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In the latest polls, voter support for the NDP is holding firm. And Thomas Mulcair’s personal appeal is finally nuding up. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)
In the latest polls, voter support for the NDP is holding firm. And Thomas Mulcair’s personal appeal is finally nuding up. (Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail)

NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair’s next task: Win over the country Add to ...

Those are fine fighting words, but there is an old saying that he who wields the dagger may never wear the crown – especially if he’s a realist chasing an idealist in the polls.

The Justin factor

Even before walking off with the Liberal leadership last spring, Mr. Trudeau had emerged as the most popular public figure in the country: a handsome, charming, relentlessly sunny political animal and heir to a storied name. As well as being younger than other political leaders (he turned 42 on Christmas Day), he is blessed with the warmth and charisma that often come with growing up in the public eye.

In contrast, Mr. Mulcair is 17 years his senior and the product of an upbringing that encouraged toughness rather than warmth. He doesn’t endorse the notion that he is a hothead, but does admit to being “determined.”

“I come from a very modest background … I’ve had to work hard all my life,” he explains. “So I sometimes have a very frank way of dealing with things.”

Born on Oct. 24, 1954, he is the second of 10 children. His father Harry was an Irish Quebecker who, in the 1970s, moved the family from the Montreal suburb of Laval an hour north to tiny St.-Anne-des-Lacs in the Laurentians, where he was an insurance executive. His mother Jeanne is a francophone who taught school.

Together, they lived and breathed Catholic social activism and Liberal politics (his mother’s great-grandfather, Honoré Mercier, was Quebec’s ninth premier). “I have known since I was 14 that I wanted to go into politics,” Mr. Mulcair told one journalist.

Also while in his teens, he met his future wife (then visiting from France, Catherine Pinhas is a psychologist specializing in palliative care), before going on to earn a double degree in common and civil law from McGill University. “I didn’t work as a research assistant in law school,” he recalls. “I was making tar-and-gravel roofs.”

After graduating, Mr. Mulcair joined the provincial justice ministry in Quebec City before moving to the Conseil de la langue française, the agency created to enforce new language laws introduced in 1977 by the Parti Québécois.

These were difficult years to be a federalist. Réné Lévesque was premier, and separatists dominated the provincial bureaucracy. But Mr. Mulcair relished a good scrap, and in 1983 became director of legal affairs for Alliance Quebec, an anglophone lobby group later discredited after becoming more radical.

After two years, he left to practise and teach law, entering politics in September, 1994, a month before his 40th birthday (and a few months after the death of his father). He chose the provincial Liberals, then in office and the only real option for a federalist in Quebec, winning his seat even as the party lost power (setting the stage for the PQ’s 1995 referendum on national unity).

In the National Assembly, he was known as a fierce partisan. He cost his party $95,000 when one rival sued for defamation. Still, when the Liberals returned to power in 2003, Mr. Charest made him minister of “sustainable development, environment and parks.”

In that role, Mr. Mulcair brought in landmark legislation on sustainable development, but three years later clashed with the premier, a former federal Tory, and resigned from cabinet over a decision to open a park in the Eastern Townships to commercial development.

With his political career in limbo, he considered his options, talking to the Greens and even the federal Conservatives, but was more inclined to revive his legal career. Then, still a Liberal backbencher, he was invited by Jack Layton to address an NDP policy convention in Quebec City. The two men clicked, and he was soon being pressed to jump to federal politics as Mr. Layton’s Quebec lieutenant.

The following year he became just the second federal New Democrat ever elected in the province. He captured Outremont, until then a Liberal bastion in Montreal, in a by-election, repeating the feat (by a mere 1,300 votes) in a general election a year later.

And then came the miraculous Orange Wave of May 2, 2011, when popular affection for le bon Jack, coupled with disenchantment with the other options, created a surge of support that delivered 59 of the Quebec’s 75 seats (this time the Mulcair margin was nearly 13,000), and made the NDP the Official Opposition for the first time.

A month later, as a filibuster in the Commons was ending, according to Building the Orange Wave, a recent book by former Layton aide Brad Lavigne, Mr. Layton turned to his House Leader and asked: “Tom, will you be able to give the wrap-up speech? I’m feeling a little discomfort.”

“Of course,” Mr. Mulcair replied, gently patting his leader’s back. The jacket was soaked in sweat.

Polls that defy logic

A year after Mr. Mulcair moved from MP to party leader, Mr. Trudeau did the same, soon soaring in the polls. But his inexperience and lack of gravitas left him ill-equipped to deal with the tawdry accusations and sleazy machinations of the Senate scandal last fall.

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