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Good-bye to a Social Democratic Giant

I first met Ed Broadbent, like most people, when viewing him in news clips from his work in the House of Commons. Television cameras had just been introduced into the national legislature and Broadbent, as the leader of the federal New Democratic Party, took full advantage of this new tool. It was interesting to watch Broadbent hammer away at the ‘stale’ Liberal government of Pierre Trudeau. Broadbent became the leader of the NDP in 1975, replacing David Lewis after poor results in the 1974 federal election (the NDP has been reduced from 31 seats in a minority government to just 16 seats after a large Liberal majority).


Broadbent was a different kind of NDP leader. Unlike his predecessors (Lewis and Tommy Douglas), he was not a spell-binding speaker on the hustings. Nor did he share the unease or distrust of capitalism that they held. Broadbent grew up in Oshawa, Ontario, which at the time was a town that revolved around the automotive industry. He saw that capitalism, if well-regulated, could be a net positive for the average Canadian. Indeed, in his biography (written in early 1988), Judy Steed claimed that many of Broadbent’s relatives (including his dad, a brother, and uncles) all worked for the General Motors plants in Oshawa.


Ed Broadbent would not be joining his family in the plant. He was intellectually gifted and attended the University of Toronto where he would earn his PhD in political science. In 1968, Broadbent ran for – and won – a seat in the House of Commons in his hometown. During the “Trudeaumania” election, Broadbent squeaked by former Conservative cabinet minister, Mike Starr, by a scant 15 votes. Voters from that riding elected Broadbent six more times over the next 20 years.


What to remember about Broadbent’s tenure? I think three things come to mind. One, he tried to ‘hold the fort’ on the welfare-state in Canada, in the face of the conservative movement sweeping many western democracies in the 1980s. He was not always successful, but the fight had to be fought. Second, Broadbent was a strong believer in industrial democracy. He envisioned that those who labour for a living should have a serious say in how that work was carried out. Free trade, which Broadbent and the NDP opposed, has transported a large number of Canada’s industrial positions to foreign soil. Third, Broadbent sought to make a breakthrough in Quebec. He worked hard to improve his French and spent much time with an immersion program at Jonquière. After the NDP won 43 seats (a new record for the party at the time) – but none in Quebec in the 1988 federal election, a dejected Broadbent called it quits as party leader.


Indeed, for much of 1987 and early 1988, Broadbent and the NDP topped the public opinion polls. While most of us believe that the ‘Orange Wave’ in Quebec first occurred under Jack Layton in the spring of 2011, the reality is that the NDP under Broadbent had soared to near 50 percent in Quebec opinion polls in early 1988. Alas, that support wilted during the fall campaign.


I had interviewed Mr. Broadbent (via phone) in the early 2000’s when I was seeking more information regarding the NDP government’s record in Ontario, a decade previous. The last time I interviewed him, Broadbent was on his way to make an announcement regarding the formation of the think-tank that bears his name. I met him for a second time at the Mayflower Café (since closed) in the centre of Ottawa.


When Broadbent entered the restaurant, everyone greeted him with a ‘Hi Ed!’ He smiled, shook hands, and chatted with patrons as he made his way over to the table. It was amazing just watching him connect with so many people. They knew he was somebody ‘important,’ but they also knew he was one of them. It was an impression I can recall quite clearly (Broadbent returned to politics in 2004 and won a seat in Ottawa-Centre).


I greeted Mr. Broadbent and he put me at ease by inquiring about my research interests – and how he could help. He had always been that way with me and my requests for interviews and information. He eagerly answered my questions and seemed to be happy to tell the NDP story. We chatted casually over lunch and after he left, I checked my recorder and notes. As I went up to pay, I was told that ‘Ed’ had paid for my meal – again. Over the years, I have discovered that many Canadian political scholars have received the very same ‘Mayflower’ treatment from him. That was very decent of him.


When I heard of his passing, I felt a sense of loss. It is sad to see our political giants (and Ed Broadbent was, literally, a tall man) depart. He was always the most liked of the major party leaders during his reign as leader. I think his death should serve as a reminder to all political leaders – and those who elect them – that it is perfectly acceptable to hold firm opinions, but that it can be done in a decent and honourable manner. I think Ed Broadbent would approve of such a shift in tone – from both our elected officials and from the ‘ordinary’ Canadians he fought for.

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