THE CANADIAN PRESS -- VANCOUVER - Jack Layton kicked off the NDP convention Friday with a bold prediction that the one-time protest party is on its way to becoming the next government of Canada.
The NDP leader said Canadians are counting on New Democrats to present an alternative to Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservatives and be ready to take power by the next election.
"I know that we're not going to let them down because, step by step, working together, we can and we will build the Canada of our dreams," Layton told some 1,500 deliriously jubilant New Democrats.
"And we don't dream little dreams here at the NDP. We dream big dreams."
With his 102 MPs crammed onto the stage behind him, Layton maintained Canadians elected a record number of New Democrats last month and vaulted the party into official Opposition status not simply to oppose Harper's Conservatives.
"In asking New Democrats to form the official Opposition, they asked us to oppose the agenda of Stephen Harper and we will, we will," he said.
"But they also asked us to propose, to put forward positive proposals to improve the lives of Canadians and to take the next step to be ready in four years to become the government of Canada. And it's up to all of us in this room over this weekend to live up to that responsibility."
The convention, which celebrates the 50th anniversary of the party's founding, is meant to be the first step toward building on the historic gains made in the May 2 election.
Layton said delegates to the founding convention didn't create the New Democratic Party to be an opposition party.
"The delegates created the NDP to be a party of government. And that's exactly what this convention is for here in Vancouver."
In the not-so-distant past, New Democrats often referred to themselves as the "conscience" of the nation, gratified if they could influence the government's agenda but rarely daring to dream of becoming government.
All that changed on May 2.
Having captured the support of almost 31 per cent of voters, the party is now attempting to reach out to the 30 per cent of non-Conservatives who voted for other parties, in particular the 19 per cent who stuck with the Liberals.
As part of that effort, the NDP is attempting to shed some of its ideological baggage. Among other things, delegates are being asked to approve a new preamble to the party's constitution, eradicating all reference to the NDP as a "socialist" party.
Not all New Democrats are willing to give up their socialist roots without a fight. Vancouver MP Libby Davies said she hasn't yet decided how she'll vote on the proposed change and predicted a vigorous debate on the matter.
"The members are here to be heard," she said in an interview.
Harper's Conservatives use every opportunity to describe New Democrats as socialists, using it as an epithet to conjure up images of a bunch of wild-eyed radicals. NDP strategists hope replacing the word with the more anodyne "social democrats" will rob the Tories of that particular cudgel and give the NDP a more mainstream, centrist image.
But Davies suggested that's not sufficient reason to jettison the party's roots and history.
"I think Mr. Harper would like lots of words to become dirty words, anything he doesn't agree with he wants to be dirty words," she said. "I don't think that will deter us from what we want to do and how we move forward as a party."
Still, there are signs that proximity to power is imposing discipline on convention delegates who don't want to rock the boat unnecessarily.
In closed-door policy workshops Friday morning, some potentially controversial resolutions were defeated, ensuring they won't be aired publicly at the three-day gathering. For instance, they nixed a resolution supporting Canadian involvement in a maritime flotilla planning to take aid to Palestinians in the Gaza Strip, which is under naval blockade by Israel.
Delegates also defeated a motion by Barry Weisleder — chairman of the so-called socialist caucus which had proposed a host of controversial, hard-left resolutions — to provide an additional hour for policy debate. The socialist caucus is not officially sanctioned by the party and is considered a troublemaking fringe group by party brass.
Northern Ontario MP Charlie Angus spoke against Weisleder's motion, summing up the prevailing mood. He argued the convention is about "building the momentum to form government" and said he didn't want to "start deflecting the agenda" by getting into drawn-out debate.
As part of the NDP's outreach effort, party icon Ed Broadbent announced he's lending his name to a new, social democratic think tank.
The former NDP leader said he hopes to have the Broadbent Institute up and running by the fall. The aim, he said, is to tap into experts who can come up with practical ways to implement social democratic hopes and dreams and to square long-held principles with modern realities.
For instance, he said the institute could grapple with how to reap the benefits of a market economy while addressing the inequalities it has created. And in the process, it will develop policies that could help propel the NDP into power.
"The party is in a special position today. It is not simply an opposition party; it is literally a government in waiting," Broadbent said.
"Therefore, the party has to be prepared for some longer range ideas."
Broadbent said the non-profit institute will operate independently of the NDP, although the party may kick in some start-up funding.
By Joan Bryden, The Canadian Press