You learn things on the road. And on the home stretch of a lengthy NDP leadership campaign, Thomas Mulcair says the learning process continues each time he touches down.
The Outremont MP came to the Okanagan as part of his federal NDP leadership campaign, saying he wanted to discuss the importance of sustainable development. He attended a lunch at the Penticton Lakeside Resort Monday to meet with party members with questions and concerns on the subject of sustainable development.
“The second phase of this campaign, getting into places like Penticton, it’s just that little light that gets shone on parts of the country you’d never get to visit,” he said. “So I get to talk to people and find out what their priorities are.
“The good news is we’re good people, but the bad news is that under the Conservatives, we’re losing a lot of the things we built up over the years to make life fairer and easier.”
Hailing from a Montreal borough, Mulcair acknowledges his constituency is a more cosmopolitan corner of the country, where 130 different mother languages are spoken at home. Mulcair said visits to areas like Kamloops, Merritt and Prince George have shown him that rural areas struggle with concerns like jobs and student debt as much as their urban counterparts.
“When you’re finishing a bachelor’s degree with an average of $35,000 of debt, when are you going to start buying a house? Actually buying a house is good for the economy, so we’re hurting ourselves in Canada right now. It’s a very unstable approach and we’re aggravating social inequalities instead of trying to reduce them,” he said.
“When you look at the things that the NDP works on like reducing social inequalities, making sure we maintain a balanced economy by not killing off our manufacturing sector, those things are quite similar if you’re in Quebec or in B.C.”
While Mulcair suggests La Belle Province is not so different than the west, certain issues pose challenges: he held up Quebec’s treaty with the Grand Council of the Crees as an example of how treaties can resolve issues. B.C., however, boasts a vast diversity of aboriginal peoples west of the Rockies, which would require separate negotiations.
“There are successful models, but you have to be determined to get a result. If you make it a priority, you start getting results,” he said, noting that the will must be there on the part of the federal government to set First Nations up for success rather than leave communities to suffer. “Attawapiskat is still an abject, Third-World model that is, in the proper sense of the word, a shame on Canada. So we’ve got to start acting, we’ve got to start investing and we’ve got to start understanding that some of these settlements are going to cost. But we’re better off doing them now.”
Mulcair posits it’s critical for the NDP to reach out beyond its traditional base of supporters to achieve success, be it tapping youth who haven’t voted in the past or putting aside some of the rhetoric in illustrating how New Democrats could manage one of the leaders among G7 nations. Not all party members have warmed to that message, however.
“It’s normal. People are always resistant to change. When I talk like that, they try to portray it as moving the party to the centre. I always just laugh and say, ‘No, I want to bring the centre to us,’” he said, noting the party was able to adapt its message in Quebec.
“We keep losing in the west. Between the Ontario and B.C. borders, we hold a grand total of three seats where we’ve had many, many in the past. Our birth place is Saskatchewan, and we’ve gone through four federal general elections in a row with zero seats.
“It’s a certainty that unless we change, then we’ll get zero seats the next time as well.”
The leadership campaign debates are over, and the various candidates have spent the last week trading barbs over various platforms and perceived connections — particularly directed at Mulcair, who is the perceived frontrunner of the campaign.
Mulcair says pundits have teased them for their “collegiality,” but he and his organizers made a conscious choice at the beginning of the campaign not to take part in attacks or comment on another candidate.
“We’ve been good, we’ve been respectful. I’m very happy with the campaign we’ve run,” he said.
Seven candidates are vying to succeed Jack Layton, after the NDP leader died in August. Mulcair is the second NDP leadership candidate to meet with Okanagan-Coquihalla party members, after MP Nathan Cullen’s (Skeena-Bulkley Valley) visit in January. The leadership vote will be held at the party’s Toronto convention March 24.