The seeds of a political life can be planted in the most unlikely places. For Peggy Nash, the Toronto MP who ranks among the serious contenders for the NDP leadership, the Languedoc countryside in southern France proved fertile ground. As a 20-year-old University of Toronto French major, she spent the summer of 1971 there as an au pair to polish her language skills. The couple who employed her happened to be French journalists back from covering political upheaval in Latin America. For a suburban Toronto kid who hadn’t been much engaged by politics, their worldly talk made a deep impression. “It got me interested and led me afterwards to doing solidarity work with Chileans and Salvadorians,” Nash recalls.
In fact, she went on to work for causes of all sorts—from feminism to environmentalism. But her main route to politics was that thoroughly traditional New Democrat path, the labour movement. Starting out as an Air Canada ticket agent straight out of university, Nash climbed the union hierarchy to become the first woman to lead the negotiation of a major auto industry contract, bargaining for the Canadian Auto Workers with Ford Canada in 2005. Her prominence in Toronto left-wing circles put her squarely in Jack Layton’s sights. The NDP leader, who died last summer from cancer, recruited her to run for Parliament. In what turned into one of the country’s most hotly contested ridings, she was defeated in Toronto’s Parkdale-High Park in 2004, then won there in 2006, lost the seat to to high-profile Liberal Gerard Kennedy in 2008, and took it back in 2011. [Thank you to commenter Christopher W Schulz for correcting the earlier version of the sequence of election results in Parkdale-High Park.]
In Nash’s leadership bid, that track record for tenacity matters. Her manner is typically unflappable, occasionally to the point of blandness. Evidence of a fighter’s streak helps among the NDP undecided. In the most recent leadership debate in Winnipeg, she positioned herself as keeper of the Layton flame, taking rival Thomas Mulcair to task for suggesting the NDP still needs to modernize itself, even after the late leader’s 2011 election breakthrough. “We got the support of 4.5 million people,” she said. “Don’t you think that proves that our party has been renewing itself?”
Among other contenders, Brian Topp, Layton’s former campaign director, has emphasized tax hikes on capital gains and on anyone earning $250,000 or more. Nash tries to shift the emphasis. “I think the NDP has often focused on wealth redistribution,” she said in an interview. “I’ve tried to focus on creating good jobs.” Her platform calls for government to more directly choose which companies will get federal grants and loans. She calls for an R & D innovation fund to target high-tech firms, tax credits for companies that buy advanced equipment, and for forcing foreign companies investing in Canada to make binding employment commitments.
Challenged on how government can be counted on to pick the right companies to back and protect, she counters the Conservative approach of across-the-board corporate tax cuts “just hasn’t worked.” When it comes to battling the Tories, Nash can point to a concrete case of the government acquiescing to her approach: as a rookie MP, she helped lead the push against an American corporation’s plan to buy MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates Ltd., the British Columbia space technology company. The Conservatives ultimately blocked the takeover in 2008.
Nash’s preoccupation with protecting and creating jobs runs deep. Her father worked at a massive General Electric industrial lighting factory in one of Toronto’s early post-World War II suburbs. That plant, though, long ago closed down, replaced by condos, and its jobs have gone overseas—a common story across North America. Nash came of age as an airline workers’ union official during a period of rapid deregulation, intensifying competition, and the privatization of Air Canada. That experience shaped her views about how government should play a more activist role in a harsh global economy.
She was also inspired by a speech Helen Clark, New Zealand’s Labour prime minister from 1999 to 2008, gave at a women’s labour conference in 2003 in Australia. Clark inveighed against deregulation and tax cuts, and spoke in favour of spending on social programs. “They were doing things in New Zealand,” Nash says. “I was getting frustrated in Canada.”
Her best chance to shake off that frustration, Nash figured, was to position herself to be industry minister in a future Layton government. Instead, after his death, she opted to try to succeed him. She looked like a long shot, as Topp and Mulcair were the early favourites. One veteran NDP official said early discussion among some Nash fans was less about her chances of winning than whether she could avoid embarrassment. That concern eased as neither Topp nor Mulcair pulled away, and Ottawa’s Paul Dewar and B.C.’s Nathan Cullen further divided the NDP membership. The winner at the NDP’s Toronto convention March 23-24 is impossible to predict with any confidence.
Nash has picked up key endorsements, including Pierre Ducasse, a former Layton adviser in Quebec, where securing the NDP’s stunning election breakthrough is arguably the party’s top priority. (Nash’s fluent French is an asset there.) She got the nod last week from CAW president Ken Lewenza, perhaps predictably. After all, union insiders figured out long ago not to underestimate her. Nash’s leadership rivals may now be learning the same lesson.