How Jack Layton won Quebec's heart -

How Jack Layton won Quebec’s heart


Jack Layton had just become leader of the NDP when our French-language sister publication (and occasional sparring partner) L’actualité turned its gaze toward English Canada’s newly minted social-democrat-in-chief. The year was 2003 and the late Michel Vastel, not usually given to romanticizing federalist anglophones, came away impressed:

That’s the Layton method: be seen with all the social activist groups, even the smallest ones, even in Quebec. And present yourself as one of the gang.

Born in 1950 in Hudson, just west of the island of Montreal, Jack Layton grew up among the city’s bourgeois anglophones. His father, an engineer, bought a house on elegant Birch Hill street. Like his friends, he belonged to a yacht club with a pool, a golf club, a tennis club. All of them places where English was spoken exclusively.

Young French Canadians, on the other hand, would swim in the lake at Deux Montagnes, and the only time Layton interacted with them was on the street, to play hockey. At the age of 16, when he managed the youth group at the Hudson Yacht Club, he organized an evening to admire the northern lights. Naturally, he invited his francophone friends. The next day, the board of directors criticized him for having invited “strangers” to a club reserved for the city’s English bourgeoisie.

“That’s where I understood discrimination,” Layton says, “and I knew it wasn’t right…. Wrong!” he says, insisting forcefully on the word.

While the Layton of today is decidedly less likely to meet-and-greet every activist group under the sun than the one described by Vastel, the passage above, and especially the following one, go a long way to illustrating Layton’s slow, methodical approach to gaining Quebecers’ trust:

On a lot of issues, Jack Layton’s stances are often more categorical than those of Gilles Duceppe: on pacifism, of course, but also on the Kyoto Protocol and climate change, $5 a day day care. His appetite for change, as much in Ottawa as in Quebec City, is also greater. He is correct to claim he is “in phase with Quebec.”

With the NDP, however, there is always a ‘but’ in Quebec, a big ‘but’: the national question. Layton led a parliamentary group that supported the Clarity Act; that didn’t go unnoticed among left-leaning groups close to the Bloc and the Parti Québécois. He speaks openly about “asymetrical federalism.” And in discussions about a new federal affordable housing program in 2002, he was already saying Ottawa must respect the differences that are inherent to Quebec.

His Quebec lieutenant, Pierre Ducasse, doesn’t hesitate to openly support the Parti Québécois for its social democratic platform. “We will need people who work with other progressive parties,” Layton says carefully. “In the case of those who promote sovereignty, we’ll have to see, but I don’t hold it against them.”

Activist groups in Quebec will also need to clarify their relationship with the Bloc Québécois. “Gilles Duceppe comes from our circle of people,” says [housing activist] François Saillant. But he also admits that “the Bloc has done as much as it can do; if the left wants to participate on the federal scene, perhaps the NDP could do the trick…”

So there you have it—Layton’s four-pronged approach to winning Quebec’s heart, all laid out as long as eight years ago:

(1) Sell Quebecers on his bona fides as a native son with an intrinsic understanding of language and class and—when it comes to Quebec—why they’re the same thing;

(2) Shore up his credentials as an unyielding social democrat with a nose for the issues the Bloc is leery of supporting for fear of alienating conservative nationalists;

(3) Explicitly welcome Quebec’s many, many left-leaning nationalists into the NDP fold, regardless of how they voted in 1995;

(4) Use all of the above to hive off a substantial part of the Bloc sizable left flank.


How Jack Layton won Quebec’s heart

  1. An excellent narrative. Dig your hole, slowly build your foundation…

    Good thing that, as all is unfolding according to this meticulously laid out steady-as-she-goes plan, the party and its leader identified high quality, credible candidates with experience, and with ties to the local community, who would organize an excellent campaign ground game in each of those Quebec ridings that he just knew would come around in spring 2011.

    Because the last thing you would want would be to elect a bunch of zit-popping students who had zilch to do with the riding in question. You don't get a second chance to make a first impression. Well done, foundation-builder Layton! Take those excellent Quebec MPs with you to Ottawa and finish the house building!

    • Hearing complaints about weak NDP candidates in Quebec is something I find pretty amusing. The main group that these NDP candidates will be displacing will be Bloc MPs (many of whom are highly qualified, I'm sure). Do you really have a problem with that?

      Also, look at the current government: everything is run out of the PMO, completely ignoring their own MPs and basically shutting them out of government. The CPC provides the most clear demonstration possible of just how little MPs can matter, depending on how a government is run.

      Don't get me wrong, I think it would be nice if everyone ran the best possible candidates everywhere all the time, but it isn't like we have ideal choices. The only way I can see federalists criticizing the NDP in Quebec without hypocrisy is if you truly believe there is a better alternative, which I just don't see.

      • I am most certainly not complaining that the BQ is losing to a bunch of place sitters.

        But I am most certainly NOT buying the narrative du jour that Jack (and a compliant media) are trying to sell me.

        • So what’s your version, then?

          I see this, combined with other things, being plausible. Long-term ground work and personal appeal on Layton’s part combined with a strong dislike for Harper in Quebec and a desire to be part of an anti-Harper coalition that forms government, combined with Layton’s appeal to soft nationalists, not to mention that if the NDP are viable, all of the sudden left-leaning voters that don’t like the Liberals have another option besides the Bloc.

          • I wish I had a version that made any sense.

            CTV is flashing NDP=104 leading or elected at this moment, and the BQ is down at… two.

    • while Brosseau and the McGill student video game enthusiast are very amusing, judging by the woman who slayed Duceppe, there's only so far you can smear the NDP caucus. She's a career diplomat, posted all over the place, who speaks several languages..

  2. And since he's been saying it all these years, what's so different about THIS election?

    • Harper has united the country in contempt?

      • Why the NDP?

  3. Sometimes ya gotta laugh. The Conservatives have run candidates who didn't show up at all candidates, who wouldn't talk to local media, and who are, for the most part, nowhere to be found (see Dona Cadman) and couldn't string a sentence together if their life depended on it. One of their candidates (now elected) is the son of a retiring MP who got the nomination cuz his dad resigned 2 days before the nomination. The kid's never had a job except for working as a constituency assistant to the neighbouring MP. Now the kid's an MP. He also didn't show up for meetings, media, etc.

    But that's OK because it's a TORY candidate. Give me a break.
    Those who live in glass houses…..

    Spare me.

  4. I hope Quebec is ready for 4 years of disappointment.