Thomas Mulcair comes to the race for the NDP leadership as the only candidate who has executive experience in government, having served as minister of sustainable development, environment and parks in Jean Charest’s Quebec Liberal government from 2003 to 2006.
After resigning from cabinet over a disagreement with Charest relating to development in a provincial park, Mulcair ran for the federal NDP in a 2007 by-election in the Montreal riding of Outremont, conquering what was thought to be a Liberal stronghold. As deputy leader, Mulcair was widely credited with helping create the conditions that led to the NDP’s shocking Quebec breakthrough in 2011.
Mulcair may be the candidate with the largest national profile, but he still faces an uphill battle for the nomination, having most of his support in Quebec, where the NDP has comparatively few voting members. Xtra's Rob Salerno spoke to Mulcair at a campaign stop at Toronto’s 519 Church St Community Centre, where we spoke about the struggle for queer rights internationally, the NDP’s trans rights bill, stitching together Canada’s linguistic divides, and taking the party to power.
Xtra: Why should queer Canadians choose you to lead the NDP?
I think that I have a pretty strong track record of working on these issues. In Quebec City we worked very hard to change our Charter of Rights, and I was part of our parliamentary commission that did that, to reinforce it. The issues of bullying and tragic suicides we’ve seen this year, these are issues that we’ve been dealing with for some time. So I think I have a track record for dealing with them.
In the House of Commons I dealt very strongly with an issue involving a gay man from Malaysia who was going to be deported back to his country. His name was Kulen, and we’ve kept in touch with him. I fought very hard to keep him in Canada. Much to my chagrin, the Conservatives deported him.
So these are issues we’ve worked on over the years. They’re human rights issues, and that carries over into a lot of the other things we’re going to have to do when we form an NDP government, which is to make sure that issues such as these inform our decisions on who we’re willing to sign trade deals with.
I’ve also worked with Bill Siksay, who brought in his [trans] rights bill (C-389), which was extraordinary, and he did great work on it and it was adopted but never put into force. And now Randall [Garrison] and Dany Morin are working on it.
We’ve got several openly gay members of our caucus, one of whom is my official agent in this campaign, Phil Toone from Gaspe-Les Isles de la Madeleine. So is my campaign manager. It’s a community I’m very open to, that I’ve worked with a lot over the years, and it’s part of who I am.
Tell me more about your work changing the Quebec Charter. Our readers may not be familiar with that issue.
It was when I was the justice critic. I was in opposition, but we worked hard with the PQ government back then, because there had been an initial version that had banned discrimination based on sexual orientation, but it didn’t go far enough, and we worked hard to make sure that we made it far more complete than it had been. And in the course of that we met with families and individuals, and sometimes through that type of testimony you can understand what peoples’ lives are like.
How would you promote queer rights abroad?
Let’s look at this year’s Commonwealth meeting. There are a lot of Commonwealth members that have an abysmal record on “queer rights,” as you call them, that still consider it a crime. There has to come a point where in your foreign policy that type of abject refusal to recognize human rights becomes an impediment to closer relationships.
So there’s a difference between a working arrangement with other countries, diplomatic relations with other countries, but when you get into a closer relationship, as with the Commonwealth, either the Commonwealth is going to start standing up and showing leadership on these issues or countries like Canada that respect these rights and understand them are going to have to send a clear signal that they’re not going to be part of that club any more.
You would actually have Canada withdraw from the Commonwealth?
The Canadian government has already sent a signal that the last meeting was totally unacceptable, that there’s been no progress. You can do that once. You can do that twice. But if you’re still dealing with several countries that are showing absolute failure to respect rights and are in fact treating it as criminal behaviour, yes, of course, this is a question of whether or not you would associate with these people in the closest possible way. That’s what the Commonwealth is supposed to be about. It’s supposed to be about shared history, shared institutions and shared values. If there’s a total breakdown on that on such an identifying issue as this one, then at some point you have to send a clear signal that if it continues like that, that you’re willing to break that relationship. That has to be clear.
How can a queer agenda be advanced from opposition?
Well, we saw what Bill Siksay was able to do, but that was in a minority government situation. We’re going to put the government to the test because it is a rights issue. If now after having seen this be enacted the first time, if the bill doesn’t make it through, then the public will have that as one of the other things they can decide on in the next election.
What’s the road map to an NDP government?
The vision that I have is repeating in the rest of Canada what we accomplished in Quebec. For five years we worked across Quebec, tirelessly, nonstop, every corner of the province, bringing a very positive, upbeat message about who we were, our progressive vision. Showing that the Bloc [Québécois] were not progressives. It was a very substantive debate largely under the radar in the rest of Canada.
There were things like in ‘07 in my by-election, we went hard against them on their voting record on Afghanistan. If Jack was going to get beaten up in Toronto and called “Taliban Jack,” we were at least going to connect with Quebeckers who were strongly anti-war, and tell them we’re the only ones with a consistent record on this.
We knew Quebeckers shared our values. They just didn’t vote for us and they default voted for the Bloc because they thought they were more progressive. So we had to take them on and we had to take on the Liberals and the Conservatives.
I think that the Conservatives are vulnerable to a concerted opposition. One of the things that’s of real interest to NDPers is that I was part of a very tough team in Quebec City that dismantled the Parti Québécois. When we beat Bernard Landry, they haven’t arisen and they’re still in shambles since then. We went after them for five years. It was tough fighting. Believe me, politics in Quebec is bare knuckles. It’s not the Marquess of Queensbury. Much tougher than any you’ve seen in Ottawa, and we stood up to them and we put together a very tough approach, a very structured approach, substantive attacks. You’ve got to push away and say what’s wrong with the government, but you’ve got to bring people to you. You’ve got to do both, and it’s the pushing and pulling that allows you to advance as a party. That’s what I’ll bring to this party. No one’s ever taken on Harper in a substantive way.
Can the leadership candidates from the rest of Canada hold on to Quebec?
There are eight tremendous candidates in this race. We all bring different things to it. And I would hope that whoever is chosen is able to keep what we’ve got in Quebec, because if we don’t, we can’t form government. We have 58 seats in Quebec, we have 43 in the rest of Canada, and we need another 60. What we have to do is what we did in Quebec: reach beyond our traditional base. That includes going after young people.
Sixty-five percent of 18- to 25-year-olds didn’t even bother to vote. In Quebec we’ve put up a lot of young people. Young people are excited about politics in Quebec; more young people voted in Quebec than in the other provinces.
We connect with First Nations. A lot of them didn’t vote in the past. We’ve got two tremendous people – Romeo Saganash, Jonathan Genest-Jourdain – all the young Cree and all the young Innu came out and voted for them. That’s a really incredible breakthrough.
We’ve got a lot of ethnic communities that used to be very beholden to the Liberal party that we’re working very hard to get on side and connect with. The Filipino community is one of the first that came over to me in the ‘07 by-election. I knew them well from having worked as a volunteer for years, but I also knew that they had a lot of complex issues and the Liberals were taking them for granted. They came over to us and gave us a chance. They’ve been loyal, and, boy, have we been loyal to them. Those are some of the things we have done to go beyond our traditional base, because that’s the only way you’re going to win. You’ve got to get more voters.
In places like Saskatchewan, we’ve gone four federal general elections in a row without winning a single seat, so that can’t continue like that.
Why has the NDP struggled in the Prairie provinces, particularly given the strength of the provincial NDP in Saskatchewan and Manitoba?
That’s exactly the examination of conscience we have to go through. Between Ontario and the BC border we now hold three seats. We’re down to two in Manitoba; we had four, so we’ve lost half our seats, and that’s while the NDP’s been in power in Manitoba. So there’s obviously a disconnect on the federal level.
We have to convince Canadians that we’re capable of providing good competent public administration. That sounds obvious if you want to be the government, but if you’ve been a party of opposition and ideas for 50 years, it’s hard to get in the mindset of we’re going to be the one taking the positions and developing the policy, so we better be prepared.
People are going to criticize us, too. There will be some things that please some and not others, but we’re going to have to be able to connect with Canadians and say 61 percent of Canadians want a more progressive country. That’s the case; Harper got 39 percent. Lots of people share our goals, share our vision, but they’ve often hesitated to vote for us, and we’ve got to go get them. That’s the trick.
It seems impossible for any party to hold Quebec and the West simultaneously. With the NDP advocating for more provincial rights for Quebec, can it possibly attract western voters who often bristle at perceived special treatment of Quebec?
It doesn’t take anything away. Take the trouble to read [the Sherbrooke Declaration]. It’s like a five-minute read. It’s well crafted. And basically what it says, one of the key issues is over the years the Canadian Supreme Court has said that the federal government has a spending power even in areas of exclusive provincial jurisdiction. Quebec has always said, “How is it we signed on to a deal in 1867 for what was our jurisdiction and now you’re spending in our areas?” We’ve solved that, without reopening the Constitution.
We’ve said, “right to withdraw, full compensation, no conditions.” That doesn’t take away from anyone else. If the rest of Canada wants a federal government that’s more involved in social housing, more involved in this and that and dictating norms, they can have it. No other province has asked for the same right to withdraw. Quebec has. So our answer is asymmetrical federalism. It doesn’t remove a thing. The bridge we built to Quebec had two pillars to it. One was retrospective, one was prospective. The retrospective part, the part that took care of the historical aspect of it, is the type of thing I just described – federal spending power, percentage of seats in the House of Commons, the federal securities regulator, bilingual judges in the Supreme Court. Things that are easy to do.
But here’s a key one that everybody can get. Most workers in Ontario are under the Ontario [Employment Standards Act] and most workers in Quebec are under the Quebec Labour Code. But under the constitution, if you’re in an area of jurisdiction that comes under the federal government, then the federal Labour Code applies. So for example, if you work in a radio station or a TV station and you have a collective agreement, it’s under the federal Labour Code because telecommunications and broadcast is federal. You don’t have the right to get your collective agreement in French, you don’t have the right to get your written instructions from your employer in French. Those are linguistic workplace rights. The whole NDP agreed with that. We brought that to the convention in 2009 in Halifax, unanimous adoption. That’s part of our policy. I’m an English-speaking Quebecker. That doesn’t take anything away from any other Quebecker. It enhances the rights and therefore the security of French-speaking Quebeckers in their own country but doesn’t take rights away from anyone else.
What’s your first priority as prime minister?
My first priority as prime minister is to put in place wall-to-wall legislation that applies across the board with an overarching vision for sustainable development. That would include Jack Layton’s climate-change bill.
The biggest problem we have economically in Canada is since the Conservatives arrived they’ve destabilized the erstwhile balanced economy that we’ve built up in Canada since the Second World War. We’ve bled off 500,000 good-paying manufacturing jobs in the past six years since the Conservatives got here. That’s leaving in your generation's backpack the largest ecological, economic and social debt in our history, and that’s the first thing I want to change.
This interview has been edited and condensed for space.
The NDP leadership convention takes place March 22 to 24 in Toronto.