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NDP leadership candidate Brian Topp, right, smiles alongside fellow debaters (l-r) Nathan Cullen, Nikki Ashton and Peggy Nash during a leadership debate at Concordia Loyola Campus in Montreal, Wednesday, January 25, 2012. (Graham Hughes for The Globe and Mail)
NDP leadership candidate Brian Topp, right, smiles alongside fellow debaters (l-r) Nathan Cullen, Nikki Ashton and Peggy Nash during a leadership debate at Concordia Loyola Campus in Montreal, Wednesday, January 25, 2012. (Graham Hughes for The Globe and Mail)

NDP leadership hopefuls test French skills in Quebec debate Add to ...

The NDP’s first French-language debate was a tough slog for candidates from Ontario and the West, who struggled at times to articulate their plans for the country and their party.

Focusing on international issues, the Quebec City event allowed NDP deputy leader Thomas Mulcair and long-time strategist Brian Topp to showcase their ease in French, a key requirement for the next leader of the party that has 58 MPs in Quebec.

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There was a strong feeling among people following the event that Ottawa MP Paul Dewar was the weakest performer in French. Mr. Dewar is working every day with a tutor, but he had problems expressing his thoughts, especially when he could not rely on his notes. Mr. Dewar frequently used short sentences, took a number of pauses and struggled to improvise when he was questioned by rival candidates.

Still, Mr. Dewar launched a direct hit at Mr. Topp, asking the unelected former party official how he plans to enter the House of Commons, whom he would ask to step aside, and what would happen if he lost his by-election.

Mr. Topp shot back that Mr. Dewar showed a clear “lack of judgment” by appointing NDP MP Charlie Angus – another anglophone male from Ontario – as the deputy leader of his leadership campaign.

NDP MP Peggy Nash is at ease in her second language, having majored in French at the University of Toronto. Still, she sometimes speaks slowly and was interrupted by the moderator when she did not finish her opening statement within the requisite 60 seconds.

During the debate, she pointed out that she has the support of Pierre Ducasse, a well-known party official from Quebec who is an architect of the NDP’s Sherbrooke Declaration, a key sign of the party’s openness to Quebec. She also took shots at the fact that Mr. Topp does not have a seat in the House.

British Columbia MP Nathan Cullen started off by stating that his French was “not perfect,” but he explained that his mission was to “understand people’s dreams.” He once again showed his ability to make an audience laugh, stating that on a recent visit to China, Prime Minister Stephen Harper spoke to “pandas and not Tibetans.”

Mr. Cullen continued to push his plans for increased cooperation with the Liberal Party and the Greens ahead of the next election, pointing out that a proposed coalition in 2008 was popular in Quebec.

“Why wait,” he said, pointing out that an NDP government would work with other progressives once in power.

Mr. Topp said that on international matters, Canada must stop being an “obstacle to peace” and to stop “dragging down discussions on the environment.” He once again targeted Mr. Mulcair’s ties to the Liberal Party, pointing out that his environmental proposal is “the same as Stéphane Dion’s,” a reference to the former leader of the Liberal Party of Canada’s Green Plan.

Mr. Mulcair was a minister in the Liberal government of Jean Charest in Quebec City, but he is urging the NDP to broaden its reach nationally to form the next government.

“People want nothing to do with the party that gave us the sponsorship scandal,” Mr. Mulcair said, rejecting any deal with the Liberal Party.

MP Niki Ashton, an underdog candidate, is promising to offer a new type of politics, and she showed a good grasp of French that will help her continue her rise in federal politics.

Businessman Martin Singh delivered his lines in an adequate French, but he preferred to focus on economic matters than Canada’s foreign affairs policy, which was the main theme of the day.

This was the first debate without the presence of MP Romeo Saganash, the Cree leader who withdrew on Friday, citing a lack of funds and time to run a proper campaign. Mr. Saganash was not a contender in the leadership race, but his endorsement will be much sought by the other seven candidates given his popularity among the party’s 100,000 members.

The new leader of the NDP will be selected on March 24 in a one-member, one-vote preferential ballot.

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