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One on one with Jack Layton: clarity, Quebec and the Constitution

NDP Leader Jack Layton at a campaign stop in Toronto on April 21, 2011.

Mike Cassese/Reuters/Mike Cassese/Reuters

Jack Layton appears to be riding a wave that the NDP has always dreamed of, especially in Quebec, where the party has never had more than a beachhead. With expectations mounting, Mr. Layton talks with The Globe's Campbell Clark aboard his campaign plane on a flight from Montreal to Toronto.

You spent a fair bit of time in Quebec, on Quebec, as leader, when your party was, to exaggerate it a bit, going nowhere in terms of seats.

I don't think that would be called an exaggeration [laughs] We went 50 years with only one by-election win.

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Did you personally feel that this was only a matter of time, knocking on the door in Quebec?

Yes. Because having been born and grown up in Quebec, I had a sense of what the values of Quebeckers were, and are. And I believed and have believed from when I was running for leader - I said the values of Quebeckers, in the vast majority, are the values of the NDP...We brought our convention to Quebec City in 2006. Some people thought I was nuts to do that. And I said, 'we want to build this party, that's where we've go to go.'


Because we have to show Quebeckers that we respect them or they're never going to give us a seat. ... And I don't think it's a coincidence that in 2008, when we won our first-ever seat in Quebec in a general election, that we won our largest-ever Ontario caucus. Because I think that the voters of Ontario take a look at you, and whether or not you're serious, as a party, for the country. And once they began to see that we had a credible presence in Quebec, they began to turn to us more.

You've been ill, not long before this campaign. You also had an injury. Has it affected your motivations, or your energy, or your feelings during the campaign?

Sure. It's made me more energetic [chuckles] It's made me more determined than ever. People that go through serious illness - you can either go one way or the other. You can either become despondent about it all. Or it kind of rejuvenates you, makes you focus on what's important. Although I would say that the birth of my granddaughter was more powerful as a motivator that cancer was. We always talk about trying to make a better world - it's Tommy [Douglas]rsquo;s expression - and I just think immediately about her.

Do you see yourself doing this in four years?

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As long as the good Lord gives me the health to do it, and the good party decides that I should keep on, those are my conditions. I enjoy what I'm doing.

You said today that we have a system where polls say 60 per cent of people will vote against Stephen Harper, and he may win a majority, and that's crazy. It might also be seen as an argument to unite the forces of the left. Do you see that in the future?

I'd put it this way: Canadians want politicians to work together on their behalf. So that's what I'm committed to doing. I think it's been the goal of every NDP leader. Because we had a profound belief that we could do a good job on behalf of Canadians … if we were given that opportunity.

You said Tuesday that the lack of Quebec's signature on the Constitution has to be addressed, and talked about small steps to create 'winning conditions.' Toward what? Does Quebec need more powers under the Constitution?

I think it's going to be a question of trust. They have to be able to feel that sense of respect. Trust will flow from respect. So I think it's less a question of specific ideas and more a question of whether or not Quebeckers feel that Canada is working well for them. I feel that there's an openness to that possibility that keeps growing. I think part of the reason why, maybe, we're attracting interest and some support - because it's well known we're a federalist party - is that there's a door opening there.

Doesn't that say to Quebeckers, there's a possibility for more powers in the Constitution. Would you be prepared to do that?

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Well, we'll have to see what the requests are down the road. My own sense of it is that there's just not been the kind of relationship built up to be able to have the kind of discussion that we need to have. So I don't think it's about specifics. I really don't. I think it's about that sense of belonging and respect that has to be created. I think that the sponsorship scandal did huge damage to that - that sense that we could be bought off with some trinkets. ... I think that the Constitution coming back to Canada with the various amendments, without Quebec signing on, was the kind of statement that made it very difficult for a lot of Quebeckers. So I think it's a question of building up trust and respect on all sides.

You were asked Tuesday if you would accept the results of a vote for sovereignty in a referendum, and you said yes. Does that mean 50-per-cent-plus-one is good enough?

I think the Supreme Court has laid out a good framework for such a vote...I think it's pretty broadly supported. We're a federalist party, however. We would prefer that we find our way forward in a way that doesn't bring us to that precipice.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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About the Author
Chief political writer

Campbell Clark has been a political writer in The Globe and Mail’s Ottawa bureau since 2000. Before that he worked for The Montreal Gazette and the National Post. He writes about Canadian politics and foreign policy. More

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