Our prime minister in waiting?

by Daniel McCabe, BA’89
(Photo: Doug Ives/Canadian Press)

When Tom Mulcair, BCL’76, LLB’77, became the new leader of the NDP in March, he knew the media would be carefully scrutinizing his speeches. He understood that his management style might be put under the microscope. That all comes with the territory of becoming Canada’s leader of the opposition.

But even Mulcair couldn’t predict that newspaper articles and TV interviews would focus on whether or not he should keep his beard. He erupts in laughter when asked about it.

“The beard is staying,” he declares. “It goes back to my student days at McGill. I was only 18 when I began law school and I wanted to make myself look older. It was pretty scraggly at first, but it did eventually morph into a full beard. I’ve had it for 40 years now. I understand there hasn’t been a prime minister with a beard since 1896.”

If Mulcair has his way, that 116-year beardless streak will soon come to an end.

“We’re in a position where we can prepare to be the next government,” says Mulcair of the party he now leads. “We’re right on the doorstep.”

In Mulcair’s view, the NDP represents values that strike a powerful chord with Canadians. “About 50 years ago, thanks to Tommy Douglas, this country decided that no Canadian family should be forced to choose between putting food on the table and getting medical attention for a sick child. That’s one of the things that defines this country. We like looking out for each other.”

As votes were being cast at the NDP leadership convention, Mulcair was seen sporting a red McGill tie, the same sort of neck garb that Mike Babcock wore when he coached the Canadian men’s hockey team to an Olympic gold medal in 2010. “That was very intentional,” says Mulcair. “It’s become my lucky tie. I also wore it at the first leadership debate.”

Mulcair was presented with the tie last year when he addressed first-year law students at his alma mater. “The calibre of talent at the Faculty of Law has always been high,” says Mulcair, “but the professors in my day could be a little aloof. I got the sense that there is a much more collaborative spirit between the students and the professors today and I was pleased to see that.”

Mulcair’s very first election experience was at McGill when he successfully ran for the presidency of the Law Undergraduate Student Association. “I had posters and everything.”

“There are some old classmates, when I think of them now, I couldn’t have predicted where they would wind up in life,” says Robert Doyle, BA’72, BCL’76, LLB’78, a longtime friend. “But I can’t say I’m surprised to see Tom in the position he is in today. I think he would be a great prime minister.”

The product of a large bilingual family (his father was Irish-Canadian, his mother was French-Canadian and he has nine siblings), Mulcair can claim deep political roots. His great-great-grandfather, Honoré Mercier, was Quebec’s ninth premier. Despite that pedigree, Doyle says his friend doesn’t come from a privileged background. “He learned some of his French working construction jobs in his youth.”

As the head of the Office des professions du Québec in the late eighties and early nineties, Mulcair ensured that complaints of sexual misconduct against physicians were dealt with more swiftly. He served as Quebec’s minister of sustainable development, environment and parks from 2003 to 2006, introducing wide-ranging legislation that resulted in having the right to live in a clean environment added to the Quebec Human Rights Charter.

More recently, as the late Jack Layton’s Quebec lieutenant, Mulcair played a pivotal role in the NDP’s stunning breakthrough in the 2011 federal election, when the party captured an unprecedented 59 seats in La Belle Province. Some of those seats went to a group of McGill students – Charmaine Borg, Matthew Dubé, BA’11, Mylène Freeman, BA’11, Laurin Liu and Jamie Nicholls.

“I’m so impressed with each and every one of them,” says Mulcair. “They’re fitting in wonderfully.”