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Thomas Mulcair: a principled pragmatist who hits to hurt

NDP leadership candidate Thomas Mulcair received 43.8 per cent of the third ballot votes. Mulcair's wife Catherine Pinhas is on his right.

Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

As Thomas Mulcair rises to the position of Leader of the Official Opposition, he doesn't fear Conservative attempts to define him as a vicious, hard-left socialist and quickly drag down his standing among Canadian voters who are just getting to know him.

"I come from a family of 10 children, there is nothing that they can say about me that would be worse than what I've heard from my brothers and sisters," the new NDP Leader said at his inaugural news conference.

The 57-year-old fluently bilingual lawyer likes to speak about being born in Ontario, growing up in Quebec and having roots across Canada as his siblings have spread out in the West. The second-born is a product of a bilingual household of Irish descent, in which the oldest children went to English school and the youngest ones were taught in French.

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Mr. Mulcair has politics in his blood, as his lineage on his francophone mother's side includes Honoré Mercier, a Quebec premier from 1887 to 1891. Some of his best childhood memories include discussions on public affairs at home, or with a Catholic priest at his English-language high school in Laval, north of Montreal.

He can appear bourgeois or patrician, and his early political years with the Quebec Liberals still raise questions in NDP circles about his social-democratic ideals. But former staff and colleagues insist that Mr. Mulcair loves to put up a fight for the victims of government ineffectiveness and failure, whether in opposition or in power.

He was outraged when an overpass collapsed and killed five people in Quebec, seeking stiff consequences for the parties responsible for the disaster. He took on the Quebec Corporation of Physicians over its plans to allow a doctor to practise in Montreal despite a guilty plea to sexual misconduct.

In 2006, he started waging a public battle against his own government's plan to promote a residential development in a provincial park, eventually leaving his cabinet position over the spat with Premier Jean Charest.

"He is very charming but if you get in the way of his principles, he can be a deadly killer. He'll go for the jugular," said Pierre Paradis, a veteran Liberal MNA in Quebec City.

Mr. Mulcair now vows to transform the NDP by ensuring that its core message is adapted to reflect regional realities, as the party already did in Quebec after he was first elected to the House in 2007, leading to last year's Orange Wave. He is looking for growth in the Greater Toronto Area and provinces like Saskatchewan, now dominated by the ruling Conservatives.

One of his priorities is to rewrite the NDP's constitution, including its preamble that talks of "democratic socialism," boldly stating that his party's traditional messaging can be repellent to non-traditional party supporters. His call showcases his political pragmatism, honed over almost two decades in the National Assembly and the House of Commons, which is certainly new in a party long wed to ideology.

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His plans as leader are not so much to rewrite NDP policy as to improve the party's organization and to tweak its messaging for the 21st century.

"We have to refresh our discourse, modernize our approach, and use a language that pleases our supporters, but also attracts people who share our vision," said Mr. Mulcair, who won on the fourth ballot of the NDP leadership convention on Saturday.

To explain his plan, Mr. Mulcair repeatedly referred to his arrival in provincial politics in Quebec in the mid-1990s, when he spent two mandates in opposition before the provincial Liberals brought down the Parti Québécois government. He earned the nickname "Grizzly" in those days, as much for his beard as for his penchant for constant, trenchant attacks against his separatist foes. The courts once slapped him with a $95,000 fine for using a crude insult against a former PQ minister, but he never stopped going on the offensive and using his fierce debating skills in order to, as he said, "hit to hurt."

A father of two boys with his French-born wife Catherine, Mr. Mulcair said on Sunday that he has mellowed since he recently became a grandfather, but he will not abandon his win-at-all-cost approach to politics that has won him admiration, if not unanimous love, in New Democratic circles.

Mr. Mulcair didn't just win friends after capturing a by-election in the traditionally Liberal fortress of Outremont five years ago as he sought more financial and organizational resources in Quebec. A staffer at the time, Ian Capstick, said Mr. Mulcair clearly rubbed some New Democrats the wrong way.

"They are not used to power plays, they are not used to positioning, and they are not used to pugilism at all," he said.

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But the NDP still anointed him as Jack Layton's successor in large part because of his promise to bring a winning mentality to the party. Mr. Mulcair has won a total of six provincial and federal elections and one leadership race, and is now gunning to become Canada's first NDP prime minister.

The Conservative Party is certainly not offering him any breaks, issuing attacks as soon as a victory by the Mulcair camp became obvious. Heritage Minister James Moore said that under his leadership, the NDP would retain a high-tax approach to the economy, adding that Mr. Mulcair's "vicious" politics were sure to turn off Canadian voters.

At a caucus meeting in Toronto, NDP MPs called on Mr. Mulcair to retain his aggressive bent, and applauded his desire to work in the footsteps of Mr. Layton in terms of bringing cohesion to the Official Opposition in a bid to form the next government.

"People have come to know me as someone who will always be ready for a battle," Mr. Mulcair said.

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