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An academic drawn into politics at the apex of Trudeaumania, he steered the party to unprecedented popularity in the late 1980s but it wasn’t enough to see him become the first New Democrat prime minister

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Oct. 18, 1980: NDP leader Ed Broadbent sits quietly smoking his pipe at an open forum held by the NDP caucus in Port Coquitlam, B.C. Eight years later, he would lead the party to a then record-high number of seats, but it wasn't as good a showing as he had hoped, and he resigned soon after.ANDY CLARK/The Canadian Press

In 1968, when Ed Broadbent was a 32-year-old York University political science professor, he was asked to run for the NDP in his native Oshawa, Ont., just as Trudeaumania washed over the country. His transition from academia to the actual practice of politics got off to a rocky start.

As a graduate student, Mr. Broadbent had switched from philosophy to political science at the University of Toronto under eminent socialist theorist C.B. Macpherson, writing a PhD thesis on 19th-century liberal thinker John Stuart Mill. And at his nomination meeting, he launched into a long, theory-heavy lecture that did little to inspire the attending crowd of mostly auto workers in Oshawa.

“The guy that nominated me was Abe Taylor, head of the then-UAW [United Auto Workers] local,” Mr. Broadbent recalled in a wide-ranging 2017 interview with The Globe and Mail. “I was quoting Mill and Marx and different theorists. And he said to me after, not entirely joking, that if he heard my speech before he nominated me, he probably would have nominated the other guy.”

But Mr. Broadbent, who died on Thursday at the age of 87 according to the Broadbent Institute, would go on to win his seat and later, the leadership of his party, transforming into a tireless political campaigner respected not only for his intellect but for his ability to connect with Canadians of all walks of life, in all parts of the country.

He would win the leadership of the NDP in 1975, succeeding its imposing founding fathers, Tommy Douglas and David Lewis. During his tenure, he would play a key supporting role in Liberal prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s patriation of the Constitution, an issue that threatened to tear apart Mr. Broadbent’s party, which was rooted in the West. And he would steer the NDP to unprecedented popularity in the late 1980s, with polls even suggesting the affable Mr. Broadbent was set to become Canada’s first NDP prime minister.

But it was not to be: With the country polarized in the debate over free trade with the U.S. in the 1988 election, NDP support bled to the Liberals and a much-anticipated breakthrough in Quebec fizzled in the face of a late-campaign Tory surge. Though his party took a then-record-high of 43 seats, a bitterly disappointed Mr. Broadbent would soon resign, and the NDP would face almost the entire next quarter-century in the political wilderness as Canadian politics shifted rightward in the deficit-slashing 1990s.

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May 24, 2004: Ed Broadbent laughs during an interview at the Ottawa Centre campaign headquarters. He returned to politics as an NDP candidate in that election, but would officially retire two years later.Tobin Grimshaw/The Globe and Mail

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Ed Broadbent with NDP luminaries over the years: then NDP MP Bob Rae in 1982, party leader Alexa McDonough in 2000 and leader Jack Layton in 2005.The Canadian Press

He was born John Edward Broadbent on March 21, 1936, the second of three children of Percy and Mary Broadbent. Percy was a wholesale grocery salesman who would later work for General Motors in Oshawa. And he was a vocal Tory who later converted to the NDP to support his son.

But, as revealed in Judy Steed’s 1988 biography of Mr. Broadbent, The Pursuit of Power, his relationship with his father was distant: Percy was an alcoholic, prone flying into “drunken rages.” His gambling debts cost the family their home. The elder Broadbent lived to see his son take over as leader of the NDP, and the two reconciled before Percy died in 1976.

Mr. Broadbent credited the religious faith of his long-suffering mother, Mary, who had converted from Catholicism to Anglicanism to marry Percy at age 19, as having had an enormous influence on his political views: “It was a profound impact, whether it’s talking about minorities on racial or religious grounds, empathy for the poor. My mother was just a remarkable person.”

At Oshawa’s working-class Central Collegiate, Mr. Broadbent was an outgoing, overachieving student: debating club, class president, valedictorian, hamming it up on stage at assemblies. He spent a summer at Camp Borden as an officer-in-training. In 1955, he enrolled at the University of Toronto’s elite Trinity College, majoring in philosophy, showing no interest in student politics. He finished his undergraduate degree first in his class in 1959.

  • Newly elected Federal MP of Ottawa Centre, NDP Ed Broadbent makes his victory speech at Sala San Marco in Ottawa on June 28, 2004.Tobin Grimshaw/The Canadian Press

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After a stint teaching high school in Oshawa, he returned to U of T for graduate school. In 1960, he met Yvonne Yamaoka, a Japanese-Canadian who was working as a city planner in Toronto, and they married in 1961. (They would divorce six years later.) In 1962, he first got involved with the newly formed New Democratic Party of Canada, canvassing for the no-hope candidate in Toronto’s wealthy Rosedale riding.

He spent a year at London School of Economics, a gathering place for Britain’s social democratic thinkers. But while there, he actually studied under conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott. He returned to U of T and ended up teaching at then-brand-new York University in 1965.

His decision to run for office in 1968, he said, was partly driven by his annoyance at the uncritical support some of York’s left-leaning professors were offering Mr. Trudeau. Mr. Broadbent just scraped past the local Tory MP in a three-way race, with a margin of victory of just 15 votes.

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Oshawa, 1968: Mr. Broadbent celebrates with supporters after winning his seat in the federal election.John Gillies/The Globe and Mail

After arriving in Ottawa, his first marriage over, he started seeing a French-Canadian widow he had known from his Oshawa days, Lucille Munroe. They would marry in 1971, and she would play a key supporting role in Mr. Broadbent’s rise. Her son, Paul, was a teenager at the time, and the couple adopted a daughter, Christine, in 1974.

But he remained a plodding speaker who was ribbed for his fixation on the intricacies of “industrial democracy,” in vogue in Europe but dismissed by many of the trade unionists who formed the backbone of the NDP at the time.

Mr. Broadbent also ended up waffling about his role in the Waffle, the New Left splinter movement that divided the NDP in the late sixties and early seventies. After taking part initially, he walked away from the group for the excess of its 1969 manifesto, which railed against the “American empire.” He is credited with coining its name, which came in the context of arguing that the NDP, if it had to waffle, should “waffle to the left.”

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Feb. 15, 1963: Tommy Douglas, then leader of the NDP, sits beside then-candidate and future party leader David Lewis.James Lewcun/The Globe and Mail

In 1971, Mr. Broadbent made what he called a “serious mistake in judgment.” He ran for the NDP leadership against the party’s heir apparent, David Lewis, finishing fourth, failing to even beat the Waffle candidate, James Laxer.

Mr. Broadbent would lay a better groundwork for his leadership ambitions as Mr. Lewis’s caucus chairman, serving while the party propped up Mr. Trudeau’s minority Liberals from 1972 to 1974, and demanding they create Petro-Canada. In the 1974 election, the NDP would lose almost half its seats, ending Mr. Lewis’s brief run as leader. Mr. Broadbent would end up as the party’s stand-in at the helm.

But with the NDP in disarray, he announced in January, 1975, that he would not seek the leadership post permanently. Just two months later, he was back in the race. This time, he had the support of both Mr. Douglas and Mr. Lewis. But he still narrowly defeated Jamaican-born Rosemary Brown, the first Black woman to sit in a provincial legislature (B.C.’s) and the first woman to run for the leadership of a major federal party.

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July 7, 1975: Leadership candidate Rosemary Brown congratulates Mr. Broadbent on his victory on the fourth ballot of the leadership race.The Canadian Press

After his 1975 win, and surrounded by a new generation of political image-makers, Mr. Broadbent set off on a gruelling cross-Canada tour of photo-ops and speeches. And with television now showing Question Period, Canadians could see for themselves his grilling of the Trudeau government over its wage and price controls and the revelations of abuses by the RCMP, which included spying on the Parti Québécois and the NDP.

In 1979 election campaign, facing an electorate tired of Mr. Trudeau and wary of new Tory leader Joe Clark, Mr. Broadbent hit his stride, even earning the editorial page endorsement of the Toronto Star, the first time the Liberal-leaning paper gave its approval to a New Democrat. The NDP gained 10 seats, and now held 26.

In Mr. Clark’s first budget, containing an unpopular gas-tax hike, Mr. Broadbent saw a chance for the NDP to make big gains. So the NDP and the Liberals took the Clark government down over its budget, just seven months in. But in the ensuing election campaign, the NDP was caught running to stand still: It only won six more seats, for a caucus of 32.

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Feb. 18, 1980: Liberal leader Pierre Trudeau studies his ballot before voting in his Mount Royal riding in the 1980 federal election.UPC

Just days after the vote, Mr. Trudeau – who just two years earlier had walked out of Question Period in a rage and called Mr. Broadbent a “hyena”– made the NDP Leader an extraordinary offer: a cabinet post. Mr. Trudeau was planning to patriate the Constitution, bring in a Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and enact the controversial National Energy Program. But he only had two seats west of Ontario, and both were in Manitoba. He needed the NDP’s Western support.

“I said, ‘Look, if I were even going to consider it, I wouldn’t come alone. I would have to have other people,’ ” Mr. Broadbent recalled in his 2017 interview with The Globe. “He said, ‘How many?’ And I said six or seven. And he said, ‘You’ve got them.’ So it became evident he was quite serious about doing it.”

But after sleeping on it, Mr. Broadbent turned down the offer, as Mr. Trudeau, with his majority, could simply “cut loose” his NDP cabinet ministers, leaving Mr. Broadbent with no leverage.

Still, Mr. Broadbent became an indispensable cross-party ally as the Trudeau government entered into its contentious Constitutional talks. (He was rewarded with an appointment to the Privy Council.)

His support for an entrenched Charter dramatically divided his own party, however, with the opposition led by Saskatchewan’s NDP premier, Allan Blakeney. Many in the NDP feared the Charter – which would end up tempered with the compromise of the “notwithstanding clause” – would undermine parliamentary supremacy, handing power over things like economic and social policy to unelected judges. Mr. Broadbent had to make extraordinary efforts to keep his party together.

The support Mr. Broadbent offered Mr. Trudeau was not a blank cheque. He and his NDP caucus also fought with Mr. Trudeau to ensure the inclusion of key clauses demanded by activists on women’s rights and Indigenous rights.

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Oct. 24, 1988: Mr. Broadbent, right, mugs for the cameras at a French-language election debate with Progressive Conservative prime minister Brian Mulroney and Liberal leader John Turner.FRED CHARTRAND/The Canadian Press

By the summer of 1987, with the Tory government of Brian Mulroney suffering under a series of scandals, the NDP was actually leading in national opinion polls. Hopes were very high. Star candidates had been recruited in Quebec. But the 1988 vote was dominated by the question of free trade, and the NDP found itself squeezed out as anti-free-trade votes went Liberal. While the 43 seats the NDP won were still a record for the party (which would go unbroken until Jack Layton’s orange wave in 2011), it was seen as a crushing defeat. Mr. Broadbent quit.

In his retirement, Mr. Broadbent remained an active force. In 1990, he was appointed to head the now-defunct International Centre for Human Rights and Democracy, (later known as Rights & Democracy), and would steer the Montreal-based think tank’s international efforts for six years. He was named to the Order of Canada. He spent a year as a visiting fellow at All Souls College at Oxford University. Convinced by Mr. Layton, he returned to politics 2004, winning a seat in an Ottawa riding. But he retired again, before the 2006 election, to care for the ailing Lucille, who died of cancer in 2006.

He remained a presence in the NDP, supporting both Mr. Layton and, later, the unsuccessful Brian Topp, for the leadership. Into his 80s, he remained an extraordinarily voracious reader, friends say. In 2011, he founded the Broadbent Institute, a think tank that runs political-campaign training programs. In 2014, he married prominent Marxist historian and political theorist scholar Ellen Meiksins Wood, a York University professor, who died of cancer in 2016.

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Anthony Jenkins/The Globe and Mail

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