justin Trudeau’s Lib­eral tsunami four years later.

At the time, Caron said he was ru­mi­nat­ing on his new-found lead­er­ship am­bi­tion, and left the break- fast think­ing it would be naive not to ex­pect Singh — a so­cial me­dia celebrity in cer­tain cir­cles, with the pop cul­ture power of a GQ mag­a­zine spread to boot — to jump in the race, too. But he also felt the con­test might not have any­body with his own mix of “eco­nomic cred­i­bil­ity” and ap­peal in Que­bec, pre­req­ui­sites in his mind to any shot at vic­tory for the NDP.

Now, just days be­fore New Democrats start vot­ing Mon­day for a new leader, Caron and Singh are on the bal­lot. The other two can­di­dates, Niki Ash­ton and Char­lie An­gus, are ex­pe­ri­enced fed­eral politi­cians who prom­ise to re­con­nect with the party’s base and win back more than what was lost to the Lib­er­als.

In a sense, just as Singh and Caron sur­veyed the party’s chal­lenges over that De­cem­ber break­fast, the en­tire lead­er­ship race has been an ex­er­cise in how to negate the hurt of 2015; to find the cham­pion that can charge back to the glory days of rel­e­vance and power prox­im­ity that the party at­tained un­der Lay­ton.

Each can­di­date has cam­paigned against the back­drop of past fail­ure. Each has tried to con­vince their par­ti­san fam­ily that they have the right recipe for the fu­ture.

This con­test, at its heart, is about how to cure dis­ap­point­ment.

In Olivia Chow’s mind is a metaphor: three streams, each rep­re­sent­ing a dis­tinct school of thought for the party’s fu­ture, need to con­vene to form a river. One flows with a vi­sion of a grass­roots, ac­tivist move­ment; the sec­ond has a re­quire­ment for elec­toral dom­i­na­tion in Que­bec; and the third in­volves ex­pand­ing the party’s reach into new, di­verse con­stituen­cies.

All to­gether, that river, if prop­erly nav­i­gated, will lead the NDP to gov­ern­ment.

“We have four can­di­dates that em­body those three streams, some more than others,” Chow, a for­mer MP and Lay­ton’s widow, told the Star re­cently. “Who would best bring those to­gether?” Chow’s cri­te­rion for suc­cess brings up a ques­tion that NDP politi­cians are asked all the time. Is this a party that should try to ap­peal to a broad pool of vot­ers for the sake of win­ning power, or should it stick to a strict so­cial demo­cratic plat­form and be happy with a clump of seats in the back cor­ner of the House?

Ash­ton, a 35-year-old Man­i­toba MP, has the most left-lean­ing cam­paign. With tu­ition-free ed­u­ca­tion, ag­gres­sive tax hikes, staunch op­po­si­tion to new oil pipelines and fre­quent talk of con­nect­ing with “grass­roots” ac­tivism, she ap­pears most aligned with Chow’s first “stream” for the party’s fu­ture.

But Ash­ton twists the power-prin­ci­ple propo­si­tion into a dif­fer­ent choice: rel­e­vance or ir­rel­e­vance. She sees the mil­len­nial age group, which she de­fines as 35 and un­der, be­com­ing Canada’s largest vot­ing bloc in the next elec­tion. The NDP needs to con­nect with them, peo­ple she be­lieves are fo­cused on cli­mate change, in­come in­equal­ity and pre­car­i­ous work.

This is why she ar­gues the big­gest mis­take in 2015 was al­low­ing the Lib­er­als to “out-left” the so­cial demo­cratic party. Trudeau caught the im­pulse for change and spoke to pro­gres­sives and younger vot­ers. The NDP didn’t. It’s now the third party, with 44 seats.

“We lost touch with some of our clear prin­ci­ples, and I be­lieve with peo­ple that sup­port us,” Ash­ton said. “There’s much work to be done in build­ing a move­ment. That is what we used to be.”

An­gus, a 54-year-old vet­eran MP from north­ern On­tario, also has framed his can­di­dacy as one that would re­con­nect the party with its “grass­roots.” For him, the party un­der Lay­ton and Mul­cair be­came overly ori­ented to the daily squab­bles on Par­lia­ment Hill, a po­lit­i­cal ma­chine de­tached from its roots.

“I heard this all the time, that the only time the party went to the base was to raise money,” he said.

“This raises a sort of ex­is­ten­tial ques­tion for New Democrats,” he con­tin­ued. “What is the fu­ture of our so­cial demo­cratic move­ment?”

Caron is un­equiv­o­cal: the NDP must strive for power in ev­ery elec­tion. If the pitches from Ash­ton and An­gus rep­re­sent Chow’s first “stream,” Caron’s is the sec­ond: he be­lieves he alone has the right for­mula, a com­bi­na­tion of co­her­ent, left-wing eco­nomic pol­icy and Que­bec ap­peal as a fran­co­phone pro­gres­sive.

“I was at Jack (Lay­ton)’s speech that launched his lead­er­ship bid” in 2002, Caron told the Star. “He had a vi­sion of the fu­ture that we have to form gov­ern­ment . . . we can’t do it with­out Que­bec.”

Yet his op­po­nents all agree on the im­por­tance of Que­bec. In fact, they agree on a lot. Each says in­equal­ity and cli­mate change are among the big­gest chal­lenges this cen­tury. They nod at the men­tion of curb­ing green­house gas emis­sions, the need for elec­toral re­form and a push to achieve rec­on­cil­i­a­tion with In­dige­nous peo­ples.

“The can­di­dates agree on pretty much ev­ery­thing,” said Karl Bélanger, a fix­ture of the party’s par­lia­men­tary staff through the Lay­ton era and much of Mul­cair’s ten­ure.

“New Democrats are look­ing at a dif­fer­ence in style and tone.”

And that brings us to the third stream in Chow’s metaphor: break­ing through to new sup­port­ers.

The au­di­ence gig­gled, but Jag­meet Singh wasn’t smil­ing. It was late Au­gust, dur­ing the only en­tirely French de­bate of the cam­paign in Mon­treal, and Char­lie An­gus was needling him on whether he would still try to jump from On­tario to fed­eral pol­i­tics if he loses his lead­er­ship bid.

“With re­spect,” he said, cast­ing his eyes on An­gus, “I will not lose.”

Laugh­ter spread through the room. Even An­gus seemed to be chuck­ling.

“When I win,” Singh con­tin­ued, “I will run in the fed­eral elec­tion.” “If you lose?” An­gus in­quired again. “I will not lose,” Singh dead­panned. The 38-year-old On­tario leg­is­la­tor was, for many ob­servers, the pre­sumed fron­trun­ner even be­fore he en­tered the race. Bélanger called Singh’s en­try, in midMay, the “game-changer.”

“Be­fore that, it was like a phoney war,” he said.

It might seem strange a pro­vin­cial politi­cian who is not even the leader at that level would make such a splash. Hélène Laverdière, a Que­bec MP who sup­ports Singh, said she didn’t know much about him un­til he showed up in Ot­tawa around the time he for­mally launched his cam­paign. He came to her of­fice, and she was im­pressed.

“He wanted to lis­ten, rather than talk,” she said. “What struck me the most with him — how could I say? — it’s the lead­er­ship side. It’s the hu­man be­ing.”

What­ever it is, Singh ap­pears to have res­onated. His cam­paign claims to have brought in 47,000 new party mem­bers, of a to­tal roughly 83,000 sign-ups dur­ing the cam­paign. In fundrais­ing, too, there’s ev­i­dence he’s in the lead: Elec­tions Cana- da num­bers show he raked in more than $350,000 in the sec­ond quar­ter of the year. That’s more than An­gus, Ash­ton and Caron com­bined.

He has also ex­pe­ri­enced some cam­paign flash­points, most strik­ingly early this month, when a video of his re­sponse to an in­censed heck­ler went vi­ral. A woman — later tied to an Is­lam­o­pho­bic group, Rise Canada — stood at a Bramp­ton cam­paign event and started shout­ing in Singh’s face about “Shariah” and said he’s “in bed with the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood.”

Singh’s re­ac­tion has been widely parsed and praised. He calmly re­peated to the woman, as she ges­tic­u­lated and yelled in his face: “We love you. We sup­port you.”

Ian Cap­stick, a po­lit­i­cal strate­gist and long-time NDP in­sider who is neu­tral in the race, said the im­pact of the video — viewed at least 40 mil­lion times — can­not be over­stated.

Mo­ments like that may also be in­te­gral to the party’s longer-term goal of find­ing some­one who can shine on a level with Trudeau, a po­lit­i­cal celebrity, said David Co­letto, CEO of Aba­cus Data in Ot­tawa. That’s im­por­tant, given the his­tory un­der Mul­cair, when the play-it-safe strat­egy in 2015 back­fired, Co­letto added.

“If I’m the New Democrats,” he said, “I want some­body who will get the at­ten­tion of the public for a mo­ment, and that mo­ment is my chance to con­vince the public that Justin Trudeau is not as pro­gres­sive as he says he is.” None of that is to say that Singh is a lock. An­gus, for one, is crit­i­cal of what he sees as Singh’s “too big to fail” cam­paign, a bid to win on the first bal­lot of the race, rather than build­ing bridges with var­i­ous con­stituen­cies to bring peo­ple to­gether when the race is over. Party mem­bers will vote by ranked bal­lot, in a one-mem­ber, onevote sys­tem. New rounds of vot­ing will take place each week through Oc­to­ber — with the last-place can­di­date be­ing elim­i­nated — un­til some­one has more than 50-per-cent sup­port.

(Singh did not make him­self avail­able to be in­ter­viewed for this ar­ti­cle.)

Another fac­tor is Que­bec, key to the party’s elec­toral chances but mar­ginal in the lead­er­ship race, with less than 10 per cent of NDP mem­bers in the prov­ince.

“The para­dox of this cam­paign,” said Farouk Karim, Guy Caron’s cam­paign spokesper­son, “is that we know NDP mem­bers in Que­bec will not elect the next leader, but Que­bec will de­cide the next prime min­is­ter.”

The prov­ince was at the cen­tre of one of the big­gest fric­tion points of the cam­paign, when a de­bate in Que­bec City over pro­posed re­stric­tions on re­li­gious face cov­er­ings such as the Mus­lim niqab jumped into the lead­er­ship race.

This was prompted by Caron, who put out a plat­form in late Au­gust on re­spect­ing Que­bec’s dis­tinct­ness as a na­tion within Canada. His pro­posal in­cluded a sec­tion on sec­u­lar­ism, in which he ex­plained how it has been a pri­or­ity in Que­bec since the of­fi­cial un­cou­pling of the Catholic Church from the pro­vin­cial gov­ern­ing ap­pa­ra­tus in the 1960s. He said that, while he per­son­ally op­poses the gov­ern­ment telling peo­ple what they can wear, he would ul­ti­mately re­spect the Que­bec Na­tional As­sem­bly’s de­ci­sion.

This prompted a sharp dis­cus­sion that echoed an el­e­ment of the 2015 elec­tion: Many be­lieve the party’s de­clin­ing for­tunes in the prov­ince were due to Mul­cair’s firm stance against a niqab ban for cit­i­zen­ship cer­e­monies, be­ing dis­cussed at the time.

Singh and An­gus came out against the re­cent pro­posed leg­is­la­tion in Que­bec, and pre­dicted the courts would quash it. Ash­ton ini­tially ap­peared to agree with Caron, but now says she’s against the idea in prin­ci­ple and trusts the Na­tional As­sem­bly to make a de­ci­sion that re­spects in­di­vid­ual rights.

The dis­cus­sion is by no means set­tled. This week, Pierre Nan­tel, a Mon­tre­alarea MP, told Le Devoir that he would con­sider ditch­ing the NDP if the next leader doesn’t re­spect Que­bec’s de­ci­sion­mak­ing.

State­ments like that may have fu­elled a late surge of en­dorse­ments for Caron, who con­tends he’s the only one with a true un­der­stand­ing of Que­bec’s po­lit­i­cal dy­namic. Brian Topp, a prom­i­nent in­sider, for­mer leader Alexa McDonough and the Steel­work­ers union all backed him in the days af­ter the sec­u­lar­ism dis­cus­sion broke out.

There is also the prac­ti­cal ques­tion of French lan­guage abil­ity, which ap­pears to be of most con­cern to An­gus and Singh.

Many in the party feel that to fail in Que­bec will be to re­turn to the time when the NDP had no le­git­i­mate shot at power, thus the nu­ances of de­bates of iden­tity and self-de­ter­mi­na­tion in the prov­ince need to be nav­i­gated with ex­treme care.

As Co­letto pointed out, the NDP has con­sis­tently trailed the Lib­er­als in Que­bec polls since Trudeau took power. “There has been a sea change,” he said. “Que­bec (for the NDP) looks par­tic­u­larly daunt­ing.”

If Chow is right about her “three streams” pre­scrip­tion, who­ever be­comes the next leader needs to pull off some­thing un­prece­dented for the party — en­liven its so­cial demo­cratic base, ap­peal to new tranches of vot­ers in places it has never won seats and re­claim its Or­ange Wave suc­cess in Que­bec.

Back in March, at the first can­di­dates de­bate in a ho­tel ball­room in Ot­tawa, none of the can­di­dates men­tioned Mul­cair. They spoke in­stead, and with great fre­quency, of Lay­ton, who was prac­ti­cally be­at­i­fied in the NDP for lead­ing them to ground­break­ing suc­cess.

It’s been like that the whole cam­paign — reach­ing around the dis­ap­point­ment of the Mul­cair era to try to em­body the eu­pho­ria of a prior time.

“It has in­ter­est­ingly be­come: who can be the clos­est to the next Jack Lay­ton that we can pos­si­bly elect,” Cap­stick said. “That’s what the party has al­ways been af­ter: who can cap­ture the imag­i­na­tions of Cana­di­ans the way Jack Lay­ton did.”

In a mat­ter of days, New Democrats will hope they have found the right per­son for that lofty task — catch­ing the fu­ture by chas­ing the past.


Fed­eral NDP lead­er­ship can­di­dates, left to right, Jag­meet Singh, Char­lie An­gus, Niki Ash­ton and Guy Caron. >IN­SIDE: Can­di­date pro­files, IN6-7

Guy Caron

Char­lie An­gus

Niki Ash­ton

Jag­meet Singh


New Demo­crat lead­er­ship can­di­dates talk a lot about Jack Lay­ton and the gains the party made dur­ing his lead­er­ship.


Cur­rent NDP Leader Tom Mul­cair’s name is rarely men­tioned by can­di­dates af­ter his play-it-safe strat­egy back­fired in 2015.

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