Quebec City -- I've arrived here the day before the federal NDP's weekend policy conference/pep rally is to begin. The soft sunshine and unblemished blue sky highlight the scrubbed tourist-town sheen of le vieux ville. It's beautiful and quiet.
But by Friday morning (September 8), over 1,200 NDP delegates, with assorted observers, staff and media in tow, noisily converge on the Quebec Convention Centre to strut their social democratic stuff in another exuberant if quixotic bid for an electoral breakthrough here.
Ah, Quebec. It's been the elusive carrot dangling confoundingly in front of the NDP since its inception. And, it would seem, with good reason.
The NDP and mainstream Quebec voters have always shared the same core social democratic values. Leader Jack Layton is personally quite popular here as well. In fact, the NDP received 300,000 votes in Quebec in the last election, more than the party got in traditional strongholds Saskatchewan and Manitoba combined.
Add to these factors the Harper government's slide in popularity here, a Liberal party in disarray and the early rumblings within Quebec that the Bloc has reached its best-before date and it's easy to see why, as one young delegate tells me, "it's a good time to be a New Democrat."
Speaking of youth, if past NDP conventions required local shopkeepers to stock up on Geritol, this time it's hops and barley. While Quebec and Afghanistan dominate the official agenda, the overwhelming presence of smart, motivated young people is the real headline.
This isn't surprising, since the number of NDP campus clubs across the country has grown from six to 60 since Layton's election as leader. There are close to 300 youth delegates here, including 70 of Quebec's 180 delegates.
Franois Picard, part of the enthusiastic youth squad, is elated that the convention is in his home province. "This is a strong signal that we want to make it here in Quebec," he says. "For years the NDP has been shut out of the media, so we didn't bother to even call them. Now we're making it harder to be ignored."
Later, a resolution passes that attempts to clarify the party's stance on Quebec sovereignty. The Sherbrooke Declaration, as it's called, recognizes among other things that Quebec is a nation and has a right to self-determination. It says the party would accept a 50-per-cent-plus-one referendum result.
Picard says he's hopeful this will win support among soft federalists and some Bloc supporters. "This issue always hurt us in the past," says Picard. "People don't forget that the NDP supported the Clarity Act [controversial for setting conditions on whether the feds would accept a secession vote]."
For the first time in my memory, party brass aren't talking about the best way to win second place in the federal sweepstakes. From the literature I pick up Friday morning to his barnburner Sunday afternoon, Layton's message is clear: "Hire me to be prime minister." Okay maybe it's not totally clear, but you get the point.
But will Quebec? Few from the Quebec media are here. Those who are are either bewildered or pissed off. One journalist reminds me that the NDP is still virtually unknown here despite Layton's popularity. "Social democrats will always vote for the Bloc," he says. His remark underscores the reality: the NDP has no roots here, a fact demonstrated by the Quebec labour movement's no-show.
"Quebec labour is a tall mountain," says Paul Moist, CUPE's national president. "I don't see it moving to the NDP."
So I'm particularly looking forward to hearing the keynote of the party's exceptionally charismatic Quebec lieutenant, Pierre Ducasse. But just as he starts to pick up steam, Layton holds a media scrum. Sorry, Pierre, got to go. This clumsy bit of choreography isn't lost on Bloc Quebecois officials here as observers. "They give 15 minutes to talk about Quebec and they have a scrum," sniffs Frédéric Lepage, Bloc press secretary. "What kind of message does that send?"
Mixed messages on the policy front dog the convention as well. A few in the media, misunderstanding the NDP's freewheeling grassroots democracy on party policy, have feasted on a couple of the more unrealistic resolutions from the party's fringe.
But some Quebec observers tell me that this weekend feels more like a Parti Quebecois convention than a Liberal one, which is usually more tightly scripted.
"This is democracy and it's messy,' Olivia chow tells me. "Shouldn't everyone have the right to express their point of view? Besides, resolutions have no status until they are approved.'
And indeed, nonstarters like pulling out of NAFTA or the WTO are buried by delegates at the committee level and never hit the convention floor. This fact casts a dimmer light on former star candidate and Bay Street banker Paul Summerville's disingenuous announcement just before the convention that he's leaving the party because of supposedly unsound economic attitudes at the grassroots level.
If a breakthrough in Quebec is part of the mid- to long-range focus of the convention, getting the resolution backing Layton's call to pull troops out of Afghanistan passed is the immediate priority.
To that end, planners leave nothing to chance. Malalai Joya, a young woman elected last year to Afghanistan's parliament and a fearless critic of the warlords in government there, delivers an impassioned plea. Implicitly urging delegates to back Layton's military pull-out position, the diminutive literacy worker says, "Countries that want to help in Afghanistan should follow an independent path, not the U.S."
This settles the issue. The resolution on Afghanistan comes before the convention first thing Saturday morning, with Layton at the microphone urging members to support it. They do by a huge majority, but not unanimously. "We don't have a plan after we leave," Nova Scotia MP Peter Stoffer tells me later. "We need to consult with experts on how to do this. It's one thing to say we want peace. What do we tell NATO, the UN and the Afghan people?"
It's a question I put to Layton as he takes a rare coffee break later in the afternoon. He insists there is a plan. "We've got to notify our [NATO] partners in [southern Afghanistan] and then work with NATO on a road map, a balanced intervention that focuses on human rights, reconstruction, democracy and diplomacy. It is a very complex process," he says.
"Security? Yes, but it won't be the search-and-destroy kind." He looks pleased and relaxed. He should be. He's heard from Malalai Joya about how often her life has been threatened in Afghanistan.
Next to that, negative editorials are a piece of cake.