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Op-Ed: On Character — Consistency, conscience and Thomas Mulcair (Includes interview)

“When people say let’s do issues, not personalities, never listen to that. Always, always, always focus on the character of the candidate, because they can change their mind on the issues, but they can’t alter the fact that they’re a cretin or a scumbag or a crook, right?” Christopher Hitchens

Character: “The mental and moral qualities distinctive to an individual.” (As defined in the online Oxford Dictionary)

Ever since March 24, 2012, the discourse of federal politics in Canada has been noticeably different than before, particularly during Question Period. This is because, on that day, Thomas Mulcair was named leader of the New Democratic Party (NDP) and took the title of Leader of the Opposition. Steadfast and at times invective, Mulcair’s biting questions can irk and at times come across to some as hypocritical. His interrogative style, however, is the product of a career in both law and politics and have resulted in two measurable by-products; increased support for the NDP and an all-time low attendance record at Question Period for Stephen Harper.

Mulcair, as has been exhaustively related, is the second oldest sibling in an Irish-Catholic family of 10. Born in Ottawa and raised in and around Montreal, his educational background is in law while his religious affiliation is to the Roman Catholic Church. Largely influenced by and imbedded in the Catholic Church in his younger years, particularly with regard to charitable action, he is no longer a regular churchgoer though still a member of the faith. A 1977 graduate of McGill with degrees in common law and civil law, he also served for a time as president of the McGill Law Students Association.

Serving for a considerable time as a Liberal MNA in western Laval (he was elected in 1994) before switching to the NDP party in 2007 after a 2006 dispute with then-premier Jean Charest over a proposed condominium development near Mont Orford, Quebec, Mulcair’s life inside and out of politics has been characterized by a willingness to debate, a conviction that the law must be followed to the letter, and that–with strong arguments–one is able to encourage progressive societal change. Though laudable qualities they are, at this point in the article, simply the assertions of a reporter – it’s now time to get to proof and to examine his character.

As noted in a must-read article by John Geddes of Maclean’s, published in 2012, Mulcair’s comes by his interest and participation in politics honestly. Of Mulcair, Geddes wrote, “Social responsibility instilled at [his Roman Catholic] school blended with political talk encouraged at home. His parents were staunch Liberals. In fact, Mulcair is directly descended on his mother’s side from Honoré Mercier, a founding figure of the party at the provincial level and Quebec’s ninth premier. Both his mother and father read widely and paid respectful attention when Tom, even at an early age, expressed views on politics. (…) As a direct result, he says, he decided on a career in politics when he was only 14 years old.”

While this excerpt is mild, it is included in order to give a sense of his upbringing. Raised in a household that was interested and engaged in political conversation, his mind began ruminating on the subject at an incredibly early age. Indeed, precociousness would colour much his life, and these advanced inclinations would consistently be viewed through the lens–though not exclusively (as I will get to)–of the best Roman Catholicism has to offer.

Not one to be lured into the Québécois separatist movement, Mulcair, during the 1980 referendum took a staunch pro-federal stance, arguing that the province should remain a part of the confederacy. Turning to an article by Mark Kennedy of the National Post, it is noted that “During the 1980 referendum, he was one of the few civil servants working in the Quebec justice ministry who was a federalist, and he has worn his pro-Canada credentials on his sleeve ever since.” Further to this, a brief portion of Mulcair’s autobiographical book, The Strength of Conviction, details this position in greater detail, as does the article by Geddes (linked above).

In the spring of 1986, Mulcair — then working with Alliance Quebec, a now defunct organization which sought to promote English language rights in Quebec — worked alongside Claude Ryan (who was serving as education minister for Quebec) to find a compromise on what had become a hot-button issue in the province. In dispute was selection of Roman Catholic schools which, in violation of Bill 101 (La charte de la langue française), were operating an English-only curriculum which threatened to, on one hand, undermine the relatively new law and on the other, result in legal action to shutter the schools. Mulcair played a key role in developing a solution which allowed the existing English Catholic schools to remain open while preventing attempts at the expansion by creating exorbitant penalties that would apply to new English Catholic schools should they pop up in the province.

A decent compromise on its own, there is more to this than meets the eye. Mulcair, Roman Catholic himself, educated in English and working for Alliance Quebec, here demonstrated a conviction that legality trumped religion, that personal preference must come a distant second to the law. It is worth noting, as without sound character and appreciation for the law, this issue could have gone quite another way. What could have resulted in challenges in court, blustering debates, and an uphill battle instead became an example of Mulcair’s ability to find sensible solutions to existing problems that respect all parties involved.

Julius Grey, a Montreal based lawyer and long-time friend of Mulcair, says sensible solutions are far from rare with Mulcair. “He’s a very pragmatic man” began Grey in a conversation we had. “A man of action, he’s not dogmatic, not bound up in party tradition.” Grey continued by addressing what is often described as a fiery temper, “I’ve never seen his temper. It’s a matter of frankness, not of temper.” Concerned with being clear, decisive and naturally quick-witted, Grey suggested that Mulcair is of a stock that is most needed in Canadian politics; a politician less concerned with being politically correct and instead more concerned with being, absent of the first qualifier, correct. “He’s a straight-shooter who will say things even if people don’t want to hear them.”

After finding a fair solution to the issue of English-speaking Catholic schools while with Alliance Quebec, Mulcair–now president of Office des professions du Quebec–also successfully fought for changes to the criminal code which had previously, in large, protected physicians and lawyers who were accused of sexual misconduct. Prior to these changes, most cases were kept quiet and the offending professional was most usually required to relocate whereas after the changes proceedings against alleged offenders became transparent and public. As well, in the landmark case Ford v. Quebec, in which the ban on bilingual signage demanded by Bill 101 was contested, Mulcair–still with Alliance Quebec–defended the rights of Valerie Ford who had been ordered to remove her store sign which read “Wool/Laine.” In an article written by Graeme Hamilton of the National Post, which includes comment from Ford, he wrote “She says she could never have done it without Mulcair’s unflagging support. “ In her own words, Ford said, “He was good. He was honest, and he cared. So many others said you’re in trouble with the law, tough titty, just pay up and leave it.” Not Mulcair, who took the issue to the Supreme Court. From page 61 of his autobiography, “I would go on to craft an honourable compromise on the language of commercial signs, with French predominant, that has never been contested 20 years on.”

Shifting to his time as Liberal MNA, it was due to an argument with then-premier Jean Charest that Mulcair left the big red tent. In a row over a proposed condominium development in Mont Orford Provincial Park, Mulcair argued that the area ought to be protected from development. Realizing his position was a lost cause, he left the party. Prior to this episode, Mulcair, in 2003, visited Robert Galbraith, an environmental activist and journalist in southern Quebec who was in the midst of hunger strike which, at the time of Mulcair’s visit, had lasted 18 days. Curious to know what Galbraith’s opinion of Mulcair was, I contacted him. “I think what I met was the real man, and not the politician. It transcended my opinion of politicians – at least this one. I wish could have gotten together again with him to discuss my environmental and health concerns, on the topic of cyanobacteria in a little more in depth.” Although the problem continues in Quebec, it is worth noting that Galbraith found Mulcair to be more than a politician visiting for good PR and was highly impressed with the action taken following his visit. In an article in the Sherbrooke Record, Galbraith added, “The minister’s plan is exactly what I wanted to see happen. (…) It is our wildest dreams for our waterfront community. This is something you never see in politics – a politician comes to a town and addresses something head on. [Mulcair] was here as a person, with a finger on the button for change.”

In the past accused, risibly, of opportunism, it is worth noting that after Mulcair refused to put his signature on legislation that would have turned over provincial land to condo developers near Mont Orford, Mulcair joined the NDP which, at the time, did not own a single riding in Quebec. It should also be mentioned that Mulcair was courted by the Conservatives while a free agent. Responding to questions by John Ivison of the National Post, Mulcair wrote of a Conservative who tried to recruit him, “He said the environment was their weakest suit in Quebec and he’d like to know if I’d accept work on that file. The Conservatives offered me two senior positions, one as head of a federal agency in environment and the other as a senior advisor. As you can see I took neither.” Ivison continued, “[Mulcair] said that the intermediary he was dealing with suggested he would have to adapt to the Conservative position on the Kyoto Protocol if he were to join the party, which ended the discussion.”

On Native rights, Mulcair has said that if elected as the 23rd prime minister in Canadian history, he would immediately commission a study into the paramount problem of murdered and missing indigenous women (First Nations women are four times as likely to die a violent death than their non-Native counterpart). Further to this point, Mulcair also asked that Harper request a Papal apology for the horrors administered to Native populations by way of the residential schooling system that terrorized generations and continues to haunt. Again here, as with his handling of Catholic schools in Quebec, Mulcair’s belief in justice and equality, his willingness to call a spade a spade, a problem a problem, a wrong a wrong, ruled his conscience.

The Latin term saeva indignatio translates to “savage indignation” and may be one of the better ways to describe Mulcair. When faced with a perceived injustice, Mulcair vocally and forcefully presents his case. To further this point, as well as Grey’s point that Mulcair is less concerned with political correctness than with defending those who are treated unfairly, he has stood behind Jonathan Genest-Jourdain who was accused of overstating his childhood poverty. Mulcair has also defended and stood behind Shawn Dearn who, two years ago, published a few anti-Catholic tweets. And although it was somehow used to slam Mulcair, he turned down an envelope that, he believed, was full of cash while representing Laval (the area at the time had the incredibly corrupt Gilles Vailliantcourt as mayor).

Mulcair’s rise to the top of the NDP wasn’t without struggle. While vying for the top post in the party, Ottawa MP Paul Dewar asked “How can you inspire people to vote for our party, when you don’t seem to be inspired by our party?” The answer, as time has told, was by way of modernizing the party. Returning to Grey, he noted that while it was an “uphill battle” for much of the race for leadership, he has in large won the support of his colleagues: “NDP members have come to admire his frankness and clarity of thought” Grey said.

While I would prefer to include a section on legitimate criticisms of Mulcair, there is notable absence of such material. Of the negative reviews, I have yet to find one worthy of one’s time. Personally, I am concerned with Mulcair’s plan to end Canadian participation in combatting Islamic extremism. While I understand it to be a divisive subject with a plurality of opinions, my own is that Canada ought to support a counter-insurgency against the disgusting, obscene and deplorable Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (there are not enough negative adjectives to describe their barbarism, dear reader; in fact to call them barbarians is unfair to etymologic barbarians).

Although I may not appreciate his desire to entirely remove Canada from the battle against ISIL, Mulcair on 25 March 2015 rightly asked Stephen Harper if the Canadian government had, as the U.S., written to the United Nations to present their rationale for participating in air strikes against ISIL, which was rebuffed with the characteristic condescension that defines Harper’s rhetoric. Responded Mulcair, “Extraordinary Mr. Speaker, living in a Canada where that sort of idiocy passes for argument.”

While it is impossible to know exactly what Canada would become under Mulcair’s leadership, there is ample reason to believe the changes would be positive. Mulcair’s history of frank honesty, of genuine care for and action on civil rights issues, and his direct and quick approach to social problems is indicative of a character of rare and high quality, of one worthy of Canada’s highest office. The common cliché in politics is to “choose the lesser of evils” at the ballot boxes, however, it seems that in 2015 Canadians may have the option to elect a deserving (and overdue) leader.

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