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Up close and personal with Thomas Mulcair

Thomas Mulcair kisses his wife, Catherine Pinhas, after capturing the NDP leadership at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre in Toronto, March 24, 2012

Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail

From the state of the nation and his political battle plan to family life and his tricky personality, the Leader of the New Democratic Party of Canada opens up in conversation with John Ibbitson, national political columnist of The Globe and Mail

THE IMPACT DILEMMA

Your questioning of the Prime Minister in the House during the Senate expenses scandal has been, by general consent, exemplary. And yet it is the Liberals who have profited, according to the polls, and not the NDP. How frustrating do you find that?

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I've been through the cycles of government and opposition. I've been there. I know the music of it, I know the rhythm of it. And frankly, seeing where our core base now is, both inside Quebec and outside Quebec, what used to be our ceiling has now become our floor, and we're doing well. I'm very happy.

In airports, I used to get, "Oh, that's the NDP guy." Now I get, systematically, "Oh, that's Mr. Mulcair." And by the way, it's no longer "Mr. Muh-clair" or "Mr. Mul-clair." Catherine [Pinhas, his wife] noted that in the Vancouver airport this summer. She said, "I want you to understand; this is important. Three times since we got off the plane, people are not saying, 'Oh, that's Tom,' or 'That's the NDP guy.' They're saying, 'That's Mr. Mulcair.' And that's interesting." And I think that's part of the answer to your question.

In 2015, people are going to be looking for a prime minister, somebody who's going to be able to run the country. I've got 35 years' experience in public administration, in government. People see in me somebody who's leading a very strong opposition. We're the first opposition to take on Stephen Harper. And he's having trouble getting used to it. He chewed up and spat out [former Liberal leaders Stéphane] Dion and [Michael] Ignatieff. But he's now facing the fight of his life because, on the Senate scandal, we're not letting go.

The danger, of course, is that people will see you as an effective opposition leader and not a prime minister.

I think, when people compare experiences, compare the people, compare what they're able to do, people are going to realize that the NDP is the only party that can get the job done.

The by-elections last Nov. 25 were a test of that thesis. You did very well in Toronto Centre, and you held your vote in Bourassa. But then there is Manitoba, where your vote dropped by more than half. What is going wrong in the West?

Well, we're going to have to work hard, and we know that. There were some issues that were very specific to Manitoba. [NDP Premier] Greg Selinger has always had my full support, but people would raise local issues with me sometimes.

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I'm not going to do what the Liberals did in Brandon-Souris, which was to run a conservative. We know who we are and we're going to stay loyal to that. And people recognize that in the NDP. They realize that it's a strong movement, people with values that they can count on. They know that, when we talk about something, we're going to do it. When I talk about putting a price on carbon, people know we're not going to do what Eddie Goldenberg [adviser to prime minister Jean Chrétien] admitted the Liberals did, which was to sign Kyoto [the protocol to fight global warming] for partisan political purposes as a communications stunt, and then go on to have one of the worst records in the world [in fighting climate change].

Even though I find it reprehensible that Canada is the only country that has withdrawn from Kyoto, Stephen Harper never made a secret of what he thought of Kyoto. It was, quote, a socialist plot to suck money from rich countries, unquote. That's what he believes, that's what he's put forward – whereas the Liberals have always been masters of the art of telling people what they think they want to hear, and then going ahead and doing whatever it is they want.

SEEING GREEN

But maybe people don't want to hear what you have to say. Your talk about the environmental freeloading of the oil industry might have had something to do with the results in Manitoba. You don't think that your message about the dangers of an oil-dependent economy could be causing you grief in the Prairies?

I think we have a very balanced, nuanced approach. We're starting from the point where we recognize that energy is the motor of the Canadian economy. We're also saying we have different development models we can look at. If we look at a model like Norway, we can do really well for the next 20 years in developing the technology sector, green renewables. Between now and 2020, $3-trillion will be spent on green, renewable technologies. We're not even there. We're not even on the map. Norway's there, Germany's there. We're not even players. We're missing a massive opportunity to leverage some of what we've got into investments. So that's what we're talking about. We'd take the cap-and-trade system [which would cap emissions for industrial users, create a carbon market and generate revenues for government] and we'd leverage that – we'll turn it into investments in those areas. That's sustainable development. That's long-term development.

Stephen Harper went to Yellowknife in August and, emoting for the ages in front of the Giant Mine, said, "Isn't this terrible?" He even used the word "remediation." I was quite impressed. That's a $1-billion tab that you and I are picking up for something that our parents and grandparents did. They can be forgiven; that's how you developed back then. But they left hundreds and thousands of tons of slag full of arsenic leaching into one of the most beautiful and deepest freshwater lakes in the world, Great Slave Lake. We're doing the same thing and nobody's going to forgive us. We're allowing companies to use the air and soil and water, and not internalizing the cost. That's playing havoc with the Canadian dollar; it's hurting our economy over all. We're going to work hard to convince Canadians that we're serious about maintaining a balanced growth in our economy. We want development that benefits everyone, and we're actually going to get it done. We're not going to pull a stunt like the Liberals and do the opposite of what we said, and we're not going to take Stephen Harper's grim view of the world and cynicism. I want my first act as prime minister in 2015 on the international stage to be my attendance at the Paris conference in December, 2015, on the Kyoto Protocol.

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PERSONAL STYLE

To change gears, people who know you describe you as the smartest guy in the room, a powerful political analyst, but also something of a micro-manager, even a control freak. And you have a temper. We already have all that in the Prime Minister. Do we want the same qualities in the next one?

I'm not really very much of a micro manager. I consider myself a caucus-based leader. When caucus sets its mind and says, "We'd really like it to be this way," invariably I listen. For the micro-management part, it's not a knock that I've ever heard internally. I'm very determined. People knew that about me during the leadership race. You don't do things at the level I've done them unless you're very determined. Going across Quebec, as I've done, talking about winning conditions for Quebec in Canada, talking about something as complex as the Sherbrooke Declaration [which would permit Quebeckers to negotiate sovereignty if a referendum produces a yes vote of 50 per cent plus one, unlike the Clarity Act, which would require a larger majority] saying, "Look, Quebeckers, you don't have to go back to the Bloc." The NDP is saying we can have a proper place in Canada, this fabulous country. I take a back seat to no one in defending Quebec's place in Canada. It's that sort of determination that Jack [Layton] brought to the game that actually allows you to accomplish things. Absolutely, I'm a very determined character.

Do you think this comment about you being hot-headed is fair? Is it something that has changed over the course of the years? Do you deal with things differently now than you might have when you were younger?

Yes. Because now I've got a lot more to draw on. As you're moving up, you sometimes don't have enough reference points, the different techniques, the different ways you can do things. You're driven, you're determined. I come from a very modest background. I come from a family of 10 kids. I've had to work hard all my life. I didn't work as a research assistant in law school. I was making tar and gravel roofs when I was in law school. So I sometimes have a very frank way of dealing with things. But the more you go along in life, now that I'm a kindly grandfather with two grandchildren, it definitely has an effect on you.

THE NORTH

The government has taken a very aggressive stance in Canada's claims in the Arctic archipelago, its waters and the seabed beneath it. Do you support the approach the government has taken on the Far North? How might your approach be different?

Well, first of all, I've been to the Arctic several times, and I tend to go in the winter. I notice that Mr. Harper only goes in the summer.

You have to take an aggressive stance, but you also have to be there long term. Canada should be exercising its sovereignty in the Arctic, but it has to be sustained, not just a one-off. [For example] we seem to have completely muffed the contracts, and the number of ice breakers we are actually going to be able to build is probably a lot lower than what Canada needs. And Stephen Harper has isolated us on the international stage, to the extent that the Canada the world used to like and admire, that punched above its weight, is just not there anymore. So a lot of this is empty rhetoric, it's not based on anything substantial.

TRANSATLANTIC TRADE

On the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between Canada and the European Union [CETA], you and you alone have decided that you need to see the full, legally vetted text, followed by a round of public consultations, before taking a position. Why can't the NDP make up its mind – is it divided?

I know as many people who are resolutely opposed to a trade deal that they have yet to see as people who are adamantly in favour of a trade deal that they have yet to see.

The NDP is in favour of enhanced trade with Europe. Full stop. But what form does that take? We're going to have to see. For me, free trade should be with countries with a level playing field, full reciprocity. Europe has the best labour standards in the world, some of the best environmental standards in the world. We're not going to get social dumping, or environmental dumping, which we get from some countries. But the rest of it centres on whether we're on a level playing field.

We want to look at the terms being imposed on prescription drugs, we'll have to look at what compensation there is for individuals, then we have to look at things like dairy. Will our dairy farmers be able to hold on to their farms? The really tough one will be investor-state [allowing companies to sue governments they feel are violating the agreement]. So we're going to wait and see the actual text.

There are a number of people who say that you really want to sign off on CETA, but you need time to convince elements within your coalition.

I often joke that I wear my name [a reference to "doubting Thomas"] well. I am in favour of enhanced trade with Europe. But I want to know what the deal is. Anybody who says they're in favour of something they haven't seen is being irresponsible.

The danger is that the Conservatives will paint you as opposed to CETA whether you are or not.

It's easy to caricature, but the reality is that the NDP now has a position on these international agreements where we look at things like labour standards, social standards. We're taking a very open approach.

SHOWDOWN 2015

Do you believe that you'll be running against Stephen Harper in the next election? There has been speculation that, unless he improves his performance in the polls, he may step down.

I'm not taking anything for granted. You often hear me refer to the Conservative government, rather than using the Prime Minister's name. Sometimes I will use his name if it is something that he has done specifically on his watch, but I'm not taking for granted that Stephen Harper will be my opponent in the next election.

This will be the first election that anyone has ever seen in which the NDP is a legitimate contender for power. Though you talk about consistency, the message in Quebec does not play well in other parts of the country. Your message about energy sustainability, which may play well in Ontario, does not play so well in parts of the West. What is your game plan for putting together a coalition of voters who could actually put you in office?

I will continue to work with the incredibly bright people around me who are putting that together. And one of the things you'll notice about me is that I do say the same things in Calgary that I say in Quebec City. That constancy is, I believe a reflection of honesty. This is what we're putting on the table. When I talk about what we're doing in Quebec, I have a lot more confidence than some people that Canadians are open to the type of positive, constructive, optimistic and confident vision that we have about Quebec's place in Canada. We don't use national unity as a wedge issue the way the Liberals always have. It was their number one tool. Jean Chrétien would give mouth-to-mouth resuscitation to [former sovereigntist premier] Lucien Bouchard, if he could, because he needed that whipping boy, that boogey man, that was Quebec separation. That was the Liberal Party's stock in trade.

We've taken an optimistic approach, a positive approach. We say there are long-standing recriminations about the federal spending power. These are not hard things to fix. There's no reason to break up one of the most successful, free and extraordinary countries in the world over stuff like that. When I go on the radio shows in Quebec and talk about the Charter of Values, I take the same tough stand on the issue. I won't just tell people in the rest of Canada how terrible [the charter] is, I'll say it in Quebec. Stephen Harper sent [Transport Minister] Denis Lebel into Quebec to say he had no problem with the charter.

'RED-DOOR, BLUE-DOOR'

Some of us believe that we are moving into a political universe where there will be two-party system: a party of the centre-left and a party of the centre-right. But there is a powerful response to that argument, and it is called Justin Trudeau. To what extent do you campaign against Liberals?

For 150 years, Canadians have been told that they don't have a choice, that when they finally grow weary of Conservative corruption under Brian Mulroney, they can throw the Conservatives out and go back to the Liberals. And then, when they grow weary of the Liberals and the sponsorship scandal, they can throw them out and go back to the Conservatives under Stephen Harper. And when they grow weary of scandals involving the Senate and everything else, they can go back to the Liberals.

We're telling Canadians that they do have a choice. Forget the red-door, blue-door incantation of Michael Ignatieff; we're saying, "Look, there is another choice, it's the orange door."

And we're going to talk straight up about the Liberal record. Canadians wind up so many times like Charlie Brown on his back after Lucy's pulled the football away. The Liberals flash left and turn right. You can't treat people that way and expect to get away with it over time.

So, they've got a new leader; he says he's concerned about middle-class jobs. Interesting proposition. No doubt it's the result of some focus groups. He's in favour of exporting 40,000 middle-class jobs to the U.S. with the Keystone XL pipeline. These are legitimate questions that we're going to ask.

Some of us think that 2015 is going to be the nastiest campaign ever. Do you?

I've been through tough election campaigns. Quebec elections tend to be very idea-based, and they tend to be very tough. But I've talked about the facts; I've talked about policy. I've talked about the difference between us. I'll talk about the history of the Liberal Party, and I will tell Canadians to look at the history of their broken promises. Because they always talk a good game. They're going to crabwalk over to my voters and say, "Come on, you can trust us this time." And we're going to say you can't trust them.

Do you think Justin Trudeau is ready to be prime minister of Canada?

Canadians are going to get to answer that question in 2015. I know that I am.

FAMILY MAN

You and Catherine Pinhas met as teenagers. You've been together ever since. What does each of you bring to this relationship that makes it work as well as it has?

We complete each other. That's easy to say but it's true. Catherine and I have very different backgrounds, but it always brings a smile to our faces when we see how the other reacts. Catherine couldn't be more different in how she deals with people. She's a psychologist. It's not a profession for her, it's a vocation. She was called to be that person. She's worked for more than 25 years in one of the poorest areas of Montreal.

Sometimes, on a commonsense level, she'll be able to tell me things that nobody else would be able to say that way. She'll listen to me give a complicated explanation and she'll say: "Pretend you're talking to someone I'm having lunch with at the cafeteria at the hospital." You have to have someone who knows you well enough to talk to you like that.

In terms of the family, Catherine is absolutely extraordinary. And both of us have always protected the core of the family. Catherine couldn't be at the [2013 Montreal policy] convention because she was up north taking care of our granddaughter. When I worked in the Quebec government, I remember once I was in a parliamentary committee, and I said I'm going to have to leave at such-and-such a time, and I got beaten up a bit by a rather aggressive Parti Québécois critic. But I had to be back for the Christmas pageant for our younger son. I always knew that, if I didn't make that my priority, something would be lost.

So, Catherine and I have always incredibly strongly fought to maintain that protection of family. My mentor, [the late provincial Liberal leader] Claude Ryan, wanted me to run in 1988, but Catherine and I thought the kids were just too young. So when I did run, my oldest son was starting high school. I give Catherine full credit for making me understand that the family always had to be the priority.

I read that she helped bring your French up to snuff. I would have thought that, as the son of an anglophone father and francophone mother ––

I was the second oldest. In the fifties, if you had bilingual parents, you were sent to an English school. But that was a reflection of the times. In the sixties, my mom had her own little Quiet Revolution and started sending my younger brothers and sisters to French schools.

But when I started law school, my French was spotty. And Catherine, because I started hanging out in France with her family and friends, my French developed quickly. [When the PQ came to power in 1976] my friends were completely going nuts. A lot of them who had started in the Quebec bar transferred to the Ontario bar, and things like that. But we looked at it and said: "Our life's here."

[While working in the Quebec government, he mastered written French] so much so that I wound up being named by the Government of Manitoba to oversee the translation of their laws [by order of the Supreme Court] in 1985. But Catherine is definitely the person who gets full credit for bringing my French up to the level where it is today.

I understand that you don't spend much time in Stornoway, that you continue to live in Montreal.

We've lived in the same place for over 30 years. I spend a couple of days a week [in Ottawa] when we're in session. But in the summer, for example, we weren't here.

And Dr. Pinhas's mother has a place in France and you spend part of your time there as well.

Yes.

What do you do when you have an evening free?

We try to go the cottage [in the Laurentians]. It's a little cottage, very small, and we tend to cocoon there. We'll get away. Because it's a cottage that doesn't have a phone.

This interview has been edited and condensed.

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About the Author
Writer-at-large

John Ibbitson started at The Globe in 1999 and has been Queen's Park columnist and Ottawa political affairs correspondent.Most recently, he was a correspondent and columnist in Washington, where he wrote Open and Shut: Why America has Barack Obama and Canada has Stephen Harper. He returned to Ottawa as bureau chief in 2009. More

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