Thomas Mulcair is walking in the footsteps of a ghost as he goes from an organic vineyard to an old-style farm in the rolling hills of Berthier-Maskinongé.
The NDP Leader is in the riding to meet municipal officials and farmers who are striving to make a living with their honey, poultry and wine. But he is also taking the pulse of the “Orange Wave” that brought the likes of Ruth Ellen Brosseau – an anglophone who had never set foot in the riding – to the House of Commons in 2011.
Mr. Mulcair is finding he is still being compared to his predecessor, who died three years ago this month. Now that Jack Layton is gone, Mr. Mulcair is spending a part of the summer trying to solidify the NDP’s hold on the province.
“Let’s not kid ourselves,” said Debbie Timmons, who grows organic foods at Ferme Le Crépuscule. “People here voted for Jack Layton.”
To do so, they put an X by Ms. Brosseau’s name, even though she was unknown at the time. Three years on, she seems safe in the riding. An accidental MP, she has proven a natural politician. She receives constant compliments for having learned French, and she has compensated for her lack of campaigning in 2011 – she spent a week in Las Vegas – by maintaining a strong local presence.
“It was an unusual way to get elected,” she said. “But I think people know that I work really hard and I’m not just here for the four years. I’m here to stay.”
Jacques Martial, a municipal councillor in Mandeville, Que., switched his vote from the Bloc Québécois to the NDP in the last election. He plans on sticking with the federalist party and Mr. Mulcair next time around.
“He is pursuing the legacy of Jack Layton,” Mr. Martial said after meeting with Mr. Mulcair. “What I like about the NDP is that they are taking care of Quebec.”
Mr. Mulcair can’t afford to lose much ground if he wants to form the next government, given his party’s need to grab dozens of extra seats in the rest of the country.
That is why the NDP’s rivals are trying to portray the party’s success three years ago as a one-off event. Liberal MP Lise St-Denis said it bluntly – “Jack Layton is dead” – when she explained her decision to leave the NDP caucus three years ago.
Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau took his own shots last year, after a by-election victory in Montreal. “This is no longer the hopeful, optimistic party of Jack Layton. It is the negative, divisive party of Tom Mulcair,” Mr. Trudeau said.
The differences between the warm populism of Mr. Layton and the more cerebral and aggressive approach of Mr. Mulcair are obvious to Quebec voters, who have not forgotten their love affair with the leader they knew as “le bon Jack.”
Walking with a cane after a bout with cancer, Mr. Layton was a hit on Quebec television in the lead-up to the 2011 election with his strongly accented French and his constant smile. The NDP went from one seat in the province to 59, but Mr. Layton passed away a few months after the surprising performance.
“Mr. Layton had charm, Mr. Mulcair has a certain firmness,” said René Hurtubise, who came across Mr. Mulcair at a vineyard. “What is interesting is that he is tenacious, and that is what is needed to confront the Harper government.”
The NDP’s biggest advantage in this part of Quebec, where the Bloc ruled for decades, is a visceral distaste among some nationalist voters with the Trudeau surname. Mr. Martial responds with a four-letter expletive when asked about the Liberal Leader. Farmer Jean-Pierre Clavet said he has not forgotten how Pierre Trudeau sent troops to Quebec during the October Crisis in 1970.
“Like father, like son, as the saying goes,” Mr. Clavet said.
After speaking to about 100 people at two events in Berthier-Maskinongé, Mr. Mulcair said he is banking on an “on-the-ground campaign” in Quebec, stating the NDP’s social-democratic policies have struck a chord in the province permanently.
“Here in Quebec, we are as solid as the Rock of Gibraltar,” he said, pointing to his lead among francophone voters. “People know that I am a fighter.”
Mr. Mulcair occasionally referred to Mr. Layton in his discussions with voters, saying he wants to “show the continuity” with his predecessor.
He acknowledged that the defeat to the Liberals in a by-election in June in Trinity-Spadina, formerly held by Mr. Layton’s widow, Olivia Chow, was a “letdown for sure.” Still, Mr. Mulcair wants to keep pounding at the government in the House, stating he relishes his regular showdowns against Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
“The good news is that I come from a bare-knuckles neighbourhood, which is Quebec City,” Mr. Mulcair said.