NDP MP Romeo Saganash has launched an embryonic bid to replace Jack Layton, with the former Cree leader saying he is now starting to assemble a team of supporters and to seek endorsements.
Mr. Saganash is the first MP to formally declare his intentions, entering the race as a clear underdog. A number of his caucus colleagues are still mulling their options, and it will make for crowded debates if many of them throw their hats in the ring.
Mr. Saganash said he was still undecided when he left an NDP caucus meeting in Quebec City on Thursday, playing down reports that he had agreed to support party president Brian Topp, who is the only other declared candidate.
The main leadership contender in the Quebec caucus, NDP House Leader Thomas Mulcair, continued his reflection on Friday, saying in Montreal that his announcement was still weeks away.
Other MPs who have left the door open to a candidacy to replace Mr. Layton include Niki Ashton, Nathan Cullen, Paul Dewar, Peter Julian and Robert Chisholm.
Mr. Saganash was the first Cree to obtain a law degree in Quebec and held senior positions in the Grand Council of the Crees, which saw him getting involved in many negotiations in Canada and at the United Nations.
After announcing his decision in his riding in northern Quebec, Mr. Saganash quickly won an endorsement from Christine Moore, another NDP MP in a neighbouring riding.
"He is a hard-working man, determined, human and engaged in his community. I am convinced he will be an excellent leader for the NDP and he will be able to represent New Democratic values for Canadians," Ms. Moore said in a statement.
However, the 49-year-old Mr. Saganash said in an interview that his work was only starting.
"I didn't call MPs asking them whether they would support me if I entered the race," he said.
He said his first step was to inform his constituents of his decision, and then to start organizing.
"It's one day at a time," Mr. Saganash said. "The next step is to form a good team who will be able to work on this campaign."
Interim NDP leader Nycole Turmel has urged the party to remain united throughout the leadership race, which will end with a convention in Toronto on March 24.
Mr. Saganash said he will respect that wish, saying that the party's ultimate goal must be to honour Mr. Layton's vision for a country that is more just and equal, with no one left behind.
"We want to build bridges between all Canadians," said Mr. Saganash, a father of three.
As a leadership candidate, Mr. Saganash will have to resign as the NDP critic for natural resources.
On his Twitter account, Mr. Topp welcomed Mr. Saganash's entry into the race, saying he was looking forward to upcoming debates between candidates.
"It's great to have Romeo Saganash in the race. Shows our team's amazing strength," Mr. Topp said.