I get a sense of Thomas Mulcair's thoughts Tuesday afternoon, May 14, as we tour the port lands talking about waterfront renewal and what makes a great city.
I'm just guessing, but he could 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 successful run for the NDP leadership in 2003 enshrined a key principle - the idea of thinking globally while acting locally - inspired by the former city 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 array of issues he needs to tackle at a time when all things urban are anathema to the ruling party.
"Toronto is Canada's most important city, no question about that,'' he says, the thrum of a departing Q400 from Billy Bishop hammering the air. "But everything that happens in an urban area like Toronto affects the rest of the country."
On May 10, Mulcair spoke at the Economic Club of Canada on An Urban Agenda For Toronto. You get the feeling he's working hard to learn 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 Tory attitude about municipalities being little more than showcases for federally funded projects, he suggests, rather than living, organic things to be cultivated and supported.
"They make a funny slip of the tongue," Mulcair says, addressing the Conservatives' role in any potential expansion of Billy Bishop to accommodate heavier, louder aircraft.
"They don't refer to it as an environmental assessment process any more; they refer to it as an environmental approval process, as if the results were preordained. 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 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 - "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, the Canary District and the Polson Pier complex, we discuss one of Mulcair's enthusiasms, a clue to his lifelong enviro interests. It's the Tower Renewal Project, the passionate labour of love of former mayor David Miller.
On a pragmatic note reminiscent of Layton (the former leader was a major proponent of energy retrofit programs), 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 enthuses. "That ability to retrofit an old building is a technique Canadian companies have developed with the impetus of public money, but it's something that can spread."
The application of that template outside the public sphere may be the perfect metaphorical distillation of Mulcair's vision for a more just, if no less privatized, Canada.
But to the NDP leader, 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 gulf stream 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 be separated from human ecology; both must be part of the same conversation.
Mulcair is no doubt up against some in the NDP angered by the party's recent jettisoning of "social ownership" from its constitution. But listening closely, it occurs to me that this calibration of its rhetoric may be the party's attempt to soften its somewhat standoffish image. The general tenets of justice - social and environmental - seem 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.