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NDP Leader Jack Layton fields a question at a press conference in Toronto on May 3, 2011. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)
NDP Leader Jack Layton fields a question at a press conference in Toronto on May 3, 2011. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press/Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press)

Jeffrey Simpson

Jack's Quebec challenge: how to keep smilin' Add to ...

Jack Layton broke many barriers in this election. The biggest one: Never in the history of Canada since Confederation had the largest number of francophone Quebeckers voted for a party led by a non-Quebecker when given the choice of voting for one led by a Quebecker.

But in this election, by a wide margin, they preferred Mr. Layton's New Democrats to Gilles Duceppe's Bloc Québécois. Quebec sent so many NDPers to Ottawa, they'll represent more than half the NDP caucus. What an adjustment that will be for the NDP, a deeply anglophone party until now but one that, courtesy of these Quebeckers, can fairly be called a truly national party with strength in varying degrees all across Canada.

Yes, Mr. Layton was born in Quebec and spent his early years there. But he's lived in Toronto for most of his life, served as a Toronto city councillor and represents a Toronto riding. While campaigning in Quebec, he played up his Quebec roots, but he's obviously not a Quebecker.

And yet - for the first time in Canadian history - the party led by the non-Quebecker beat the one led by a Quebecker. The word "historic" is considerably overworked, but, in this case, it's le mot juste.

When political tides run strong, they bring all sorts of new people to Ottawa. So it will be with these Quebec New Democrats, most of whom are neophytes to politics. The NDP candidate who spent some of the campaign in Las Vegas, the ex-Communist who defeated Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, the McGill students who didn't live anywhere near the riding in which they'd been nominated - these stories of improbable NDP winners illustrate the large uncertainties that surround just whom the NDP tide brought in.

The tide necessarily will have brought in people of competence and character, and these will be quickly identified as the core of the party's future in Quebec. Whether they, and the other NDP MPs, can fulfill Quebeckers' hopes remains an open question.

Quite obviously, the vast majority of Quebeckers who voted NDP hadn't been there politically before. They were first-time NDP voters, arriving at that choice for whatever reason and by whatever intellectual means more for a look-see than a sustained commitment.

Such a sweep can only occur when voters aren't rooted in other parties - which usually means they don't follow politics closely, have only vague preferences and thus occasionally can move en masse to another political option.

In a province such as Ontario, for example, where political loyalties often run deep, these kind of sweeps don't occur, because that would mean wrenching huge numbers of voters from their traditional moorings. But when, as in Quebec, federal politics is rather distant and interest in what happens in Ottawa is limited, moorings are weak to non-existent.

Which means that periodic sudden swings can happen, sometimes even in contradictory intellectual directions. In one provincial election, a new right-wing party can take flight (only to crash later). A secessionist party can dominate a series of federal ones. Suddenly, it disappears and is replaced by a party from almost nowhere, the NDP.

Once the post-election honeymoon is over, Mr. Layton will need considerable skill in keeping everyone happy. Presumably, caucus members can all rally around NDP verities of more spending on social programs and doing something more resolute about climate change.

The strains might emerge when the very nationalist NDP MPs begin responding favourably to more power for Quebec, constitutional recognition of Quebec as a "nation," provincial language laws overriding federal ones for federal institutions, a declaration of Quebec citizenship, and many other demands that will come, especially if the Parti Québécois forms the next provincial government.

None of these demands will wash with constituents of NDP MPs from the rest of Canada. As we saw during the Meech Lake and Charlottetown constitutional debates, rank-and-file NDPers are no more inclined to humour Quebec than supporters of other parties.

Now that the NDP caucus is truly national, Mr. Layton will have challenges truly national leaders must face, and be judged accordingly.

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