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NDP Leader Tom Mulcair

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Thomas Mulcair started shifting a key plank of the NDP's economic policy almost immediately.

Less than a month after becoming the Leader of the NDP in March 2012, he approved a major shuffle of the party's critics. Don Davies, a two-term B.C. MP and former Teamsters Canada lawyer, was given what would become an increasingly important portfolio: trade.

In September of that year, the NDP caucus gathered in St. John's, Nfld., for their annual policy retreat. In a PowerPoint presentation behind closed doors, the new trade critic began laying the groundwork for what would be a major shift for the party. His presentation outlined what a hypothetical trade deal would need to include in order for it to win NDP support. It would have to include assurances around environmental and labour laws, for instance.

For a party that had almost always opposed trade deals, this was something new. Some in the room interpreted this as part of a larger message from Mr. Mulcair: the NDP would move further to the ideological centre on financial issues under his watch.

In recent weeks, this theory has run head on to the reality of the Conservative government's draft Canada-European Union Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement.

On Oct. 16, the day of the Speech From the Throne, rumours surfaced that Ottawa was about to announce a trade deal with Europe. In contrast to the party's early groundwork, Mr. Mulcair struck a hard line.

"I am very concerned that Stephen Harper will be throwing Canadian dairy farmers under the bus on this one," he said after a caucus meeting. "If he sells out Canadian dairy farmers, having promised that he wouldn't fool around with Canada's system that has protected dairy farmers for years, then there's going to be a hell of a price to pay."

By the end of that week however, the NDP's rhetoric had softened like ripe Brie.

"New Democrats welcome progress towards a comprehensive new trade agreement with the European Union," read an Oct. 18 statement by Mr. Davies, which noted there are concerns with the deal and stated the party would wait until the final text is released before taking a position. Mr. Mulcair expanded on this in a recent opinion column for The Globe and Mail.

The softer tone from the NDP hasn't stopped Canadian dairy farmers – many of whom are represented by NDP MPs in Quebec – from expressing outrage over the deal.

"The main source of feedback is anger, to be frank with you," said Mathieu Ravignat, who has been hearing from dairy farmers in his Quebec riding of Pontiac. That anger from farmers is directed at the government, not the NDP, he said. The MP said his party's wait-and-see approach is the right stand, "for now."

He expressed a common view among New Democrats that Europe should generally be a good partner for trade.

"We recognize that we're dealing with countries and a zone that has the same values as we do, that in some ways their environmental protections are stronger than ours," he said. "We're dealing with a zone that has a lot of positives to it."

Labour leaders are more vocal in their concern about the deal. For Mr. Mulcair – whose background is with the Quebec Liberal party – promoting trade and maintaining good relations with union leaders will be a delicate balance.

"I don't think it's a fait accompli that the NDP's going to endorse [CETA], but he's smart to keep his powder dry in my opinion," said Paul Moist, national president of the Canadian Union of Public Employees, a group concerned about the deal's implications for government procurement contracts.

"He's relatively new to our party. He's relatively new to the labour movement," said Mr. Moist of the NDP leader. Mr. Moist noted that while members are concerned about the deal, Mr. Mulcair succeeded in explaining the NDP's position on CETA during a recent speech to union members.

"He was very warmly received by our convention," said Mr. Moist.

To date, the criticism of CETA in Canada has been limited. Council of Canadians President Maude Barlow – who opposes international trade deals like CETA because of the powers they grant corporations to overrule government decisions – says the deal could tie the NDP's hands should they form government. She's concerned the NDP is placing politics above principle.

"We don't need the NDP worrying about optics, for heaven's sake," she said. "We need them standing up for the core values that they've always stood for."

The NDP caucus includes individuals who would have marched along side Ms. Barlow during past protests of international trade talks over the years. Those MPs include Libby Davies, the party's deputy leader, and Peter Julian, a former executive director of the Council of Canadians. Both Ms. Davies and Mr. Julian declined to comment on CETA, referring questions to the party's trade critic.

Mr. Davies, the trade critic, said his party plans on consulting Canadians after the final text is announced before taking a position.

"We always oppose bad trade deals," he said. "There's ideologues on the right that support trade deals without knowing what the heck's in them, and there's ideologues on the left that oppose trade deals without knowing what's in them. And I just think that's untenable. A trade deal could be fantastic and a trade deal could be horrifying. It depends on the terms."

Bill Curry covers finance in The Globe's Ottawa bureau.