OTTAWA — Four candidates for the leadership of the federal NDP sought Sunday to set the stage for their respective campaigns during a civil debate that offered as much opportunity for policy and political discussions as it did for personal insights.
Guy Caron, Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton and Peter Julian jovially sparred in both French and English on questions ranging from free trade negotiations to facing off against U.S. President Donald Trump, and also answered light-hearted questions on subjects like their favourite Quebec films, foods and winter sports.
But central to the discussion was how to restore the party's spirit after it was crushed by its demotion from Official Opposition status in the 2015 federal election.
Doing so means rebuilding not just the party but the progressive political movement in Canada, Ashton, a longtime MP from Manitoba, said.
"We aren't just a party that is here to win elections,'' she said.
Niki Ashton, second from right, speaks with Guy Caron, left, as Charlie Angus and Peter Julian look on during the first debate of the federal NDP leadership race, in Ottawa on Sunday.
"We are a party that is here to effect political change for 2019 and beyond.''
The NDP soared to a historic result in 2011 under the leadership of Jack Layton to capture Official Opposition status in the House of Commons, and Layton's legacy loomed large during the debate with the candidates each highlighting their personal relationships with him.
None, however, went to any great lengths to invoke the man they're vying to replace, leader Tom Mulcair, who took over after Layton died and presided over the party's loss of 50 seats in the 2015 campaign.
All the candidates offered perspective on why that happened, from focusing too relentlessly on attacking the Conservatives rather than realizing their main opponent was the Liberals, and then being "out-lefted'' by them.
"We aren't just a party that is here to win elections, we are a party that is here to effect political change for 2019 and beyond.”
— Niki Ashton
The next election isn't about taking back the left as much as it's about providing a political response to appalling situations — like a lack of affordable housing and the high costs of education, suggested Julian, who represents a suburban Vancouver riding.
"You'll find that all of my colleagues will be offering bold ideas because think we respond to the size and scope of the crises that so many Canadian families are feeling,'' he said afterwards.
But then, there is the question of Quebec. Candidates were asked specifically what they would do to rebuild the party's support in that province after it collapsed in the 2015 vote.
Having a civil debate on the issue of the niqab is one way forward, suggested Caron, one of the few NDP MPs to keep his seat in Quebec in 2015.
The NDP's position during a contentious debate on banning the wearing of face veils during citizenship ceremonies — New Democrats were against it — struck a sour note in Quebec and absolutely cost the party support, he said.
"This is a very serious debate and we have to face the debate in a very reasoned way rather than trying to politicize it the way other parties are doing it,'' he told reporters after.
"More and more people are tuning out and I think there's a real opportunity to be that authentic voice.”
— Charlie Angus
There's hope to be found for the party in the fact Canadians did vote for progressive policies in the 2015 election in the form of the Liberal platform, and what the NDP must do is reach out to them when they discover the Liberals aren't delivering as promised, said Angus, who represents a northern Ontario riding.
"More and more people are tuning out and I think there's a real opportunity to be that authentic voice,'' he said.
The consensus among candidates for a need to connect to Canadians was one of several points of agreement — others included the fact that climate change and income inequality are the two most pressing issues facing the country and there's also equal opposition to building pipelines.
Guy Caron, Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton and Peter Julian react to the audience as they arrive on stage for the first debate of the federal NDP leadership race, in Ottawa on Sunday.
So it was clear the candidates were looking for other ways to set themselves apart from one another; Julian focused often on his long history of party involvement and activism, Angus on his connections and conversations with ordinary folks like bartenders. Ashton defined herself directly as a "democratic socialist, and intersectional eco-feminist'', while Caron's goal — as the relative newbie in the group — was for people to just meet him altogether.
The party also offered up an opportunity for personal insights, asking each a series of rapid-fire questions on things like their favourite foods as children and winter pastimes. For Caron and Angus, hockey, for Julian skiing and for Ashton — going door-to-door canvassing.
The quartet of candidates will meet again for a debate on March 26 in Montreal, with a focus on questions from the youth wing. The party's leadership race remains open to new candidates until July 3, one considering a bid is Ontario deputy NDP leader Jagmeet Singh.
Party members will selected a new leader in October.