Former federal NDP leader Ed Broadbent, stalwart of social democracy, dies at 87

Anja Karadeglija, Canadian Press

Posted on Thursday, January 11, 2024 3:22 pm EST

Last updated Thursday January 11, 2024 7:03 pm EST

OTTAWA – Ed Broadbent, the affable advocate of social democracy whose principled leadership helped build the modern New Democratic Party and made it a titan of 20th-century Canadian politics, has died. He was 87 years old.

Broadbent was “a fierce advocate for ordinary Canadians,” said a statement Thursday from the eponymous Ottawa-based think tank he founded in 2011 to propagate his belief in social and economic justice.

But observers of a certain age will remember him as a tireless and well-educated fixture of the federal debate in the 1970s and ’80s, going toe-to-toe with four different prime ministers, including Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney.

“Ed dedicated decades of his life to fighting for justice and equality in Canada and around the world,” the Broadbent Institute said.

“He was a rare intellectual who could connect the challenges faced by ordinary citizens with the movements and institutions fighting for economic democracy.”

Jagmeet Singh, the current NDP leader, called Broadbent “a lifelong supporter of our movement and our party.”

“He dedicated his considerable gifts to the project of social democracy, never wavering in his belief that we must build a Canada that serves everyone, not just the rich and powerful.”

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement that “Canada is better off” thanks to Broadbent’s “selfless service.”

“A champion of equality and a defender of justice, his commitment to helping others never wavered. He leaves behind an incredible legacy, one that will undoubtedly continue to inspire people across the country.”

Broadbent represented his blue-collar hometown of Oshawa, Ont., in the House of Commons for 21 years, including 14 as leader of the federal NDP, from 1975 to 1989. He served briefly as Ottawa Center MP from 2004 to 2006.

Under his leadership, the NDP steadily expanded its number of seats in the House: from 17 in 1974 to 43 in 1988, a record that would stand until the Jack Layton era catapulted the party to official opposition status in 2011.

NDP strategist Brian Topp, whose bid to lead the party in 2012 would be thwarted by victor Tom Mulcair, described Broadbent’s transformation from an intellectual to “a very astute professional politician who was always trying to win.”

He was idealistic and practical at the same time, and in many ways was the chief architect of the 2011 exhibit that provided 103 seats, Topp said. Broadbent defended Layton’s leadership and urged him to focus on gaining support in Quebec.

“When he saw that he was in good hands, he made his last big move” and founded the Broadbent Institute, where he could focus on his passions, Topp said, including developing strong public policy and mentoring young people.

He also left his mark on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms after then-Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau approached the NDP leader for help improving the document’s text.

Broadbent was very keen to ensure that issues such as women’s equality, First Nations treaty rights and the West’s rights to its natural resources were adequately recognized in the document, Topp added.

Many people worked on those archives, but Broadbent had a “position of considerable influence. And in that sense, he has left a very lasting mark on Canada that will last many, many decades after him.”

Topp said he last saw Broadbent at dinner just before Christmas. “We…solved all the world’s problems with a bottle of wine. He was happy, in good spirits and very focused on his game.”

Charlie Angus, an NDP MP since 2004, was an 18-year-old “non-voting punk rock kid” working in a restaurant when he first met Broadbent, shaking his hand and thanking him for speaking about the mass. murders that were occurring at that time in El Salvador.

“Before we could even talk, I had to run back to the kitchen because the maitre d’ was behind me. But I was able to tell that story to Ed many years later, when I was elected,” Angus recalled.

“I was often mocked for being a punk rock firebrand and expected to be the best parliamentarian I could be, and I have tried to live up to that ever since.”

Broadbent was a mentor to many in the party, Angus added. “And I’ll tell you, when Ed Broadbent called, the last thing you wanted to do was disappoint Ed because he expected something from you.”

As party leader, Broadbent stood as a “bulwark” against efforts to undermine working class priorities such as pay levels, pensions and job security, Angus said.

“No one is ever going to accuse Ed Broadbent of being someone who was just there to score points or get a headline,” he said.

“Ed believed that Canada could be a better place, that people could make that happen, and he spent his life trying to implement policies that would make life easier and better for ordinary working class people.”

It is impossible to travel across Canada and “not meet people who were moved by Ed’s compassion, commitment and fierce intelligence,” Singh said.

“He never lost sight of who we fought for. He was deeply connected to the values ​​of the Canadian working class and its struggles.”

Singh also praised Broadbent for his generosity and said his advice and encouragement helped him “tremendously” when he was first elected to lead the NDP.

“I have often said that Ed was who I wanted to be when I grew up. He taught me about leadership and how to turn political principles into actions that helped improve the lives of Canadians.”

The institute that bears his name cited Broadbent’s 2023 book, “Pursuing Social Democracy,” for leaving “a lasting vision and hope for what must be done to build a good society for today and the future.”

In that book, Broadbent made it clear that he believed the only path forward would have to be paved with the intertwined principles of democracy, social justice, and economic equity.

“To be human, societies must be democratic,” he wrote, “and, to be democratic, each person must be granted the economic and social rights necessary for his or her individual flourishing.”

His elected emissaries must also treat each other with civility, he noted in the House of Commons during his farewell speech in 2005.

“We tend to think that those 25 percent of the issues that divide us – and that seriously and properly divide us – are only what matters,” Broadbent said.

“What is most important in many ways, in a civilized, democratic and decent country, is the 75 percent of the things we have in common.”

With files from James McCarten

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Jan. 11, 2024.

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