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

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

Broadbent was "a fierce champion 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, well−educated fixture of federal debate in the 1970s and 1980s, going toe−to−toe with four different prime ministers, including Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney.

"Ed devoted 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 striving for economic democracy."

Jagmeet Singh, the NDP’s current leader, called Broadbent "a lifelong champion 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" due to Broadbent’s "selfless service."

"An advocate for equality and champion for justice, his commitment to helping others never wavered. He leaves behind an incredible legacy — one that will, no doubt, 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 briefly served as the MP for Ottawa Centre from 2004 to 2006.

Under his leadership, the NDP steadily expanded its seat count in the House — from 17 in 1974 to 43 in 1988, a record that would stand until the Jack Layton era vaulted the party into 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 into "a very astute professional politician who was always trying to win."

He was at once idealistic and practical, and in many ways the principal architect of the 2011 showing that delivered 103 seats, said Topp. Broadbent championed Layton’s leadership and urged him to focus on winning support in Quebec.

"When he saw that that was in good hands, he did his last big thing" and founded the Broadbent Institute, where he was able to focus on his passions, Topp said, including developing sound public policy and mentoring young people.

He also left his mark on the Charter of Rights and Freedoms after then−prime minister Pierre Trudeau reached out to the leader of the NDP to ask for his help in elevating the text of the document.

Broadbent was very interested in ensuring issues like equality for women, First Nations treaty rights and the West’s rights over its natural resources were suitably recognized in the document, Topp added.

Many people worked on those files, but Broadbent had a "position of considerable influence. And in that sense he has left a very lasting imprint on Canada indeed that is going to last many, many decades past him."

Topp said he last saw Broadbent for dinner just before Christmas. "We… solved all the world’s problems over a bottle of wine. He was happy and in good spirits and very much on his game."

Charlie Angus, an NDP MP since 2004, was an 18−year−old "punk rock kid who didn’t vote" and working in a restaurant the first time he met Broadbent — shaking his hand and thanking him for speaking out about the mass killings that were happening at the time in El Salvador.

"Before we could even talk, I had to run back into the kitchen because the maître d’ was after me. But I got to tell Ed that story many years later, when I was elected," Angus recalled.

He "often teased me about being a punk rock agitator, and he expected me to be the best parliamentarian I could, and I’ve 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 when he expected something from you."

As party leader, Broadbent stood as a "bulwark" against efforts to undermine working−class priorities like wage levels, pensions and job security, Angus said.

"Nobody’s ever going to accuse Ed Broadbent of being someone who was just in it to score points, or to 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 put in place the policies that would make life easier and better for ordinary working−class people."

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

"He never lost sight of who we fight for. He was connected in a deep way to the values of working−class Canadians and their struggles."

Singh also praised Broadbent for his generosity, saying 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 principle into actions that helped improve the lives of Canadians."

The institute that bears his name cited Broadbent’s 2023 book, "Seeking Social Democracy," as leaving "an enduring vision and his hopes for what is to be done to build the good society for today and the future."

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

"To be humane, societies must be democratic," he wrote, "and, to be democratic, every person must be afforded the economic and social rights necessary for their individual flourishing."

Their elected emissaries must also treat each other with civility, he noted on the floor of the Commons during his farewell address in 2005.

"We tend to think that those 25 per cent of issues that divide us — and seriously and appropriately divide us — are only what matters," Broadbent said.

"What’s more important in many ways, in a civilized, democratic, decent country, is the 75 per cent of things we have in common."

With files from James McCarten

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

Anja Karadeglija, The Canadian Press

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