With two weeks to go in the NDP leadership race, Thomas Mulcair has emerged as the widely acknowledged front-runner. Renowned for his short fuse—during a recent debate in Vancouver, one rival told Mulcair he had “the warrior part down”—the Montreal MP has divided opinions among New Democrats like no other candidate in the leadership battle. To his supporters, his combative approach is just what’s needed to take on the Harper Tories, while his critics worry about his temperament, and whether he’ll steer the party away from the principles established by Jack Layton.
To illustrate the kind of thing some might be worried about, and which others are drawn to, perhaps it’s best to go back to 2002. It was a good year for Mulcair, then the deputy leader of the Liberal Party of Quebec. With his indignant stare and a knuckles-first style honed during his years as a lawyer, Mulcair’s constant haranguing of the government helped bring down PQ minister Gilles Baril for alleged influence peddling. Then less than a week after Baril resigned, a La Presse story alleged that Yves Duhaime, a lawyer and former Péquiste minister, had leveraged his friendship with Premier Bernard Landry to land a $180,000 lobbying contract. Duhaime denied everything during an appearance on a popular television show, but on the same show Mulcair accused him of influence peddling and brandished excerpts of the Criminal Code to support his case. Later, after the taping, Duhaime confronted Mulcair and accused him of defamation, to which, according to a Quebec Superior Court judgement, Mulcair responded: “I’m looking forward to seeing you in prison,” before using an extremely vulgar French term to describe him.
In 2005, Justice André Denis decided Mulcair’s televised indictment of Duhaime and his off-camera bon mot were indeed defamatory, to the tune of $95,000. The justice’s judgment was particularly damning. “We are of the impression that Mr. Duhaime was a simple contingency in the war [Mulcair] is waging against the government leader,” wrote Judge Denis. “Why wish to see him in prison? Why suggest that Mr. Duhaime is prostituting himself? Why deny things that were said? Why the reference to the Criminal Code?” Yet the incident was telling. Upbraided by a judge for his outburst, Mulcair’s political star only blazed brighter following his run-in with Duhaime. His reputation cemented, Mulcair became environment minister and deputy house leader in the newly formed Liberal government less than a year later.
A decade on, Mulcair is poised to become the prime-minister-in-waiting. But if Layton was known for his smile, Mulcair’s grin is often overshadowed by his growl. “What I see in Tom is he’s passionate and he’s principled and he’s not afraid to speak his mind,” says NDP MP Don Davies, who has endorsed Mulcair. And at this moment, maybe New Democrats are looking for a warrior. “I think that’s something that our party will benefit from,” says Davies, “a bit of a hard-nosed approach to take on Harper. Because I think Canadians want that as well.”
After a career in Quebec politics, Mulcair, who declined repeated requests to speak with Maclean’s for this story, arrived in Ottawa to much fanfare in 2007, after winning a by-election in the Liberal stronghold of Outremont. He was only the second New Democrat ever elected in Quebec, and after being named one of Layton’s deputy leaders, he soon showed himself to be an able, often fiery, performer in the House of Commons. Confident and fluently bilingual, he is perhaps the most polished of the candidates in the present leadership race. New Democrats worried about holding the party’s gains in Quebec can find solace in Mulcair’s experience and prominence in the province. And as a former Liberal cabinet minister in Quebec, Mulcair can claim to know what it is like to govern. “Tom Mulcair just checked off more boxes for me than anybody else,” says Davies. “I think he’s got that royal jelly, he’s got that prime ministerial bearing.”
His bearing is both part of his appeal and a point of debate. “When Tom smiles and laughs and tells a good joke, he can be quite a good beer-drinking partner,” says Ian Capstick, a former party official who served as press secretary to caucus when Mulcair arrived on Parliament Hill. “But when he is in ministerial attack dog mode, he’s a little Bairdesque,” he adds, referring to Tory pit bull John Baird.
Mulcair was first elected to public office in 1994 as a Liberal member of Quebec’s national assembly. Journalist Vincent Marissal recalls first encountering Mulcair a year or so later, during a friendly game of hockey, Liberals against press gallery scribes. Marissal was skating in front of his own net, sans puck, when Mulcair knocked him to the ice. “I thought he was going to throw down his gloves,” Marissal says. Instead, Mulcair hissed at the prostrate columnist: “Stop complaining, you big sissy, and get back on your skates.”
Throughout the campaign, Mulcair has often referred to his split with the Liberal Party of Quebec in 2007. As the popular narrative goes, Mulcair, then Quebec’s environment minister, refused to allow private development of Mont Orford, a provincial park located in Quebec’s Eastern Townships region. Premier Jean Charest, none too pleased with his obstinacy, shuffled Mulcair out of the environment portfolio. “An attempt was made to shuffle Tom to another portfolio but he resigned on a question of principle,” reads Mulcair’s leadership bio. However, according to Quebec’s Environment Ministry, the department began studying the possibility of privatizing Mont Orford before Mulcair became minister, and continued to do so under his watch. “The Mont Orford file was there when he was there, and it progressed until he was removed from Environment,” says John Parisella, Charest’s former chief of staff who first recruited Mulcair into the Liberal Party of Quebec. “Then, all of a sudden, when he was out of the party, out of government, his opposition to Orford became more vocal.” Charest also claimed at the time he offered Mulcair the government services portfolio but that Mulcair resigned from cabinet rather than take a lesser position. Whatever the case, in February 2007, Mulcair announced that he would not seek re-election. By fall, he was the newly elected NDP MP for Outremont.
In his bid for the leadership, Mulcair enjoys the endorsement of 43 New Democrat MPs, including two former leadership contenders—Robert Chisholm and Romeo Saganash—who dropped out of the race. The vast majority of those endorsements have come from MPs elected just last year—support among current and former MPs who served between 2008 and 2011 is split—but several established figures, such as former MP Lorne Nystrom and former Manitoba premier and governor general Ed Schreyer, have also thrown their support behind him. Charles Taylor, the Montreal philosopher and academic and one of Layton’s most influential mentors, has also expressed his support for Mulcair’s candidacy.
In the closing weeks of the campaign, as Mulcair has pulled away from the pack, his feelings toward the party and where he wants to take it have come under closer scrutiny. In a meeting with the Toronto Star’s editorial board last month, he said the NDP “never renewed itself” and that the party must move past “some of the 1950s boilerplate” language around social democracy. Though he’s been accused of wishing to take the party to the political centre, he has insisted he wants to bring the centre to the party. Pressed by rival candidates to explain himself during last weekend’s NDP debate in Vancouver, Mulcair deferred to the path of modernization already followed by Layton. Even so, some remain uneasy. Jean Crowder, a veteran MP, says she was disappointed with Mulcair’s comments on the party. “I think over the last eight years Jack and the team did a pretty incredible job of getting us to the place where we are as the official Opposition,” said Crowder, who has endorsed Topp. “I think a lot of us have invested a lot of time and energy and passion in the party and to have it dismissed that way [in the newspaper article] was pretty disappointing.”
Beyond ephemeral questions about the NDP’s reason for being, Mulcair, as leader, would have to grow into the new role as the face of the party, becoming both a unifying, consensus-building presence within, and a strong, assertive figure on the public stage. Concerns about his aggressive style will have to be assuaged. Former Winnipeg North NDP MP Judy Wasylycia-Leis wouldn’t comment on Mulcair’s temperament. “We had a good working relationship,” said the long-time Manitoba MP, who resigned in 2010. When asked why she is supporting Brian Topp, the former MP said, “Brian Topp can take on Harper in a style similar to Jack, that is not personal, ugly or distasteful.”
But the case for Mulcair is that however controversial his presence, he is also the most obviously ready to fill the chair directly opposite Stephen Harper in the House of Commons. “Leaders have to carve our their own way of doing things,” says Davies. “And I think Tom’s ability to be smart and articulate and direct and to present a clear alternative—and he’s absolutely got steely resolve to take us to government—I think is carrying on Jack’s tradition in a different sort of package.”