OTTAWA - Four candidates for leadership of the federal NDP sought Sunday to set the stage for the coming months of the race in a civil 90 minute debate that saw an exchange of ideas on policy but also an insight into each's personal lives.
Guy Caron, Charlie Angus, Niki Ashton and Peter Julian met at a downtown Ottawa hotel fielding questions in French and English on trade, U.S. President Donald Trump and taking the path to power in the next federal election.
But, Ashton said, the New Democrats must also look farther down the road to build a party whose spirit was crushed by its demotion from Official Opposition status in the 2015 federal election.
"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," she said.
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, but lost dozens of seats to the Liberals in 2015 under leader Tom Mulcair.
All four candidates were MPs under both men, but stayed away from invoking Mulcair's name during the debate, seizing instead on their relationships with Layton and the inspiration he provided.
All offered their perspective, however on where the party went wrong in the 2015 race, from focusing too relentlessly on attacking the Conservatives rather than realizing their main opponent was the Liberals, and then being "out-lefted" by them.
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, the high costs of education and precarious labour, suggested Julian.
But then, there is the question of Quebec. The NDP's position during a contentious debate on banning the wearing of face veils during citizenship ceremonies — they were against it — struck a sour note in Quebec and absolutely cost the party support, said Caron.
To rebuild in that province, the party must find a way to have a debate on that issue, Caron said, but it needs to be framed in a reasoned way and not politicized.
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, Angus said, and what the NDP must do is reach out to them when they discover the Liberals aren't delivering as promised.
Letting those voters slip away is a risk, he said.
"Cynicism becomes the greatest danger in the political world right now," Angus said.
What will happen in 2019 is that Trudeau will find himself apologizing to progressive Canadians for his broken promises to but telling them that if they don't vote Liberal, a "right-wing ideologue" will be elected prime minister, said Caron.
The NDP need to be ready with a better answer, he said, and while the candidates for leader so far are aligned on the issues at stake, there are differences, he said.
"Where we differ and what we have to show you as members but also as Canadians is how we'll achieve it," he said.
The candidates did each seek to outline some of their differences on Sunday, but the best opportunity for that came not during the policy segments on income inequality, employment or reconciliation with First Nations.
Instead, it came as candidates were asked for their personal favourite Quebec movies, most recent books they'd read, favourite foods and of course, favourite winter sport.
For Angus and Caron, hockey, for Julian skiing and for Ashton, it was more the politics of it all — she picked door to door canvassing.
Would-be candidates have until July 3 to declare formally whether they are in the running; a new leader will be named in October.