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Book Reviews

Strength of Conviction

by Tom Mulcair

When federal Liberal leader Justin Trudeau announced that his party would support the passage of the Conservatives’ hugely controversial surveillance and information-sharing legislation, Bill C-51, he opened the door for the New Democratic Party – and, in particular, its charismatic leader, Tom Mulcair – to carve out a position as the principled alternative to the party of Stephen Harper. By establishing themselves early as decisive opponents of a bill the vast majority of observers (including, ironically, Trudeau himself) have criticized for being draconian and overreaching, the NDP helped shore up their position in the polls in advance of this fall’s general election – a position that seems to be getting stronger with every passing day.

Strength-of-Conviction-MulcairMulcair’s own personal appeal in all this should not be underestimated: he is articulate, experienced, passionate, and possessed of a personal style that is at once friendly and energetic. These are all traits that struggle for ascendency in his new memoir, the release of which is perfectly timed to capitalize on the NDP’s momentum in the polls and the public eye.

For those interested in a thumbnail biography of the man who stands a better-than-fair chance of becoming Canada’s next prime minister, Strength of Conviction provides it, from Mulcair’s birth in Quebec (the second of 10 children), through his time as a McGill University law student, his election to the Quebec Liberals under Jean Charest, then the federal NDP under Jack Layton, his involvement in the so-called Orange Wave that won the party official opposition status in the 2011 election, and his ascendency to the party leadership following Layton’s untimely death from cancer.

There is nothing particularly revelatory about any of this, though readers may find some interesting material in the early chapters, dealing with Mulcair’s formative experiences. The author writes about his parents turning away from the Catholic church after it refused his mother absolution when she decided to begin using birth control following the delivery of her 10th child, and sketches the formative influence provided by an early mentor, Father Alan Cox of Laval Catholic High School.

The personal material forms the bulk of the book, which, at under 200 pages, does not offer much in the way of policy prescriptions or substantive analysis of the challenges facing Canada in 2015. The final chapter provides a broad-stroke outline of what the NDP platform will look like in the upcoming election, but too often Mulcair resorts to platitudes about our history as a peacekeeping nation (debatable, at best), and our abiding solidarity as Canadians. This last is contentious in the extreme: where was the solidarity when, for example, Pierre Elliott Trudeau instituted his national energy policy and Albertans took to driving around with bumper stickers that read “Let the Eastern bastards freeze in the dark”? Mulcair does acknowledge, in the book’s late stages, the reality of Canada as a vast country made up of disparate regions, but his knee-jerk optimism papers over many of the historical rifts and divisions in this regard.

As a writer, Mulcair eschews rhetorical flourishes, relying instead on the folksy, conversational style inherited from another mentor – Layton – that has won him admirers among people who view him as approachable and engaged with the plight of the marginalized and the middle class (which, under Harper, amounts more and more to the same thing). The downside is that the writing frequently devolves into cliché (beginning with the book’s title) or repetition (the number of sentences that begin with some variation of “I’ll never forget/I’ll always remember such-and-such” is truly astounding), and too often traffics in bald sentimentality.

This sentimentality, however, testifies to what may be Mulcair’s greatest asset as a politician: his sincerity. He never appears less than completely genuine, and is possessed of a generous humility: he rarely misses an opportunity to single out others for praise, or to acknowledge those who afforded him a leg up during his rise to power. Strength of Conviction will not satisfy readers looking for a detailed reckoning with the challenges and opportunities the coming election presents, nor does it provide specifics about how Mulcair plans to implement his agenda or – importantly – how he intends to pay for it. What it does do is provide an amiable introduction to the man with the greatest potential to topple the Harper government this fall.