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For Smiling Jack Layton, the hard work begins

NDP Leader Jack Layton is hugged by his wife and MP Olivia Chow as he is applauded by his new caucus following a speech on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on May 24, 2011.

Sean Kilpatrick/The Canadian Press

Before tackling the myriad hard questions he now faces thanks to his new starring role in Canadian politics, Jack Layton took a moment to soak it all in.

Arms outstretched, smiling and nodding his head, he looked out at the 102 clapping New Democratic Party MPs perched on a riser that had just served as the dramatic backdrop to his first Parliament Hill speech as Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition.

Decade after decade, the party that began as a movement of Prairie farmers failed to break through Canada's two dominant political cultures. Now the former Toronto city councillor has accomplished what many of his own candidates dared not dream - partly by delivering on his 2003 pledge to woo Quebec.

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Employing tower lights and two Teleprompters, the choreographed event was a sharp change for a party that used to meet in a small West Block committee room decorated with old CCF posters.‬

‪The NDP caucus, with its large contingent of women, young adults and visible minorities, promises to shake up a House of Commons dominated since Confederation by older white men.‬

‪Fresh faces and bigger budgets also bring new challenges for Mr. Layton in his new role as Opposition Leader. He's trying hard to play it safe in these early days. But with the party's 50th anniversary convention just weeks away, he must marry the demands of the party's grassroots supporters who want more than just another brokerage party with the sense of discipline appropriate to a government-in-waiting.

The issues that will confront him are already clear: Quebec sovereignty, foreign affairs, figuring out how to work with a larger caucus than ever before and turning youthful rookies into productive parliamentarians are likely to occupy much of Mr. Layton's time.


Comments from some of the new Quebec MPs suggest they may still be open to the idea of an independent Quebec. Managing this political land mine will be an ongoing issue for Mr. Layton. Journalists reporting for Quebec audiences make up a large chunk of the Parliamentary Press Gallery. Their questions on Tuesday were almost singularly focused on whether the NDP Leader believes the support of 50 per cent plus one in a referendum on sovereignty would be enough for Quebec to separate from Canada. A 2005 NDP policy paper called the Sherbrooke Declaration states that the party would recognize such a result. Asked several times to repeat that, Mr. Layton would say only that it remains party policy but that the Supreme Court's position on the issue - which does not give a minimum number - is a better guide.

The NDP Leader said his Quebec MPs are working hard for a federalist party to succeed in Quebec. The NDP will also have to balance anti-oil sands sentiment in Quebec with the fact that the party has a toehold in Alberta.

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"For 40 years, I took on all the Conservatives in Alberta, so I may have to be taking on some of my caucus," joked Edmonton-Strathcona MP Linda Duncan, the only non-Conservative MP in the province. "I'll be educating them in how you take on the oil sands."

Foreign Affairs

Mr. Layton has been the lead contrarian voice in Canadian politics; as Opposition Leader his views on foreign policy now carry more weight. On Tuesday he was asked for his position on Afghanistan, Syria and the 1967 borders between Israel and the Palestinian territories.

On Afghanistan: "We've talked about the need to talk to elements of the insurgency, to try to find a resolution here, and more and more people seem to agree that that would actually be a very good idea," he said. On Syria, he expressed support for Canada's plans for sanctions, and said Canada should focus less on taking "firm positions" on Israel and more on encouraging negotiations.


When they were only 38, New Democratic Party MPs could gather around a big oval table and everyone who wanted to could speak. That's now unworkable. The traditional model for bigger caucuses is for MPs to meet in smaller provincial groups first. The chairs of those regional caucuses would then report to the national caucus. That's the current NDP plan, but given the lopsided nature of the caucus - Quebeckers make up 59 of the 103 MPs - other ideas are being kicked around. Northern Quebec MPs could perhaps be part of a Northern caucus or Eastern Quebec New Democrats could join an Atlantic caucus. There will also be issue-based groups.

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The rookies

The NDP has clearly decided that some of its 68 rookie MPs are ready for prime time and others are not. As they moved through the pack of Ottawa reporters and television cameras, some new MPs comfortably entertained long "scrums." Others were quickly ushered away by the NDP media team.

Mr. Layton - who campaigned on the theme that Ottawa is "broken" - brushed aside claims that he is hiding some rookies. He promised new blood will change the Parliamentary dynamic, and urged all sides to stop heckling in Question Period.

"Let's try to have a respectful discussion," he said. "We're going to put that practice to work in our caucus and I'm hopeful that other caucuses will do the same."

NDP by the Numbers

  • Size of the NDP caucus before the election: 38
  • Size of current NDP caucus: 103
  • Estimated number of resumes received for support jobs: 7,000
  • Number of rookie NDP MPs: 68
  • Number of NDP MPs from Quebec: 59
  • Number of women in the NDP caucus: 40
  • Number of rookie NDP MPs named "Morin:" 4
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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

A member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery since 1999, Bill Curry worked for The Hill Times and the National Post prior to joining The Globe in Feb. 2005. Originally from North Bay, Ont., Bill reports on a wide range of topics on Parliament Hill, with a focus on finance. More

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