On the same afternoon as Toronto’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, New Democrats managed to pack a room deep within a downtown convention hall. They used the Sunday rally seven months out from a likely fall election to mark their turf in the country’s biggest city. They dressed up the room to suit the occasion: a massive Canadian flag as a backdrop, a party leader surrounded by faithful devotees, and orange at every opportunity. The party pushed a hashtag, #TM4PM, on anyone with a smartphone, and gently reminded those who tweet to please tag everything with #yyz and #cdnpoli. The message was clear: Thomas Mulcair wants to be prime minister (#TM4PM), winning Toronto (#yyz) can get him there, and the rest of the country (#cdnpoli) should pay attention.
Mid-March is a long way off from Oct. 19, the fixed date for the next federal election (unless Prime Minister Stephen Harper chooses a different day). But, with the House of Commons beginning a week-long break, and the Toronto weather turned not quite so bitter, a quiet Sunday offered Mulcair a shot at winning the news cycle. So NDP faithful gathered at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, and they brought numbers—more than 1,300, according to party estimates—to celebrate their city and their leader. The party’s entire Toronto caucus took seats off to the side, joined by most of their fellow candidates from the city’s farthest-flung suburbs, their elected cousins at Queen’s Park, along with friendly city councillors. Union T-shirts dotted the audience. The backroom heavyweights, including the likes of national director, Anne McGrath, and senior adviser, Brad Lavigne, watched intently from where they’re most comfortable—the back of the room.
Jennifer Hollett was first to the mic. Hollett is the NDP’s proof that social democrats aren’t the stuffy old socialists of yore. She’s a Harvard-educated, former MuchMusic VJ. She’s advocated for girls’ and women’s rights around the world. And now she’s running for the NDP in University-Rosedale, a riding as diverse as its name suggests: Thousands of students will join thousands of wealthy Torontonians in electing the first MP for the brand-new constituency. If Hollett beats out Liberal MP Chrystia Freeland, a rookie Liberal whose old riding covers half of the new one, that will probably mean the NDP enjoyed a grand day at the polls.
Hollett’s opening hype certainly predicted rosy days to come. She spoke of momentum, a quadrupled vote over the past four elections, the party’s 55-member caucus in Quebec, its largest-ever Toronto caucus, and the standing-room-only crowd assembled around her on a weekend. The crowd responded with convulsive hooting and hollering, orange signs waving. You’d never guess, by the din, that the NDP is in the middle of a heck of a funk. Read between her teleprompted lines, though, and the enormity of Mulcair’s task as party leader becomes clear.
The NDP’s Quebec team numbers 55, but that’s down from 59—and tracking polls are foreshadowing anything but a cakewalk for any party in that province. The NDP’s Toronto caucus numbers seven, but Toronto has been recently unfriendly to New Democrats. Liberal MP Adam Vaughan won the by-election, by a wide margin, that followed Olivia Chow’s resignation in Trinity-Spadina. Five provincial cousins from the city sat at Queen’s Park until the June 2014 election, after which only two remained. Nova Scotia voted out the NDP in 2013. British Columbia opted for Christy Clark’s Liberals, instead of the favoured New Democrats, in the same year. Manitoba’s governing New Democrats are still in office, but they consistently trail in polls—and, after Premier Greg Selinger called a leadership convention to fend off challengers, convinced barely half of delegates to support his premiership. It was enough to win, but also the most divisive outcome possible.
No one at the convention centre was thinking about end times to come. They were swept up in the slickness of the moment. As Hollett finally introduced the man who will ostensibly live at 24 Sussex Drive by year’s end, along came the opening riff of Arcade Fire’s Wake Up. As Hollett yelled Mulcair’s name into the mic, the band’s familiar, soaring wails filled the hall. The room burst with orange, T-O-M M-U-L-C-A-I-R block letters danced in the far corner, and their namesake entered the room.
George Smith, the leader’s dutiful right-hand man, prepped the lectern for his boss. Moments later, a beaming Mulcair took the stage.
“I have been travelling throughout the Greater Toronto Area with Catherine a lot lately,” he said, “and whether it’s in East China Town, Little Portugal, Parkdale, Riverdale, the Beaches, Brampton or Mississauga, one theme has emerged loud and clear: that after nine years of Stephen Harper and the Conservatives, Torontonians are ready for change in Ottawa.”
Mulcair’s speech got down to brass tacks: He recited statistic after statistic, dismantling Harper’s record with data.
The number of Canadians who are unemployed today has increased by over a quarter of a million since before the 2008 recession. Half of all households in the GTA do not have a single full-time job. Youth unemployment in Toronto is 16 per cent. The jobs that are being created are part-time and precarious. According to the CIBC, the quality of jobs today is at the lowest level in two decades.
Mulcair’s been at this for a while. He brought exactly the same message to an audience at Scarborough’s Qssis banquet hall in October 2013, when NDP MPs Dan Harris and Rathika Sitsabaiesan hosted a so-called Scarborough United fundraiser that added $20,000 to the party’s war chest in the Toronto suburb. Two hundred people showed up at a strip mall in a Liberal riding to hear Mulcair speak. He brought statistics. “Fifty per cent of families don’t have a single, full-time job,” he told Maclean’s after his speech that autumn evening. “It’s not that they don’t have a job, but they have several part-time, precarious jobs. And mom and dad criss-cross each other on the way out. It’s tough on kids, it’s tough on families.”
That night, the bearded New Democrat said he connects with Scarborough at a personal level. “One of my sisters lives here in Scarborough and has for 30 years, and raised all her kids here. I have nothing but positive feelings about the place,” he said. “It reminds me of the place where I grew up in Laval, north of Montreal. Very similar. Houses from the same era, people working really hard to get by raising their families. It’s a place where I’m quite comfortable.”
Mulcair, who often speaks in paragraphs instead of bite-sized sentences, would surely conjure similar coziness in East China Town, Little Portugal, Parkdale, Riverdale, the Beaches, Brampton, Mississauga, and every other neighbourhood he thinks he can wrest from his rivals. But nowhere is safe. The party’s sizable caucus in the city is far from invincible. The NDP will have to beat Conservative incumbents in blue-shaded suburban seats, and outdo Liberals everywhere else.
At the convention centre, those assembled wore the kinds of union and party T-shirts that are staples at NDP rallies. But standing among that traditional fare, a sign-toting rallier wore perhaps the most appropriate garment: a Boston Athletic Association shirt from the 2003 marathon in that city. Mulcair is in the middle of his own long race in Toronto. It didn’t start at the convention centre and who knows when it will end, but he’s not merely out for a personal best. As an election approaches, #yyz voters are in store for many months of a determined #TM4PM.