OTTAWA — The federal NDP kicked off its national convention in earnest Friday with a sober apology from the party's president to all those New Democrats who have suffered harassment or discrimination.
"There are women within our party — volunteers, staff, MPs — who have survived unacceptable and unwelcome behaviour from peers and people who wield power over them," Marit Stiles told the nearly 2,000 delegates gathered in a convention centre not far from Parliament Hill.
"They have been embarrassed, demeaned and violated. And in too many cases saw those in powerful positions ignore that conduct or worse, sometimes excuse it.
"Let me say on behalf of all of us, your party, we are sorry. You were failed, and we apologize."
The mea culpa was the latest response to the anger and frustration over sexual misconduct that birthed the #MeToo movement and has triggered upheaval across Canada's political scene ever since.
The NDP has not been spared: former Nova Scotia MP Peter Stoffer, long a party stalwart in Ottawa, has faced allegations of sexual misconduct from several women, while the party has launched an investigation into allegations of harassment against current MP Erin Weir.
Party says it will do better
Stoffer and Weir have denied any wrongdoing, but the allegations have nonetheless shaken the foundations of the third-place party, which espouses to be a champion of equality and inclusiveness.
Stiles promised the NDP would do better as she introduced a proposed, party-wide policy "to renew and deepen our commitment to end discrimination and harassment and create an environment that is safe and welcoming for all."
The question of how to better safeguard against misconduct is only one challenge facing the party during this weekend's convention, where New Democrats are hoping to build momentum heading into next year's federal election.
Delegates will spend much of the weekend debating and voting on dozens of proposed policy resolutions as they seek to better define the party's identity in a variety of different areas, including the environment, economy, and foreign affairs.
NDP leader Jagmeet Singh waded into one such debate on Friday, in which he pleaded for a re-opening of the Constitution to fix what the resolution called the "historic mistake" of repatriating the document without Quebec's approval.
"I believe the Constitution should be something that brings the population together," Singh said in French.
"So all nations, territories, provinces of a country must be included. But right now Quebec is excluded, and the First Nations. We must have the courage to change things."
The resolution was eventually adopted by a majority of delegates, along with another that urged the introduction of a single tax return administered by the Quebec government, which would then transfer the federal portion to Ottawa.
So all nations, territories, provinces of a country must be included [in the Constitution]. But right now Quebec is excluded, and the First Nations. We must have the courage to change things.Jagmeet Singh
The resolutions build on the NDP's previous affirmation that a simple majority of votes in a referendum is enough for Quebec to secede from the rest of Canada, and come as the party looks for ways to shore up its support in la belle province.
The party enjoyed a massive breakthrough in Quebec in 2011 that helped push them into Official Opposition status for the first time, but lost significant ground in the last election and have performed poorly there in recent byelections.
Quebec Premier Philippe Couillard also tried to revive the constitutional debate last June, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was quick to close the door.
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Meanwhile, there had been concerns going into the convention that internal party divisions would erupt over some other policy resolutions, notably those endorsing of a boycott campaign against Israel and opposing the Trans Mountain Pipeline.
But delegates pushed those as well as several resolutions calling for the party to endorse a controversial treatise called the Leap Manifesto to the bottom of the list, meaning they are unlikely to emerge over the coming days.
Former national director Karl Belanger believed that decision would give the party a chance to use the convention as a springboard to the next election, "something that you cannot do if you spend the weekend fighting about one thing or another."
Still, delegates were presented with a grave assessment of the party's finances, thanks to a precipitous decline in fundraising since the last federal election in 2015 that has seen the NDP's budget fall from $18 million in 2015 to $6 million the last two years.
The trend is starting to reverse, said NDP treasurer Tania Jarzebiak, but the party still has $3 million in external debt from the last election, and owes money to many riding associations that will need the cash soon to start preparing for 2019.
But while the number of members grew to 124,000 during the leadership race that ended with Singh's election, only 30,000 of those members have donated to the party, Jarzebiak said, and only 9,000 were monthly donors, "so we have work to do."
With files from Mylene Crete.
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