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New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair speaks during Question Period in the House of Commons on Parliament Hill in Ottawa March 6, 2013.

CHRIS WATTIE/Reuters

Unsustainable development that causes global warming imperils the planet and outlawing it will be as acceptable as banning slavery, Thomas Mulcair said in a major speech setting out his worldview in Washington.

And while he repeatedly ducked questions Wednesday about Keystone XL – the controversial pipeline intended to ship carbon-heavy Alberta crude to Texas Gulf refineries and by far the hottest topic in current Canada-U.S. relations – Mr. Mulcair lambasted the Harper government for, in his view, failing massively in its handling of the vast oil sands.

"I don't think we are applying the basic rules of sustainable development in Canada right now, we've been clear about that," he says when asked why he won't give a simple "yes" or "no" on whether he backs Keystone XL. The Conservative government "is not enforcing our own federal legislation, we're not protecting the groundwater, we're not protecting the eco-systems, we're not protecting first nations' health," he added.

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Mr. Mulcair said the trip was to familiarize the Obama administration with the NDP, which he said was planning to form Canada's next government in 2015. The most powerful political player that agreed to see Mr. Mulcair was Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat Leader in the House of Representatives, and Mr. Mulcair confirmed they discussed Keystone. "I won't reveal too much because the favourite topic of the day was one of the ones on the table," he said, referring to Keystone.

During the speech, Mr. Mulcair laid out a sweeping vision of a world where sustainable development was the cornerstone of international relations and Canada was a leading player in setting green standards in trade and domestic development.

He criticized Stephen Harper's Conservative government and said its willingness to gut Canadian law and flout international treaties must be reversed. Mr. Harper has created a Canada that was "unrecognizable to a lot of the countries we have worked with closely over the decades and it's no longer recognizable to ourselves," Mr. Mulcair said.

"Bellicose, adamantly fighting any serious attempt to deal with climate change, withdrawing us from Kyoto, lecturing at the United Nations, calling them a 'bunch of dictators,' hectoring, it's not productive, it's a way to appease your strong, right-wing base, but it's not a way to move the world forward," he said to reporters after delivering a major policy address at the Canada Institute at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

But questions about Keystone dogged him, even as the NDP Leader tried to take a longer view. He confirmed that Ms. Pelosi gave him her views about Keystone but said he wouldn't reveal them.

"There's a lot of connectedness between a senior Democrat like Madam Pelosi and the New Democratic Party," he said, although that reference was not specifically to Keystone.

In his speech, Mr. Mulcair told his audience of fewer than 60 people that millions of Canadians reject the Harper government's strident effort to push Keystone XL as a way to unlock massive additional oil-sands development.

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In sharp contrast to the parade of premiers and federal ministers who have touted Keystone as a project that does no harm to the environment, Mr. Mulcair said: "What I can say to the millions of Americans who are committed to the fight against climate change is that there are millions of Canadians who stand with you."

He predicted just as "no one in the world has any objection to rules" against child labour or slave labour because they so clearly transgress human values, that within a few years, high environmental standards will become an international norm and a not dismissed as threat to economic advantage.

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