I get a sense of Thomas Mulcair's thoughts Tuesday afternoon as we tour the Portlands, talking about waterfront renewal and what makes a great city.
It's only a guess, but he could well be thinking back to the party's shift during the Jack Layton years, when it developed a substantial urban presence represented by students, activists and city-builders - especially in Toronto.
Layton's 2003 victory as leader of the NDP enshrined a key principle-the idea of thinking globally, while acting locally, all inspired by the former councillor's deep urban experience.
So, 2003, meet 2013.
As leader of the Official Opposition for a solid year now-Canada's prime minister-in-waiting-Mulcair seems to be confronting the gritty, nuts-and-bolts reality of city advocacy-an issue he needs to confront at a time when all things urban are an anathema to our ruling party.
"Look, an urban issue isn't just for Toronto," Mulcair says, the thrum of a departing Q400 from Billy Bishop hammering the air. "Toronto is Canada's metropolis, no question about that; Canada's most important city, no question about that. But everything that happens in an urban area like Toronto affects the rest of the country."
Last Friday, Mulcair spoke at the Economic Club of Canada on An Urban Agenda for Toronto. One gets the feeling he's working hard, getting to know what city-building looks like up close. It's a sobering, ugly job, after all, this mission to make Canada give a shit about its cities again.
For one thing, there's the general Tory attitude about municipalities as little more than recipients for showcasing federally funded development, he suggests, rather than living, organic things to be cultivated and supported.
"They make a funny slip of the tongue," Mulcair says, addressing the Conservative role in any potential expansion of Billy Bishop to accommodate heavier, louder airliners.
"They don't refer to it as an environmental assessment process anymore, they refer to it as an environmental approval process, as if the results were pre-ordained. That's not the way we work," he says, less like a politician than an impassioned, if slightly cagey, academic.
"There's an infrastructure now on the Island that is working well with the prop planes,'' he continues, "and what might have been contested at the beginning"-in 2006, when Porter arrived in Toronto to more controversy than fanfare - "is pretty well accepted."
But further development, he says, will require greater foresight. "Nobody can talk about jets without talking about runway extension," he says, "but we're not talking about a runway extension in the middle of an open field. We're talking about a runway extension into a delicate marine ecosystem."
Standing in front of the George Brown Health Sciences building after our chartered bus tour through the Port Lands, Cherry Beach area, the Ataritiri project near the Don Valley, and out toward the Polson Pier complex, we discuss one of Mulcair's enthusiasms-telltale evidence of a lifelong environmentalist. This is the Tower Renewal plan, the especially passionate labour of love of former mayor, David Miller.
In keeping with what appears to be Mulcair's signature pragmatism, notably like Layton's (the former leader was a major proponent of energy retrofit projects), he presents such enterprises as part of a strategy to invigorate Canada's-and Ontario's-slumping manufacturing sector.
"That was an extraordinary success," Mulcair says, his passion out there on his sleeve. "That type of ability to retrofit an old building," he says, "is a technique and ability that Canadian companies have developed with the impetus of public money, but it's something that can spread."
An issue like this seems like his template for a progressive project that, once successful, even private companies can pursue. Perhaps it's even the perfect metaphorical distillation of Mulcair's vision for a more just, if no less privatized, Canada.
But to Mulcair, it all comes down to global realities. "Look at changes in the environment around the world," he says. "We talk about global warming, but it's weather changes. The gulfstream seems to be changing-look at the kinds of weather we're getting in parts of Europe that have had very clement weather until a couple of decades ago."
Economic development, he says, cannot ignore human ecology; they can't afford to be anything but part of the same conversation.
Mulcair, no doubt, has had to stem the tide of a few cocked eyebrows within his own party, some of whom may be long-time members put off by the party's recent jettisoning of "social ownership" from its constitution.
But listening closely, it occurs to me that this calibration of rhetoric may simply be an attempt to soften the party's occasionally standoffish image. Otherwise, the general tenets of justice - social and environmental - appear no less heartfelt, no less present.
Still, what I ultimately get from the leader of the opposition is bittersweet: we have a long, long way to go until 2015.